Every pipeline has a story to tell

“You may think that if you have seen one pipeline, you have seen them all … however, each one is a geopolitical story in its own right.”

On Nov. 2, Wilfrid Laurier University’s department of sociology hosted a public lecture entitled “Afghanistan, Central Asia and Pipeline Politics.”

The event, which was co-sponsored by Laurier’s faculty of arts and the departments of economics, global studies, political science and geography and environmental studies as well as the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), featured John Foster, an energy economist and expert on the world oil scene.

While addressing the impressive turnout, Foster openly questioned the merits of the allied forces involvement in Afghanistan. Foster went so far as to suggest that petroleum was the sole reason for Western interest and subsequent intervention in the region.

Foster prefaced his talk by drawing attention to a fairly basic question: “Why has Afghanistan become the major focus of Canadian defence, aid and foreign policy?”

Canadian involvement
Canada’s NATO membership implicates the country as a player in Afghanistan. According to Foster, “Canadian forces are in Afghanistan to defend a pipeline route.” While this is debatable, one must not discount the valuable piece of geography that is Afghanistan.

Regardless of political allegiances, John Foster said that “dollars, lives, morality are a high price to pay” for petroleum. Whether or not one believes pipeline politics is the sole reason for the invasion of Afghanistan, Foster did make a reasonable case to believe it to be a contributing factor.

A peculiar fascination
Foster humourously pondered the popularized American and British motivations for involvement in the region. He sarcastically numbered off the plethora of justifications for intervention in the “troubled land.”

For instance, Canadians wrestle with whether Canada went to Afghanistan to “placate the Americans,” or the more socially acceptable reason of “sending girls to school and liberating women.” In the U.S., the “War on Terror” remains the accepted justification for warfare. However, fears surrounding “poppies” and opium production are more popular amongst those defending the military action in the U.K.

Regardless, Foster believes that the war is very straightforward. He believes that Western interest in the region is because “Afghanistan is a strategic piece of real estate.”

Potential energy bridge
Afghanistan is positioned between Central and South Asia; it borders Pakistan to the south, Iran to the west, China to the east and the three “stans” – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – to the north.

Foster explained that the goal of Western intervention in the region is stabilizing the country to enable its potential to function as an oil corridor. If this is the case, the military presence is ensuring the emergence of Afghanistan as an energy bridge between Central and South Asia.
In the contemporary world, it is an obvious equation, because “petroleum equals power.” Foster explains that allied control of Afghanistan is akin to placing an “aircraft carrier in the middle of Asia.”

Effectively, Foster argues, allied troops are on the ground in Afghanistan defending proposed pipeline territory.

The “New Great Game”
Historically, “Great Game” was a 19th century term used to denote hostilities between the British and Russian empires who were jockeying for control of Central Asia. Today, the idea is reborn to explain the drive to control energy resources. Contemporarily, the rivalry for control of export routes in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region is the newest power game.

The countries bordering the Caspian Sea need pipelines, as they are far from the ocean borders. The necessity of pipelines makes pipeline politics unavoidable in the region. As a result, each pipeline route has a story.

Foster puts the significance of pipeline politics into perspective by drawing a comparison between the modern day pipeline and the importance of “railway building” of the nineteenth century. Just like railroads before them, today’s pipelines “connect trading partners, and influence the regional balance of power.”

Today, Foster emphasizes that “the pipeline is critical.” However, militarizing these pipelines, he warns, harbours the potential for disaster.