In December 2001, Slate magazine published a nicely researched article by Seth Stevenson dissecting a conspiracy theory that had suddenly grown up around the US-led intervention in Afghanistan. You're bound to have heard this theory: the war was really about oil, and specifically an oil pipeline that the West wished to build through Afghanistan.
Stevenson did what a careful writer would do with an unsubstantiated and bizarre speculation. He traced its origins and assessed the "evidence" cited in its support. He noted that it was compatible with any evidence. Before 9/11, the West was accused of supporting the Taliban in order to secure an oil pipeline. After 9/11, the West was accused of seeking to overthrow the Taliban in order to secure an oil pipeline. In short, as is characteristic of conspiracy theories, the oil pipeline theory is unfalsifiable. Stevenson concluded:
Why does the bombing-for-pipelines theory hold such appeal? For the same reason the supporting-the-Taliban-for-pipelines theory attracted so many: There's evidence that points in that direction. Unocal did want to build a pipeline through Afghanistan and did cozy up to the Taliban. Bush and Cheney do have ties to big oil. But theories like these are ridiculously reductionist. Their authors don't try to argue conclusions from evidence—they decide on conclusions first, then hunt for justification. Also, many thinkers are comfortable with the conditioned response that dates back to Ida Tarbell vs. Standard Oil: When in Doubt, Blame Oil First.
What's absurd about the pipeline theory is how thoroughly it discounts the obvious reason the United States set the bombers loose on Afghanistan: Terrorists headquartered in Afghanistan attacked America's financial and military centers, killing 4,000 people, and then took credit for it. Nope—must be the pipeline.
Here, on the other hand, is what a non-careful writer does with an unsubstantiated and bizarre speculation - John Pilger, in his latest commentary posted on ZNet (though I think published elsewhere earlier this year):
The truth about the "good war" is to be found in compelling evidence that the 2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable response to the 11 September attacks, was actually planned two months prior to 9/11 and that the most pressing problem for Washington was not the Taliban's links with Osama Bin Laden, but the prospect of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghanistan to less reliable mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and armed by the CIA to fight America's proxy war against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.
And you know what's coming: "a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal". So the US supported the Taliban for the oil; and it overthrew the Taliban for the oil. And this is advanced without evidence, "compelling" or otherwise, and in prose that is functionally illiterate ("the Taliban, whom, as a result, were deemed in Washington..."). Some people consider Pilger a voice of conscience and a master of campaigning journalism. I'm afraid he's something worse than - as I described him here - the voice of brutishness.