- WASHINGTON (AFP) - Afghanistan's
Taliban regime, now bracing for punitive US military strikes, was brought
to power with Washington's silent blessing as it dallied in an abortive
new "Great Game" in central Asia.
- Keen to see Afghanistan under strong central rule to
allow a US-led group to build a multi-billion-dollar oil and gas pipeline,
Washington urged key allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to back the militia's
bid for power in 1996, analysts said.
- But it was soon forced to abandon its brief and shadowy
flirtation with the Islamic purists, who US officials now say are unfit
to rule, as the militia began imposing its brutal version of Islamic law,
sparking a violent outcry from US women's groups.
- While the United States has denied supporting the Taliban's
rise, experts say that at the time they seized the capital five years ago,
Washington saw the militia as a strange but potentially stabilizing force.
- "Now, years on, the US has to cope with the damage
for which it is partially responsible starting with its role during and
after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan," said Radha Kumar of the
Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
- Ahmed Rashid, a leading author and expert on Afghan affairs,
said it was "clear" Washington, which armed and trained the Afghan
mujahedin during their battle against Soviet invaders in the 1980s, indirectly
supported the Taliban.
- "The United States encouraged Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
to support the Taliban, certainly right up to their advance on Kabul"
on September 26, 1996, he said from his base in Lahore, Pakistan. "That
seems very ironic now."
- One key reason for US interest in the Taliban was a 4.5-billion-dollar
oil and gas pipeline that a US-led oil consortium planned to build across
- The California-based Unocal Corp. in 1996 hatched plans
to stretch the pipeline from the central Asian state of Turkmenistan to
Pakistan and the United States and the oil consortium wanted most of Afghanistan
to be under the stable control of one government to ensure the pipeline's
security, the analysts said.
- In the months before the Taliban took power, former US
assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robin Raphel waged an intense
round of shuttle diplomacy between the powers with possible stakes in the
- "Robin Raphel was the face of the Unocal pipeline,"
said an official of the former Afghan government who was present at some
of the meetings with her.
- The Unocal consortium also included Saudi-based Delta
Oil, Pakistan's Crescent Group and Gazprom of Russia.
- The project was to start with a two-billion-dollar, 890-kilometer
(556-mile) gas pipeline that would channel 1.9 billion cubic feet of gas
to Pakistan each day.
- In addition to tapping new sources of energy, the move
also suited a major US strategic aim in the region: isolating its nemesis
Iran and stifling a frequently-mooted rival pipeline project backed by
Tehran, experts said.
- "This was part of what I call a new great game between
Russia, the United States, China, Iran and European companies for control
of the new oil and gas resources that have been discovered," Rashid
said. A dangerous game for influence in Afghanistan was played in the 19th
century by Britain and Russia, at a strategic crossroads between South
Asia and Czarist Russia.
- The Unocal consortium feared there could be no pipeline
as long as Afghanistan, battered by war since the Soviet withdrawal in
1989, was split among rival warlords. The Taliban, whose rise to power
owed much to their bid to stamp out the drugs trade and install law and
order, seemed attractive to Washington.
- "It thought the Taliban might be a stabilizing factor
if they controlled 90 percent of the country," said the CFR's Kumar.
- When the Taliban rolled into Kabul, Washington appeared
initially enthusiastic amid signs it would consider recognising the new
- The top US diplomat in Pakistan planned a visit to Kabul
just days after it was captured by the Taliban and a State Department official
expressed hope that the Taliban would "move quickly to restore order
- But Washington cancelled the diplomat's trip as protests
against the Taliban's treatment of women erupted in the United States,
news reports said at the time. Unocal withdrew from the pipeline consortium
two years later.