The New Great Game
By Lutz Kleveman
Monday 20 October 2003
The 'war on terror' is being used as an excuse to further US energy interests in the Caspian.
Nearly two years ago, I travelled to Kyrgyzstan, the mountainous ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia, to witness a historical event: the deployment of the first American combat troops on former Soviet soil.
As part of the Afghan campaign, the US air force set up a base near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Brawny pioneers in desert camouflages were erecting hundreds of tents for nearly 3,000 soldiers. I asked their commander, a wiry brigadier general, if and when the troops would leave Kyrgyzstan (and its neighbour Uzbekistan, where Washington set up a second airbase). "There is no time limit," he replied. "We will pull out only when all al-Qaeda cells have been eradicated."
Today, the Americans are still there and many of the tents have been replaced by concrete buildings. Bush has used his massive military build-up in Central Asia to seal the cold war victory against Russia, to contain Chinese influence and to tighten the noose around Iran. Most importantly, however, Washington - supported by the Blair government - is exploiting the "war on terror" to further American oil interests in the Caspian region. But this geopolitical gamble involving thuggish dictators and corrupt Saudi oil sheiks is only likely to produce more terrorists.
For much of the past two years, I have researched the links between conflict in Central Asia and US oil interests. I travelled thousands of kilometres, meeting with generals, oil bosses, warlords and diplomats. They are all players in a geostrategic struggle - the new Great Game.
In this rerun of the first great game - the 19th-century imperial rivalry between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia - players once again position themselves to control the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Today, the US has taken over the leading role from the British. Along with the Russians, new regional powers, such as China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, have entered the arena, and transnational oil corporations are also pursuing their own interests.
The main spoils in today's Great Game are Caspian oil and gas. On its shores, and at the bottom of the Caspian Sea, lie the world's biggest untapped fossil fuel resources. Estimates range from 110 to 243bn barrels of crude, worth up to $4 trillion. According to the US department of energy, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone could sit on more than 130bn barrels, more than three times the US's reserves. Oil giants such as ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and BP have already invested more than $30bn in new production facilities.
"I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian," said Dick Cheney in a speech to oil industrialists in 1998. In May 2001, the US vice-president recommended in the national energy policy report that "the president makes energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy", singling out the Caspian basin as a "rapidly growing new area of supply".
With a potential oil production of up to 6m barrels per day by 2015, the Caspian region has become crucial to the US policy of "diversifying energy supply". It is designed to wean the US off its dependence on the Arab-dominated Opec cartel, which is using its near-monopoly position as pawn and leverage against industrialised countries. As global oil consumption keeps surging and many oil wells outside the Middle East are nearing depletion, Opec is expanding its share of the world market. At the same time, the US will have to import more than two-thirds of its total energy demand by 2020, mostly from the Middle East.
Many people in Washington are particularly uncomfortable with the growing power of Saudi Arabia. There is a fear that radical Islamist groups could topple the corrupt Saud dynasty and stop the flow of oil to "infidels". To stave off political turmoil, the regime in Riyadh funds the radical Islamic Wahabbi sect that foments terror against Americans around the world. In a desperate effort to decrease its dependence on Saudi oil sheiks, the US seeks to control the Caspian oil resources. However, fierce conflicts have broken out over pipeline routes. Russia, still regarding itself as imperial overlord of its former colonies, promotes pipeline routes across its territory, including Chechnya, in the north Caucasus. China, the increasingly oil-dependent waking giant in the region, wants to build eastbound pipelines from Kazakhstan. Iran is offering its pipeline network via the Persian Gulf.
By contrast, Washington champions two pipelines that would circumvent both Russia and Iran. One would run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. Construction has already begun for a $3.8bn pipeline from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, via neighbouring Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. BP, its main operator, has invested billions in oil-rich Azerbaijan, and can count on support from the Bush administration, which recently stationed about 500 elite troops in war-torn Georgia.
Washington's Great Game opponents, particularly in Moscow and Beijing, resent what they perceive as arrogant imperialism. Worried that the US presence might encourage internal unrest in its Central Asian province of Xingjiang, China has recently held joint military exercises with Kyrgyzstan. The Russian government initially tolerated the intrusion into its former empire, hoping Washington would in turn ignore the atrocities in Chechnya. However, the much-hyped "new strategic partnership" against terror between the Kremlin and the White House has turned out to be more of a temporary tactical teaming-up. For the majority of the Russian establishment it is unthinkable to permanently cede its hegemonic claims on Central Asia.
Two weeks ago, Russia's defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, demanded publicly that the Americans pull out within two years. Ominously, President Putin has signed new security pacts with the Central Asian rulers, allowing Russian troops to set up a new military base in Kyrgyzstan, which lies only 35 miles away from the US airbase.
Besides raising the spectre of inter-state conflict, the Bush administration is wooing some of the region's most tyrannical dictators. One of them is Islam Karimov, the ex-communist ruler of Uzbekistan, whose regime brutally suppresses any opposition and Islamic groups. "Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I will shoot them myself," Karimov once told his rubber-stamp parliament.
Although the US state department acknowledges that Uzbek security forces use "torture as a routine investigation technique", Washington last year gave the Karimov regime $500m in aid and rent payments for the US air base in Chanabad. The state department also quietly removed Uzbekistan from its annual list of countries where freedom of religion is under threat. The British government seems to support Washington's policy, as Whitehall recently recalled its ambassador Craig Murray from Tashkent after he openly decried Uzbekistan's abysmal human rights record.
Worse is to come: disgusted with the US's cynical alliances with their corrupt and despotic rulers, the region's impoverished populaces increasingly embrace virulent anti-Americanism and militant Islam. As in Iraq, America's brazen energy imperialism in Central Asia jeopardises the few successes in the war on terror because the resentment it causes makes it ever easier for terrorist groups to recruit angry young men. It is all very well to pursue oil interests, but is it worth mortgaging our security to do so?
Jump to TO Features for Tuesday 21 October 2003