|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 influence.
By Lutz Kleveman
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 former Soviet 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."
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