In a separate chapter, entitled “Crossing the minefield, the path to war”, the author examined how al Qaeda hawks foiled a multi-billion dollar US project to build a pipeline to transfer oil and gas from Central Asia to international markets whilst bypassing Iran .
According to the author, Bin Laden’s advice to the Taliban on the proposed oil pipeline caused more harm to the US economy than the attacks on September, 11, 2001 . Consequently, denying access to the oil and natural gas in Central Asia encouraged the US government to go to war against Afghanistan and topple the Taliban regime.
“A gentle autumn breeze blew over the city of Jalalabad on that early evening in November 1996. The sun was setting behind the mountains when a military helicopter landed, coming from Qandahar . Mullah Mohammed Omer had requested one of his closest advisors pay a secret visit to Bin Laden and ask for his advice on matter regarding oil.”
After the official reception, dinner, and the evening prayer, the emissary of the Islamic Emirate met with Bin Laden, his senior aides, and a small number of core Arab followers. The meeting was top-secret; the visitor made sure he could trust all those present before explaining, in a quiet and measured tone, the reasons for his trip.
He said, “The Minister of Interior in Benazir Bhutto’s government in Pakistan , Nasrallah Babr, has approached the Islamic Emirate in Qandahar , on behalf of a US oil company, to discuss a multi-billion project to build two pipelines, one each for oil and natural gas. It hopes to transfer them from the Khazar Sea ( Caspian Sea ) across Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to Pakistan , near the port city of Karachi , and unto international markets.” The US government wanted to avoid, at any price, building the pipeline in Iranian territory as the Islamic Republic did not merit benefiting from US projects. According to the representative, Afghanistan had been offered the following incentives:
1- A lump sum of five million dollars
2- Free gas for villages in a five mile radius around the pipeline and in Kabul
3- An Institute for technicians and those employed in the building and maintenance of the pipeline.
Bin Laden was an expert on oil issues. The Taliban knew this and he reminded anyone who asked him on the subject. With a vast knowledge of figures, statistics, and anecdotes, he was considered by Mullah Omer as a reference on a number of important issues.
As customary, Bin Laden let others speak first, while he listened carefully and politely. Everyone knew he had the final word. First to peak was one of the core al Qaeda followers. He started off by comparing the Pakistani Minister to a Thief and fraudster, to the shock of his visitor. The hawk said:
1- No international agreement stipulates the host country receives money for the line running through its territories. Instead, the usual practice is to pay for every cubic meter or ton of equipment. This means that any money the Taliban hope to receive, whether 5 or 50 million dollars would be tantamount to theft.
2- Villages on either side of the line would not benefit economically from oil and gas following nearby. Because of the exceeding poverty, oil and gas will be of no real use. The US will therefore give away nothing.
3- Men trained and employed by the American company will become loyal to its government and form a militia to protect the pipelines.
4- In the case of the capital which lay in ruins and where no industries function, as war still raged on the outskirts, free oil and gas would not change the lives of its citizens. Gas was mostly used during the winter months for domestic consumption, a need fulfilled by reservoirs on the outskirts of Kabul . Basic technology could ensure the population of the city is provided with electricity, for a very low cost.
5- The training centers for those employed by the company will become a nest of spies. This had happened in similar training facilities built by US corporations around the world.
According to this analysis, while the pipeline would across Afghan territory, the people of Afghanistan would not benefit from it. The Pakistani Minister would therefore be save the US company large sums of money and line his pockets with some of it.
The guest from Qandahar listened angrily to this presentation. He eagerly awaited Bin Laden’s intervention, hoping it would save him from the nightmare occurring before his eyes. The al Qaeda leader spoke softly and logically. His conclusions were the same: the Emirate should not enter into an agreement with the US company. Instead, the Taliban should examine whether other agreements with other countries can be reached.
Bin Laden also said that the US government and private corporations would never accept investing millions in a country that followed Islamic law. He added that the US would never accept handing control of the oil back to the Central Asian country, quoting government sources saying, “The twentieth century was an American century because we control oil. The twentieth century will also be American as oil will remain under our control.”
Effectively, the advice given by Bin Laden put a stop to the Pakistani Minster’s plans to share the spoils. Further attempts to reach a deal with the Taliban failed. As a result, the US government faced a dilemma: Accepting the terms proposed by Mullah Omer’s government would mean financing a hostile fundamentalist regime; refusing would forsake large oil reserves which might be seized by another party. The solution to this quandary was to launch war on the Taliban.
War in Afghanistan was preceded by three main developments: the implementation of strict Sharia law (religious law) in territories under Taliban control, the absence of a agreement on oil, and the Islamic Emirate’s decision to put an end to opium production. As such, the US attack had a religious purpose: to stop the implementation of Sharia law, and a more urgent economic motive, opium cultivation.
On that fateful November night in Jalalabad, when Bin Laden and hia followers put an end to any agreement with the US , the Taliban representative asked the men, “What next?” worried about the loss of 5 million dollars and the impending bankruptcy of his government’s coffers. The al Qaeda member quoted above rose from his seat and said, “Build your country with the revenues from opium production!”
Everybody present at the meeting sat in silence, stunned. No one moved, no one spoke and all eyes and mouths were open in shock. Bin Laden was the first to compose himself and try to contain the unraveling scandal. What the Arab said about opium was already known by everyone in Afghanistan . What was shocking, however, was that the subject was brought up by an Arab notorious for his strict morals. If he wouldn’t condone smoking, how could he recommend opium as a source of income for the Islamic Emirate?
The fate of Mullah Nasim Akhunzad, a well-know cleric and a jihad (holy struggle) leader who, after gaining control of Helman province, decided to halt the growth of opium demonstrates the far reaching consequences of the opium trade. He introduced effective measures to stop the cultivation and launched, around the same time, attacks on the communis regime in Kabul . In the early 1990s, the Mujahideen were pressured by the West for cultivating opium, with the US closing their supply lines and putting them in a difficult position. Akhunzad faced a stark choice: end his attacks and surrender or grow opium and fund his activities. He chose the latter. Once more, the US exerted pressure because it feared the Mujahideen might become financially independent and break away from its sphere of influence. The administration, therefore, decided to assassinate Akhunzad. He was lured to a meeting of Afghan leaders in Peshawar , Pakistan , to discuss his participation in a provisional government as Deputy Minister of Defence, and murdered.
The Ulema (religious figures) in Afghanistan were divided on whether to accept opium cultivation. The majority condone the practice citing its role as a natural remedy but rejecting its use as a narcotic and its conversion into heroin. Opium, however, continued to pose a problem for the Taliban until Mullah Omer, in August 2000, drew up a plan to deprive the US from the financial reward of the heroin industry, totally dependent on Central Asian opium, which it distributed around Europe . Afghan Arabs cautioned him that the American government would object to this decision and find a pretext to wage war on the Taliban and occupy the hot areas around Jalalabad and Helman. Accordingly, war would start between October and November 2002. Mullah Omer did not take the threat seriously, instead, judging it another Arab exaggeration.
Bin Laden’s reaction was even more peculiar. He was dismayed to learn that some in Afghanistan believe the US government would wage war on the country for reasons other than his presence. He was angry and felt his position was being threatened.
On that meeting in 1996, the al Qaeda leader did not wish to be drawn into a discussion about opium. He ended the meeting and the guests left the village of Arab Khail , otherwise known as Najm al Jiihad (the star of jihad).
A few months later, the village was targeted by a major military assault financed from Pakistan . The Taliban fought the attackers and regained control of the region. The Afghan Arabs were placed under protection by Mullah Omer himself and moved to Qandahar .