Article: God Save the Shah
God Save the Shah
American Guns, Spies and Oil in Azerbaijan
by Mark Irkali, Tengiz Kodrarian and Cali Ruchala
May 22, 2003
"We move from dream to reality!"
Amid the polite applause that one might expect from an audience of diplomats, a member of the audience coughed loudly. His harsh, gasping rasp was embarrassingly on cue. He covered his mouth with a balled- up fist.
The speaker - Azeri president Heydar Aliyev, whose appearance dispelled yet another rumor circulating through Baku and Tbilisi that he was dead - continued without acknowledging it.
The speech was broadcast live on television - such is the importance of a new pipeline in the Caucasus.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline (or BTC, as insiders call it) did indeed begin as a dream during the early 1990s, and the Americans considered its approval their top priority in the whole of the region. The idea was to get the massive deposit of oil beneath the Caspian Sea to market without having to rely on the goodwill of either Russia or Iran, the two regional heavyweights. Today, more than ten years later, construction is finally underway.
The next speaker also underlined the importance of the BTC to America. US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham - rewarded for losing his seat in the Senate with a cushy cabinet appointment - took the podium and read a statement from President George W. Bush.
It was a typical snowjob, though the prestige of an American president gracing the Caucasus region, even if by proxy, forced the man with the raspy cough to bite down hard on his knuckles. Bush intoned via Abraham that building the snaking pipeline from the Azeri capital of Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan would have a number of astonishing effects, including "enhancing global energy security" and "strengthening the sovereignty and independence of countries in the Caspian Basin."
AMERICAN OIL DRIVE
DEPENDING ON WHO you talk to, the BTC is either the reason for the extensive American involvement in the Caucasus, which began in the 1990s and has been slammed into overdrive since 9/11, or simply a pretext for increasing American military presence in the geopolitically important southern extremities of the former Soviet Union. Two things are beyond dispute: America has, for the moment at least, wrested control of most of the independent states of the Caucasus from Russia's sphere of influence, and there are now American military forces on the ground.
The latter is something that Georgia and Azerbaijan have long desired as the easiest way to acquire western military hardware and training, but not to protect them from Russia. The weapons and know-how will almost certainly be used first to subdue several ethnic statelets which broke away in the early part of the 1990s: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, from Azerbaijan, Karabakh.
When completed in 2005, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan will cross more than 1,000 miles of territory. Construction will cost around two and half billion dollars, give or take a few hundred million. Skeptics scoffed - and continue to scoff - at the project; one contacted for this story called it "the most expensive playground ever built," and disputed that there would ever be enough demand to justify such an expenditure.
But the cost cannot just be measured in dollars and lari. American influence in the Caucasus has been a painful, often sordid affair. Back in the 1970s, the American government invited dissidents to dinner to show their support for human rights in the USSR. In the 1990s, two men feted for their courage on such occasions were overthrown by dinosaurs from the Communist Party who, in Soviet times, had been their chief persecutors. American support has flowed to the former apparatchiks as these two former disciples of Leonid Brezhnev unleashed a column of fire on their own people, guided by American advisors, their positions buffeted by American aid.
And it can only get worse. The Caucasus has become the new Central America: a place crawling with CIA agents and other shady characters dispatched to back two of the most repressive, unstable regimes in the former Communist Bloc.
Over the last twelve years, Israel is the only country in the world which has received substantially more aid than Georgia. The CIA trained President Eduard Shevarnadze's security detail, while jails and cemeteries filled with his opponents. In the Spring of 2002, America took the plunge and dispatched a contingent of Special Forces to train-and-equip the Georgian army in "anti-terrorist" operations, using the pretext that al-Qaeda fighters had been spotted in the country (their existence was disputed at a Washington press conference by no less an authority than the Georgian Defense Minister, obviously a man not in on the plan).
American support for Shevardnadze in Georgia, guardian the vulnerable central link of the BTC, has at least been public. The same cannot be said for the efforts of America in Azerbaijan. In the early 1990s, with a war in the breakaway province of Karabakh, the country seemed to be on the verge of disintegration. The first independent government was headed by Soviet fossils; the primary apparatchik was Ayaz Mutalibov, noted as the only head of a Soviet republic to welcome the hardline coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.
With the army battered by the Armenians of Karabakh, and the government criticized by an increasingly hostile public, the Azeri president turned to the few Americans in his country for help. Three men with backgrounds out of a spy novel lent him their services. Over the course of the next two years, the company they founded procured thousands of dollars worth of weapons and recruited at least two thousand Afghan mercenaries for Azerbaijan - the first mujahedin to fight on the territory of the former Communist Bloc.
And they did it under the guise of an oil company.
This story is the culmination of more than a year of investigation and dozens of interviews in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, as well as the United States. It's a story about money, oil, weapons and the lengths that some men will go to control the "new energy sources" that American politicians have so often called for. Whether they were working for themselves or for their country, the men behind the energy company with the Orwellian name - MEGA Oil - wrecked havoc in the Caucasus, pursuing goals which were remarkably in tune with America's primary aim in the region.
We will state up-front that we have discovered no documentary evidence to tie MEGA Oil, as an entity, definitively to the United States government. There is however considerable evidence that all three prime movers in the company - former Iran-Contra conspirator Richard Secord, legendary Air Force special operations commander Harry "Heinie" Aderholt, and the man known as either a diabolical con-man or a misunderstood patriot, Gary Best - were in the past involved in some of the most infamous activities of in the history of the CIA.
In fact, the MEGA Oil debacle followed the model of the Iran-Contra Affair with uncanny accuracy, down to the formation of shell companies and, possibly, the use of private sector companies to contravene both the letter and the intent of American law. Together with Oliver North, Secord had pioneered this model in the 1980s to fund the Nicaraguan Contras and make themselves millionaires in the bargain. By a remarkable coincidence or a cunning design, the MEGA Oil enterprise would have served the same purpose.
How much of it can be assigned to coincidence and how much to design is left to the reader to decide.
As in the Middle East, the most bitter conflict in the Caucasus was not fought over oil, but rather over the single bit of territory in the region which is comparatively bereft of it.
The Karabakh War was an ethnic war, in some ways corresponding to the fighting in the Balkans, in other ways at odds with it. About 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory is presently - and probably permanently - occupied by Armenian forces. The fighting in the first years of the post-Soviet era was centered in the "Mountainous Black Garden" - Nagorno-Karabakh - but the Armenians presently control considerable territory outside the enclave as well.
This conflict must form the backbone of any narrative of Azerbaijan's lost decade, as mounting military debacles and successive tidal waves of terrified refugees washing through the cities spurred on popular revolts and undermined two presidents, further plunging the republic into economic catastrophe.
The post-Communist years will be known as the darkest years in Azerbaijan's history. In the 1990s, one in every seven Azeris became a war refugee. And yet, incredibly, the 1990s have been characterized by some people in the West as an Azerbaijani Golden Age. Citing the enormous untapped oil reserves discovered in the twilight of the Soviet Union, these individuals gloried in the bright future of Azerbaijan and produced impressive charts showing how much money American industries were already pouring into the country in preparation for the great oil rush.
Their numbers are not many, and the Americans who trumpet the "Baku Boom" and the Azerbaijani Golden Age are among the few who can speak (or do speak, regardless of ability) about Azerbaijan. Among them are familiar faces from the American political establishment, such as James Baker and John Sununu, both of whom have been employed as lobbyists by the Azerbaijani government or various energy companies favourable to improved relations between Azerbaijan and America. Unfortunately (and predictably, to long term observers of the Middle East), little of the money which has come to Azerbaijan has trickled down to the poor.
The oil rush of the 1990s was not the first that Azerbaijan has seen. The first came in 1870 and attracted the cosmopolitan crowd of investors, hucksters and fanatics that seem drawn by the heavy waft of crude. By the turn of the century, Azerbaijan's oil exports exceeded those of the entire United States.
The oil industry in Azerbaijan fell into decline during the Soviet years, for reasons which parallel the American experience: it was cheaper to bring oil to market from the fertile Siberian fields than to dilly with a thousand small deposits in the Caucasus. The landscape of Azerbaijan is littered with the red and black piping of abandoned wells last tapped back in the 1960s.
In 1991, when the immense size of the Caspian oil shelf became known, the derelict wells seemed even more antiquated, compared to the glossy pictures of offshore platforms in the briefcases of chubby Texans in the two Intourist Hotels that bookended Baku's Lenin Square. But to a group of American investors with a background out of a spy novel, these scraps of industrial decay smelled like an opportunity - or a suitable pretext, depending on who you believe. And this is when our story begins.
THE P.O.W. CAPER
GARY BEST HAS made it his business not to be found. A self-described "electronics importer," he has left a long trail of anecdote and innuendo of past misdeeds but few testifying witnesses. He was a marginal figure in one of the many subplots of the Iran-Contra Scandal, though how exactly he was related to the activities of Oliver North and his co-conspirators is unclear. His importing business was concentrated primarily in Southeast Asia, but somehow brought him into contact with the Afghan Mujahedin, Iran-Contra conspirator Richard Secord and legendary Air Force special operations commander Brigadier General Harry "Heinie" Aderholt. His current mailing address, and his current profession, are unknown.
In 1985, Gary's business was headquartered in Marietta, Georgia. What exactly his company did, and how he spent his days, is a mystery. Bob Fletcher, another figure on the periphery of Iran-Contra, claims that in 1985, Gary Best became a partner in his toy company, which he and other Iran-Contra figures planned to use as a cover for illicit weapons transfers of the sort that made Ollie (and Secord) famous. There's been no convincing evidence that this is true, and Fletcher has since built an inspiring career as a first-class conspiracy kook. He later became a spokesman for the Militia of Montana, fondly remembered by law enforcement for issuing liens on strangers' property, the glare from their giant belt buckles and their tense stand-offs with federal marshals.
But for his other activities in the late 1980s, Gary Best might be considered somewhat less credible than a run-of-the-mill crank babbling about weather control technology. Knowing people in his business in Southeast Asia (whatever it was), and with his connections to the not-yet-victorious Mujahedin in Afghanistan (however he got to know them), Best was in an advantageous position to capitalize on one of the great popular delusions of 1980s America: the search for missing American prisoners of war in Vietnam.
Though the evidence in favour consisted solely of the plotline in the movie Rambo, many veterans and their widows hoped that the liberalization taking place in the USSR under Gorbachev would lead to the release of some of America's lost POWs. Their hopes were cruelly bolstered when Stephen Morris, a right-wing Australian academic, claimed to have found a document in the KGB archives in Moscow which referred to "thousands" of imprisoned American POWs, rather than the hundreds the North Vietnamese claimed to be holding during the Paris Peace Talks. It came at an inopportune time, delaying America's long-awaited normalization with Vietnam for several months before the document was exposed as a forgery.
Meanwhile, "Russia's Vietnam" - the Afghan War - was just winding down (the last Red Army tanks crossed the northern frontier of Afghanistan only in 1989). Russian widows, wives and mothers of servicemen who had not returned with their battered units also harboured hopes of securing their loved ones' release. The two superpowers - America and the USSR - were stymied in getting any answers from their former adversaries, but both had relatively good relations with the other country's enemies.
Gary Best was better placed than most to bring America and the USSR together over this issue, trading his contacts with the Mujahedin for his Soviet counterparts' connections in Vietnam. Should any Americans turn out alive, Best would be able to have them immediately transferred to a hospital in Thailand, where his associates would look after them as they began the long journey home.
Best left few traces of his involvement in this caper, though associates would later give him credit for securing the release of several Russian POWs held in Afghanistan. He allegedly made several visits to the USSR as well as to Mujahedin headquarters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and former associates say that Best bragged about his friendship with sometime-Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who, like many former Mujahedin, is now a sworn enemy of the United States. At the time of writing, Hekmatyar had just been placed on a terrorist list by the State Department, and a staffer contacted at his movement's headquarters in Pakistan was understandably reluctant to discuss too many things with outsiders that spoke English. A week later, the staffer, who claimed to be Hekmatyar's son-in-law, told us that no one in the organization had ever heard of Gary Best, and that they were unaware of any endeavors by Americans to assist in locating Soviet POWs, or securing their release.
THE GENERAL'S JOINT VENTURE
BEST CONVINCED AT least one important ally of the sincerity of his intentions. Brigadier General Heinie Aderholt isn't just a guy with a lot of brass on his chest. Among special forces veterans and aspiring students who read up on his career in Air Force-issue textbooks, Heinie is a legend. He was in charge of dropping anti-Communist guerrillas behind enemy lines in the Korean War, and conducted interdiction campaigns to stem the flow of supplies to the Viet Cong. Among active duty and retired servicemen, Aderholt is only a peg or two down from Patton, McArthur and other Gods of War in 20th century American military history.
Aderholt also claimed to have bought into the possibility that American POWs were still being held in Vietnam. Former associates say that Best used Aderholt's prestige to add credibility to his crusade. But Best's expensive trips around the world didn't pay for themselves. It wasn't long before Best approached Aderholt with a proposal which would give a shot in the arm and an infusion of cash into the search for American and Soviet POWs and, possibly, make both of them millionaires in the bargain.
While traveling in the Soviet Union, Best had noticed the thousands of rusting cages over abandoned oil wells, concentrated heavily in Azerbaijan. He figured that capital costs to rehabilitate them wouldn't be prohibitively expensive provided just a fraction of the wells could be brought back into operation. Best boasted of his connections with the Azeri government - a collection of scarcely reformed apparatchiks wrestling with the popular revolts and waves of repression which marked the death spasms of the Soviet Union. Aderholt wouldn't have to do a thing except pitch the idea to investors: Best would take care of everything in Azerbaijan when, of course, he wasn't flying around the world, looking for skeletons long since turned to phosphor in the humidity of the Vietnamese jungle brush.
Despite the unconventionality of the idea - forming a business to fund what most would consider humanitarian work, when they didn't consider it an outright swindle - Aderholt agreed. And that's when things really started getting weird.
THE DREGS OF THE OIL RUSH
GARY BEST WAS but one of a horde of con-men and ruthless operators who made the frightful voyage to Baku on Azerbaijan's state airline, which began the 1990s with quite possibly the oldest and most ill-equipped fleet of airplanes in the world. Among the figures of ill-repute to make their way south was none other than Marc Rich, acclaimed scoundrel who slid a few million greenbacks into the Iranian government's pocket while its student-athletes were jogging blindfolded American Embassy staff through the streets of Teheran. Rich was then still barricaded in his palatial estate in Switzerland; it would be another ten years before his ex-wife would emerge from bribing her way through nine rings of lackeys in the Clinton Administration to buy her husband a pardon from the commander-in-chief.
But Best drew first blood, ingratiating himself among the brahmins of the Azeri Communist Party when agents from the big oil companies were still trying get a foot in the door. A former Best associate named "Andrew," who describes himself as a "hazmat broker" - he deals only in those commodities which are toxic, flammable or explosive - sat down with us in a Tbilisi restaurant in February 2003 to describe how Best was able to do it.
"Gary is one of the most charismatic people I've ever known," he says. "Not physically. He just looks like he's always on the verge of doing something important and great. If you know him long enough, you stop and say, 'Well, have any of these plans ever worked out? No, so ta!' But to those who just meet him, Gary Best looks like a legitimate player."
Andrew didn't know who Heinie Aderholt was, but "Gary rubbed shoulders with a lot of important people. You would never guess that every word out of his mouth was a crock of shit. The secret of Gary Best's success is that he disappears and reinvents himself all the time. He has to, because he's always running away from people who are really pissed off at him over one of his plans."
According to Andrew, Best has a warrant out for his arrest in the United States and is probably traveling under a false passport (Best has had at least one default judgment against him in a lawsuit - he never showed up to contest the charges - but he is not the subject of any federal warrant we could identify.) Like many people who have dealt with Gary Best, Andrew is convinced that he's a CIA agent, or at least a former one who retained some contacts in the intelligence community. He doesn't think Best's work in Azerbaijan was part of an official operation, "but with the crowd he had around him, who knows?"
The "crowd" expanded in 1991 to include another ghost from America's past: prominent Iran-Contra co-conspirator Richard Secord. Whereas the partnership of Best and Aderholt could be written off as a curious pairing, the presence of Secord in Best's Azerbaijani oil venture ought to have raised blood red flags around the world.
Secord is a man that many people believe should have been in jail in 1991 - just two years after copping a plea to a count of lying to Congress (he was facing trial on eleven other felony charges). Instead, we are to believe that this former mastermind of arms shipments and shady deals with guerrillas and Ayatollahs was taken by the possibilities of dead oil wells in Azerbaijan.
Best, Aderholt and Secord, with their lack of background in public relations, might be forgiven for picking such an Orwellian name for their venture as "MEGA Oil." Assuming that Aderholt and Secord were, as they say they are, accidental patsies in Best's devious schemes, it's still difficult to believe the atrocious due diligence that two men with extensive backgrounds in intelligence executed. Conducting a post- mortem on MEGA Oil - noting its birthdate and vital statistics - is almost as difficult as tracking down Gary Best.
MEGA Oil's American partners wrote in press releases that the company was based in either Marietta or Atlanta, Georgia. A search of public records finds not one but two companies known as "MEGA Oil USA." One is called "MEGA Oil USA/Vista Joint Ventures," and was incorporated in 1985. "MEGA Oil USA" on the other hand wasn't incorporated until 1993. There is, moreover, a third MEGA Oil involved in the food processing business. None of these Georgia companies could be definitively traced to Best.
To make up for MEGA Oil's lack of experience in the industry, Best contracted a company which specialized in rehabilitating and servicing existing oil wells. Ponder Industries, registered in Delaware but conducting business in Alice, Texas, entered into partnership with MEGA Oil in Azerbaijan feeling like they had trumped an entire industry. Later, an Securities and Exchange Commission panel expressed astonishment that Ponder had done even less due diligence on MEGA than they would have with any Texas partner - almost as little as Aderholt and Secord. Gary Best, insiders say, led Ponder to believe that his connections with the Azeri government would take care of any problems. As a result, Ponder agreed to fund and staff the oil wells in Azerbaijan by themselves, as well as providing unspecified "operating costs" to MEGA. All MEGA had to do was bring them the contract with SOCAR, the Azeri state oil company. Best promptly faxed it over. It was written in Russian, and no one in Ponder's office could read it. Incredibly, they took Best's word that the fax was exactly what he said it was: a joint venture agreement between MEGA Oil and SOCAR to service the abandoned oil wells.
Ponder began flying their equipment and staff into Azerbaijan in late 1991 and January of 1992. The latter was the date when the conflict in Karabakh, which had hitherto been fought by guerrillas and militias, exploded into a full-scale war as Azeri soldiers pounded the Karabakh Armenians' "capital," Stepanakert, with thousands of rounds of artillery fire. It was intended to soften the Armenians' position, with thousands of fresh troops following the path of fire.
The hopes of the Azeris for a quick and decisive thrust into Karabakh were bolstered when their American friends offered to help train-and-equip their beleaguered armed forces, and even bring in some of their old special forces friends to lend a hand in drilling and structural reorganization. MEGA Oil, a company in Azerbaijan which was created in order to fund a farcical search for POWs in Vietnam, was now hiring mercenaries.
In an interview with Baku-based journalist Thomas Goltz, Heinie Aderholt claimed that representatives of the Azeri administration of Ayaz Mutalibov - the technocrat-in-chief in Baku - had asked him if he could facilitate the hiring of a large contingent of Afghan Mujahedin to fight in Karabakh.
Aderholt says he refused. But he went along with the plan, attributed to Best, by which American special forces veterans would train the hapless Azeri army then being pummeled by Karabakh Armenian irregulars, while obtaining weapons for the Azeris through their own channels.
Others say that this was the plan all along - and that the oil rig rejuvenation program, the POW search and the contract with Ponder was nothing but a smokescreen to cover up a covert train-and-equip program conducted with the tacit approval of the United States government. There is, in fact, a remarkable congruency between what Secord, Aderholt and Best were doing in Azerbaijan, and the strategic aims of the United States in the Caspian region.
The Americans' avowed priority in the Caucasus was to find a method to deliver the crude from the Caspian oil shelf to market, avoiding both Russia and Iran as middlemen. Since the oil would flow from Azerbaijan, this strategic goal was quite at odds with the American government's favouritism towards Armenia in the Karabakh War.
In fact, providing support of any kind to Azerbaijan was illegal. Congress passed a law (Section 907 of the "Freedom Support Act") effectively banning foreign aid - and, needless to say, all military aid - to Azerbaijan. Thus America's top long-term interest in the Caspian was threatened by the promises of Armenian-American retribution at the polls - a very real threat considering Armenian electoral power in the key state of California.
Those who allege that MEGA Oil at least began as a project approved by Washington point to the involvement of Richard Secord, whose visit to Azerbaijan in early 1992 came at MEGA's expense and coincided with the company's negotiations with Mutalibov on building Azerbaijan's army. Secord's only public comment on the matter to date was to state that Mutalibov couldn't decide whether he wanted his American friends to build an army or a Praetorian Guard to hold onto power.
At the heart of the Iran-Contra controversy, of course, was a Congressional ban on aid to the Contras strikingly similar to Section 907, and Secord's primary role in that first scandal was as the head of a private corporation which worked at the behest of Oliver North for covert and illegal weapons procurement for the Nicaraguan Contras.
Many forget that Secord's involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair was motivated to a large degree by personal profit. The special investigator's report on Iran-Contra concluded that "one of Secord's central purposes in establishing and carrying out the operations of the enterprise was the accumulation of untaxed wealth in secret overseas accounts... that [Secord] received at least $2 million from his participation in the enterprise during 1985 and 1986, that he set up secret accounts to conceal his untaxed income, and that he later lied and encouraged others to lie to keep it concealed."
JUST MONTHS FROM when the special investigator's report on Iran-Contra was finally published, the final arrangements were being worked out with Mutalibov on military procurement and training. The bulk of the aid was diverted away from the Azeri army and into building up Azerbaijan's interior ministry forces, serving solely at the behest of the president.
But MEGA's support came too late for Mutalibov. In late February of 1992, the Karabakh Armenians launched a counter-attack which the Azeris hadn't planned for. Large swaths of territory were overrun. Within a week, popular demonstrations had forced Mutalibov to resign.
By March, Ponder Industries had brought enough of their equipment and personnel into the country to begin work on the oil wells. Anti-Mutalibov demonstrations by the opposition Popular Front forced them to delay, but their project leaders inside the country - including a relative of Ponder's septuagenarian founder, Mack Ponder - didn't seem especially upset when MEGA Oil's most prominent Azeri supporter fled to Moscow. They received the green light from Best in April, and began work immediately thereafter.
Mutalibov returned to Azerbaijan in an attempted coup, but lasted just a single day. After a brief interregnum, Popular Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey became Azerbaijan's new president. Elchibey was a former dissident and he carried into office an almost mythical reputation for honesty. Years before, after concluding a series of lectures at a university in the Middle East, he shocked his hosts by refusing the rather modest payment promised him. As a foreigner, he told them, he couldn't accept money from a country whose people were so poor.
Industry analysts have difficulty reading the lines on a person who, all other things being equal, is nothing if not his own man. In corporate jargon, Elchibey was a wild card. In July of 1992, after several months of ambiguous hints and rumors, the Azeri government ordered Ponder to cease all operations. MEGA Oil, the government stated, had no contract with the government oil company, SOCAR, to undertake the work they were doing. When company representatives unfolded copies of the joint venture agreement MEGA had signed with SOCAR - the Russian text faxed to Ponder Headquarters in Alice, Texas - the bureaucrats laughed. Not only was it a forgery, but it wasn't even a forgery of the joint venture agreement it was purported to be.
Ponder had been billing MEGA for work done and for capital sums they had given to MEGA agents in Azerbaijan - a total of $8 million in invoices in scarcely three months. SEC papers show that Ponder's accountants, exasperated by the blind faith their clients put in MEGA Oil, attempted to track Best down during a whirlwind visit he made to America in mid-1992, but were unable to obtain any documentation confirming his verbal assurances.
After Ponder was ordered to stop drilling in July of 1992, the company's corporate officers listed the sums spent in Azerbaijan as capital expenditures - the type of accounting shenanigans that their Texas energy big brother, Enron, would later make famous. SEC filings in the investigation of Ponder underline the investigators' state of disbelief that a company with so many years experience in the oil business would take on such a risky venture based on so little. (Ponder's officers made a settlement with the Feds, though the company never recovered. Curiously, they also delayed seeking redress in American courts against MEGA Oil for more than six months after they learned the truth about MEGA's relationship with SOCAR. A few years later Ponder filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. They merged with another small energy company, N-Vision, in January of 2001.)
Heinie Aderholt parted ways with Best a month after Ponder was ordered to cease operations by SOCAR. Richard Secord, he claims, went with him (Secord and Aderholt have known each other for years, as both were attached to Air Force intelligence, and later became neighbours in Fort Walton, Florida, where a great many old fighter pilots go to die). But though the company was finished in the oil industry - and by now the POW crusade was completely forgotten - MEGA Oil still had some business to conduct. Mutalibov had requested more than weapons and training - he wanted real, live bodies to fight a war the Azeris were losing, or to protect himself from a nation that hated him. Aderholt says he refused to participate on the basis of principles which he had, apparently, developed in the two or three years since the Cold War ended. But when Elchibey's government posed the question, nobody was left at MEGA Oil who would turn them down.
LAST GASP FOR KARABAKH
LIKE MANY AFGHANS, Abdullah only uses his first name. Thankfully, there aren't very many people named "Abdullah" in Tbilisi's underground to confuse him with.
Abdullah was 16 years old in 1986, when he fled his village along Afghanistan's eastern border for Pakistani city of Peshawar. Tens of thousands of other Afghan refugees live in Peshawar, and the city was the nerve center for the American campaign of support for the Mujahedin during the Afghan War.
Once crawling with intelligence agents dispensing thick stacks of rupees and RPGs, in the 1990s the spooks left, but Peshawar continued to be the world's greatest illegal arms bazaar and a recruiting ground for Soldiers of God fighting in conflicts around the world.
Abdullah was selling fruit in his neighbour's stall in Peshawar when he met a slender, bespectacled American who offered him two thousand dollars to fight in Karabakh. Upon arriving in Azerbaijan, the agent, Abdullah found out, worked for Gary Best.
In September of 1992, Azerbaijan's new Popular Front officials in the Defense Ministry called up thousands of young Azeris for military service. The army's aging officer corps was not entirely pleased. The Armenians had by now drilled themselves into the Karabakh hills like ticks, and the top brass reiterated that throwing untrainted conscripts at their positions en masse would be suicide (after all, it hadn't worked up until now). Once again they pressed the ministry to outfit and train a crack cadre of special forces that wouldn't bristle at the Armenian advantage.
Best's mysterious international connections once again worked to his advantage. Abdullah was one of an estimated 2,000 Afghan mercenaries hired by MEGA Oil to wear Azeri uniforms and face the Armenians head on. (The Afghans were split between separate parts of the country; Abdullah himself claims to have trained with 200 of his fellow countrymen.)
It's difficult to house a few thousand foreign soldiers and keep it quiet, especially in a country as small as Azerbaijan. Abdullah tells us that he and his compatriots were never permitted to leave the base. As the recruits' identity papers had been confiscated upon their arrival in the country, they had no doubt that any attempt to desert would result in their arrest as illegal migrants - their American handlers had several times threatened to do just that in disciplinary proceedings. In spite of his precautions, Gary Best's Afghan enterprise was soon common knowledge all over the Caucasus, even in Armenia and Karabakh, though no one had yet collected enough evidence to substantiate it.
MEGA Oil's Karabakh adventure was the first time that Afghans fought inside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. In later years, they would flock to Tajikistan and Chechnya in aid of embattled Muslim rebels, hijacking what were more or less independence struggles for their own war to further the reach of fundamentalist Islam. Importing hardcore Mujahedin could have been disastrous for Azerbaijan as well. For a variety of reasons, it wasn't.
Elchibey's government wanted experienced soldiers - the mujahids who have put the fear of a fire-breathing Allah into Christians and Communists on four continents. But most of the Afghans hired by MEGA Oil were like Abdullah: poor refugees whose only connection to war had been their flight from it (something they shared with a great many Azeris). Very few of the Afghans, according to Abdullah, had any fighting experience whatsoever. Best had bought Afghan refugees for pennies, and sold them as million dollar Afghan Mujahedin.
According to Abdullah, and confirmed by people involved in the project interviewed by Thomas Goltz in the mid-1990s, the "well-armed" part of MEGA Oil's Afghan enterprise wasn't quite accurate, either. Much of Azerbaijan's heavy weaponry had been lost in Karabakh during the previous winter's Armenian counter-attack. Goltz even alleged that many of the Afghans given RPGs and anti-armour weapons watched in horror as their rounds bounced harmlessly from Armenian positions. They had been firing practice rounds, remarked and sold at discount prices as live ammunition.
In addition to Afghans like Abdullah, Best imported in several dozen American veterans to replenish those who had walked away in disgust after Best, Aderholt and Secord's original plans had been shelved with the fall of Mutalibov. According to Goltz, many of the "legitimate" American mercenaries scoffed at the new meat Best brought in as "the type of psychos who answer ads in magazines." Abdullah remembers things differently - all of the Americans, he claims, were arrogant sadists and willing collaborators in the scheme. Even worse were some of the Turkish "advisors" - some allegedly members of the fascist Grey Wolves movement - that the Turkophile Elchibey had added to the project, one of whom shot an Afghan recruit in a brawl. Training was hard, and the Afghans were given spoiled food and hand-me-down uniforms mended with patches.
The winter offensive began in December. The Popular Front began a massive program of agitation among the Azeri population, with one of Elchibey's advisors threatening to launch nuclear warheads into Karabakh to teach the Armenians a lesson. It soon became clear that the offensive was a complete failure. Thousands of Azeris were killed, and in another counter-attack, the Armenians for the first time occupied Azeri territory outside of Karabakh itself. People that Goltz spoke to
blamed Azerbaijan's military brass for using the "elite troops" that Best had acquired as "cannon fodder." Abdullah has a different explanation.
"When the shooting started, we were surrounded, and we ran," he says. Though miles away in Tbilisi, one gets the impression that the battle for Abdullah is just over the next hill. He fidgets and runs a hand through his thick black hair.
"You must understand that most of us had only fired a gun a few times, never an automatic weapon. Only a few of us had fought before, and when we looked to [these] people to lead us, they were unable to communicate with the Azeris. We didn't speak the language and nobody spoke ours. The orders were to advance at any cost, but it was clear that the people who issued these orders did not know what we were fighting. We looked at the maps. Were we in the wrong place? No, but they gave us maps from forty years ago! The village at the top of a hill was burned to the ground. The Armenians were in it and they were shooting down at us. But according to the map, there was no village at all!"
The Azeri regular forces fared no better. An element of farce permeated the sackings and dismissals as the Elchibey government searched for a scapegoat to blame for the latest Azeri military disaster. The closest thing the Azeris had to a war hero, Colonel Surat Husseinov, decided to spare his troops the pleasure of hurling the lifeless bodies of their comrades at Armenian machine gun nests and withdrew of his own accord from Kelbadzhar. The Armenians swooped down in their wake. While gaining thousands of new refugees from the area, Azerbaijan had lost one of its last pieces of Karabakh. Essentially, the Karabakh War was over.
Worse for Azerbaijan's leaders, Armenian troops combing the battlefields had found many dark-skinned Afghan corpses among the dead. A few had managed to hide identity papers, refugee cards, pictures of their sweethearts and even, in one case, a clipping from a Peshawar newspaper which carried a story about his son's academic achievements.
The evidence was leaked from Karabakh through the network of Armenian organizations throughout the world. One enterprising journalist from the London Observer sleuthed around and discovered the embryonic core of the story of the oil company that trained combat squads, publishing a few details about it in his papers' November 28, 1993 edition.
The true scope of American involvement in the Karabakh War became known as more facts were ferreted out. New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone, a noted friend of Armenia who has even served as an election observer in the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, called for an investigation from the floor of Congress. Embassies in the Caucasus distanced their bosses from allegations that MEGA Oil, a company founded by three prominent figures in the American intelligence community, had enjoyed official backing all along.
Andrew, the "hazmat broker," says he was not surprised by the denials, even though he gives contradictory answers as to whether Best & Co. had official American backing. "There is a stench of failure when things fail so badly," he says, repeating the old saw that "'Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is always an orphan.'" When pressed, Andrew says that Best wouldn't have been able to obtain the kind of money needed to hire and outfit a mercenary army from the paltry $1.8 million Ponder claims to have advanced to MEGA in Best's oil well fraud.
"You learn a few things from being around people like Gary Best," he adds, "And you better learn them, since you get nothing else from his acquaintance. Governments are born without eyes, and the left hand doesn't know what the right one is doing. In the best parts of the USA like the agriculture departments, they have transparency and the left and right guide each other.
"I don't think Gary's little adventure had official support, as in the head of the CIA signing off on it. I do think he had a lot of friends in high places and he was able to convince these people to trust him and not blow the whistle on what he was doing. If it worked they all stood to benefit. The army would be victorious and would be led by Americans. That's a powerful advantage. We wouldn't have had all the problems we have had here and it would have been owed to America. It didn't work though, so instead you see only Gary Best."
GOD SAVE THE SHAH
ABDULLAH RAN FOR his life from the Afghan cemetery in Karabakh, and didn't stop running until he crossed the border to Georgia. He says he has knowledge of only one other Afghan known personally to him to have survived the slaughter in Azerbaijan - a cousin, who made his way home to Peshawar. Though that city isn't really their home, it is a sanctuary exile turned permanent - the type of place which hundreds of thousands of Azeris from Karabakh in squalid camps, neglected by their own government for ten years running, do not know.
The American mercenaries, some of whom had been used as "force multipliers" during the winter offensive, trickled home disgusted and, needless to say, unpaid. There are reports that others stayed behind in Azerbaijan, acting as muscle for various Azeri kingpins, though no instances have come to our attention. Thugs and oafs, sadly, are not in short supply.
According to Andrew, one of the reasons Azeri President Elchibey was willing to forgive MEGA Oil for their past transgressions was "his pathological hatred of Russians." That was why MEGA's last remaining founder returned to favour after building a Praetorian Guard for Elchibey's predecessor and having his oil wells confiscated as punishment.
Russian support was indeed crucial for Elchibey's opponents in their quest to have him overthrown. Surat Husseinov, the colonel who absconded with his troops from Karabakh during the Afghan enterprise, rallied his forces in his hometown of Gyandzha. Direct orders for him to return to Karabakh or disarm went unheeded. Husseinov blew his ill-gotten fortune re-equipping his troops and their numbers grew with the desertion of thousands of Russian soldiers from the old Soviet base in that city. In June of 1993, Husseinov marched on Baku, overthrowing Elchibey and bringing a relic of Azerbaijan's Soviet past, Heydar Aliyev - a former Brezhnev protégé and head of the Azeri KGB - in tow. Aliyev later squeezed out Husseinov and placed his dopey son, Ilkham Aliyev, into a prime position as vice-president of SOCAR, where he remains to this day, waiting for his father to die and to take his place as a bejeweled sultan of a hungry nation.
Prior to Husseinov's mutiny, Elchibey was preparing to go abroad to sign the so-called "Deal of the Century," granting rights to exploit Azerbaijan's share of the Caspian oil shelf to a consortium of energy companies for seven billion dollars. Aliyev signed the deal a few months later instead.
Brigadier General Harry "Heinie" Aderholt returned to his retirement among the palm trees in Florida, from where he supervised the writing of his biography by a sympathetic admirer. It carries no mention of MEGA Oil, Gary Best, or most of his career for that matter. The debacle in Azerbaijan seems not to have tainted his reputation in the slightest.
Richard Secord settled down in 1995, employed in a variety of offices for Computerized Thermal Imaging, a health industry company based in Oregon. He was made Chairman and CEO in 2002. Since he has taken over the company, CTI's stock has fallen from $19 to about 11 cents per share. Secord was subpoenaed in December 2002 to answer for having sold about a hundred thousand shares of CTI stock ahead of an unfavourable Food and Drug Administration ruling on a product they sell; he bought the shares back a week later and made approximately $90,000 in the bargain. A few days before press time, CTI's auditor, Deloitte & Touche, severed relations with the company and CTI failed to release its fourth quarter report.
As for Gary Best, his fate is unclear. Andrew repeated a rumor heard by many former Best associates that their man had been nailed trafficking in nuclear materials in the port of Baku by the Azeri police. It was later covered up, or so the story goes, because Azerbaijan under Aliyev - a repressive, brutal dictator - is an American partner only for his claims to have stabilized a resource-rich country torn apart by war and ready to explode by a revolt of the disenfranchised - in essence, a Shah and a Commissar in one. A Freedom of Information Act request was sent to several departments of the United States government which sought any and all documents relating to Gary Best and MEGA Oil. Surprisingly, a request of a similar nature - including all documents relating to Best and the export of nuclear materials from the port of Baku - was already on record from the Summer of 2002. It was denied.
One question persists at the end of the story: Were Best, Secord and Aderholt out for their government, or out for themselves? When what was done in Azerbaijan is done for the love of money, we call it greed. When it's done for the love of America, we call it patriotism. The answer for these particular patriots is likely to be mired in the dense gray area between the two extremities. Except for the fraud perpetrated on Ponder Industries, it appears that most of the dynamic trio's exploits were fully in line with the policy held an administration desperate to lay sole claim to a source of energy without any ties to the Iranians or Russians, but unable to do so owing to the persistent pressure placed upon them by the Armenian-American community. Despite a number of violations of US law - paramount among them, the recruitment of an army for a foreign prince or despot, a crime considered so grave by the Founding Fathers that it is enshrined in the primary documents of the American Republic - no one associated with MEGA Oil has ever been charged. As more time passes and oil companies entrench themselves in the Caspian region, the possibility becomes more remote that they ever will be.
MEGA Oil's activities in Azerbaijan appear at first glance to have had no long-term effects on the region: the two political chieftains they supported were both overthrown, and the Azeris probably would have lost Karabakh anyway. But the first glance is deceiving. Emerging from the primordial hangover of seventy years of Soviet rule, the Caucasus staggered through the 1990s like a victim from the scene of a bloody accident. Wars hemorrhaged from Chechnya to Abkhazia, South Ossetia to Ingushetia, North Ossetia to Karabakh. It didn't have to be this way.
The first Bush Administration disowned the only dissidents to take power in any of the Soviet republics outside of the Baltics - Elchibey and Gamsakhurdia - and Clinton built upon this bankrupt policy by dispatching CIA teams to protect the new guardians of the BTC Pipeline from their own people. The second Bush team has sent American soldiers to train-and-equip the Georgian army, ready to unleash blitzkrieg on ethnic minorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that broke away in the early 1990s - and possibly against an Armenian enclave in the south of the country as well.
The only thing preventing the Americans from offering the same sort of "help" to Azerbaijan had been Section 907. In the interest of national security, and to help in "enhancing global energy security" during this War on Terror, Congress granted President Bush the right to waive Section 907 in the aftermath of September 11th. It was necessary, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress, to "enable Azerbaijan to counter terrorist organizations."
President Bush utilized the waiver almost immediately. For Azerbaijan, no more MEGA Oils will be necessary
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