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U.S. presence in Afghanistan renews hopes of oil, gas investors

g and compass

Knight Ridder Washington Bureau

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

U.S. presence in Afghanistan renews hopes of oil, gas investors

By Sudarsan Raghavan

Knight Ridder Newspapers

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - Afghanistan in the midst of a grinding war may not look like an investor's paradise. Yet oilman Joseph Naemi sees the conflict - and America's involvement - as a potential opportunity for vast riches.

The 39-year-old executive plans to invest hundred of millions of dollars over the next five to seven years developing oil and natural gas fields in neighboring Uzbekistan, in hope eventually of selling oil and gas to and through Afghanistan by pipeline.

"If the United States' presence continues in the region, (Sept. 11) is probably the best thing that could have happened here for the Central Asian republics," said Naemi, managing director of Chase Energy, a small oil company based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

America's efforts to replace the puritanical Taliban and bring stability to Afghanistan are resurrecting hopes for a controversial proposal for trans-Afghanistan oil and natural gas pipelines, once strongly backed by the United States. And wildcatters such as Naemi are lining up to capitalize on what may be the most valuable, inaccessible stretch of land in Central Asia.

"This region in terms of oil economics is the frontier for this century," said Naemi. "And Afghanistan is part and parcel of this."

In 1998, the Taliban signed a $2 billion agreement for a proposed 890-mile natural gas pipeline that would start in Turkmenistan's Dauletabad fields, snake through Taliban-controlled areas in Herat and Kandahar, Afghanistan, and end in Quetta, Pakistan. A $2.5 billion oil pipeline stretching 1,000 miles through Afghanistan also was considered.

The pipelines would provide the most direct route from Central Asia's oil and gas fields to Arabian Sea ports such as the Pakistani city of Karachi. They would link oil and gas fields in land-locked Central Asia to lucrative markets in Asia and Australia, and could free up more Middle East oil to flow to the United States and Europe. They also could reduce U.S. dependence on oil from OPEC nations, which have dictated oil prices for decades.

The proposal has been seriously batted around in corporate boardrooms from Texas to Saudi Arabia since the mid-1990s. But given Afghanistan's 22 years of war, there were serious doubts that the pipelines would be built. Now, with the United States vowing to uproot the Taliban, the project seems more possible.

"The oil companies have never stopped thinking about the Afghan pipeline, but they all lowered it on the list of priorities," said a U.S. Embassy commercial officer in Almaty, Kazakhstan, who has close contacts with American energy firms there. "But now they are re-evaluating it with the possible political change happening in Afghanistan." The officer spoke on condition of anonymity.

In recent weeks, the English-language newspaper Baku Sun in oil-rich Azerbaijan has published stories discussing the hopes for proposed Afghan pipelines. Last week, Turkmenistan's president, Saparamurad Niyazov, asked the United Nations to help revive the project, saying it would be "advantageous for all the neighboring countries, and primarily Afghanistan," according to Turkmenistan's official news agency.

Some Central Asian oil consultants are publicly lobbying for the pipeline to be a key part of any post-Taliban "Marshall plan" for the United States to help rebuild Afghanistan.

"It should be an absolute must for the U.S. to pursue this option," said Rob Sobhani, president of Washington-based Caspian Energy Consulting and a former consultant in Central Asia for Amoco, which is now part of British Petroleum. Sobhani has pushed the pipeline on various U.S. television programs.

The Afghan pipelines would make it cheaper and faster for Naemi and Chase Energy to get their oil and natural gas to Asian markets. Currently, they are planning to use railroads along long, circuitous routes via the Caspian Sea region and Turkey.

At war since the Soviets invaded in 1979, Afghanistan has never been able to fully tap its significant deposits of natural gas, oil and coal. Conflict after conflict has shattered its infrastructure, eroded its economy and spawned one of the world's largest refugee populations.

All that seemed to be forgotten when the Taliban grabbed power in 1996, bringing stability to much of the country. By then, an international consortium of oil companies led by Houston-based Unocal Corp. was wooing the hard-line Islamic regime to sign the pipeline deal.

The group included companies from Saudi Arabia, Russia, South Korea, Japan and Pakistan. The Argentine firm Bridas also was competing for the rights to build a pipeline through Afghanistan.

Unocal pulled out of the pipeline consortium in December 1998, after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the subsequent American military strikes on Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. The civil war in Afghanistan, low oil prices and pressure at home from U.S. women's groups protesting the Taliban's subjugation of women also played roles.

The State Department was helping Unocal, despite the Taliban's brutal human-rights record and its harboring of bin Laden. U.S. officials said they hoped the Taliban would moderate their policies and the pipeline would boost Afghanistan's crippled economy.

According to the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy organization, the American diplomatic dance with the Taliban was partly an attempt to prevent the construction of a pipeline through Iran and to reduce Russian leverage over Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

U.S. ties with the oil-producing former Soviet republics are closer after the Sept.11 terrorist attacks. Uzbekistan's government, which hopes that a stable Afghanistan will open direct routes for its oil and natural gas, and its neighbors have supported the American-led anti-terrorism coalition.

Although the United States is talking about buying oil from Russia, it also is supporting the proposed construction of a pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the Turkish seaport of Ceyhan, which would allow the Caspian Sea nations to lessen their reliance on Moscow.

While modern-day wildcatters such as Naemi are betting on the Afghan pipelines, larger oil companies aren't jumping in so soon. A Unocal spokeswoman said the company had no plans to invest anywhere in Central Asia in the near future.

"The prospects are there, the potential is there," said Abdul Raheem Yaseer, the assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. "But first the Taliban have to be removed, then the terrorists have to be removed. Then the Afghans have to be helped to form their own government, and then they'll need a lot of money for reconstructing their country. Then they will talk about oil projects."

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