The Great Gas Game

Who will run Caspian natural gas through Afghanistan?

A giant carrot hangs over the talks this week among the Afghan factions trying to form a post-Taliban government. And it's not just the prospect of billions in US aid after the war.

Rather, it's the prospect of the next government in Kabul gaining riches by the construction of a pipeline across Afghanistan that will transport natural gas from the Caspian Sea region to world markets.

Until Sept. 11, much of the US diplomacy in Central Asia was focused on how to build a pipeline from the Caspian that couldn't be controlled by either Russia or Iran. Given the geography, and Russia's influence in various post-Soviet states, that's difficult.

As late as 1998, two years after the Taliban took over, the US company Unocal was negotiating with that radical Islamic regime about a pipeline that would run through Afghanistan and down to Karachi in Pakistan. Some Taliban officials even visited the US to discuss the matter.

Also in that year, then-oil-industry executive and now Vice President Dick Cheney was captivated by the Caspian's potential. "I can't think of a time when we've had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian," he told a large group of oil-industry executives in Washington.

With that kind of background, the Bush administration needs to bend over backwards, and not try to shape the postwar Afghan government. Otherwise, the conspiracy-minded in the Middle East and elsewhere will see the hand of Big Oil at work in creating a puppet government in Kabul.

No one can doubt the US motives in attacking the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan. As the military mission begins to blend with the political goal of reconstructing a new Afghanistan, the US will need to step back and let the United Nations or US allies take up the task.

Ensuring oil supplies for the US may have been a driving motive for the Gulf War in 1991. It doesn't need to be one for the Afghanistan war in 2001.

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