Is the Afghan war about an oil pipeline?

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Dec. 6 2001 2:32 PM

Pipe Dreams

The origin of the "bombing-Afghanistan-for-oil-pipelines" theory.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

A theory making the rounds on the Internet, on the airwaves, and in the press claims that the bombing of the Taliban has nothing to do with a "war on terrorism" but everything to do with the oil pipeline the West wants to build through Afghanistan. Where did this theory start, and how did it spread?

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The California energy company Unocal seriously pursued building an Afghanistan pipeline in the 1990s, but back then the theorists, such as this Middle East specialist in 1998, argued that the West was propping up the Taliban in hopes that they would cooperate on building a pipeline. On March 8, 2001, a think-tanker and former CIA analyst noted in a New York Times op-ed that "[i]n 1996, it seemed possible that American-built gas and oil pipelines from Central Asia could run through an Afghanistan ruled by one leader. Cruelty to women aside, we did not condemn the Taliban juggernaut rolling across the country."

The beauty of conspiracy theories is that even the most contradictory evidence can be folded into a new conspiracy theory. For example, after the events of Sept. 11, the pipeline conspiracy theorists spun 180 degrees from …

We're supporting the Taliban so we can build a pipeline while we pretend we don't care about their links to terrorism (and, to a lesser degree, their cruelty to women).

to …

We're bombing the Taliban so we can build a pipeline while we pretend we care about their links to terrorism (and, to a lesser degree, their cruelty to women).

The turnaround can be tracked within a single news agency. On Oct. 7 of this year, right before the U.S. bombing began, Agence France-Presse wrote up the old theory: "Keen to see Afghanistan under strong central rule to allow a US-led group to build a multi-billion-dollar oil and gas pipeline, Washington urged key allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to back the militia's bid for power in 1996." Just four days later, AFP wrote that "experts say the end of the Islamic militia [the Taliban] could spell the start of more lucrative opportunities for Western oil companies."

Nearly all sites pushing the newer theory point to two pieces of evidence: 1) This U.S. Department of Energy information page on Afghanistan, updated September 2001, which espouses the pipeline idea but says Afghanistan is too chaotic for it to work. 2) This 1998 testimony by a Unocal vice president to the House Committee on International Relations, in which he states that a pipeline will never be built without a stable Afghan government in place.

How did the new theory spread? After the Sept. 11 attacks, no one says anything oil-related for a respectable mourning period. Then, in the cover story of its Sept. 21-27 issue, L.A. Weekly makes the case that "it's the oil, stupid." The piece doesn't mention the pipeline specifically, but soon after, someone else does. On Sept. 25, the Village Voice's James Ridgeway and Camila E. Fard write that the 9/11 terrorist attack "provides Washington with an extraordinary opportunity" to overthrow the Taliban and build a pipeline. Ridgeway fails to make the direct link to Unocal, though. On Oct. 1, we see the whole theory come together on the Web site of the Independent Media Center. This article links to both the Unocal testimony and the DOE page and says they "leave little doubt as to the reasons behind Washington's desire to replace the Taliban government." After this, the floodgates open. The theory never evolves much—it just gets passed around.

Oct. 5: An India-based writer for the Inter Press Service says Bush's "coalition against terrorism" is "the first opportunity that has any chance of making UNOCAL's wish come true." The story is reprinted the following day in the Asia Times.

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