In his September 11, 2001 article "Bring us the head of Osama bin Laden", Hamilton Spectator columnist Andrew Dreschel wrote:
we're in Afghanistan because the Taliban ... refused to surrender bin Laden after 9/11 and defended him when the United States and its allies came looking for justice.
This is incorrect and misleading.
In fact, the Taliban offered to extradite bin Laden to Saudi Arabia in 1998, but withdrew the offer after US missile strikes on Afghanistan that year. On October 4, 2001, the Taliban covertly offered to turn bin Laden over to Pakistan to be tried in an international tribunal.
Then, on October 14, after the invasion had started, the Taliban offered to hand him to a neutral country if the United States presented evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The United States rejected this condition.
To this day, the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists bulletin states only that bin Laden is explicitly connected with the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania of August 7, 1998, and that he is "a suspect of other terrorist attacks throughout the world."
To this day, so much misinformation swirls around the invasion of Afghanistan that it's difficult to make an informed decision. Much of the received wisdom that shapes our opinions, like Dreschel's incorrect assertion, is false.
Similarly, many relevant facts are not widely known. For example:
The United States already had a plan to overthrow the Taliban before September 11, 2001, and had been discussing tactics with other nations' security agencies through the summer of 2001. The idea originally was that the US and its allies would destabilize the Taliban and provide tactical and logistical support to the Northern Alliance through covert means.
It was believed in the late 1990s that the Caspian region had huge oil and gas reserves.
A U.S. Department of Energy report from June, 2001 enthusiastically noted:
The prospect of potentially enormous hydrocarbon reserves is part of the allure of the Caspian region (includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the regions of Iran and Russia that are near the Caspian Sea). Besides the 18-34 billion barrels currently proven, the region's possible oil reserves could yield another 235 billion barrels of oil. This is roughly equivalent to a quarter of the Middle East's total proven reserves (however, the Middle East also has its own vast possible reserves). Possible gas reserves in the Caspian region, including Uzbekistan, are as large as the region's proven gas reserves, and could yield another 328 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas if proven.
Citing political instability in the region, the report warned, "the fear is that in the short-term, the fierce competition over pipeline routes and export options will lead to greater instability." Notwithstanding the despotic and erratic Taliban, in the late 1990s Afghanistan was seen as the best prospect for a pipeline, since Iran was out of the question for political reasons.
Another strategic objective was to shut Russia out of managing its former clients, as explained to the House Committee on International Relations in February, 1998:
Stated US policy goals regarding energy resources in this region include fostering the independence of the new states and their ties to the West, breaking Russia's monopoly over oil and gas transport routes, encouraging the construction of East/West pipelines that do not transit Iran and denying Iran dangerous leverage over the central Asian economies...
Central Asia would seem to offer significant new investment opportunities for a broad range of American companies which, in turn, will serve as a valuable stimulus to the economic development of the region. ... It is essential that U.S. policymakers understand the stakes involved in Central Asia as we seek to craft a policy that serves the interests of the United States and U.S. business.
At the time, the government decided that tensions in the region and instability in Afghanistan discredited the idea of a pipeline through Afghanistan. Robert Gee, Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the Department of Energy, stressed that the government favoured multiple oil routes, commerciality of investment projects, continued isolation of Iran, and cooperation with Russia.
John Maresca, Vice President of Unocal oil, a company with plans to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, countered:
In 1995, the [Caspian] region was producing only 870,000 barrels per day. By 2010, western companies could increase production to about 4.5 million barrels a day, an increase of more than 500 percent in only 15 years. If this occurs, the region would represent about 5 percent of the world's total oil production. One major problem has yet to be resolved: how to get the region's vast energy resources to the markets where they are needed.
Maresca explained the the real growth markets of the next two decades were the Asian economies, which were expected to grow rapidly over that time, and that the challenge was to build the infrastructure that would deliver energy to those burgeoning markets.
Other industry players were also interested in the Region. Richard Matzke, a VP at Chevron, made an upbeat speech to the Fifth Kazakhstan International Oil & Gas Exposition in 1997, in which he said:
There are two possible solutions, with several variations. One option is to go east across China, but this would mean constructing a pipeline of more than 3,000 kilometers just to reach Central China. In addition, there would have to be a 2,000-kilometer connection to reach the main population centers along the coast. The question then is what will be the cost of transporting oil through this pipeline, and what would be the netback which the producers would receive. For those who are not familiar with the terminology, the netback is the price which the producer receives for his oil or gas at the wellhead after all the transportation costs have been deducted. So it's the price he receives for the oil he produces at the wellhead.
The second option is to build a pipeline south from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. One obvious route south would cross Iran, but this is foreclosed for American companies because of U.S. sanctions legislation. The only other possible route is across Afghanistan, which has of course its own unique challenges. The country has been involved in bitter warfare for almost two decades, and is still divided by civil war. From the outset, we have made it clear that construction of the pipeline we have proposed across Afghanistan could not begin until a recognized government is in place that has the confidence of governments, lenders, and our company.
Kazakhstan and its sister nations in the Caspian region face tremendous political and economic challenges. All companies, regardless of whether they are local or from the outside, need a stable business environment to give them confidence to invest.
They need stability in order to prosper and grow. And few industries have the potential to contribute to stability the way that the oil industry does. Ours is an inter-dependent industry, and few trade arrangements are as powerful or as important as on-going energy transactions and natural resource developments.
Since then, the reserve estimates have been revised downwards quite significantly, and oil industry interest in the region has also waned considerably.
Back in the late 1990s, oil executives were slavering over the Caspian. At the time, the government decided that the project was simply not feasible. However, a lot has happened in the intervening years.
The most important change is that the government starting in 2001 was actually composed extensively of former oil industry executives, in many cases the very people who had pressed unsuccessfully for US government support in reshaping the region to support development in the 1990s. Those people suddenly held the reins of the American political machine.
Dick Cheney, then CEO of Halliburton, said in a 1998 speech to oil executives, "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian."
By 2001, he was the Vice President of the United States, and had just chaired an energy policy task force composed mainly of oil executives, the contents of which are still classified.
Similarly, Condoleeza Rice was a director of Chevron, a company will billions of dollars invested in the Caspian region (deals brokered by Dick Cheney), and is now the National Security Advisor. George W. Bush himself is a longtime oil man, as well as Donald Evans (former CEO of Tom Browne), Christine Todd Whitman, Donald Rumsfeld (who has millions in oil stocks), and Spencer Abraham.
The oil industry donated millions of dollars to the Bush election - possibly the biggest campaign donations of any industry to any administration in history. Industries donate money to governments to influence political decisions. Why would they bother investing if they didn't see a potential return?
The war in Afghanistan, and Canada's evolving role in it, is anything but clear-cut.
Unfortunately, people like Dreschel and Graeme MacKay, whose recent editorial cartoon had the NDP breathing "stupid gas" for its principled opposition to the war, would rather shout down that opposition than engage in a productive debate.
Ironically, the inevitable result of ignorance is dumbed-down policy that's immune to the facts.
(This article has been updated to correct a misspelling in Graeme MacKay's name -Ed.)