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    No Peace in the Pipeline

    By Nora Boustany
    Wednesday, September 2, 1998; Page A26

    The secret weapon that made the Taliban tick – at least in terms of geopolitics and U.S. interest – has just been dismantled. Unocal Corp., the California-based global energy company that has been courting the ultraconservative Islamic militia that controls most of Afghanistan, announced it was suspending its activities involving the proposed Central Asia gas pipeline there. The announcement came one day after the dramatic U.S. strikes against training bases in Afghanistan for followers of Saudi renegade Osama bin Laden.

    The Taliban and Unocal were hoping to build a $4.5 billion pipeline network to transport Caspian Sea oil and gas across Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent. But the position statement released Aug. 21 said: "Unocal will only participate in construction of the proposed Central Asia Gas Pipeline when and if Afghanistan achieves the peace and stability necessary to obtain financing from international lending agencies for this project and an established government is recognized by the United Nations and the United States."

    Although work on the pipeline itself had not yet begun, last November Unocal launched a $900,000 program run by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to train 137 Afghan men in pipeline-building.

    Sources in the White House, which had been pushing the multibillion-dollar pipeline project that would have transported gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, acknowledged that the plans have been scrapped for now.

    The Clinton administration had strongly supported the proposed route, which would have freed new Central Asian countries from dependence on Russia for exporting their natural gas – and avoided alternative routes across Iran to bring badly needed energy to Pakistan and India.

    There must be a multiplicity of reasons for putting all this on hold, at least one of them being that Pakistan, for one, may be too cash-strapped to pay for the gas until it sorts out its economic restructuring and payment schedules with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. On a much more basic level, it would be difficult to imagine that international investors would dump billions of dollars into a project going through areas that may be subject to cruise-missile attacks, to say nothing of the fighting between the Taliban and its opponents – a beleaguered northern alliance of factions allegedly getting help from Iran and Russia.

    Pakistan's ambassador, Riaz Khokhar, told Washington Post editors and reporters, on the day of the U.S. strike against bin Laden's bases, that despite allegations that his country backs the Taliban, Pakistan could not bring any pressure against the radical movement. "We don't share their social philosophy, but we are in no position to influence them," Khokhar insisted.

    "You left us with the baby, so we are looking after the baby," he said somewhat bitterly of the mess left behind in Afghanistan after the United States and Pakistan collaborated in helping Afghan rebels expel Soviet troops between 1979 and '89. "We have been partners, we joined hands [with the United States]. Now we are saddled with the problem," he added.

    Recalling that Pakistani authorities had been instrumental in delivering terrorists such as Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and Mir Aimal Kasi to the United States, Khokhar said: "They were hot stuff you people wanted. You got them because we cooperated. But in this game we have to take care of our own interests."

    He explained that the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, and that millions of Pashtuns live in the regions that straddle the Pakistani-Afghan border. There is cultural affinity and relations between them, he added. "We have a very finely defined and balanced policy," the ambassador said in spelling out why the Pakistani government could not do anything to provoke a backlash from its own Pashtun population.

    Mourning a Risen Leader

    In African countries such as Nigeria, where the military and supporters of civilian rule have been slugging it out for decades, the daunting challenge of leading a nation is not received with jubilation in one's family but as reason to weep and mourn. One would imagine that Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar – who inherited the mantle of leadership upon the death of Gen. Sani Abacha in June – would only be worried about how to steer his huge, restive nation back to civilian rule after years of military control. But Abacha's subordinate, thrust into power, is also worried about the effect all this will have on his wife.

    Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo told Washington Post editors and reporters that he sympathized. He had been through the same ordeal 20 years ago. Obasanjo's unexpected ascent came when gunmen assassinated an earlier military ruler, Gen. Murtala Muhammad, as his limousine sat in traffic on Feb. 13, 1976. News that Obasanjo had been chosen as Nigeria's new head of state reached his family before he could tell them himself. "They wept as if I were a dead man," the general recalled.

    When Abubakar consulted with him last June soon after freeing him from jail for his reputed role in trying to topple Abacha, Nigeria's new ruler told Obasanjo: "Look, I want to do what you did" – bring back civilian rule in the way Obasanjo did in 1989. But there also was another bit of help the new ruler sought: "I want you to talk to my wife and give her some encouragement," Obasanjo quoted Abubakar as saying.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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