Don't Mess with Unocal

The war against terrorism may really be a battle over oil

by Craig Rosebraugh

Toward Freedom magazine, January 2002


As the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose due to US-led bombing, evidence emerged that the alleged war on terrorism may be yet another war for oil and political power in the Middle East and Central Asia. It wouldn't be the first time that the US went to war for oil, as George Bush the senior proved in Iraq.

In 1995, the US-based Unocal oil company signed a tentative agreement with the Turkmenistan government to research the possibilities of constructing an oil pipeline to Pakistan by way of Afghanistan. As the project developed, Unocal began to seek the agreement of the Taliban, who had recently risen to power. On two separate occasions, in February and December 1997, Taliban officials were flown to the US to meet with, and be wined and dined by, Unocal executives.

The Taliban was simultaneously pressured by Argentinean oil company Birdas for control of the proposed pipeline.

Taliban officials issued two demands to both companies before any agreement could be reached. They wanted Unocal and Birdas to construct an open pipeline, one that could be tapped into from Afghanistan for local consumption. Second, they wanted the companies to get involved in building roads, water supplies, telephone lines, and electrical power lines. While Birdas agreed to meet the demands and build an open pipeline, Unocal refused, preferring a closed pipeline for export only. Birdas and the Taliban initially reached an agreement, but the deal later fell through due to lack of financing.

During the mid-1990s, the Unocal project received strong support from the US government. From 1995-98, especially after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in September 1996, Clinton administration officials actively lobbied Taliban officials on behalf of Unocal. At the time, the US expressed little, if any, concern about the mounting evidence of abuses of women's rights.

Despite an increasing lack of cooperation from the Taliban, Unocal continued to push the project. Testifying before the House US Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on February 12, 1998, Unocal representative John Maresca discussed the importance of the pipeline project-and the increasing difficulties in dealing with the Taliban. "The region's total oil reserves may well reach more than 60 billion barrels of oil. Some estimates are as high as 200 billion barrels .... From the outset, we have made it clear that construction of the pipeline we have proposed across Afghanistan could not begin until a recognized government is in place that has the confidence of governments, leaders, and our company." A second pipeline was proposed in

1997, this time by the Central Asia Gas Pipeline Consortium, or CentGas, in which Unocal held the major interest. The proposed line would run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to markets in Pakistan and India. Conflicts emerged again, as Maresca testified to Congress.

"As with the proposed Central Asia oil pipeline, CentGas can not begin construction until an internationally recognized Afghanistan Government is in place."

Even after the 1998 US embassy bombings and Al Qaeda's declaration to "kill the Americans and their allies-civilian and military," Unocal still hoped to see through the pipeline projects. In an August 30,1998, interview with the BBC, Unocal spokeswoman Terry Covington stated that Unocal "believes the project is both economically and technically feasible and can still be carried out once a stable government is in place in Kabul."

Due to the rising concerns of financial backers about the instability of Afghanistan, Unocal pulled out of CentGas in December 1998. On its Website (, Unocal claims to have completely dropped the oil pipeline projects between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. But the projects weren't altogether abandoned. An article in the March 23, 2000, Business Recorder, titled "Unocal trying to re-enter Turkmen gas pipeline project," stated that "the US company is in dialogue with the Afghan authorities seeking guaranteed protection for its personnel while working on the Afghani terrain."

Enron, another US-based oil company, also has a strong presence in the region through its involvement in a pipeline project from Turkmenistan to Turkey by way of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Headquartered in Houston, TX, it was the largest contributor to George Bush the junior's presidential campaign, giving at least $550,000 to Bush himself and an estimated $1.8 million to the Republican Party during the 2000 election. As its stock plummeted in October 2001, after an admission that half a billion in debt had been hidden, the company was swallowed by Dynergy, Inc., which is controlled by Chevron-Texaco.

To the US government, the financial interests and political power to be gained within the Middle East and Central Asia regions are extremely important. By ousting the Taliban, which put up so much resistance to US economic interests, it may succeed in installing a puppet regime in Afghanistan, thereby gaining control of oil resources sure to produce billions in revenues.


Craig Rosebraugh is a political activist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a former spokesperson for the North American Earth Liberation Front and can be reached at or (503) 3351436.

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