Afghanistan’s proven oil reserves are estimated at 95 million barrels. Oil exploration and development ended with the Soviet invasion of 1979. In 1998 the Taliban announced plans to revive the Afghan National Oil Company, shut down 22 years ago. However, like its gas reserves, Afghan’s oil fields lie in the country’s previously contested northern provinces.
Afghanistan is also estimated to have some 73 million tons of coal reserves, most of it located between the towns of Herat and Badashkan in the northwest, an area heavily bombed by U.S. warplanes and now controlled by Northern Alliance forces.
In December 1997, UNOCAL arranged a high-level meeting in Washington, D.C., for the Taliban with Clinton’s undersecretary of state for South Asia, Karl Inderforth. The Taliban delegation included Acting Minister for Mines and Industry Ahmad Jan, Acting Minister for Culture and Information Amir Muttaqi, Acting Minister for Planning Din Muhammad and Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, their permanent U.N. delegate.
Two months later UNOCAL vice president for international relations John Maresca testified before a House Committee on International Relations about the need for multiple pipeline routes in Central Asia. Maresca briefed the members about the proposed Afghan pipeline projects, praising their economic benefits and asking for U.S. support in negotiating an Afghan settlement.
But with no progress on the diplomatic and northern war fronts, financing could not be secured, and the CentGas project stalled. In August 1998, UNOCAL began throwing in the towel. It suspended its participation in the consortium. Two months later it formally withdrew.
Covington says the company has turned its attention to other parts of the world and doesn’t plan on returning to these projects. However, backed by Pakistan and Delta, the Saudi consortium member, Turkmenistan’s Niyazov continues to pursue financing.
A representative of the Turkmenistan embassy, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the pipelines were on hold. “We understand the situation in Afghanistan needs to be stabilized and guarantees against terrorist attacks must be obtained before anything can change,” he says.
“But this is a very important project for our country, and it would profit everyone involved,” he insists. “So we are hoping that once peace is restored in Afghanistan, building these pipelines will again become a priority.”