Al-Qaida monitored U.S. negotiations with Taliban over oil pipeline

A memo by military chief Mohammed Atef raises new questions about whether failed U.S. efforts to reform Afghanistan's radical regime -- and build the pipeline -- set the stage for Sept. 11.

Jun 5, 2002 | A 1998 memo written by al-Qaida military chief Mohammed Atef reveals that Osama bin Laden's group had detailed knowledge of negotiations that were taking place between Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and American government and business leaders over plans for a U.S. oil and gas pipeline across that Central Asian country.

The e-mail memo was found in 1998 on a computer seized by the FBI during its investigation into the 1998 African embassy bombings, which were sponsored by al-Qaida. Atef's memo was discovered by FBI counter-terrorism expert John O'Neill, who left the bureau in 2001, complaining that U.S. oil interests were hindering his investigation into al-Qaida. O'Neill, who became security chief at the World Trade Center, died in the Sept. 11 attack.

Atef's memo shines new light on what al-Qaida knew about U.S. efforts to normalize relations with the Taliban in exchange for the fundamentalist government's supporting the construction of an oil and gas pipeline across Afghanistan. As documented in the book I coauthored with Guillaume Dasquie, "Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth," the Clinton and Bush administrations negotiated with the Taliban, both to get the repressive regime to widen its government as well as look favorably on U.S. companies' attempts to construct an oil pipeline. The Bush White House stepped up negotiations with the Taliban in 2001. When those talks stalled in July, a Bush administration representative threatened the Taliban with military reprisals if the government did not go along with American demands.

The seven-page memo was signed "Abu Hafs," which is the military name of Atef, who was the military chief of al-Qaida and is believed to have been killed in November 2001 during U.S. operations in Afghanistan. It shows al-Qaida's keen interest in the U.S.-Taliban negotiations and raises new questions as to whether the U.S. military threat to the Taliban in July 2001 could have prompted al-Qaida's Sept. 11 attack.

Atef's memo is not about the pipeline alone, though it mentions the project several times. It is an analysis of the political situation facing the Taliban. It documents the movement's rise, its leadership, the geopolitical importance of Afghanistan, the Taliban's relationship with Pakistan, as well as the movement's relationship with the Arab mujahedin. The document's intended readership is unclear. But it reveals that the pipeline was seen as a strategic offering toward the West, in order to make the Taliban government acceptable to the United States and Pakistan, as well as to reduce military and investigative pressure on the country to rein in or even extradite bin Laden.

Atef explains that the United States wants "to take control of any region which has huge quantities of oil reserves," and "the American government is keen on laying the oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan." Atef concludes that al-Qaida's "duty toward the movement [Taliban] is to stand behind it, support it materially and morally, especially because its regional and international enemies are working night and day to put an end to it and make it fail."

It seems clear the military chief didn't expect the pipeline negotiations to bear fruit. Referring to Pakistanis as "nonbelievers," and noting that the pipeline "will be under American control ... and it also goes through the territories of Pakistan which are allied to America," Atef implies that the Taliban has no intention of ultimately cooperating with the project, but is trying to string along the Americans and Pakistanis to win some breathing room for its unpopular government.

The Atef memo is the latest piece of evidence documenting a murky chapter in recent American history -- the overtures of the last two American administrations to the repressive Taliban regime. Several U.S. oil companies, most notably Unocal, had been advocates of diplomatic overtures to the Taliban, in order to facilitate the building of a pipeline from the Caspian Sea region to Pakistan and the Persian Gulf through Afghanistan. In 1996, Unocal vice president Chris Taggart described the fall of Kabul to the Taliban regime as a "very positive step" and urged the U.S. to extend recognition to the new rulers in Kabul and thus "lead the way to international lending agencies coming in."

Just 10 days after the Taliban seized power in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, former National Security Council official and Unocal consultant who was appointed special envoy to Afghanistan by President George W. Bush at the end of 2001, argued in a Washington Post opinion article that the U.S. should try to work with the mullahs and form a broad-based government that included other factions. "The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran -- it is closer to the Saudi model ..." Khalilzad contended, concluding that "we should use as a positive incentive the benefits that will accrue to Afghanistan from the construction of oil and gas pipelines across its territory ... These projects will only go forward if Afghanistan has a single authoritative government."

Soon after, the State Department spokesman Glyn Davies told the New York Times he had hope that "the new authorities in Kabul will move quickly to restore order and security and to form a representative interim government that can begin the process of reconciliation nationwide." Davies also said the United States "wanted to send diplomats to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban and held out the possibility of re-establishing full diplomatic ties with the country," according to the Times.

In November 1997 Unocal invited a Taliban delegation to Texas and, in early December, the company opened a training center at the University of Nebraska, to instruct 137 Afghans in pipeline construction technology. The company also donated to the university's Center for Afghanistan Studies. Unocal CEO John Imle estimated that the company spent between $15 and $20 million on its Central Asia oil pipeline (CentGas) project -- on preliminary feasibility studies, humanitarian projects and other efforts to lobby the Taliban (Unocal equipped the regime with satellite phones, for instance.)

In February 1998, Unocal's vice president for international relations, John Maresca, told a House subcommittee hearing on U.S. interests in the Central Asian Republics that an oil pipeline "would benefit Afghanistan, which would receive revenues from transport tariffs, and would promote stability and encourage trade and economic development." Emphasizing that "the proposed Central Asia Oil Pipeline (CentGas) cannot begin construction until an internationally recognized Afghanistan government is in place," he urged the administration and the Congress "to give strong support to the United Nations-led peace process in Afghanistan."

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