Pipeline Still a Dream 

Presidents and bankers, but no action on the ground

KARA-TEPE, AFGHANISTAN--There is no pipeline. There probably won't be one. Yet the pipeline-that-will-never-exist is one of the main reasons that hundreds of thousands of Afghans and 2,000 American soldiers are dead. Among my goals during my late-summer trip to Afghanistan was to find the construction site for the Trans-Afghanistan oil and gas pipeline (TAP). Also known as Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan, TAP would carry the world's largest new energy reserves, which are in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan's sections of the landlocked Caspian Sea, across Afghanistan to a deep-sea port in Pakistan. Some background:

The idea dates to the mid-1990s. Unocal, owner of the Union 76 gas station chain, led a consortium of oil companies that negotiated with the Taliban government. Among their consultants was Zalmay Khalilzad, who later served as President George W. Bush's ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

As you'd expect, political instability has been the primary obstacle preventing a New Silk Road of oil and gas to flow across Central and South Asia. The planned route for TAP follows Afghanistan's ring road from the northwestern city of Herat across soaring mountains and bleak deserts through Kandahar province, the heart of Taliban territory. Hundreds of warlords and regional commanders would have to be paid protection money.

Unocal pulled out in 1998, citing the civil war between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. But logic can't kill a dream.

In February 2001 the new Bush-Cheney administration invited Taliban representatives to Texas for new talks. When the Afghans insisted upon higher transit fees than the White House oilmen were prepared to offer, things turned ugly.

"Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold," a frustrated U.S. negotiator snapped at the Talibs on May 15, 2001, "or we bury you under a carpet of bombs."

The last Bush-Taliban pipeline discussions took place on Aug. 2, 2001, in Islamabad between Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, a former CIA employee, and Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. The 9/11 attacks, planned in Pakistan and carried out by Pakistani-trained Saudis and Egyptians, provided the pretext for invading Afghanistan. Was TAP the only motivation? Certainly not: Afghanistan also offered a "dry run" invasion of a defenseless Muslim nation pre-Iraq, as well as a chance to exert geopolitical muscle-flexing at the expense of regional rivals Russia and Iran. But TAP was part of the calculus.

Since 2002 the presidents of Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan have repeatedly met to talk about TAP. The Asian Development Bank has financed feasibility studies for the $8 billion deal.

Politicians want the pipeline. Bankers want it, too. But has ground been broken? A number of mainstream news accounts said yes, that the 52-inch pipe was already being laid along the highway that runs north from Herat to the Turkmen border.

I wanted confirmation and photos. Something to shove in the faces of those neocons who dismiss TAP as a conspiracy theory.

Unfortunately, all the journalists in Afghanistan are embedded with soldiers, running around the mountains near the Pakistani border in a war that is irrelevant to the Afghan people but looks good on the nightly news. They're too busy supporting the troops to do any real reporting. So, accompanied by fellow cartoonists Matt Bors and Steven Cloud, I set out up that road from Herat two weeks ago.

My goal: the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. It's a hot, dusty drive. There isn't much to see: desert, scrub, goatherds, adobe-style mud-brick villages. The Koshk District, the region's major population center, is so infested with Talibs that Afghan national policemen are afraid to drive through. I can tell you what you don't see: the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. There's no construction of any kind alongside that highway.

We stopped locals to ask them about TAP. Finally, one geezer brightened up. He'd seen it. Our Afghan driver got excited. He turned to us: "It was here! But the local people stole it."

"They stole the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline?"

"Yes! They used it to make a mosque. He is going to show us."

I was happy. What a story! I took out my camera, ready to document the amazing tale of the Our Lady of TAP mosque, indirectly financed by American hubris. We followed the man down an alley and across a small garden. He walked us into what can only be described as a modest building.

He gestured. "There it is," said his gesture. There, indeed it was: a dumpy little building, which I'll call a mosque though there was no way to identify it as a house of God, with pipes holding up the corners and serving as rafters. Small pipes. Very small pipes.

Nine-inch pipes, maybe eight.

"That's not an oil pipeline," I told my driver. "What we're looking for is big. I made a big circle with my arms. "BIIIGG."

He pointed again. He smiled as if to say: Look harder.

"This pipeline came from Turkmenistan," said my driver. "I was a boy when the Soviets built it. For oil."

"No. This is a water pipe," I said. "Or maybe sewage. Besides, we're looking for something new. Not Soviet."

Because it seemed rude not to, I snapped a few photos and tipped the old guy. It was like that scene in Spinal Tap when the mini-Stonehenge drops from the ceiling. I stifled a laugh as we got back into our car.

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