Education Resources

A Special Report

Pipeline Politics: Oil, the Taliban, and the Political Balance of Central Asia


Engineers construct a new pipeline to carry Russian natural gas across Turkey to Western markets (Photo: AFP).

The world is watching anxiously as Afghan leaders begin the difficult task of rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of war and famine.

The interim government in Afghanistan and interested outside parties will need to grapple with issues that have confronted the region since long before Sept. 11. Among these is the question of Central Asia's considerable oil and gas reserves. According to the Institute for Afghan Studies, these are worth an estimated US$3 trillion at last year's prices.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, corporations - often with government support - have competed for control of Central Asia's hydrocarbon resources, in a battle that some analysts have called a new "Great Game" for control over Eurasia.

The international press has turned to this topic with new interest since the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7. As the United States augmented its military presence around Afghanistan, Ranjit Devraj, writing for Hong Kong's Asia Times, likened U.S. President George W. Bush's aims in Afghanistan to his father's in Iraq. In both cases, Devraj argues, the motive was oil. Devraj is not alone. George Monbiot - in a column written for London's Guardian but syndicated in Lahore's centrist, mass-circulation Dawn - called the U.S.-led campaign a "colonial adventure." "American imperialism has begun its unilateral war against Afghanistan," echoed Sitaram Yechury for Chennai's mass-circulation The Hindu (Oct. 13).

Comparisons between this war and the Gulf War are tempting. The Bush family is steeped in oil, as are Vice President Dick Cheney and a host of other notables from the Bush administration. The United States was slow to condemn the Taliban in the mid-1990s because the Taliban seemed to favor U.S. oil company Unocal to build two pipelines across Afghanistan.

But to term the war in Afghanistan "a colonial adventure" is to ignore the thousands of civilians who died in terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and to ignore an unprecedented attack on the nerve center of the U.S. military. It would be surprising if strikes of such magnitude did not draw a military response.

And while $3 trillion is a considerable sum by anyone's yardstick, U.S. government energy experts estimate that the region has 200 billion barrels of oil—less than what's already known to exist in Saudi Arabia alone.

Perhaps U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had this in mind when, in an Oct. 15 interview with the liberal Moscow newspaper lzvestia, she went to great lengths to reassure Russian readers that the United States has no designs on Russia's traditional hegemony over Central Asian oil reserves.

Rice may not have had a choice. On Dec. 11, Moscow's government-owned Prime Tass news agency reported that Russia had signed a long-term cooperation accord with Turkmenistan covering natural gas exploration, production, processing, transport, and marketing. The deal was announced just 10 days after Gazprom announced that it had reached a similar agreement with Kazakhstan over that country's oil resources.

The deals did not come as a surprise to the national security adviser, who is an authority on Central Asian oil. It was during her tenure on U.S. oil company ChevronTexaco's board of directors that the company partnered with a consortium including Russia, Kazakhstan, Oman, and U.S. oil company ExxonMobil to complete most of the work on a pipeline carrying oil from the Tengiz oil field in Kazakhstan to the Russian port of Novorossiisk. ChevronTexaco was so grateful for Rice's service that it named a tanker after her. On Oct. 15, the first tanker full of oil from the pipeline set sail from Novorossiisk. On Nov. 28, U.S. President George W. Bush extended his congratulations to the consortium.

Central Asian oil is important. It is potentially very important to the United States, which consumes more energy than any other country in the world and must import roughly half its oil. But it is surely more important to Central Asia. It is in this context that we consider the issue of oil and gas in Central Asia.

The History

In his landmark study, The Prize, Daniel Yergin writes, "Oil seepages were first discovered on the Aspheron Peninsula, a dry, rocky extension of the Caucasus mountains projecting into the landlocked Caspian Sea, centuries ago. In the 13th century, Marco Polo recorded rumors of a spring that produced oil, which, though not edible, was 'good to burn,' and useful for cleaning the mange of camels. Baku was the home of the 'eternal pillars of fire' worshipped by the Zoroastrians. Phrased more prosaically, these pillars were the result of flammable gas escaping from cracks in limestone."

By the early 19th century, there was a primitive oil industry in Baku. Local residents extracted oil from hand-dug pits. Robert Nobel, the son of a Swedish weapons engineer who had immigrated to Russia in 1837, arrived in Baku in 1873. In a few short years, he and his brother Ludwig modernized drilling procedures, revolutionized methods for transporting oil "downstream" to markets, and supplied the world with half its oil. Soon after, the Parisian branch of the Rothschild family, already famous throughout Europe, began competing with the Nobels for control of the region's oil wealth. Meanwhile, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil company fought to maintain its competitive edge in supplying Europe and Russia with oil. Over the following decades, some of the world's most powerful families, backed by their home governments, vied for control of Central Asia's oil.

Central Asia has always played an important role in the geopolitical balance of Eurasia. In World War II, during his campaign against Russia, Adolf Hitler sought to capture Baku and the Caucasian oil fields in a desperate bid to replenish his depleted fuel supplies before attacking the Middle East simultaneously from the west in North Africa and from the east in Central Asia. After the war, the Soviets retained Central Asian oil and gas fields as reserves, exploiting oil and gas deposits in Tatarstan and Siberia instead.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, believing oil to be the fastest way for them to secure their economic and political independence, have sought to exploit their oil wealth. According to the estimates of geologists, the oil deposits of the Caspian Sea may not be quantitatively comparable to the deposits of the Persian Gulf, but they are still considered of excellent quality and many look to them as a significant source of untapped energy for the 21st century. Some have estimated that the entire Caspian Sea is a basin full of oil and natural gas, starting from Azerbaijan and continuing to the opposite shore in the territory of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Modern Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan share the majority of the region's hydrocarbon wealth. That these countries are all landlocked means that they all depend on their neighbors for access to Western markets, via pipelines. This adds another dimension to the struggle for political and economic hegemony in the region: Players must vie for control of oil and gas production and for the pipelines that deliver the resources to markets.

Although the stakes involved remain the same today-power, influence, security, wealth-the playing field has changed over the past century. Tribal warlords now contend with global powers and multinational conglomerates. Afghanistan's career as an incubator and exporter of terrorists, rebels, and opium has spread instability throughout the region, and, indeed, the world. If anything, today's battle lines are more merciless and tangled than those drawn a century ago.

Background Information


The Taliban and Afghanistan: Detailed Chronology, 1992-2000

The Rise and Fall of the Taliban in Brief, 1996-2001

The Afghanistan Pipeline Project

What's at Stake for Whom:











Press Coverage:

Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, Hong Kong, Jan. 26, 2002

Pipeline Politics: Oil, Gas, and the U.S. Interest in Afghanistan
Richard Tanter, ZNet (independent eZine), Nov. 21, 2001

America's Pipe Dream: A Pro-Western Regime in Kabul Should Give the US an Afghan Route for Caspian Oil
George Monbiot, (libera, eZine), Oct. 23, 2001. The author is a columnist for London's Guardian (liberal).

Route to Riches
Andy Rowell, The Guardian (liberal), London, England, Oct. 24, 2001

Condoleezza Rice: U.S. Policies in Central Asian Republics Not Directed Against Russia
Pravda (Communist), Moscow, Russia, Oct. 14, 2001

America, Oil, and Afghanistan
Sitaram Yechury, The Hindu (centrist), Chennai, India, Oct. 13, 2001

The Oil Behind Bush and Son's Campaigns
Ranjit Devraj, Asia Times, Hong Kong, Oct. 6, 2001

Russia Anxious Over Grip on Oil as U.S. Firms Join Great Game
Ben Aris in Moscow and Ahmed Rashid in Lahore, The Daily Telegraph (conservative), London, England, Oct. 24, 2001


Oil and Gas Pipelines in Central Asia

Political Map of Afghanistan

Map of "Pashtunistan:" The Pakistani-Afghan Hinterland

Further Reading:

Links to Government, Industry, Environmental, and News Sources on Oil in Central Asia

Talk of CIS Oil Cartel More about Style than Substance: Experts
Alec Appelbaum, (Funded by George Soros), New York, Dec. 7, 2001

Oil in the Caspian Region and Central Asia: The Political Risk of the Great Game Continued
Illystein Noreng, Danish Association for Research on the Caucasus, April 11, 1998

Text of the Tashkent Declaration on Fundamental Principles for a Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict in Afghanistan
Signed in Washington on July 21, 1999

Testimony of John J. Maresca, Vice President of International Relations, for Unocal to House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific
U.S. House of Representatives Archive, Washington, Feb. 12, 1998

U.S. Agency for International Development, Central Asia Region