MARTY MILLER'S LONG, strange journey into Afghanistan began during the summer of 1995. He was edging toward the end of his career, and he itched for a grand achievement. He had recently read The Prize, Daniel Yergin’s epic history of global oil conquest and politics, and the book fired Miller’s imagination. He had spent three decades in the oil business, all with one company, Unocal, America’s twelfth largest energy corporation. He owned a comfortable house beside a golf course outside of Houston, Texas. His daughters had grown up and gone to college. He had worked over the years in faraway places—Indonesia, the North Sea, Thailand—and had risen to vice president in Unocal’s Exploration and Production Division. Now he sought adventure. He could afford to take some risks.1
Unocal needed a gusher. After more than a century in the oil business, the company faced an identity crisis. It had lost $153 million during 1994, the result of sinking profits in its normally reliable refining and marketing division, and it continued to lag well behind the largest American oil firms.2
Miller’s superiors thought they saw an opportunity to leapfrog ahead. Vast tracts of land and sea in former communist countries, previously closed to American oil companies, had suddenly been thrown open for exploration. Instead of settling for life as “a midsized, integrated oil company,” chief executive Roger C. Beach proclaimed that Unocal would bid to become “the world’s largest energy resource company.” The key was to go places where no one else dared. Afghanistan was such a place.3
Beach charged his deputy and designated successor, a charismatic yachtsman named John F. Imle Jr., to lead Unocal’s gambit. Imle needed project managers who shared the company’s budding appetite for risk. In Marty Miller, an avuncular, round man with combed-back white hair and a rosy face, Imle found a willing partner. As a boy Miller had worked in his grandfather’s Colorado coal mine. He had barely been able to pay his way through college. When Unocal offered him a summer job on an oil rig, he switched his studies to petroleum engineering. After decades of international travel as an oil and gas executive, he remained a slangy, direct, casual, profane American businessman who called it as he saw it and who believed in capitalism, charity, and golf. He was a transparent Texan. He had sympathy for people everywhere but did not pretend to be a scholar about their cultures. Afghanistan, as Miller understood it, was “a friggin’ mess.” He had not really heard about the Taliban. He asked questions and learned that they did not like to have their pictures taken and that “they were very oppressive toward women and that kids couldn’t fly kites and all this kind of stuff.”
Unocal’s Afghan strategy began in Turkmenistan, a newly independent republic carved from the corpse of the Soviet Union. The problem—and the opportunity—was referred to by oil men as “stranded gas.” Turkmenistan’s gas reserves ranked in the top dozen in the world, yet nobody bought them. The country had been independent for four years, but Russia still owned all the pipelines leading away from its gas fields. Russia and Turkmenistan fought bitterly over how the pipelines should be used. Their battles finally shut the fields down altogether. Until new pipelines were built, or the conflicts with Russia were resolved, Turkmenistan was stuck with 159 trillion cubic feet of gas, 32 billion barrels of oil, and no place to sell any of it.4
Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan faced an energy crisis. By 2010 the country would need nearly a trillion cubic feet of gas more than it could produce on its own.5 Unocal saw a solution in the Central Asian trading routes that had captured Bhutto’s imagination. John Imle authorized a development project in which Unocal would seek to build pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, across war-ravaged Afghanistan. The easiest way would be to pass through Kandahar along the same southern route favored by Bhutto for her trucking and transport schemes. This was now Taliban country.
Imle assigned the Afghan pipeline project to Marty Miller. It was “a moon-shot,” Miller thought, but there was a romantic, grandiose scale to the plan. Miller’s pipelines would cross ancient steppes traversed by Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, and Genghis Khan. He asked Daniel Yergin over dinner one night whether, if he pulled the project off for Unocal, he might even get a mention in The Prize’s next edition. “It would probably get a chapter,” Yergin told him.6
MARTY MILLER stepped out of the climate-controlled interior of Unocal’s Gulfstream jet and into a blistering Turkmenistan summer. It was August 1995, and the new $89 million airport in Ashkhabad, the country’s capital, was still under construction. It would soon allow up to 4.5 million people to enter each year. The dreary city had never seen a tenth that many visitors, but Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s autocratic leader, expected that with guests like Miller, the country’s fortunes were about to change. Soon Turkmenistan would teem with European venture capitalists, Arab sheikhs, and American petroleum company executives. They would come to get rich on his oil and gas, or to entertain themselves at his planned Disneyland-style resort. Turkmenistan would become “the new Kuwait,” Niyazov boasted. There had been a few glitches, however. In his zeal to construct a truly distinctive airport, Niyazov had built the control tower on the wrong side of the runway. Air traffic controllers looking to guide pilots into Ashkhabad had their views blocked by the gaudy new terminal.7
Miller’s mission was to persuade Niyazov that Unocal was the right company to pipe his gas through neighboring Afghanistan. It was difficult to know how to construct a sales pitch for a president like Niyazov. He was a creature of the Soviet system, a Communist Party apparatchik trying to remake himself as a nationalist leader. Everywhere Miller looked in Ashkhabad, the plump, silver-haired face of Niyazov was there smiling back at him—from billboards, parade floats, and vodka bottle labels.Turkmenbashi(Father of All Turkmen), as he preferred to be called, had built a personality cult on Stalin’s model. In the country of 4.5 million he brooked no opposition. Many trappings of the old Soviet system remained: a state-run press that spewed fawning doublespeak about their great leader, a rubber-stamp parliament that periodically extended the president’s term, and an intelligence service that listened in on just about anything Niyazov wanted to hear. Yet he had been slow to introduce free market reforms, and the idea of negotiating multibillion-dollar international oil and gas deals with Western companies was new to him.
Niyazov had erected twenty-four brand-new, white marble, wedding cake–style hotels on the south side of Ashkhabad. Each hotel belonged to a government ministry, and Miller checked into the oil and gas ministry’s favorite. The rooms had panoramic views of the Iranian mountains. They were as outsized as the airport and just as dysfunctional. Each day that summer Miller turned his little window air-conditioning unit on full blast, but to no avail. He roasted. Daily negotiations with his Turkmen counterparts did little to cool him down. Across the table there “was a lot of shouting, threats, intimidation, a very different approach to what we were used to,” Miller recalled. “But at the end of the day you go and you drink some vodka and have some toasts—all this stuff, you know—and all’s forgiven. Then the next day you put on the pads and away you go again.”
To break out of this situation Miller called in John Imle. Niyazov invited Unocal’s senior executives to his pink Italian-built summer mansion on the outskirts of Ashkhabad. They raised more vodka toasts. Imle and the Father of All Turkmen grew to be “real, real cozy,” as Miller recalled it.
Miller turned to the U.S. embassy in Ashkhabad for more help. Tying a pipeline deal into the broader agenda of American foreign policy could provide Unocal with a competitive advantage. Some European or Middle Eastern companies seeking oil and gas deals in Central Asia arranged payoffs to local officials. Apart from Unocal, Niyazov dealt with an array of American consultants and middlemen, some of them thick with mysterious connections in Turkey and the Middle East. Unocal itself had a mysterious Saudi partner called Delta with little experience in the oil and gas field. If it was not on board to facilitate commissions to middlemen, its role was otherwise difficult to explain. But the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States made it very costly and risky for a large American company like Unocal to become directly involved with payoffs. What Unocal executives could offer instead was the credibility of a security alliance with the United States, grounded in big energy deals. As a salve for Russian pressure, Niyazov had long sought the attention of the U.S. government. By striking a major deal with Unocal he could insure himself against Russian intimidation. For its part the Clinton administration saw the promotion of American oil interests in the newly independent countries of Central Asia as sound foreign and economic policy. Trade between the United States and the newly independent states was soaring—up to $4.6 billion in the first half of 1995, a 35 percent increase over the previous year. Oil and gas interests led the way. In Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan lay between 50 billion and 100 billion barrels of oil, plus nearly 250 trillion cubic feet of gas. The ex-Soviet governments in charge needed foreign companies to lift and export this energy.8
The Clinton administration’s policy, said its leading National Security Council expert, was to “promote the independence of these oil-rich countries, to in essence break Russia’s monopoly control over the transportation of oil in that region, and, frankly, to promote Western energy security through diversification of supply.” The Clinton White House supported “multiple pipelines” from Central Asia along routes that did not benefit Russia or Iran. Clinton believed that these pipelines were crucial to an evolving American energy policy aimed at reducing dependence on Middle Eastern supplies. Blocking Iran from Central Asia’s new oil riches was also a key goal of American policy, but there were only a few pipeline routes that could bypass Iran. Unocal’s Afghan plan was a rare one that conformed exactly to Clinton’s policy. Unocal proposed two pipelines, one for oil and one for gas; they would descend from the fields in southeastern Turkmenistan, snake through western and southern Afghanistan, and terminate in Pakistan. The U.S. ambassador in Ashkhabad and other American officials agreed to actively promote Unocal’s cause with Niyazov.9
The Afghanistan pipeline project, Marty Miller believed, was “a no-brainer” if only “you set politics aside.” As the weeks passed, however, the politics only thickened.
PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL had long seen Afghanistan as a kind of Central Asian fulcrum, a transit hub. It had been a wheelhouse for the Soviet Union’s drive toward Middle Eastern oil, the Saudi intelligence chief believed. Now the country was emerging as a pivot point for trade and energy supplies in the post-Soviet era. Turki endorsed Benazir Bhutto’s plans to enrich Pakistan by reviving the old Silk Road trading routes through Afghanistan. The Saudi prince admired anyone willing to take the leap of imagination necessary to pursue progress in Afghanistan and Muslim Central Asia. Lately Turki had met such a person: Carlos Bulgheroni, an elegant Argentinian oil man of Italian descent.
Bulgheroni, who spoke in a rich multinational accent, ran a family oil company, Bridas, based in Buenos Aires, that had embarked on quixotic efforts to strike a fortune in the new Central Asian republics. Seeking a partner, Bulgheroni contacted Prince Turki at the headquarters of Saudi intelligence in Riyadh. They met, and Turki was charmed by Bulgheroni’s amazing ideas about doing business in difficult places. Bulgheroni had developed his own plans to rescue Turkmenistan’s “stranded gas” and pipe it across Afghanistan to Pakistan—months before Unocal surfaced with a similar idea. Bulgheroni wanted Prince Turki to be his business partner; Saudi intelligence, after all, had great clout in all the countries where Bulgheroni hoped to develop his pipeline deal. Turki declined to become a direct partner, but he referred the Argentine to Saudi businessmen Turki knew.10
The Saudi intelligence chief also introduced Bulgheroni to his contacts in Pakistan. Javed Qazi, the general in charge of ISI, saw the pipeline as a terrific idea. Benazir Bhutto, impressed that such an important patron of Pakistan as Prince Turki had made the introduction, asked her petroleum and economics advisers to evaluate Bulgheroni’s plan. They doubted it would work, but Bhutto told her colleagues there was no harm in signing a memorandum of understanding pledging Pakistan to buy Bulgheroni’s gas if he ever managed to pipe it across Afghanistan.11
Miller met with Carlos Bulgheroni that summer in Turkmenistan. They talked about whether there was some way Unocal and Bridas could join forces, but they could not find common ground. Miller found Prince Turki’s friend “a confusing guy” who talked “in riddles.” As for the competitive tension, in Miller’s experience there was nothing especially unusual about two multinational oil companies fighting over the same deal with similar plans. Unocal’s pipeline would draw from different gas fields than Bridas. In any event, Miller found Niyazov willing to deal with Unocal. If Bulgheroni and Prince Turki were cut out, so be it. That was how the oil game was played.
After a few more shouting matches, Miller’s breakthrough in Ashkhabad came in late September 1995. His Turkmen negotiators told him that Niyazov had decided once and for all to abandon Bulgheroni and go with Unocal. In its final form the Unocal contract spelled out an $8 billion project involving two pipelines that would each travel more than eight hundred miles across southern Afghanistan.
Niyazov insisted that Unocal stir up some publicity for their agreement. The Father of All Turkmen was traveling to New York for the fiftieth birthday celebration of the United Nations, and he wanted to throw a party to announce his new pipelines that would free him once and for all from Russia’s grip. Unocal hired a venue planner, dressed an elegant Manhattan building in celebratory bunting, and hired Henry Kissinger to make a speech.
There were no Afghans invited to the Manhattan affair. John Imle promised that Unocal would open negotiations soon with “the appropriate parties.”12
Kissinger noted the number of Afghan factions battling over the land where the Unocal pipeline might one day run and could not help but feel skeptical. Unocal’s plan, Kissinger quipped, quoting Dr. Samuel Johnson, appeared to represent “the triumph of hope over experience.”13
WITH TURKMENISTAN SEWED UP, Marty Miller now opened a Unocal lobbying campaign in two cities: Washington and Islamabad.
It was an easy time for an American oil executive to find an audience in the Clinton White House. Clinton had lost control of Congress to the Republican Party during the 1994 election, and his political team sought to raise massive campaign funds for a comeback attempt, plus Clinton’s own reelection bid in 1996. Campaign finance rules had been greatly loosened. The White House wanted to assure corporate donors that the administration would listen to their concerns. Clinton’s America-first policies emphasized the promotion of corporate interests abroad. American oil companies doing business in Central Asia also advanced the administration’s efforts to contain Iran. For all these reasons, when Miller came knocking on doors in Washington, he found they opened quickly.
Miller flew to Washington from Houston every month or two. At the White House he met regularly with Sheila Heslin, the director of energy issues at the National Security Council, whose suite next to the West Wing coursed with visitors from American oil firms. Miller found Heslin responsive, full of information and ideas, and very supportive of Unocal’s agenda in Afghanistan.
Across the river in Langley, some dissidents at the CIA saw Heslin’s office that year as afloat on a “sea of self-absorption,” as the Near East Division’s Robert Baer put it. To him “the White House and the National Security Council became cathedrals of commerce where the interests of big business outweighed the interest of protecting American citizens at home and abroad.” Because of what he described as sloppy oversight of his portfolio, Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger held $90,000 worth of stock in Amoco at a time when he oversaw an interagency committee that worked with Heslin to devise U.S. policy toward the Caspian Sea, where Amoco had large contracts. Even Berger’s political opponents did not argue that he had acted corruptly, but there was so much money in the air, so much talk of billion-dollar contracts and politically sensitive Central Asian negotiations, that it seemed to dictate American priorities.14 An advocacy center at Clinton’s Department of Commerce lobbied for American corporations in overseas contract competitions where there was only one U.S. company fighting against a foreign firm, as in Unocal’s case.
For their part, Berger, Heslin, and their White House colleagues saw themselves engaged in a hardheaded synthesis of American commercial interests and national security goals. They wanted to use the profit-making motives of American oil companies to thwart one of the country’s most determined enemies, Iran, and to contain the longer-term ambitions of a restless Russia. This was a traditional and creative form of American statecraft, they believed. The previous generation had produced America’s crucial security and oil alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf emirates. Now big oil and gas deals could secure a new belt of American allies from Turkey to China.
Marty Miller found Robin Raphel, the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, who oversaw policy toward Afghanistan, “very helpful.” He met with her whenever they were both in Washington. They compared notes about trips they each took to the region, the conversations they had, and the impressions they formed about Afghan and Pakistani politics.
Raphel believed the Unocal pipeline could help bring peace and jobs to Afghanistan. Pakistan and India needed the gas. The Afghans needed the revenue they would receive from transit fees if the pipeline were built. Here was a business deal that might literally tie Afghanistan together, she believed, creating new incentives for regional cooperation. In an administration where Raphel struggled to find any cause that would draw attention and resources toward Afghanistan, the Unocal pipeline offered a new and salable rationale for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which Raphel favored for many reasons, not only because of the pipeline.15
Moreover, the pipeline’s economics seemed to promote the kind of all-party peace negotiations, including the Taliban, favored by Raphel and her State Department colleagues. Commercial banks were not likely to lend money to finance a project as risky as this one. If they did, their high interest rates would probably bust the deal. The most realistic way for Unocal to find the sums it needed, Miller said, would be to borrow from multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. These development banks were funded by rich governments to promote economic growth in poor countries. They would lend money only if Unocal’s pipeline linked countries with recognized, stable governments. With the Taliban militia on the march from Kandahar and with the Kabul government’s prime minister at war with its president, Afghanistan obviously was not such a place. Unocal could only achieve its goals, then, if it used the lure of its pipeline revenues to persuade Afghanistan’s factions to unite around a single government blessed by the United Nations. This was also the stated goal of American policy toward Afghanistan, albeit a policy that was lightly examined, adrift, and poorly funded. As they examined the details of the pipeline project, Raphel and the Clinton White House persuaded themselves that what was good for Unocal might also be good for Afghanistan.
Marty Miller’s second mission was to persuade Benazir Bhutto that what was good for Unocal might also be good for Pakistan. This was a more difficult sell. Prince Turki’s friend Carlos Bulgheroni continued to fight for his own rival pipeline project. With the aid of Prince Turki’s introduction, Bulgheroni had established close ties with officials in Bhutto’s government.
Miller knew that until Pakistan agreed to buy the gas piped by Unocal across Afghanistan, there was no way he could finance the project. It was essential that Bhutto be convinced to drop Bulgheroni’s pipeline and embrace Unocal’s. Miller asked Robin Raphel, Sheila Heslin, and other Clinton administration officials for help in Islamabad. They agreed to pitch in.
THE AMERICAN AMBASSADOR to Pakistan early in 1996 was Tom Simons. He was a career foreign service officer and a specialist in East European and Soviet affairs. Like Miller, he was at the end of a long career. As a young boy he had spent a year in Karachi, from 1948 to 1949. Pakistan had just been born and was struggling to find its footing. Simons thought of himself as an honorary Pakistani and arrived at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad with few preconceptions. He had not followed South Asian affairs closely in decades. His last ambassadorial post had been in Poland, and he had seen the vast transformations in that country after it embraced capitalism. Surely Pakistan, with its established commercial classes, could find a way to break out of its old thinking and seize the opportunities of a post-Soviet world, Simons believed.16
As for neighboring Afghanistan, “There basically was no policy,” he recalled.
When Simons settled in Islamabad, he quickly heard from Marty Miller and John Imle. Simons met with them or other Unocal executives at the embassy compound about every two to four weeks. They showed him computer-generated slides with “these wonderful graphics that, for a person of my age, it kind of wows you.”
Persuading Bhutto’s government to drop the Argentine pipeline and embrace Unocal was a policy to which nobody in Washington “ever objected,” Simons recalled. “You did it in as quiet a way as possible. You didn’t go beat the drums for it, and you tried to find practical ways.” Simons educated himself about the deal and met with officials at Pakistan’s petroleum ministry every few months to lobby on Unocal’s behalf. Simons came to believe that construction of the pipelines could go a long way toward stabilizing Afghanistan. He even tried to persuade Unocal to incorporate small power stations along the route to allow Afghan regions more autonomy from Kabul.
But it wasn’t clear how Unocal was going to persuade Bhutto to change her mind. At issue was not whether the pipeline was a good thing—Bhutto had already endorsed it in principle—but which oil company should benefit. Bhutto’s government had a partner already.
Bhutto had entered into what many of her Westernized friends regarded as an unfortunate marriage. Her husband, Asif Zardari, was a Karachi businessman who seemed to style his ambitions on the godfather characters in Bollywood movies. Allegations about his corrupt business dealings had contributed to Bhutto’s first sacking as prime minister in 1990. During Bhutto’s second term Robin Raphel and other American officials gave her the benefit of the doubt. They assumed Zardari engaged in some corrupt dealings, but they had no firm evidence that he was stealing on a massive scale. For her part, Bhutto denounced the rumors about her husband as political trickery concocted by her sexist opponents to discredit her. She was emotional and unyielding in defense of her husband. She said her opponents were exploiting her unconventional marriage for political gain—a claim the Clintons, for two, could understand.17
Unocal’s executives picked up rumors that Bhutto had decided to stick with her Argentinian pipeline deal because payoffs had been made to her husband. Unocal lobbyists began to drop hints to the Pakistani embassy in Washington that the company knew about the supposed payoffs. The message, as Bhutto and her allies understood it, seemed unmistakable: If Benazir Bhutto wanted to avoid trouble over the corruption issue, she should come clean and do business with Unocal.18
In Islamabad, Tom Simons also received indications that someone in Bhutto’s government had been paid off on the Argentinian pipeline contract. Near the end of a spring day in 1996 he visited the prime minister in her office with an agenda three items long, each one having to do with an American corporation that wanted to do business in Pakistan. Bhutto arrived after long hours of boisterous political meetings. Her eyes were red, and she looked exhausted.
Simons said directly that Bhutto should cancel her memo of understanding with Bridas and sign with Unocal instead. Bhutto didn’t like his tone. Members of her government had been under U.S. pressure over the Unocal pipeline for months. Simons seemed to be issuing a demand, not a request. “We could never do that because that’s breaking the contract,” she told him.
“But that’s extortion!” Simons shot back forcefully. He did not elaborate, but it was clear that he was referring to Zardari, suggesting that her husband would only permit a Unocal deal if he was paid.
The word extortion sent Bhutto into a fury. “You cannot say that!” she exclaimed. “You cannot be speaking for your president!”
“Well, maybe it’s not the right word, but . . .”
It was too late. Bhutto told Simons to leave. She ordered one of her advisers to draft a letter to the Clinton administration that night, complaining that the American ambassador had no right to treat Pakistan’s prime minister this way. When Simons got back to the embassy, his phone began to ring from Washington. He drafted his own letter of apology.19
Simons explained sheepishly to Unocal’s executives that he had not been a great help with Bhutto. Pakistan was not going to endorse Unocal’s deal anytime soon. If Marty Miller was to secure the political agreements he needed, he would have to start finding friends elsewhere—inside Afghanistan.
MILLER FLEW THE UNOCAL JET into Quetta in the late spring of 1996. He and his colleagues checked into a comfortable hotel and began to organize a convoy to Kandahar. They hired a small caravan of Toyota double-cab pickup trucks, the Japanese sport utility vehicle favored by the CIA and its Afghan clients during the anti-Soviet jihad. To accompany himself and several other Unocal executives, Miller hired four drivers and about a dozen Afghan interpreters and guides. They called the Taliban to say they were coming.20
Miller did not mind admitting that he was scared. He did not know what to expect. The Taliban seemed to follow a lot of bizarre rules, and he had never been to a place like Kandahar. He had worked up a colorful slide show with maps and numbers that showed the benefits of Unocal’s pipeline plans. He had paid to have the slides translated into Pashto and printed up as handouts for the Taliban. He threw the printouts and a few gifts into his truck and embarked on his way across the desert hills from Quetta.
They crossed at Spin Boldak, where the Taliban uprising had begun about eighteen months before. They rolled through the treeless mud-rock hills toward the vineyards east of Kandahar. Miller was shocked by what he saw. After all these years there was still rubble everywhere, the residue of the anti-Soviet war. There was no wire between the telephone poles. In Kandahar there was no running water. Everywhere he looked, it seemed, there was a sign saying STAY AWAY—LANDMINES.
They were directed to a Taliban guest house with no furniture inside. There were some rugs on the floor, and that was it, so Miller and his team rolled out their sleeping bags.
As non-Muslims, they could not meet Mullah Omar, they were told. Other Taliban officials tried to absorb the slide show printouts. Miller talked about the millions of dollars that would flow into Afghanistan. “These are the good things that can come,” he told the Taliban, carefully listing the benefits. He felt that selling these people was like “dangling the carrot in front of the donkey.”
Miller went to a public park in Kandahar one afternoon and saw some Afghan boys playing. He had thought the Taliban had banned ball games, but now it looked as if maybe some games were okay. As possible gifts Miller had stashed in his truck dozens of neon orange soccer balls and Frisbees. They were leftovers from a Unocal marketing campaign in the United States. All the balls and Frisbees were emblazoned with the Unocal logo. He went back to ask his Taliban hosts if it would be okay to hand out his gifts. They said it would be fine, so he returned to the park and distributed them. Soon the dirt park looked like a neon orange pinball machine with dozens of balls in play and Frisbees sailing through the air.
A little later, as he tried to schedule a meeting with the Taliban’s assistant foreign minister, Miller shrugged when the minister wondered aloud about when afternoon prayers would be held. A Taliban member at the back of the room, a Caucasian with a long beard and turban, called out in a pungent New York accent: “I think prayer time is at five o’clock.” Miller looked up, startled.
“Are you an American?”
He was. His adopted Muslim name was Salman. He had grown up in New Jersey with his mother and sister. As a teenager he had struck out for Pakistan to fight with Kashmiri separatists. He ended up in a training camp in Afghanistan, he said, run by a colonel from Pakistani intelligence.
“They found out I was an American, and the ISI colonel flipped out!” Salman later told Charlie Santos, Miller’s business partner on the pipeline deal. Salman said he had been ordered to leave the training camp. He enlisted with the Taliban, who did not seem to mind having an American in their midst. “These guys are so pure, and they’re such good guys,” Salman said.
He asked how the Knicks were doing. Santos felt sorry that he did not have much of a standings update.
Miller had brought along a three-page, nonbinding agreement letter that he wanted the Taliban to sign. It would confirm the Taliban’s willingness to work with Unocal on the pipeline project. The leter outlined only a “preliminary basis for further discussions,” and it said that the pipelines could only go forward with “the establishment of a single, internationally recognized entity” running Afghanistan, a government “authorized to act on behalf of all Afghan parties.”21
Miller and Santos explained that Unocal wanted to work with all Afghan factions. “But we want to dominate,” one of the Taliban’s negotiators replied.
The Unocal group began to think that maybe the Taliban weren’t the village idiots everyone thought they were. They wanted the pipeline contract, but only on their terms and only if it could be had without any involvement of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s faction in Kabul, or any other Afghan rivals. Time, the Taliban’s negotiators seemed to believe, was on their side.
Marty Miller gave up and drove west to meet with Taliban leaders in Herat. The long road from Kandahar was a potholed rut. Upon arrival the Taliban’s local governor welcomed Miller by looking him in the eye and asking menacingly, “Why don’t you convert to Islam?”
On the long, grinding drive back, Taliban militia forced Miller’s convoy to stay overnight in a tiny mud hut along the highway. There was trouble on the road, and it was too dangerous to go farther in the dark. Other Afghan villagers had gathered at the checkpoint as well. They pressed around Miller, curious. Miller didn’t like the attention, so he climbed back into his truck, lay down on the seat, and strapped his Walkman to his ears, trying to escape into his music. After a few minutes he looked up and saw dozens of Afghan eyes pressed against the truck window, staring at him. He stayed inside his truck cab all night.
The caravan stopped again briefly in Kandahar. The Taliban’s leaders still would not sign Unocal’s cooperation letter. Miller and his team climbed back in their pickups and left for Quetta.22 When they crossed into Pakistan, Miller climbed out of his truck, kissed the ground, and did a little dance of celebration. There were some places even a Texas wildcatter did not belong.