Did the US go to war for oil? Yes and No, Eric Margolis

Did the US go to war with Afghanistan for Central Asian oil and gas? That’s what many readers keep asking me. They clearly distrust the White Houses jingoistic bombast about defending freedom and western values from evil Islamists.

The answer: no and yes. The US attacked Afghanistan to exact revenge for the 11 Sept attacks on America. But it quickly occurred to former oil men George Bush and Dick Cheney that retribution against Taliban and Osama bin Laden offered a golden opportunity to expand American geopolitical influence into South and Central Asia, scene of the worlds latest gold rush, the Caspian Basin oil boom.

The ex-Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caucasus Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya contain the worlds most recently discovered major oil and gas deposits.

The world has ample oil today. Today, total global consumption is 60-70 million barrels. But, according to CIA estimates, when China and India reach South Koreas current level of per capita energy use, within 30 years, their combined oil demand will be 120 million barrels daily. In short, the major powers will be locked in fierce competition for scare oil, with the Gulf and Central Asia the focus of this rivalry.

Central Asias oil and gas producers are landlocked. Their energy wealth must be exported through long pipelines. Competition over potential pipeline routes has become the 21st Centurys geopolitical equivalent of the great power race to build strategic railroads, a rivalry that helped spark World War I.

He who controls energy, controls the globe. The United States imports only 7% of its energy from the Mideast, but holds on to this vital region in order to control the energy source of its European and Japanese allies.

Russia, the worlds second largest oil exporter, wants Central Asian resources to be transported across its territory. Iran, also an oil producer, wants the energy pipelines to debouche at its ports, the shortest route. But Americas powerful Israel lobby has blocked Washingtons efforts to deal with Iran.

The United States and Pakistan have long sought to build pipelines running due south from Termez, Uzbekistan, to Kabul, Afghanistan, then down to Pakistans Arabian Sea ports, Karachi and Gwadar. Oilmen call this route, `the new Silk Road, after the fabled route used to export Chinas riches. But this requires a stable, pro-western Afghanistan.

Iran has intrigued in Afghanistan since 1989 to keep that nation in disorder, thus preventing rival Pakistan from building its long-sought Termez-Karachi pipeline.

When Pakistan ditched its ally, Taliban, in September, and sided with the US, Islamabad and Washington fully expected to implant a pro-American regime in Kabul and open the way for the Pak-American pipeline. But this was not to be.

In a dazzling coup, Russian leader Vladimir Putin stole a march on the Bush Administration, which was so busy trying to tear apart Afghanistan to find bin Laden it failed to notice the Russians were taking over half the country.

The wily Russians achieved this victory through their proxy Afghan force, the Northern Alliance. Moscow, which has sustained the Alliance since 1990, re-armed it after 11 Sept with new tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, helicopters, and trucks. The Alliances two military leaders, Gen Rashid Dostam and Gen Muhammed Fahim, were stalwarts of the old communist regime with close links to KGB.

Putin put Chief of the Russian General Staff, Col. Gen. Viktor Kvashnin, and the deputy director of KGB, in charge of the Alliance. During the Balkan fighting in 1999, the hard-charging Kvashnin outfoxed the US by seizing Prishtinas airfield, thus assuring a permanent Russian role in Kosovo.

Now, he has done it again. To the fury of Washington and Islamabad, in a coup de main, Kvashnin rushed the Northern Alliance into Kabul, in direct contravention of Bush’s dictates. The Alliance is now Afghanistan’s dominant force, and, heedless of multi-party political talks in Germany this week, styles itself the new `lawful government, a claim fully backed by Moscow.

The Russians have regained influence over Afghanistan, revenged their defeat by the US in the 1980s war, and neatly checkmated the Bush Administration which, for all its high-tech military power, understood little about Afghanistan.

Americas ouster of the Taliban regime meant Pakistan lost its former influence over Afghanistan and is now cut off from Central Asia’s resources. So long as the Alliance holds power, the US is equally denied access to the much coveted Caspian Basin. Russia has regained control of the best potential pipeline routes. The `new Silk Road will become a Russian energy super-highway.

By charging like an enraged bull into the South Asian china shop, the US handed a stunning geopolitical victory to the Russians and severely damaged its own great power ambitions. Moscow is now free to continue plans to dominate South and Central Asia in concert with its strategic allies, India and Iran.

The Bush Administration does not appear to understand its enormous blunder, and keeps insisting, `but the Russians are now our friends. The president should try to understand that where oil is concerned, there are no friends, only competitors and enemies.