Posted by: Christian | October 13, 2008

American Oil Concessions in Afghanistan

Breaking news: An American oil company has been granted exclusive rights to explore and exploit Afghanistan’s oil reserves, which the Associated Press has reported are the “greatest untapped reserves of oil in the world.” The exclusive concession lasts for 75 years and is sure to bring massive profits to the Inland Exploration Co., a consortium that includes Texaco and Seaboard Oil.



That’s up-to-date as of January 11, 1937. You can read the false hype article here.  What happened to these massive untapped oil reserves and these slick American oilmen? In May 1937 the geologists actually started to go looking for “greatest untapped reserves of oil in the world.” One year later the American oilmen backed out of the oil concession and said “Thanks, but no thanks.” Back in the day the historian Gregorian Vartan wrote that this was due to a combination of factors¹:

  1. The impending war in Europe
  2. Proximity to the Soviet Union
  3. Vulnerability to an Iranian (sic) attack
  4. Poor infrastructure and high cost of start-up for extraction of the virtually inaccessible “rich oil deposits”

Well, the war in Europe is highly debatable as a factor. It seems a little far away to scare tough American oilmen. And proximity to the Soviet Union? I think they saw the maps showing that the Soviet Union was rather close when they signed the oil exploration deal. And an Iranian attack? In the late 1930s? Against American oil installations? Um…

Now reason #4 is quite funny. The poor infrastructure was not much of a secret. And “virtually inaccessible rich oil deposits” is a euphemism for “Sorry, you have no oil of any serious worth.” The American oilmen gave a bunch of nice excuses to the Afghan government, which was “bewildered” and “disappointed.” I can just imagine their anguish. They look west and see a the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Iraqis and the Persians Iranians swimming in oil and figure they’ve got some of that too.

The Afghan government couldn’t believe that the Americans would walk away from a concession. That bewilderment was based on their previous experience as a geostrategic “goat between two lions,” to borrow a phrase from Abdur Rahman, where nobody leaves Afghanistan without a serious fight. But this is a (relatively) brave new world of energy geostrategy. And Afghanistan does not factor in. America would again walk away after Najibullah fell, and then attempt another back-door exit post-2001. Odd behavior for Americans in an alleged geostrategic energy hotspot.

After WWII the Afghans talked the French, then the Swedes and finally the Soviets into exploring (increasingly desperately) for oil. More extremely boring Afghan energy history here.

Not Afghanistan:

And then there is the almost as crazy talk of the current war effort being all about for a transit route for Turkmen oil [sic] and gas. Slate had a laugh at all that in December 2001. Numerous others have picked apart the more recent conspiracy theories (whose authors make Bush seem like Louis Dupree in comparison). As for all that Turkmen gas, India recently joined a group that includes Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan for a rather implausible gas pipeline project. Good luck on that. Apparently nobody outside the region was interested in investing in the awesome business paradise that is Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan. The tentative deal reached doesn’t fit in very well with the idea that the war in Afghanistan is being fought for a pipeline (America is fighting in Afghanistan so that the Pakistani and Indian markets may receive a modest boost in natural gas availability that may or may not be profitable to a South Asian consortium that has absolutely no infrastructure on the ground?).

The post-9/11 behavior of the US actually shows a serious lack of interest in anything Afghan. The US government was doing its best to forget Afghanistan and leave it behind for other “greener” pastures. I actually wish there had been a pipeline conspiracy after 2001. Then maybe Afghanistan would not have been ignored to the degree that it has been until recently, when the increased strength of the Taliban, an increased pace in the body count, the lull in Iraq and the newly reclusive behavior of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton drew the public’s attention back to Afghanistan.

And what of Afghanistan’s actual gas fields (puny in comparison to Turkmenistan’s)? They were developed by the Soviets. About a year after 9/11 that all-American [sic] company Роснефть was expressing an interest in redeveloping the modest gas fields near Shiberghan. I have no idea where that stands now.

Rosneft pic via Robert Amsterdam Polska:

How about other mineral resources? The only big deal so far has been the massive Aynak copper deposit deal. I was actually disappointed that the tender was won by the China Metallurgical Group. I was so looking forward to the chants of “No blood for copper.”

And that oil? The estimates for Afghanistan‘s oil reserves were recently boosted in 2006 to about 1,600 million barrels. Saudi Arabia? 265 billion.

And the whole UNOCAL thing? That was pretty dirty. But it died in 1998. I wrote a bit on that earlier:

After 9/11 the main conspiracy offered in the West was that US motives in Afghanistan were all about access to energy resources, a view that has mostly disappeared now that it is obvious the United States now has almost zero interest in Afghanistan as a source of, or transit route for, energy supplies. But the fact that a UNOCAL representative had applauded the Taliban takeover of Kabul and lobbied ferociously in Congress surely helped shape the conspiracy theories.

Like I said, “mostly disappeared.”

The remainders of UNOCAL:

However, conspiracy aficionados still keep digging up the pipeline theory corpse and parading it around. They should at least read Ghost Wars. They should check out the myriad of foreign concessions and prospective transit deals that Turkmenistan has signed going in non-Afghan directions. The Oil and the Glory is a good history and starting point for the Caspian.

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan are now pushing their own project. American energy security is massively focused on the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere. Afghanistan is not on the radar. But there is plenty of dirty business in the energy game. You just won’t find it in Afghanistan.


(1) Vartan Gregorian. 1969. The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan. Stanford University Press, pp 381-2.


  1. Wait. Just. A. Damned. Minute.

    You mean the placement of the PRT bases is NOT related to the route of the Turkmeni-Pakistani natural gas pipeline? Why else would the U.S. be secretly aiding the Taliban, then?

  2. I forgot about the PRT connection. It’s clear that the pipeline will be going through Fayzabad, Bamiyan, Lashkar Gah, Khost and Nuristan. I’m investing in Nuristani real estate as we speak. ;)

  3. So all comrades grudgingly eliminate Oil as pretext for exploitation of noble Taliban workers. Then capitalists must be enjoying bracing Afghan holiday to protect world Opium interests.

    Opiate of the Masses – I knew there was reason.

    (in cellar printing bloody leaflets)

  4. P. Coates: Hey, what did you expect of the Friendas of Pablo Escobar-society that gave you Iran/Contras? Seriously, though, its fascinating that the whole infrastructure of black money hasnt been seriously challenged by the last years “war on terror”. Isnt part of any war to hit your enemys logistics?

    No War for Blow!

  5. I call dibs on Bargimatal!

  6. […] American Oil Concessions in Afghanistan […]

  7. […] Bomb, bomb, bomb,…bomb bomb Iran? Keep beating that drum Kaplan (while ignoring Pakistan in this article). As for those pipelines… […]


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