New York -- NURSULTAN NAZARBAYEV has a terrible problem. He's the president and former Communist Party boss of Kazakstan, the second-largest republic of the former Soviet Union. A few years ago, the giant country struck oil in the eastern portion of the Caspian Sea. Geologists estimate that sitting beneath the wind-blown steppes of Kazakstan are 50 billion barrels of oil -- by far the biggest untapped reserves in the world. (Saudi Arabia, currently the world's largest oil producer, is believed to have about 30 billion barrels remaining.) Kazakstan's Soviet-subsidized economy collapsed immediately after independence in 1991. When I visited the then-capital, Almaty, in 1997, I was struck by the utter absence of elderly people. One after another, people confided that their parents had died of malnutrition during the brutal winters of 1993 and 1994.
Middle-class residents of a superpower had been reduced to abject poverty virtually overnight; thirtysomething women who appeared sixtysomething hocked their wedding silver in underpasses, next to reps for the Kazak state art museum trying to move enough socialist-realist paintings for a dollar each to keep the lights on. The average Kazak earned $20 a month; those unwilling or unable to steal died of gangrene while sitting on the sidewalk next to long- winded tales of woe written on cardboard.
Autocrats tend to die badly during periods of downward mobility. Nazarbayev, therefore, has spent most of the past decade trying to get his landlocked oil out to sea. Once the oil starts flowing, it won't take long before Kazakstan replaces Kuwait as the land of Mercedes-Benzs and ugly gold jewelry. But the longer the pipeline, the more expensive and vulnerable it is to sabotage. The shortest route runs through Iran, but Kazakstan is too closely aligned with the United States to offend it by cutting a deal with Tehran. Russia has helpfully offered to build a line connecting Kazak oil rigs with the Black Sea, but neighboring Turkmenistan has experienced trouble with the Russians -- they tend to divert the oil for their own use without paying for it. There's even a plan to run crude through China, but the proposed 5,300- mile-long pipeline would be far too long to prove profitable.
The logical alternative, then, is Unocal's plan, which is to extend Turkmenistan's existing system west to the Kazak field on the Caspian Sea and southeast to the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Arabian Sea. That project runs through Afghanistan.
As Central Asian expert Ahmed Rashid describes in his book "Taliban," published last year, the United States and Pakistan decided to install a stable regime in place in Afghanistan around 1994 -- a regime that would end the country's civil war and thus ensure the safety of the Unocal pipeline project. Impressed by the ruthlessness and willingness of the then-emerging Taliban to cut a pipeline deal, the State Department and Pakistan's Inter- Services Intelligence agency agreed to funnel arms and funding to the Taliban in their war against the ethnically Tajik Northern Alliance. As recently as 1999, U.S. taxpayers paid the entire annual salary of every single Taliban government official, all in the hopes of returning to the days of dollar-a- gallon gas. Pakistan, naturally, would pick up revenues from a Karachi oil port facility. Harkening back to 19th century power politics between Russia and British India, Rashid dubbed the struggle for control of post-Soviet Central Asia "the new Great Game."
Predictably, the Taliban Frankenstein got out of control. The regime's unholy alliance with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, their penchant for invading their neighbors and their production of 50 percent of the world's opium made them unlikely partners for the desired oil deal.
Then-President Bill Clinton's August 1998 cruise missile attack on Afghanistan briefly brought the Taliban back into line -- they even eradicated opium poppy cultivation in less than a year -- but they nonetheless continued supporting countless militant Islamic groups. When an Egyptian group whose members had trained in Afghanistan hijacked four airplanes and used them to kill thousands of Americans on September 11, Washington's patience with its former client finally expired.
Finally the Bushies have the perfect excuse to do what the United States has wanted to do all along -- invade and/or install an old-school puppet regime in Kabul.
Realpolitik no more cares about the thousands of dead than it concerns itself with oppressed women in Afghanistan; this ersatz war by a phony president is solely about getting the Unocal deal done without interference from annoying local middlemen.
Central Asian politics, however, is a house of cards: every time you remove one element, the whole thing comes crashing down. Muslim extremists in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, for instance, will support additional terrorist attacks on the United States to avenge the elimination of the Taliban. A U.S.- installed Northern Alliance can't hold Kabul without an army of occupation because Afghan legitimacy hinges on capturing the capital on your own. Even if we do this the right way by funding and training the Northern Alliance so that they can seize power themselves, Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun government will never stand the replacement of their Pashtun brothers in the Taliban by Northern Alliance Tajiks. Without Pakistani cooperation, there's no getting the oil out and there's no chance for stability in Afghanistan.
As Bush would say, "make no mistake": this is about oil. It's always about oil. And to twist a late '90s cliche, it's only boring because it's true.