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The New Great Game

How is our increasing dependence on oil — and our search for it — jeopardizing the war on terrorism?

January 4, 2004

How is our increasing dependence on oil — and our search for it — jeopardizing the war on terrorism?

Nearly two years ago, I traveled to Kyrgyzstan — the mountainous ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia — in order to witness a historical event: the deployment of the first U.S. combat troops on former Soviet soil.

As part of the Afghan campaign, the U.S. Air Force set up a huge base near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

Brawny pioneers in desert camouflages were busy erecting hundreds of “Harvest Falcon” and “Force Provider” tents for nearly 3,000 soldiers.

I asked their commander, a wiry brigadier general, if and when the troops would ever leave Kyrgyzstan (and its neighbor Uzbekistan, where Washington had 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 Today, the Americans are still there — and many tents have been replaced by concrete buildings.

The Bush Administration has used its massive military build-up in Central Asia for a powerful triple play: Seal its Cold War victory against Russia, contain Chinese influence and tighten the noose around Iran.

Most important, however, Washington — supported by the Blair government — is exploiting the war on terror to further U.S. oil interests in the Caspian region.

This dramatic geopolitical gamble — involving thuggish dictators and corrupt Saudi oil sheiks — is deeply troubling.

Why? In my view, it is likely to produce more terrorists. For much of the past two years, I researched the links between conflicts in Central Asia and U.S. oil interests.

I traveled thousands of kilometers from the eastern shores of the Black Sea, the Caucasus peaks across the Caspian Sea and the Central Asian plains — all the way down to the Afghan Hindu Kush and Pakistan.

I met with countless generals, oil bosses, warlords and diplomats — all of them players in a geo-strategic struggle that increasingly overshadows the war on terror: Call it the “New Great Game”.

In this rerun of the first “Great Game” — the 19th century imperial rivalry between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia — powerful players are once again positioning themselves to control the heart of the Eurasian landmass, left in a post-Soviet power vacuum.

Today, the United States 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.

Last, but certainly not least, transnational oil corporations are also pursuing their own interests.

The main spoils of 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 110 to 243 billion barrels of crude oil — worth up to $4 trillion.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone could sit on more than 130 billion barrels, more than three times the U.S. reserves.

Oil giants such as ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and British Petroleum have already invested more than $30 billion 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,” declared future U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in a 1998 speech to oil industrialists. At the time of the speech, Mr. Cheney was still the CEO of oil service giant Halliburton.

Before long, Mr. Cheney had recommended in a May 2001 National Energy Policy report that “the President make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy.”

Vice President Cheney singled out the Caspian Basin as a “rapidly growing new area of supply.”

With a potential oil production of up to six million barrels per day by 2015, the Caspian region has become crucial to the U.S. policy of “diversifying energy supply.”

It is designed to wean America off its dependence on the Arab-dominated OPEC cartel, which is using its dominant market position as pawn and leverage against industrialized countries.

As global oil consumption continues to surge and many oil wells outside the Middle East near depletion, in the long run, OPEC is going to expand its share of the world market.

At the same time, the United States will have to import more than two-thirds of its total energy demand by 2020 — mostly from the unstable Middle East.

Many people in Washington are particularly uncomfortable with the growing power of Saudi Arabia, whose terror ties have been exposed since the September 11 terror attacks.

There is a fear that radical Islamist groups could topple the corrupt Saudi dynasty and stop the flow of oil to “infidels.”

Even without an anti-Western revolution, Saudi petrol is already, as it were, ideologically contaminated.

To stave off political turmoil, the regime in Riyadh funds the radical Islamic Wahabi sect that foments terror against Americans around the world.

In a desperate effort to decrease its dependence on Saudi oil sheiks, the United States seeks to secure and control the fabulous Caspian oil resources.

However, fierce conflicts have broken out over pipeline routes from the landlocked region to high-sea ports. Russia, still regarding itself as an 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 for exports via the Persian Gulf. By contrast, Washington champions two pipelines that would circumvent both Russia and Iran.

One of them, first planned by the U.S. oil company Unocal in the mid-1990s, would run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

Construction has already begun for another gigantic $3.8 billion pipeline from Azerbaijan’s capital Baku — via neighboring Georgia to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

British Petroleum, its main operator, has invested billions in oil-rich Azerbaijan. It can count on firm political 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 imperialism.

Worried that the American 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 U.S. intrusion into its former empire, hoping Washington would in turn ignore the atrocities of Russian forces 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.

It allowed Russia’s battered economy to recover with the help of Western capital.

For the majority of the Russian establishment, it is unthinkable to permanently cede its hegemonic claims on Central Asia. Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s minister of defense, has recently demanded that the Americans pull out within two years.

Ominously, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed new security pacts with Central Asian rulers. They allow Russian troops to set up a new military base — which lies only 35 miles away from the U.S. airbase — in Kyrgyzstan.

Besides raising the specter of interstate conflict, the Bush Administration is wooing some of the region’s most tyrannical dictators in search of anti-terrorist allies in the New Great Game.

One of them is Islam Karimov, the ex-communist ruler of Uzbekistan. His regime has brutally suppressed any opposition — as well as 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.

The U.S. State Department acknowledges that Uzbek security forces use “torture as a routine investigation technique.”

However, Washington gave the Karimov regime $500 million in aid and rent payments in 2002 for the U.S. Air Base in Khanabad.

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.

It recently recalled Ambassador Craig Murray from Tashkent after he openly decried Uzbekistan’s abysmal human rights record.

Worse is to come: The region’s impoverished populaces are increasingly disgusted with the United States’ cynical alliances with their corrupt and despotic rulers under the rhetorical banner of human rights.

As a result, they are embracing virulent anti-Americanism and militant Islam.

As in Iraq, America’s determined energy imperialism in Central Asia jeopardizes the few successes the world community has made in the war on terror.

The resentment — which this strategy causes — makes it ever easier for terrorist groups to recruit angry young men as new fighters.

It is all very well to pursue oil interests, but is it worth mortgaging our security?

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