Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed August 1998
Copyright ©1998 by William O. Beeman

Of bombings in Afghanistan, fundamentalist rivals and economics of oil
By William O. Beeman

William O. Beeman is an anthropologist at Brown University, specializing in the Middle East. He is currently conducting research in Islamic Central Asia.

"Now matters are really in a mess. Iran has actually issued a statement supportive of the U.S. actions. The Taleban are angry, and American citizens across the globe are now the targets of the most fanatical of Islamic militants"

United States citizens must sooner or later face the fact that the bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were brought about in part by the muddled actions of our own government. The story is worthy of a John Clancy novel.

It is an open secret throughout the region that the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been supporting the fundamentalist Taleban in their war for control of Afghanistan for some time. The United States has never openly acknowledged this connection, although it has been confirmed by intelligence sources and charitable institutions in Pakistan.

In U.S. rhetoric regarding the Middle East, the Taleban would seem to be strange political partners. They are a brutal fundamentalist group that has promulgated a cultural scorched-earth policy for their nation. They have committed extensively documented atrocities against their enemies and their own citizens. So why would the United States support them?

Middle Easterners easily understand the answer. The ancient proverb goes: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. In Afghanistan the dominant ethnic groups are the Pushtuns, who spill over the border into Pakistan, and the Tajiks, whose language is a form of Persian. The Pushtun Taleban have virtually eliminated their Tajik opposition, which had been heavily supported by Iran. The United States as an enemy of Iran must be a friend of the Taleban.

This still does not fully explain why the United States would support such a group, or why Pakistan, itself a fundamentalist Islamic state, would risk the wrath of Tehran's religious government.

The answer to this part of the question has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity - only with the economics of oil.

To the north of Afghanistan is one of the wealthiest oil fields in the world - on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea in the new republics of the former Soviet Union. American oil companies are involved in an oil boom larger than any in the last 40 years in this region. Untold wealth is at stake, depending on getting the oil out of the landlocked region through a warm-water port.

The simplest and cheapest route is through Iran. It is the route favored by all oil companies because it involves building a short pipeline and shipping the oil through the existing Iranian petroleum network.

The U.S. government has such massive antipathy to Iran that it is willing to do anything to prevent this from happening. One alternate route would be through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The difficulty is in securing the agreement of the powers that be in Afghanistan. From the U.S. standpoint, the only way to deny Iran everything is for the anti-Iranian Taleban to win in Afghanistan, and to agree to the pipeline through their territory. The Pakistanis, who would also benefit from this arrangement, are willing to defy the Iranians for a share of the pot.

Enter Osama bin Laden, a sworn enemy of the United States living in Afghanistan. His forces could see that the Taleban would eventually end up in the American camp if things proceeded as they had been. His bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa (since there were none in Afghanistan) was accompanied by a message for Americans to get out of "Islamic countries." By this he specifically meant Afghanistan.

The American response was to bomb bin Laden's outposts while carefully noting that his forces were "not supported by any state." This latter statement was an attempt to rescue the Taleban relationship while giving the Taleban leaders the message that they must ditch bin Laden. For good measure American missiles also took out a factory in the Sudan - a smoke screen for the real target of their action.

Now matters are really in a mess. Iran has actually issued a statement supportive of the U.S. actions. The Taleban are angry, and American citizens across the globe are now the targets of the most fanatical of Islamic militants. The United States may even lose the pipeline as a result of this tinkering.

Every time the United States has attempted one of these slick back-door deals, American citizens get burned. What our foreign policy community never seems to learn is that religion and ideology are as strong a motivating force in this region as money or guns. We underestimate these factors every time, and our myopia gets us in trouble every time.