A creaky theory
Whatever the war in Afghanistan is about, it's not about oil.
One of the most popular theories doing the rounds about the West’s war in Afghanistan is that it’s a war for oil.
‘It has nothing to do with terrorism, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban or the World Trade Centre’, says anti-war journalist Firoz Osman in South Africa’s Daily Mail and Guardian. ‘The need and greed for oil and gas are once again the source of misery and tragedy.’ (1)
According to the peace movement Peace, No War, ‘The Caspian Sea has potentially the world’s largest oil reserves, likely making Central Asia the next Middle East’. And if you don’t believe the war on terrorism is really a war for oil in disguise? ‘May we suggest a refresher course in the Facts of Life’, says Peace, No War (2).
Even usually sensible commentators have gone for the oil angle. UK Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee believes ‘oil dependency not only warps US foreign policy, it [corrupts] US democracy’, pointing to the dangers of ‘a government in which half the cabinet are oil men’ (3). Veteran left-wing journalist John Pilger says ‘a primary reason for the attack on Afghanistan is the installation of a regime that will oversee an American-owned pipeline bringing oil and gas from the Caspian basin’ (4).
The final piece in the puzzle is the personalities involved – Dick Cheney, one-time CEO of oil energy giant Haliburton and now US vice-president overseeing much of the war in Afghanistan, and George W Bush, descendant of a long line of oil men. So is the war really about a handful of America’s elite getting their greasy paws on more oil?
According to experts on Central Asia, it just doesn’t add up. Such arguments ‘will probably find support mainly among those who already have a fondness for conspiracy theories’, says the BBC’s Eurasia analyst Malcolm Haslett, who rubbishes the oil theory as an ‘emotional’ response to the war (5).
According to Haslett, ‘it is undeniably true that Central Asian republics have very significant reserves of gas and oil’ – but most Western oil companies have avoided Afghanistan precisely because of its 20-year history of instability and unpredictability, preferring instead to find alternate routes to get oil out of Central Asia. ‘The West…and particularly the USA, has put almost all its efforts into developing a major new route from the Caspian sea through Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Black Sea’, says Haslett – conveniently avoiding the one country, Afghanistan, that might never ‘achieve the stability needed to ensure a regular and uninterrupted flow of oil and gas’ (6).
One US-based Central Asia correspondent points out that very few oil companies have bothered trying to route oil through Afghanistan – the big exceptions being US company Unocal and Argentine company Bridas – because ‘it is not worth the hassle’: ‘And it is unlikely to become worth the hassle in the aftermath of a war, where an extreme religious government has been replaced by a unlikely-to-be stable government’.
But still the idea that this is an oil conquest is gaining ground. Since the Gulf War of 1991 through to the Kosovo conflict of 1999 to the war in Afghanistan today, the idea that Western powers bomb less powerful nations as a way of protecting their oil interests has become a pat explanation for every major conflict. Why?
There is a tradition on the left to see imperialist interventions abroad as always being about economic exploitation – as an attempt by Western powers to make some kind of profitable gain by interfering in other nations. This narrow focus on the economics of international affairs meant the left often ended up seeking an economic explanation for conflicts even where none existed.
So even the USA’s shortlived and disastrous invasion of the dustbowl of Somalia in 1993 was seen by some as yet another potentially profit-making oil mission – with one journalist claiming that somewhere under Somalia’s surface there could be ‘significant amounts of oil and natural gas’, ripe for the taking ‘if the US-led military mission can restore peace’ (7). Going further back, at least one influential left-wing movement of the time saw Margaret Thatcher’s 1982 Falklands War as an attempt to protect British interests in the fish stocks around the Falkland islands (the islands themselves being too barren to provide any economic explanation beyond a few sheep).
This limited understanding of imperialism-as-economic-exploitation has gone even further with the emergence of the anti-capitalist movements in the late 1990s, and the increasing amalgamation of the anti-capitalists and the anti-war brigade. The anti-capitalists see a world in the grip of all-powerful corporate forces where armies, governments and oil companies are one and the same thing – and the war in Afghanistan as the latest stage in the political/military/corporate monolith’s conspiracy to control the world.
According to one European anti-war group, the US military is little more than the ‘armed wing of globalisation’ and its war in Afghanistan is ‘all about oil, all about profits’. A US-based anti-capitalist movement describes the West’s war as ‘a bloody pursuit of more oil and more profits’. This might sound very radical – but the end result is that the ‘war for oil’ theorists end up neither understanding the West’s war in Afghanistan, nor opposing it.
Rather than understanding the war on terrorism and what is driving it, many of the opponents of the war have evaded the real issues – instead going for a one-size-fits-all explanation by wheeling out well-rehearsed arguments about the West’s interest in oil. But if the ‘war for oil’ idea sounded like a long shot in the Gulf War of 1991 and even more ridiculous during NATO’s bombardment of Serbia in 1999, today, with a war that seems to have no clear aims, methods or goals at all, it just sounds surreal.
And far from effectively opposing the war, most anti-war protests are more an expression of powerlessness in the face of big bad corporate interests than a defiant stand against war. The ‘war for oil’ theorists are more cynical and sceptical about Western powers than critical of them. So Peace, No War members claim to ‘pride themselves on their distrust for authority’, and patronisingly encourage us to not ‘swallow the lies of the government with all the gullibility of a three-year-old child in the lap of a department store Santa Claus’ (8). ‘Learn to identify and refute official misinformation’, they say, painting a picture of self-interested faceless politicians in bed with self-interested faceless corporations.
But what kind of political movement can be built on the basis of opposing a conspiracy of evil oil-lovers? After all, if the world is controlled by a hidden, all-powerful force, with governments, armies and oil companies in their pay, there isn’t much chance of standing up to them and changing things for the better.
It is the incoherence of the West’s war aims that gives space for all these speculative conspiracy theories about what they’re up to in Afghanistan. Surely what we need is a critical understanding of the war that can oppose it for what it really is, rather than for what we fantasise it might be and would feel more comfortable with.
The war on terrorism is not about what is going on in Afghanistan – whether it be the Taliban, al-Qaeda or any potential oil interests for the West. It is a war with no clear strategic aims, carried out primarily for domestic and political purposes and to galvanise audiences at home and abroad. In this sense, the oil-critical opponents have completely missed the point. The war in Afghanistan is not a sinister plot to control everything, but a response to a sense in the nervous West that everything is out of control.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
How did we get from Manhattan to Kabul?, by Mick Hume
Now it is war – but for what?, by Mick Hume
It’s war – but against whom?, by Mick Hume
The piece movement, by Brendan O’Neill
More to it than anti-war, by Brendan O’Neill
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) ‘The war in Afghanistan is a means to another end’, Firoz Osman, Daily Mail and Guardian, 4 December 2001
(2) Top five lies about the war, Peace, No War website
(3) ‘A tiger out of your tank’, Polly Tonybee, Guardian, 30 November 2001
(4) There is no war on terrorism, John Pilger, 29 October 2001
(5) Afghanistan: the pipeline war?, Malcolm Haslett, BBC Online, 29 October 2001
(6) Afghanistan: the pipeline war?, Malcolm Haslett, BBC Online, 29 October 2001
(7) ‘The oil factor in Somalia’, Los Angeles Times, 18 January 1993
(8) Top five lies about the war, Peace, No War website
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.