The new ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia

ISN, Switzerland
July 29, 2004

The new ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia

Geostrategic considerations, the struggle against terrorism, and
concrete economic interests are among the intertwining strands of a
new ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia, with the US inheriting Britain’s
imperial role and trying to consolidate its post-Cold War sphere of

By Lutz Kleveman for ISN Security Watch
About two years ago, I visited the US airbase in Bagram, some thirty
miles north of the Afghan capital Kabul. A US Army public affairs
officer, a friendly Texan, gave me a tour of the sprawling camp, set
up after the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001. It was a clear
day, and one Chinook helicopter after the other took off to transport
combat troops into the nearby mountains. As we walked past the
endless rows of tents and men in desert camouflage uniforms, I
spotted a wooden pole carrying two makeshift street signs. They read
“Exxon Street” and “Petro Boulevard’. Slightly embarrassed, the PA
officer explained, “This is the fuel handlers’ workplace. The signs
are obviously a joke, a sort of irony.” As I am sure it was. It just
seemed an uncanny sight as I was researching the potential links
between the “war on terror” and US oil interests in Central Asia.

Strategic struggle for Wild East

I had already traveled thousands of miles from the Caucasus peaks
across the Caspian Sea and the Central Asian plains all the way down
to the Afghan Hindu Kush. On that journey I met with and interviewed
warlords, diplomats, politicians, generals, and oil bosses. They are
all players in a geo-strategic struggle that has become increasingly
intertwined with the war on terror: the “New Great Game”. In this
re-run of the first “Great Game,” the nineteenth-century imperial
rivalry between the British Empire and czarist Russia, powerful
players once again position themselves to control the heart of the
Eurasian landmass, left in a post-Soviet power vacuum. Today the US
has taken over the leading role from the British. Along with the
ever-present 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 in a brash, Wild
East style. Since 11 September 2001, the Bush Administration has
undertaken a massive military buildup in Central Asia, deploying
thousands of US troops, not only in Afghanistan but also in the
republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia. These first US
combat troops on former Soviet territory have dramatically altered
the geo-strategic power equations in the region, with Washington
trying to seal the Cold War victory against Russia, contain Chinese
influence, and tighten the noose around Iran.

Oil giants covet Caspian riches

Most importantly, however, the Bush Administration is using the “war
on terror” to further US energy interests in Central Asia. The bad
news is that this dramatic geopolitical gamble involving thuggish
dictators and corrupt Saudi oil sheiks is likely to produce only more
terrorists, jeopardizing US prospects of victory. The main spoils in
today’s Great Game are the Caspian energy reserves, principally 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
85 to 190 billion barrels of crude, worth up to US$5 trillion.
According the US Energy Department, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone
could sit on more than 130 billion barrels, more than three times the
US reserves. Oil giants such as ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and
British Petroleum have already invested more than US$30 billion in
new production facilities. The aggressive US pursuit of oil interests
in the Caspian did not start with the Bush Administration, but under
Clinton who personally conducted oil and pipeline diplomacy with
Caspian leaders. US industry leaders were impressed. “I cannot think
of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as
strategically significant as the Caspian,” declared Dick Cheney in
1998 in a speech to oil industrialists in Washington. Cheney was then
still CEO of the oil-services giant Halliburton. In May 2001 Cheney,
now US Vice President, recommended in the Administration’s seminal
National Energy Policy report that “the President make energy
security a priority of our trade and foreign policy,” singling out
the Caspian Basin as a “rapidly growing new area of supply.”

Chemical dependency

Keen to outdo Clinton’s oil record, the Bush Administration took the
new Great Game into its second round. With potential oil production
of up to 4.7 million barrels per day by 2010, the Caspian region has
become crucial to the US policy of “diversifying energy supply’. The
other major supplier is the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, where both the
Clinton and the Bush administrations have vigorously developed US oil
interests and strengthened ties with corrupt West African regimes.
The strategy of supply diversification is designed to wean the US off
its dependence on the Arab-dominated OPEC cartel, which has been
using its near-monopoly position as leverage against industrialized
countries. As global oil consumption keeps surging and many oil wells
outside the Middle East are nearing depletion, OPEC is in the long
run going to expand its share of the world market even further. At
the same time, the US will have to import more than two-thirds of its
total energy needs by 2010, mostly from the volatile Middle East.
Many people in Washington are particularly uncomfortable with the
growing turmoil in Saudi Arabia, whose terror ties have been exposed
since the 11 September 2001 terror attacks. As the recent bombings
and attacks on oil installations have shown, there is a growing risk
that radical Islamist groups could topple the corrupt Saud dynasty,
only to then stop the flow of oil to “infidels.” The consequences of
8 million barrels of oil – 10 per cent of global production –
disappearing from the world markets overnight would be disastrous.
Even without any such anti-Western revolution, the Saudi petrol is
already, as it were, ideologically contaminated. To supply the
ideological deficit left by lack of democracy, the Saudi ruling elite
relies on the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam – many of whose
preachers see no room for compromise with nations like the US.

Tapping new veins

To escape its Faustian pact with Saudi Arabia, the US has tried to
reduce its dependence on Saudi oil sheiks by seeking to secure access
to the fabulous oil and gas resources in the Gulf of Guinea and the
Caspian. Central Asia, however, is no less volatile than the Middle
East, and oil politics are only making matters worse: Fierce
conflicts have broken out over pipeline routes from the landlocked
Caspian region to high-sea ports. Russia, still regarding itself as
imperial overlord of its former colonies, promotes pipeline routes
across its territory, notably Chechnya, in the North Caucasus. China,
whose dependence on imported oil increases with its rapid
industrialization, wants to build eastbound pipelines from
Kazakhstan. Iran is offering its pipeline network for exports via the
Persian Gulf. By contrast, both the Clinton and Bush administrations
have championed two pipelines that would avoid both Russia and Iran.
One of them, first planned by the US oil company Unocal in the
mid-1990s, would run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the
Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean. Several months after
the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime Afghan President Hamid
Karzai, a former Unocal adviser, signed a treaty with Pakistani
leader Pervez Musharraf and the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niazov to
authorize construction of a US$3.2 billion gas pipeline through the
Herat-Kandahar corridor in Afghanistan, with a projected capacity of
about 1 trillion cubic feet of gas per year. A feasibility study is
under way, and a parallel pipeline for oil is also planned for a
later stage. So far, however, continuing warlordism in Afghanistan
has prevented any private investor from coming forward. Construction
has already begun on a gigantic, $3.8 billion oil pipeline from
Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku via neighboring Georgia to Turkey’s
Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. British Petroleum Amoco, its main
operator, has invested billions in oil-rich Azerbaijan and can count
on firm political support from the Bush Administration, which
stationed about 500 elite troops in war-torn Georgia in May 2002.

Pipeline perpetuates instability

Controversial for environmental and social reasons, as it is unlikely
to alleviate poverty in the notoriously corrupt transit countries,
the pipeline project also perpetuates instability in the South
Caucasus. With thousands of Russian troops still stationed in Georgia
and Armenia, Moscow has for years sought to deter Western pipeline
investors by fomenting bloody ethnic conflicts near the pipeline
route, in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and
in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and
Adjaria. Washington’s Great Game opponents in Moscow and Beijing
resent the dramatically growing US influence in their strategic
backyard. Worried that the US presence might encourage internal
unrest in its predominantly Muslim Central Asian province of
Xingjian, China has recently held joint military exercises with
Kyrgyzstan. The Russian government initially tolerated the US
intrusion into its former empire, hoping Washington would in turn
ignore Russian atrocities in Chechnya. However, for the Kremlin, the
much-hyped “new strategic partnership” against terror between the
Kremlin and the White House has always been little more than a
tactical and temporary marriage of convenience to allow Russia’s
battered economy to recover with the help of capital from Western
companies. It is unthinkable for the majority of the Russian
establishment to permanently cede its hegemonic claims on Central
Asia. Russia’s Defense Ministry has repeatedly demanded that the US
pull out of Russia’s backyard within two years. Significantly,
President Putin has signed new security pacts with the Central Asian
rulers and last October personally opened a new Russian military base
in Kyrgyzstan. It is the first base Moscow has set up outside
Russia’s borders since the end of the cold war. Equipped with fighter
jets, it lies only thirty-five miles away from the US airbase.

Strange bedfellows

Besides raising the specter of interstate conflict, the Bush
Administration’s energy imperialism jeopardizes the few successes in
the war on terror. That is because the resentment US policies cause
in Central Asia makes it easier for al Qaida-like organizations to
recruit new fighters. They hate the US because in its search for
antiterrorist allies in the new Great Game, the Bush Administration
has wooed some of the region’s most brutal autocrats, including
Azerbaijan’s Heidar Aliev, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev and
Pakistan’s Musharraf. The most tyrannical of Washington’s new allies
is Islam Karimov, the former Stalinist dictator of Uzbekistan who
allowed US troops to set up a large and permanent military base on
Uzbek soil during the Afghan campaign in late 2001. Ever since, the
Bush Administration has turned a blind eye to the Karimov regime’s
brutal suppression of opposition and Islamic groups. “Such people
must be shot in the head. If necessary, I will shoot them myself,”
Karimov once famously told his rubber-stamp parliament. Although the
US State Department acknowledges that Uzbek security forces use
“torture as a routine investigation technique,” Washington in 2002
gave the Karimov regime US$500 million in aid and rent payments for
the US airbase in Khanabad. Though Uzbek Muslims can be arrested
simply for wearing a long beard, the State Department also quietly
removed Uzbekistan from its annual list of countries where freedom of
religion is under threat. Even though the US this year held back
US$18 million in aid, Powell assured Karimov he was still in their
good books. “Uzbekistan is an important partner of the United States
in the war on terror and we have many shared strategic goals. This
decision does not mean that either our interests in the region or our
desire for continued cooperation with Uzbekistan has changed,” the
State Department said. The current US policy of aiding Central Asian
tyrants for the sake of oil politics repeats the very same mistakes
that gave rise to bin Ladenism in the 1980s and 1990s because their
disgusted subjects increasingly embrace militant Islam and virulent
anti-Americanism. Tellingly, Uzbekistan has recently seen a sharp
increase in terrorist activities, with several bomb attacks shaking
Tashkent in April, including the first-ever suicide bombings in
Central Asia. More than forty people died in gun battles between the
terrorists and security forces.

Alternatives to fossil fuels needed

The 11 September attacks have shown that the US government can no
longer afford to be indifferent toward how badly dictators in the
Middle East and Central Asia treat their people, as long as they keep
the oil flowing. So, while the war on terror may not be all about
oil, certainly in one sense it should be about just that. A bold
policy to reduce the addiction to oil would be a wise strategy to win
the epic struggle against terrorism. In the short term, this means
saving energy through more efficient technologies, necessary anyway
to slow the greenhouse effect and global warming. The Bush
Administration’s old-style energy policies of yet more fossil-fuel
production and waste are continuing in the wrong direction. It is
time to realize that more gas-guzzling Hummers on US highways only
lead to more Humvees (and US soldiers) near oilfields. What is
urgently needed instead – for security reasons – is a sustainable
alternative energy policy. Ultimately, no matter how cleverly the US
plays its cards in the New Great Game in Central Asia and no matter
how many military forces are deployed to protect oilfields and
pipelines, the oil infrastructure might prove too vulnerable to
terrorist attacks to guarantee a stable supply anyway. The Caspian
region may be the next big gas station but, as in the Middle East,
there are already a lot of men running around throwing matches.

Lutz Kleveman ([email protected]) is the author of The New Great
Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia (Atlantic Books, 2003,