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The Oil behind Bush and Son's Campaigns

by Ranjit Devraj

Inter Press Services, 5 October 2001
Posted at globalresearch.ca 15 October 2001

Just as the Gulf War in 1991 was all about oil, the new conflict in South and Central Asia is no less about access to the region's abundant petroleum resources, according to Indian analysts.

"US influence and military presence in Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, not unlike that over the oil-rich Gulf states, would be a major strategic gain," said V R Raghavan, a strategic analyst and former general in the Indian army. Raghavan believes that the prospect of a western military presence in a region extending from Turkey to Tajikistan could not have escaped strategists who are now readying a military campaign aimed at changing the political order in Afghanistan, accused by the United States of harboring Osama bin Laden.

Where the "great game" in Afghanistan was once about czars and commissars seeking access to the warm water ports of the Persian Gulf, today it is about laying oil and gas pipelines to the untapped petroleum reserves of Central Asia. According to testimony before the US House of Representatives in March 1999 by the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan together have 15 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. The same countries also have proven gas deposits totaling not less than nine trillion cubic meters. Another study by the Institute for Afghan Studies placed the total worth of oil and gas reserves in the Central Asian republics at around US$3 trillion at last year's prices.

Not only can Afghanistan play a role in hosting pipelines connecting Central Asia to international markets, but the country itself has significant oil and gas deposits. During the Soviets' decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, Moscow estimated Afghanistan's proven and probable natural gas reserves at around five trillion cubic feet and production reached 275 million cubic feet per day in the mid-1970s. But sabotage by anti-Soviet mujahideen (freedom fighters) and by rival groups in the civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal in 1989 virtually closed down gas production and ended deals for the supply of gas to several European countries.

Major Afghan natural gas fields awaiting exploitation include Jorqaduq, Khowaja, Gogerdak, and Yatimtaq, all of which are located within 9 kilometers of the town of Sheberghan in northrern Jowzjan province.

Natural gas production and distribution under Afghanistan's Taliban rulers is the responsibility of the Afghan Gas Enterprise which, in 1999, began repair of a pipeline to Mazar-i-Sharif city. Afghanistan's proven and probable oil and condensate reserves were placed at 95 million barrels by the Soviets. So far, attempts to exploit Afghanistan's petroleum reserves or take advantage of its unique geographical location as a crossroads to markets in Europe and South Asia have been thwarted by the continuing civil strife.

In 1998, the California-based UNOCAL, which held 46.5 percent stakes in Central Asia Gas (CentGas), a consortium that planned an ambitious gas pipeline across Afghanistan, withdrew in frustration after several fruitless years. The pipeline was to stretch 1,271km from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad fields to Multan in Pakistan at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion. An additional $600 million would have brought the pipeline to energy-hungry India.

Energy experts in India, such as R K Pachauri, who heads the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), have long been urging the country's planners to ensure access to petroleum products from the Central Asian republics, with which New Delhi has traditionally maintained good relations. Other partners in CentGas included the Saudi Arabian Delta Oil Company, the Government of Turkmenistan, Indonesia Petroleum (INPEX), the Japanese ITOCHU, Korean Hyundai and Pakistan's Crescent Group.

According to observers, one problem is the uncertainty over who the beneficiaries in Afghanistan would be - the opposition Northern Alliance, the Taliban, the Afghan people or indeed, whether any of these would benefit at all. But the immediate reason for UNOCAL's withdrawal was undoubtedly the US cruise missile attacks on Osama bin Laden's terrorism training camps in Afghanistan in August 1998, done in retaliation for the bombing of its embassies in Africa. UNOCAL then stated that the project would have to wait until Afghanistan achieved the "peace and stability necessary to obtain financing from international agencies and a government that is recognized by the United States and the United Nations".

The "coalition against terrorism" that US President George W Bush is building now is the first opportunity that has any chance of making UNOCAL's wish come true. If the coalition succeeds, Raghavan said, it has the potential of "reconfiguring substantially the energy scenarios for the 21st century".

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