"I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian." - Dick Cheney speaking in 1998, current Vice-President and former chief executive of Halliburton, a company with major oil interests.

Whatever the moral, legal and practical issues* of American and British military forces operating in their Afghanistan campaign against the terrorist Osama Bin Ladin, his Al-Qaida network and/or the Taliban government the subtext of the region’s geo-political significance cannot and should not be ignored.

As the above quote notes the vast oil and gas reserves of the Caspian basin are of immense importance in global power play over the next century – if based on the presumption that one of the relevant global players (principally the US, Russia, China or Iran) will soon be able to stake and efficiently exploit their interest in the region.

The reason the USA has a particular interest in a passive and friendly Afghanistan relates to the physical problem of how to export the fuel.

  • To transport all the Caspian basin's fossil fuel through Russia or Azerbaijan would greatly enhance Russia's political and economic control over the central Asian republics and diminish America’s long-term influence on the region.
  • To export it via Iran would turn a regime which the US has been relentlessly seeking to isolate into a major regional power in it’s own right.
  • Whereas attempting to deliver it via Chinese territory would create both the problems of trying to construct the world’s longest, most difficult and most expensive pipeline ever attempted in history – and the considerable of the assistance it would bring to a China striving relentlessly to rival the USA’s superpower status later in the 21st century, providing a regular, secure and plentiful supply of fuel to Chinese military planes, tanks and warships.

    The only other exit for the fuel is via Afghanistan to Pakistan ports, and it’s the only exit the US has a chance of controlling. If a Afghanistan government friendly to US interests would allow the US both to pursue its aim of "diversifying energy supply", controlling supply, and to be the profitable middle-man in marketing via it’s major oil companies to the world.

    *The author would like it to be noted that he casts no aspersions on the motives and actions of any government in writing this summary.

    Update 15/04/02

  • US backed (chosen?) Interim Prime Minister of Afghanistan is Hamid Karzai - Previous job as consultant to major oil company Unocol for the planning of a Trans-Afghan Pipeline.
  • US Envoy to Karzai's Government is Zalmay Khalilzad - Also previously a consultant to Unocol, coincidentally, ahem, on the same Trans-Afghan pipeline.

    Various deals have been signed since to ensure the piping of oil now flows solely through Afghanistan and Pakistan, closing the pipeline exit to the north of Afghanistan via Turkmenistan and other CIS countries. (Source: Ted Rall)

  • The geostrategic importance of Afghanistan has a history dating back to its origins as as nation-state. Although Afghanistan has existed as seperate state since 1747, its current borders evolved only toward the end of the last century (1880-1901) as an outcome of rivalry between British India and Tsarist Russia. Afghanistan was created as a geopolitical "buffer zone" between the two great powers in the region.

    Afghanistan's location denied it the resources for it to be a politically and economically stable state - and successive Afghan rulers have maintained stability by sourcing revenue (i.e. plundering) from its neighbours. With this in mind, both India and Russia variously contributed resources to Afghanistan to maintain the geopolitical balance of power. Afghanistan (as a state) was more than happy to play as buffer.

    This of course changed with the onset of the Cold War. As Russia feared the loss of its longtime buffer to the West, it invaded and the subsequent proxy war irredeemably changed the geopolitical landscape. When Russia eventually withdrew from Afghanistan, the US-supported mujahideen took control. Instead continuing the support for the buffer state, America's subsequent withdrawal from the region caused a power vacuum, allowing sectarian interests (the Taliban) to seize control. As Afghanistan had been abandoned by both Russian and the West, the Taliban had no interest in acting as buffer, and pursued their own agenda.

    As Fox Hunte describes above, the new strategic importance of Afghanistan became rooted in the geopolitics of oil, rather than as a buffer for great powers.

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