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Trillium News

January 1, 1999

Slouching To (and From) Kabul (Archive)

Last month, Unocal Corporation, a multinational energy concern loathed in many circles for its business relationship with the Burmese military regime, dropped plans to pursue a natural gas pipeline deal with the Taliban government of Afghanistan, a regime loathed in many circles for its heinous treatment of women. The official story from Unocal is that low oil prices worldwide have forced cost-cutting measures, some of which just happen to include closing three out of four of its offices in the Caspian and Central Asian regions. The real story is that feminists and human rights advocates have made Afghanistan too hot to touch for American companies. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton recently characterized the Taliban’s abuses toward women as “perhaps the most egregious and systematic trampling of fundamental human rights” in the world today.

Somewhere near the bottom of its press release, Unocal acknowledged “legitimate concerns regarding the treatment of women in Afghanistan.” Hey, guys, what took so long? For nearly two and a half years, Afghan women have lived in a nightmarish world straight out of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — confined to the home, forbidden to work or attend school, denied access to healthcare, and forced to cover themselves completely from head to toe at the risk of being beaten by roving vice squads.

The withdrawal of Unocal translates into $50 to $100 million less in potential annual revenues in the hands of the Taliban government. Perhaps. Unocal’s Argentinian competitor for the pipeline, Bridas, has expressed its willingness to begin construction at once, regardless of continuing human rights violations and continuing warfare.

Unfortunately, additional players are also too ready to re-enter Afghanistan. Last September, the New Jersey-based Telephone Systems International (TSI) announced a $240 million contract with the Taliban to establish a network of satellite-call centers in Afghanistan’s major cities and a 30,000-line wireless phone system in Kabul. Eighty percent of profits would be retained by TSI with the rest accruing to the Taliban. The partnership will run its course for fifteen years, after which the Afghan government will take ownership. Who’s behind it? According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, TSI has identified one of its financiers as American-based Afghan ex-patriate, but alternately identifies its other investors as American, European or African. What also isn’t clear is which companies will supply equipment for the deal. Motorola and Nokia have denied TSI’s claim that their systems will be used in the project. Nokia, in fact, told Insight last month that business activity in Afghanistan would violate its core values.

The Afghan Development Company, a consortium formed last fall with access to $1 billion in financing, is making plans to develop a huge copper mine, a cement plant, a gas refinery and new gold mines. Members include concerns from the United States, South Africa, France Britain, Pakistan and Germany. Interestingly, two media sources reported that Barclays Bank (U.K.) was exploring investment possibilities, but a spokesman told Bloomberg News Service that their executive sighted in Afghanistan was only there on holiday. Is it just me, or does Afghanistan — with its landmines, random rocket attacks, and notable lack of nightlife (the Taliban forbid TV, music and radio) — seem like an unlikely tourist destination for a cosmopolitan gentleman?

The Far Eastern Economic Review has reported that a Greek engineering group, Consolidated Contractors International, is exploring for oil and gas in the western Herat region. In addition, the Taliban are actively seeking investors for 25 other resource and manufacturing projects.

The Taliban have dropped hints for months that they might be willing to reform a bit in exchange for the diplomatic recognition that would free up funds from international lending agencies. But the evidence is severely lacking. The regime’s intransigence has caused numerous relief organizations to shut up shop rather than facilitate the Taliban’s systematic disempowerment of their mothers, wives and daughters. The only one way to test the implied power of the West’s economic leverage is to insist that women’s basic rights are fully restored before any ransom passes hands.

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