Islam, poppies and pipelines: background to the coming war – Part 1

Islam, poppies and pipelines: background to the coming war – Part 1

In the summer of 1985 I was invited to a United Nations University workshop of disarmament experts in Tashkent, in what was then the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. The Soviet group at the workshop was led by Evgeny Primakov, a specialist on the Middle East, and Iraq in particular, who later became the head of the Russian intelligence service, and later still, prime Minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov was a brilliant, calculating man, with a cold fleshy face with lizard eyes that smiled without any real warmth, except when he wanted to create an impression on a visitor, or when he was drunk. Meeting in the heart of Soviet Central Asia in Tashkent, Primakov’s West Asia expertise and the evident depth of his political connections made clear the importance of Central Asia to the Soviet Union – or more correctly, to Russia.

The real treat, after the drear of Tashkent, was a day trip to the Silk Road city of Samarkand. After a short plane flight over an extraordinary landscape I truly realized that in Samarkand I was actually in another country, a part of Asia I had never encountered before. I was traveling with Tariq Ali, a Pakistani Trotskyist, who merged effortlessly into the local scenery in Samarkand, greeting men we met on the roads with a gentle movement of his hands and the salutation of “Salaam aleikhum” – Arabic for “May peace be with you”. With that greeting, Tariq was immediately taken as a part of ummat Islam – the universal community of believers. I suddenly realized the depth of Islam’s ability to transcend borders, and that Uzbekistan may be part of the Soviet Union, but was still profoundly Islamic.

When you look at Samarkand from the air or from the hills around it, your eyes are struck by shimmering blue-tiled domes – the three great madrassah or teaching mosques that stand around the Registan or central city square. I walked through these centuries old centres of learning with my mouth open in wonder at the beauty of Islamic art and architecture, my head full of images I will never forget.

A week later, conference over, I was being taken around a fine art gallery in Moscow by my minder, my mind half on the paintings, half on our conversation about politics. Suddenly I spotted a small, light painting on one of the crowded walls – a mid-nineteenth century oil painting of the Registan and its three gorgeous madrassah. My first reaction was one of happiness, remembering the beauty of the madrassah and my time with friends there. But when I looked closer, I realized there were soldiers and cannon in the square. While admiring the beauty of the Islamic buildings, the Russian painter had recorded the realities of the Czarist “pacification” of the Uzbekhs, Turkmens, Kazakhs and Tajiks, as imperial Russia pushed its way south.

The beauties of Uzbekistan, its profoundly Islamic character, and the violence that the expanding Russian – and later the Soviet – state needed to control it, have come back to my mind in the past week or so, as I thought about the coming American war with Uzbekistan’s neighbour, Afghanistan.

Gas and heroin

In the flood of mass media commentary on the atrocities in New York and Washington, there has been a general reluctance to look at the causes of the terrorism. What could have lead apparently intelligent young men, with university educations, to not only kill themselves, but to kill thousands of innocent people? Though there has been some discussion of the dangerous situation that US foreign policy has produced in the Middle East, two particularly important aspects of the background of the coming war against Afghanistan have received very little media attention.

The first is the connection between the American fight against bin Laden and other terrorists and the Central Asian politics of oil and gas. The US has a deep interest in controlling both the vast but isolated and landlocked oil and gas fields of Central Asia, and in controlling the pipelines that will be needed to export the hydrocarbon gold. In the case of the great natural gas and oil fields of Turkmenistan, immediately north of Afghanistan, the US government has for a decade strongly supported plans by US-led business groups for both an oil pipeline and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. Such pipelines would serve important US interests in a number of ways:

  • drawing the Central Asian oil states away from the Russian sphere of influence and establishing the foundation for a strong US position
  • thwarting the development of Iranian regional influence by limiting Turkmenistan-Iranian gas links and thwarting a plan for a Turkmenistan-Iran oil pipeline to the Arabian Sea.
  • diversify US sources of oil and gas, and by increasing production sources, help keep prices low
  • benefiting US oil and construction companies with growing interests in the region
  • providing a basis for much-needed economic prosperity in the region, which might provide a basis for political stability.

These interests were strong enough for the United States for much of the 1990s to support the Taliban’s rise to power, through its tolerance of its two regional allies direct financial and military support for the Taliban, and its encouragement to US oil companies. The Taliban, which is committed to a particularly primitive vision of Sunni Islam, had the added advantage for the US of being deeply hostile to Shia Muslims both within Afghanistan and in neighbouring Iran. A crucial condition for building the pipelines is political stability in Afghanistan, and for a time the US believed the Taliban could provide just that. Had it not been for the Taliban’s apparent tolerance of the former US-supported Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban’s highly visible extremely repressive attitude to women and other social issues, the US would most likely have continued its support for the Taliban, and the construction of the pipelines would have got underway. Certainly Iran believed that the US was behind Pakistani and Saudi support for the Taliban as part of a long-term plan to contain Iran. But as so often before, US foreign policy based on the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” helped generate the conditions that allowed the New York and Washington atrocities to be conceived.

The unmentioned second aspect is the heroin connection, and here too, the American word “blowback” tells the tale. Afghanistan was, at least until last year, the world’s largest producer of opium poppies, producing 75% of world production according to the United Nations. 95% of poppy production is located in the southern part of the country, dominated by the Pushtun ethnic group, the home of the Taliban. After years of tolerating production of opium and heroin for export, last year the Taliban announced a complete ban on poppy growing. According to UN observers, the policy was put into practice, and opium fields have been cleared. But of the economic life of Afghanistan, reduced to ruin and extreme poverty after twenty years of war, depends on the export of poppies for the production of heroin. Neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan have heroin addicts estimated in the millions, and the profits of heroin smuggling have destroyed any social order in the Afghan border regions.

The US has claimed that bin Alden’s al-Quad terrorist network is largely financed from the profits of the drug trade. Whether correct or not, this reveals another appalling aspect of the terrorist crimes: the US Central Intelligence Agency partly financed the original operations of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance in the 1980s by encouraging the Afghani heroin economy. The New York terrorism was indeed what the American call “blowback”. Thousands of Americans paid the price of their government’s cynical and misguided foreign political manipulations.

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