The Oily Road to 9/11

As troops and planes headed toward Afghanistan in October 2001, few people questioned the reasons for military engagement. But the causes of war are rarely simple and, as time has passed, other powerful motives have come into focus.

As it turns out, the US war plan was in the works months before the 9/11 attacks. And, like the two Gulf Wars, the rationale was also, if not mainly, rooted in a struggle over access to oil and gas, in this case huge finds in the Caspian Sea Basin. What looked at the time like justified retaliation was, in essence, the first resource war of the 21st century.

For the major energy companies, the Caspian is a new "El Dorado." North of the Persian Gulf, and including Russia, Iran, and former republics of the Soviet Union, it is estimated to contain the world’s second or third largest reserves of petroleum, along with a vast supply of natural gas. The region is landlocked, however, so resources found there must move to market by rail or pipeline through adjacent, often unstable states.

Despite complex geopolitics and considerable risks, major oil companies have been acquiring development rights and preparing for production since the early 1990s. By 2001, offshore drilling operations were underway in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and were set to commence elsewhere. The majors have also invested significantly in the future construction of oil and gas pipelines to distant ports and refineries. By 2010, they expect to invest at least $50 billion in production and transportation.

The first big move was a joint venture between Chevron and Kazakhstan, signed in 1993 to develop the huge Tenzig oil field on the Caspian coast. Three years later, ExxonMobil purchased a 25 percent share. Another consortium focused on Azerbaijan’s offshore fields, with estimated reserves of 32 billion barrels of oil and 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it the third largest potential regional source.

In 1994, BP Amoco, Lukoil, Unocal, Penzoil, Statoil, and others joined with Azerbaijan’s state oil company to form the Azerbaijan International Operating Company. Bush family adviser James A. Baker III, who spearheaded George W. Bush’s victory in the Florida election dispute, headed the law firm representing this consortium and sat on the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce advisory council, as did Vice Pres. Dick Cheney before him. But before their investments could produce profits, roadblocks would have to be removed. The biggest was how to get the fuel to markets.

Prior to 9/11, the U.S. government’s preferred future route, known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) project, went from Azerbaijan through Georgia and then south to the Turkish coast. The goal was to reduce reliance on Russia and bring the southern Caucasus into the US fold. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is a former director of Chevron, a lynchpin of the BTC consortium with extensive operations in Azerbaijan. Until 2000, Cheney was chief executive at Halliburton Co., named a finalist in 2001 to bid on engineering work in the Turkish sector.

Some companies showed more interest in a less expensive route to the Persian Gulf through Iran. But this clashed with official US policy, including a 1995 executive order prohibiting US business with Iran and the 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which limited oil investments. A third option was a pipeline from the Dauletebad gas fields in eastern Turkmenistan south through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, a route across western Afghanistan. After 1995, however, that meant dealing with the Taliban.

This wasn’t easy. Although a delegation from Afghanistan visited Washington in February 1997 to secure recognition and meet with Unocal, only two months later the new regime unexpectedly announced that it would award a pipeline contract to the company that started work first. Unocal Pres. John Imle was baffled but refused to give up.

During the summer, a new association chaired by Unocal was formed to promote Turkmenistan-U.S. cooperation. But the Taliban threw another curve ball, announcing that it was leaning toward Bridas. To press its advantage, the Argentina-based company joined forces with another major, Amoco. Still in the game, however, Unocal made some headway with Pakistan, signing a 30-year pricing agreement. Despite complaints, US pressure was paying off. By October, the pieces appeared to be in place. Led by Unocal, Delta, Turkmenistan, Japan’s Itochi Oil, Indonesia Petroleum, Crescent Group, and Hyundai became partners in the new Central Asia Gas Pipeline Ltd. (CentGas). Gazprom signed soon after.

Still hoping to win over the Taliban, Unocal invited a delegation to visit corporate headquarters in Sugarland, Texas. The Afghan visitors also met with State Department officials. But the negotiations failed, allegedly because the Taliban wanted too much money. Sensing trouble, Gazprom pulled out of the consortium, leaving Unocal at risk with a 54 percent interest. Shortly thereafter, Unocal Vice Pres. John J. Maresca, later to become a special ambassador to Afghanistan, testified before the US House. Until a single, unified, and friendly government was in place in Afghanistan, he told lawmakers on Feb. 12, 1998, a trans-Afghani pipeline wouldn’t be built. The need for a regime change had been put on the table.

By this time, it was quite clear that Afghanistan was one of bin Laden’s main operational bases. But the CIA apparently ignored the warnings until the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. Thirteen days later, the United States retaliated, sending cruise missiles into al Qaeda camps near Khost and Jalalabad. Finally getting the message, Unocal officially suspended its Afghan pipeline plan and pulled out staff throughout the region. Before the end of 1998, it also withdrew from the $2.9 billion Turkmenistan-to-Turkey natural gas project, as well as the Afghan consortium. Unocal’s quest for "El Dorado" had been indefinitely postponed.

Taking advantage of an opening, Bridas resumed negotiations with Russia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Shortly, Turkmenistan’s foreign minister met with the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to discuss the proposed pipeline. Enron also expressed an interest. With $3 billion invested in a plan to build an electrical generating plant at Dabhol, India, it had recently lost access to liquid natural gas supplies from Qatar to fuel the plant. A trans-Afghani gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, terminating near the Pakistan-India border, looked like a promising alternative. Before the end of April 1999, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and the Taliban had sealed an agreement to revive that project.

The Bush family was well acquainted with the bin Ladens long before the Saudi renegade declared war on the United States and its allies in Saudi Arabia’s royal family. One of Bush II’s former business partners claims to have made his first million in the early 1980s with the aid of a company financed by Osama bin Laden’s elder brother, Salem. Both Bush I and II had investments with the Saudi family in the Carlyle Group, a relatively small company that went on to become a large US defense contractor.

Even after the 1998 embassy attacks, the relationship remained cordial. In 1998 and 2000, the first Pres. Bush traveled to Saudi Arabia on behalf of Carlyle, meeting privately with both the Saudi royals and several of Osama’s relatives.

Shortly after it moved into the White House, the Bush II administration reportedly told the FBI and intelligence agencies to back off investigations involving the family. The bureau was apparently interested in two bin Laden relatives, Abdullah and Omar, who were living near CIA headquarters in Virginia. A blind spot for Saudi Arabia, as well as Bush family contacts with the bin Ladens, also helps explain why no action was taken when the FBI told the new administration there was clear evidence tying al Qaeda to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

Then-National Security Advisor Rice certainly knew something was up. Her predecessor, Sandy Berger, had briefed her in detail, advising that she would "be spending more time on this issue than on any other." Yet, according to a May 2002 Newsweek cover story, "What Bush Knew," a strategic review "was marginalized and scarcely mentioned in the ensuing months as the administration committed itself to other priorities, like national missile defense (NMD) and Iraq."

The administration didn’t ignore the Taliban, however. On the contrary, it offered aid. In May 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a $43 million package for the regime, purportedly to assist hungry farmers who were starving since the destruction of their opium crop on orders from the Taliban’s leaders.

By June 2001, the warning signs were obvious for anyone willing to listen. German intelligence had informed both the CIA and Israel that Middle Eastern terrorists were "planning to hijack commercial aircraft to use as weapons to attack important symbols of American and Israeli culture." On June 28, CIA Director George Tenet informed Rice that it was "highly likely" that a "significant Qaeda attack" would take place "in the near future." Before he reached Genoa in July for the G-8 summit, Bush obviously understood the danger. Among others, Egyptian Pres. Hosni Mubarak had issued a blunt warning: Someone wanted to crash a plane filled with explosives into the conference site.

But word of imminent US military action was also leaking out. During a meeting with Pakistani and Russian intelligence officers in Berlin, three former US officials revealed that Washington was planning military strikes against Afghanistan. They even speculated on the launch date – October 2001.

Unfortunately, Taliban members may also have been in the room, or at least privy to what was said. In any event, the British press later reported that Pakistan’s secret service had relayed the news to the Taliban leadership. So much for the element of surprise.

When revelations surfaced that the United States had received credible warnings of an impending attack, officials protested that the information was too vague and that, in any case, Bush II didn’t know about the possibility that airplanes might be hijacked until an Aug. 6, 2001, briefing. A key element of this defense was that intelligence available to the CIA never reached the president’s desk. True or not, it was the most convenient explanation. However, given the available warnings, not to mention US plans to mount an attack on Afghanistan, the failure to take effective preventive measures looks, at the very least, like a case of willful disregard.

In the weeks after 9/11, national mourning, frustration, and anger, adroitly stoked by the major media, provided a more than adequate justification for the military battle plan hatched months before. A worldwide campaign against terrorism and an alleged "axis of evil" that included Iraq, Iran, and North Korea would have sounded needlessly militant or overly ambitious before 9/11. Afterward, it was hard, even risky, to speak out against the call to war. The order of the day was unity, and whatever the administration needed, Congress (and the public) seemed willing to supply.

This essay is partially excerpted from Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization and What We Can Do, and was originally published by The Vermont Guardian and Toward Freedom in September, 2006.