Why you should care
Because the Taliban weren’t always considered enemy combatants by the U.S.
One cold afternoon in early December 1997, Marty Miller and his wife, Caroline, went around draping black trash bags over the naked Indonesian statues that adorned their garden in Sugar Land, Texas. Miller, then the vice president of oil company Unocal, was gearing up for his unlikely guests: a delegation of the ultraconservative Taliban, who were emerging as the group then grabbing control of Afghanistan.
Unbeknownst to the press, a plane with Taliban leaders onboard landed in the majority-White town, population 59,157, in an attempt to secure an oil-and-gas deal that could have turned around the destiny — and economy — of the war-torn nation almost immediately.
“The thing with the Taliban was that they didn’t have a clue about the oil and gas business. The idea was to bring them over, establish some credibility with them that we were a real company,” Miller explains in the 2015 documentary Taliban Oil.
The only way to get that fuel to bigger markets like India or the Gulf of Oman — from where it could be shipped to Western markets — was by building a pipeline through Afghanistan.
Over the previous two years, painstaking efforts by the international community to put together a panethnic, U.N.-backed government in Afghanistan had failed. A decade of Soviet occupation had ended in 1989, but the country’s subsequent power vacuum sparked a civil war between multiple warlords with shifting allegiances. More than 50,000 people died in Kabul alone during the civil war. By the mid-1990s, the Taliban — with their promise to restore law and order, albeit through brutal, even medieval techniques — emerged as the most powerful force in the country.
Meanwhile, the executives of Unocal sensed opportunity in the fall of the Iron Curtain. The company was struggling — it had lost $153 million just a few years earlier and was trailing its competitors. To bridge the gap, CEO John F. Imle Jr. had a plan: explore uncharted territories. “We realized Turkmenistan had world-class gas reserves and no market after Russia left,” Imle says in Taliban Oil.
There was just one problem. The Central Asian nations it was hoping to obtain gas from are landlocked. The only way to get that fuel to bigger markets like India or the Gulf of Oman — from where it could be shipped to Western markets — was by building a pipeline through Afghanistan. It was expected to be a $10 billion project, and Unocal estimated that Afghanistan could earn more than $400 million per year via its involvement, thereby enhancing the country’s annual gross domestic product, which stood at $3,016 million at the time.
To implement the idea, though, Unocal needed a greenlight from the Taliban as well as President Bill Clinton’s administration. Hence, Miller traveled to Afghanistan to meet the Taliban leadership, who hosted him in Kandahar. But Unocal wasn’t the only company who’d had this idea: Argentine oil giant Bridas was also trying to cut a deal with the Taliban, allowing it to tap Central Asia’s oil reserves. The Taliban were interested in foreign investment to aid Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
In Sugar Land, the Taliban visited one of Unocal’s offshore platforms. Soon after, the delegation was taken to Omaha, Nebraska, for a meeting about their own country’s oil resources. When they were shown satellite images of their own territory, the Taliban were suspicious that strangers were surveilling their country. John Schroder, one of the foremost U.S. experts in Afghanistan’s petroleum resources, told them: “You can do it too. All you need to do is come here and get educated.”
Finally, the Taliban moved on to Washington, D.C., where they met with State Department officials keen on making the pipeline dream a reality. According to the declassified Taliban file at the NSA archives, they urged U.S. officials to reopen an embassy in Kabul, which had been shuttered in 1989. But the delegation was unwilling to sign any contract before discussing it further with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the mysterious one-eyed emir of the militia.
It is unclear just how much Unocal managed to influence U.S. policy in the mid-1990s or to what extent top American officials believed that the pipeline would bring peace to Afghanistan. According to journalist Ahmed Rashid in his book Descent Into Chaos, Unocal provided humanitarian aid to the Taliban, believing that a pipeline could broker an end to sectarian conflict.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, another player asserted himself: Osama bin Laden, the son of a Saudi millionaire who had become a famous name as part of the anti-Soviet insurgency. He returned from exile to Sudan in 1996 and set up shop in Kandahar with his now world-famous group, al-Qaida. Bin Laden was an inconvenient guest for the Taliban, but expelling him would have meant losing the investments and wealth the Saudi brought with him.
Two years later, the bombings bin Laden orchestrated on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam killed more than 220 people. The Clinton administration ordered missile strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan in response. The threat of military escalation in the region meant the oil pipeline was no longer feasible. Over the years, Unocal continued to decline and was finally bought by Chevron in 2005. More than two decades later, the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Turkmenistan are trying to once again build a pipeline to allow the export of Central Asian gas.
But that pipeline will have to pass through Afghanistan. Which means once again, the Taliban could decide its ultimate fate.