Foreign Policy in Focus
While the world focuses on the upcoming war with Iraq, there is a quiet, yet titanic struggle going on in Central Asia, a 21st century version of the imperial “Great Game.”
In the 19th century, the Russians, British, Turks, and French plotted and schemed to control of the wealth of the Indian subcontinent. Today, the warriors are multinational corporations and their weapons, giant pipelines. The prize: hundreds of billions of dollars in gas and oil, and strategic command over what conquerors from Alexander the Great to Tamerlane saw as the crossroads of empire.
The focus of the “Game” is the Caspian Sea’s 30 billion barrels of oil and the vast natural gas fields of Turkmenistan. Who exploits them and where the great pipelines end up will determine who dominates one of the last great untapped sources of energy on the planet.
“Whoever can shape the way that pipeline map looks will shape the future of a huge part of the world,” says Frederick Starr, chair of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute of John Hopkins University.
The Bush Administration has long made the region a priority. In 2001, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy Development Group argued that the U.S. must “ensure the rising Caspian oil production is effectively integrated into the world oil trade.”
A number of U.S. oil companies are already on the ground. Unocal Oil is planning to invest up to $2.7 billion in a 1,000-mile pipeline to ship natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Cheney’s old company, Halliburton Oil, is active in Azerbaijan, while ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil are developing Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field.
Currently, major pipelines run from the Caspian to Novorossiysk, Russia, and then to Western Europe via Belarus, with the Russians skimming much of the profits. But the Turkmenistan-Pakistan pipeline will cut into that monopoly, as will the massive $3 billion BTC pipeline set to be completed in 2006. A consortium of 11 oil companies, in which British and U.S. oil companies are prominent, owns the 1,094-mile BTC pipeline. Rather than shipping the oil north through Russia, the pipeline will start in Azerbaijan, run through Georgia, and end at Ceyhan, Turkey, on the Black Sea.
BTC is represented by the firm of Baker & Botts, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, and a Bush spokesperson during the Florida vote snafu. Enron, along with Bechtel Corporation and General Electric, conducted the feasibility study for the pipeline.
While the Bush Administration’s main obsession has been the enormous Middle East reserves, Central Asia itself holds substantial reserves. Most importantly, however, it exerts important influence on a region that borders on China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Russia, and several former republics of the Soviet Union.
Russia is particularly nervous about the possible loss of oil revenues. Its 13 percent economic growth over the past two years is largely a result of its status as the second largest exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia.
The Russians should indeed have cause for unease. In his June 2002 West Point speech, President Bush said that the U.S. intends to prevent the emergence of any “peer competitors” in the world. While the pipeline offensive is clearly aimed at maximizing profits for U.S. oil companies, might it also be aimed at destabilizing potential rivals, specifically Russia and China?
This is a high stakes game, with a serious potential for instability. The countries that border the Caspian are not agreed on how to share the oil, and gun boats from Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran have occasionally faced off on its waters. Georgia and Azerbaijan are locked into low-level civil wars, as are the Turks and Kurds.
Added to this is the growing instability in Afghanistan, where the U.S.- backed warlords have fallen out with the Kabul government. There is also a growing insurgency against the Americans led by a resurgent Taliban.
Pipeline investors are deeply concerned with security, even to the point of considering hiring private armies. The most likely candidate for pipeline protection, however, is the U.S. military.
“If one looks at the map of the big American bases created for the war (in Afghanistan),” notes former Israeli Knesset member Uri Avery, “one is struck by the fact that they are completely identical to the route of the projected pipeline to the Indian Ocean.”
According to the Sidney Morning Herald, the U.S. has already spent some $200 billion creating strongholds in Central Asia.
Central Asia has long been a graveyard for armies, and the “Great Game” has proved a grand illusion. Once again the wind swept passes of the Hindu Kush, and the fierce deserts of the Karakul beckon with the promise of wealth and power.
But if the past is any guide to the future, they will deliver only folly.