China wins struggle for Pipelinestan

While the U.S. is stuck in Afghanistan, China sneaks off quietly with the resource prize


Juan Cole
December 15, 2009 7:16PM (UTC)

A common explanation for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is Washington's interest in Central Asian fuel sources -- natural gas in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and petroleum in Kazakhstan. The idea of Zalmay Khalilzad and others was to bring a gas pipeline down through Afghanistan and Pakistan to energy-hungry India. Turkmenistan became independent of Moscow in 1991, making the project plausible. For this reason some on the political right in the U.S. actually supported the Taliban as a force for law and order.

If that was the plan, it has failed. Instead, China has landed the big bid to develop a major gas field in Turkmenistan, along with a pipeline to Beijing. Turkmenistan had strongly considered piping the gas to Moscow instead, but developed conflicts with Gazprom.

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So the U.S. is bogged down in an Afghanistan quagmire, and China is running off with the big regional prize.

On Tuesday, radical guerrillas deployed a bomb to kill eight persons and wound 40 in an upscale area of Kabul where foreigners, including Indian aid workers, live -- in another sign of the deterioration of security in Afghanistan's capital. It is obvious how long a gas pipeline would last under these circumstances.

I'm not sure very many politicians in Washington were ever really so interested in the gas pipeline. For someone like then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, making Afghanistan a U.S. base may have aimed at surrounding and weakening Russia and keeping it from reemerging as a peer (a la the attempted push of NATO into places like Georgia).

Some U.S. leaders, however, were pushing for it. In recent years a Turkmenistan pipeline was seen as a way of forestalling India from breaking the embargo on Iran. And I remember that in fall 2001, when congressmen asked Colin Powell how the Afghanistan war would be paid for, he replied that the region is rich in resources. Since Afghanistan is not, he must have been speaking of places like Turkmenistan.

In any case, the Chinese just demonstrated that you don't need war to get resources. Avoid costly adventurism and grow your economy like hell, and it all falls into your lap.


Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.

MORE FROM Juan Cole

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Afghanistan China Energy

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