Another Burma? (Archive)
It should have been deja vu all over again for Unocal Corporation, the $6.1 billion global energy company, as it faced down angry shareholders and protestors at its annual stockholders meeting in Brea, California last month. This time, however, the causes for outrage included not only the company’s continuing business relationship with the Burmese military dictatorship, but its potential business dealings with the brutal Taliban government of Afghanistan. According to a recent report from the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Unocal is finalizing protocols that will allow the company to lay a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan. The route will connect huge reserves in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the northwest, to Pakistan in the southeast. The nearly 800-mile, $1.9 billion pipeline project will transport 20 billion cubic meters of gas per year from a field that is estimated to be one of the world’s largest, containing somewhere between 100 and 200 billion each of oil and natural gas.
Unocal organized the Centgas consortium to share the risks and rewards. Unocal has the largest share of the consortium members (46.5%). The others are Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia (15%), the government of Turkmenistan (7%), Indonesia Petroleum Ltd. of Japan (6.5%), ITOCHU Oil Exploration Co., Ltd. of Japan, Hyundai Engineering & Construction of Korea (5%), and the Crescent Group of Pakistan (3.5%). Russia’s RAO Gazprom has indicated an interested in formalizing a 10% share. The consortium had also planned a potential 400-mile extension to India, but Indian-Pakistani tensions throw those plans into question. Unocal is also developing a parallel oil pipeline project to serve Asia-Pacific markets.
According to Washington Post, Unocal has acknowledged that the pipeline could put as much as $50 to $100 million in yearly revenue into the hands of the Taliban, the extremist faction that took control over Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, in September 1996. Since taking power, the Taliban have imposed what feminist leader Eleanor Smeal calls “gender apartheid” over Afghan women.
When the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime was ousted in 1992 by the opposition mujahadeen factions, Afghanistan experienced an era of lawlessness in which rape, armed robbery and gunfire in the streets were common occurences. The Taliban movement originated in the early 1990s within all-male religious schools on the Pakistan border (the name means “religious students”). Emerging as a military force in 1994, the Taliban promised unity and the restoration of law and order to a population exhausted by 20 years of civil war. Financed and cultivated by Pakistan, which seeks to install a force strong enough to unblock Afghanistan’s trade routes, the Taliban burst into the scene with four-wheel drive Toyotas and cell phones. Today the Taliban control two-thirds of the country’s provinces and are fighting the northern-based opposition alliance for the remaining territory. Pakistan is the only foreign country which recognizes the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.
The Taliban lost no time in stripping Afghan women and girls of their most essential human rights. Afghan women are forbidden to attend school or work, and are denied adequate healthcare. They cannot leave their homes without a male relative, and households with women must paint their windows opaque so that women cannot be seen. Women must wear the head-to-toe burqa body covering must be worn by women whenever they are in public; even their footwear is regulated by way of a decree banning noisy shoes for women. Enforcement squads patrol city streets, harassing and beating violators of the law. Hundreds of women have been been beaten, shot at, publicly flogged, stoned and even killed for infractions. The U.S. State Department’s most recent annual human rights report found conditions for Afghan women to be among the harshest in the world.
The ban on work has thrown thousands of female-headed families into destitution. Kabul alone is home to fifty thousand war widows.
Women cannot receive medical care from male physicians or technicians. Last September, the Taliban tried to bar women from receiving medical care in hospitals, dumping sick women into a hospital without running water. In one case, a woman suffering burns on 80% of her body was denied treatment because male doctors were not allowed to remove clothing from her body; the Taliban responded, “Many Taliban die on the battlefield.” Following this incident, international protest caused the Taliban to retreat for the first time. But by allowing only a few female doctors to treat women, the Taliban have rationed women’s healthcare with devastating effects. Male technicians cannot X-ray women, and the female technicians have fled the country. Health centers are starved for supplies and frequently do not have any running water, and the few women doctors who are allowed to practice are harassed.
Men, too, are subject to restrictions – they must wear long beards and are forced to shave their pubic hair — and have been beaten and publicly flogged for violating them. Amputation of a hand, and sometimes a foot as well, is a punishment for theft. Amputations and floggings are increasingly carried out in public forums to which thousands are conscripted to attend. In at least five known cases, men convicted of homosexual acts have had stone walls collapsed upon them.
The Taliban claim to be follow Islamic law, but their dictates fly in the face of Afghan culture and tradition and have outraged many Muslims worldwide. Prior to the their takeover, women comprised 50% of the students at Kabul Univeristy and 60% of its professors. The majority of schoolteachers were women, as were half of the government workers and 40% of Kabul’s doctors. While pre-Taliban Kabul’s rate of women in the professions greatly outstripped Afghanistan’s overall female literacy rate for women and girls (about 10%), the latter was the consequence of poverty and war. Official disenfranchisement is what is new. Muslim women in many cultures work, controll their own money and participate in public life. Urban Afghans, whose 1963 constitution protected the rights of women, regard the Taliban disdainfully as illiterate and backward stooges for Pakistani interests.
In a 1997 interview in Ms., Afghan refugee and human rights activist Sima Wali explained the origins of the Taliban’s rigidity: “Many of these young men were never acculturated in Afghan traditional and tribalistic ways, they have not lived in communities, they have not been exposed to women. Women are seen as veil with powers that have to be curbed.” Ironically, the Taliban rose to power supported by Afghans outraged at the random violence against women perpetrated by uncontrolled gangs. “The Taliban wanted to avenge the women,” said Wali, “but they revictimized them.”
Ethnic Hazara women have even taken up arms in the northern territories to fight the Taliban, forming an all-female battalion. Humera Rahi, who is considered the national poet of the Hazaras, told the Far Eastern Economic Review last fall, “We detest the Taliban; they are against all civilization, Afghan culture, education and women in particular. They have given Islam and the Afghan people a bad name.”
International Frustration With Taliban Intransigence
The Taliban’s actions have been condemned by the U.S. State Department, the European Parliament, and hundreds of human rights, women’s and Islamic organizations.
International relief agencies have been frustrated by the Taliban’s attempts to restrict aid to women and girls and their interference in other operational matters. Two-thirds of Afghanistan’s 20 million people are dependent on international food aid and other forms of outside assistance. The Grameen Bank, an international pioneer in microlending, was forced out of Afghanistan last fall. The Taliban accused it of “promoting shamelessness among Afghan women,” and believes it is an agent of Christian missionaries. UNICEF has suspended its Afghan programs pending the improved treatment of women and girls.
In March, UN relief agencies pulled out of southwest Afghanistan to protest intereference by the army and an assault on one of its workers. The pullout halted programs to remove land mines, repair irrigation systems and build houses. Activities resumed in late May when an agreement was reached delineating standards of conduct, including a commitment to enhance female access to health and education. But only weeks later, the Taliban closed more than 100 privately operating schools for girls, completing the ban on female education.
Tops in the Opium Trade
Its traditional agricultural and industrial base devasted by two decades of civil war, Afghanistan has recently surpassed Burma to become the world’s leading producer of opium. The opium trade finances the war between the Taliban and the northern-based opposition forces. Western diplomats regard the region’s drug trade as a destabilizing force on par with fundamentalism, terrorism and economic instability. In dire need of cash to pay the mercenaries that fill out the army’s ranks, the “pious” Taliban not only tolerate, but actively participate in cultivating and taxing poppy production. The UN estimates that a national development program to provide alternative, revenue-generating industries to the drug trade would cost an estimated $25 million a year.
Unocal and the Pipeline
In the spring of 1995, Unocal began to woo the governments of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan for the rights to lay a natural gas pipeline connecting Daultabad natural gas field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. Unocal anticipates that Pakistan’s electric power industry will be the main consumer of the imported gas. The Daultabad field is estimated to hold over 20 trillion cubic feet of gas, the third largest reserve in the world. From the beginning, Unocal has competed for the pipeline deal with the Argentinian firm Bridas. In October 1995, Unocal edged out Bridas, signing a deal with Turkmenistan for the rights to purchase and transport the gas. Bridas is now suing Unocal and Delta, charging illegal interference in its talks with Turkmenistan. (Unocal claims that a pre-existing contract between Bridas and the Turkment government that was obtained illegally.) In spite of the agreements with Turkmenistan, however, international media outlets continue to report that Bridas is still in the running for the contract as far as the Taliban are concerned.
In a race to the ethical bottom, Unocal and Bridas have eagerly courted the Taliban (and in at least Unocal’s case, northern opposition forces as well). In a revealing gaffe shortly after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, a Unocal senior executive in remarked, “We regard it as very positive,” and urged the U.S. to extend recognition to the Taliban. Unocal has acknowledged providing the Taliban with a fax machine and a generator (not to mention frisbees, hats and T-shirts with the Unocal logo), which it has justified as necessary to keep open lines of communication. Unocal spokeswoman Terry Covington told a reporter, “That’s the way we do business.” Unocal executives have been reported to don flowing robes and sport long beards for their meetings with the Taliban. Both the New York Times and the London Sunday Telegraph have reported that Unocal has sponsored trips to the U.S. by Taliban representatives, and Unocal vice president Marty Miller hosted members of the Taliban in his home. Unocal denies a Telegraph report that it paid for the Taliban to stay in a five-star hotel and underwrote optical care for one of its Talib guests. Unocal takes care to emphasize in its public communications that discussions are taking place with all of the factions, telling FRDC that “as in every other foreign country in which we operate or have an interest, we will not take sides in its political situation nor will we speculate on who will form the representative government.” It has characterized its discussions with the Taliban as “project updates which include a discussion of the benefits such projects could bring to the country and its people as they set about their country’s reconstruction.” According to activist Wali, numerous sources have said that the Taliban itself have expressed surprise that Unocal has never brought up the subject of women’s rights in discussions.
Bridas, for its part, has attached no conditions at all its willingness to build the pipeline, declaring that human rights are of no concern to the company and that it is willing to commence construction before the fighting in the North ends.
The Taliban have expertly played off the rivalry between the competitors. A Taliban official told reporters in May, “Whoever starts the project first and gives the most benefits to Afghanistan will be given the contract.” Investors are expected to provide infrastructure like roads, electricity grids, telephone networks, and gas as the price of entry.
Unocal maintains that pipeline construction will not and cannot begin until an internationally recognized government is formed that enjoys the support of international lending institutions. Yet Unocal is fast laying the groundwork for the pipeline. Unocal and the University of Nebraska’s Center for Afghan Studies are training (male) Afghan nationals to work on the pipeline, in a program intended to eventually train up to 20,000 workers. In May, Reuters reported that the Centgas consortium surveyed the 458-mile Afghan leg of the pipeline for the first time, and that the warring factions had approved their plans. In June, Tass reported that the Taliban had struck a deal with the opposition forces to form a joint economic group to allow the pipeline to go through, and had finalized two protocols with the consortium and was working out security and revenue-splitting arrangements with the factions. (At this writing, FRDC is trying to verify the accuracy of this report.)
Given the determination of the interested parties and the region’s geopolitics, it is virtually inevitable that a pipeline will be built via the Afghan route. The critical — and still open — questions, however are when and with whom. The international outcry against the Taliban has managed to forestall the pipeline by preventing governments and international lending agencies from recognizing the Taliban. But the danger is that the broad array of actors with financial interests in the pipeline will lose patience and declare that a brokered power-sharing agreement among Afghan’s warring parties constitutes “peace” — a peace that falls short of fully restoring women’s rights and religious freedom for all Afghans.