A common explanation for the US 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 US 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.
So the US is bogged down in an Afghanistan quagmire, and China is running off with the big regional prize.
I’m not sure the politicians in Washington were ever really so interested in the gas pipeline. Some were. 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 is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. This article was first published as an entry in his blog Informed Comment on 15 December 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.