Oil and the New Great Game
by Lutz Kleveman
The Nation magazine, February
... the new "Great Game" [is
a] rerun of the first "Great Game", the nineteenth century
imperial rivalry between the British Empire and czarist Russia,
[as] powerful players once again position themselves to control
the heart of the Eurasian landmass, left in a post-Soviet power
vacuum. Today, the United States 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
pursing their own interest in a brash, Wild East style.
Since September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration
has undertaken a massive buildup in Central Asia, deploying thousands
of US troops not only in Afghanistan but also in the newly independent
republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. These first US
combat troops on former Soviet territory have dramatically altered
the geostrategic 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. Most
important, however, the Bush Administration is using the "war
on terror" to further American 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 America's prospects of defeating
the forces responsible for the September 11 attacks.
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 219 billion barrels of crude, worth up to $4 trillion. According
to the US Energy Department, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone could
sit on more than 110 billion barrels, more than three times the
US reserves. Oil giants such as ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and
British Petroleum have already invested more than $30 billion
in new production facilities.
The aggressive US pursuit of oil interests
in the Caspian did not start with the Bush Administration but
during the Clinton years, with the Democratic President personally
conducting oil and pipeline diplomacy with Caspian leaders. Despite
Clinton's failure to reduce the Russian influence in the region
decisively, American 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
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,
originally designed after the 1973 oil shock, is designed to wean
America off its dependence on the Arab-dominated OPEC cartel,
which has been using its near-monopoly position as pawn and 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 United States
will have to import more than two-thirds of its total energy needs
by 2020, mostly from the volatile 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.
As the recent bombings in Riyadh have shown, there is a growing
risk that radical Islamist groups will topple the corrupt Saud
dynasty, only to then stop the flow of oil to "infidels."
The consequences of 8 million barrels of oil-10 percent 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 stave off political turmoil, the regime in Riyadh funds the
radical Islamic Wahhabi sect, many of whose preachers call for
terror against Americans around the world.
To get out of its Faustian pact with Saudi
Arabia, the United States has tried to reduce its dependence on
Saudi oil sheiks by seeking to secure access to other sources.
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 the
imperial overlord of its former colonies, promotes pipeline routes
across its territory, notably 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, both the Clinton and Bush
administrations have J championed two pipelines that would circumvent
both Russia and Iran. One of them, first planned by the US oil
company Unocal in the mid-1990s, would run from Turkmenistan f
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 Niyazov to authorize construction
of a $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,
$3.6 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 wartorn Georgia in May 2002. 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 Ajaria.
Washington's Great Game opponents in Moscow
and Beijing resent the dramatically growing US influence in their
strategic backyard. Worried that the American presence might encourage
internal unrest in its Central Asian province of Xinjiang-whose
Turkic and Muslim population, the Uighurs, are striving for more
autonomy-China has recently held joint military exercises with
The Russian government initially tolerated
the American 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. The US presence in Russia's backyard
is becoming ever more assertive, but it is unthinkable for the
majority of the Russian establishment to permanently cede its
hegemonic claims on Central Asia.
One man who is quite frank about this
is Viktor Kalyuzhny, the Russian deputy foreign minister and President
Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the Caspian region, whom I interviewed
in Moscow last year. "We have a saying in Russia," he
told me. "If you have guests in the house there are two times
when you are happy. One is when they arrive, and one is when they
leave again." To make sure that I got the message, Kalyuzhny
added, "Guests should know that it is impolite to stay for
Unfazed by such Russian sensitivities,
American troops in Central Asia seem to be there to stay. Two
years ago, when I visited the new US air base in Kyrgyzstan, I
was struck by the massive commitment the Pentagon had made. With
the help of dozens of excavators, bulldozers and cranes, a pioneer
unit was busy erecting a new hangar for F/A-18 Hornet fighter
jets. Brawny pioneers in desert camouflage were setting up 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. "There
is no time limit," he replied. "We will pull out only
when all A1 Qaeda cells have been eradicated."
Today, the troops are still there and
many tents have been replaced by concrete buildings. Increasingly
annoyed, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has repeatedly
demanded that the Americans pull out 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 twenty miles away from the US
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 A1 Qaeda-like
organizations to recruit new fighters. They hate America 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 Heydar Aliyev, Kazakhstan's
Nursultan Nazarbayev and Pakistan's Musharraf.
The most tyrannical of Washington's new
allies is Islom Karimov, the ex-Communist 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
Although the US State Department acknowledges
that Uzbek security forces use "torture as a routine investigation
technique," Washington last year gave the Karimov regime
$500 million in aid and rent payments for the US air base 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
In the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, I once
met 20-year-old Ahmad, who declined to give his family name out
of fear of reprisal. Over a cup of tea the young man told me that
he had just been released from prison, after serving a three-year
sentence for allegedly belonging to an Islamic terrorist organization.
"The guards beat me every day," Ahmad said, his eyes
cast down. "It was awful, but I never stopped praying to
The group the Muslim belonged to was a
religious Sufi order that, he insisted, had nothing to do with
terrorists such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is
blamed for several deadly attacks in the late 1 990s. "But
maybe in the future my brothers and I have to defend ourselves
and fight," he told me. I asked Ahmad how he felt about the
arrival of American antiterror troops in Uzbekistan. "They
only make things worse. They don't help us, the people, but only
the government. I hate America."
What makes a man a terrorist? On my travels,
I met countless angry young men who, with nothing to lose but
their seemingly valueless lives, were prepared to fight for whatever
radical Islamic leaders told them was worth the fight. As in the
Middle East, lack of democracy is one of the root causes of terrorism
in Central Asia: The young men's anger is primarily directed against
their own corrupt and despotic regimes. As Washington shores up
these rulers, their disgusted subjects increasingly embrace militant
Islam and virulent anti-Americanism.
Recent events in Azerbaijan are perfect
examples of how this works. Whenever I travel to the capital of
Baku, I am impressed with the new glittery office buildings in
the city center and the many flashy Mercedes cars on the streets.
Smart biznizmeny and their wives stroll past expensive boutiques,
wearing Versace and Cartier jewelry. They are the few winners
of the oil boom. Just ten miles out of Baku, however, in the desolate
suburb of Sumgait, about 50,000 people live in abject poverty.
Many are refugees who fled the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia
over the NagornoKarabakh enclave in the early 1990s.
All of Sumgait's fourteen Soviet-era factories
have been shut down, leaving everybody jobless. There is little
electricity or running water. One man, who eked out a living with
his wife and several children and grandchildren in a single room
of a shabby highrise block, told me, "What oil boom? Our
president's family and the oil companies put all the money into
Azerbaijan is known as "BP country,"
as the company wields a budget of $15 billion to be invested off
the Azeri coast over the coming years. "If we pulled out
of Baku," a former BP spokesman once told me, "the country
would collapse overnight." So Big Oil's interests had to
be taken into account when Azerbaijan's late ruler, Heydar Aliyev,
feeling that his death was nigh, rigged the presidential elections
last October to pass on his crown to his playboy son Ilham. This
establishment of the first dynasty in the former Soviet Union
triggered popular protests in the capital that were brutally put
down by Aliyev's security forces. They arrested hundreds of opposition
members and killed at least two people.
The next day, US Deputy Secretary of State
Richard Armitage officially congratulated the new baby dictator
on his "strong showing." Armitage is also a former board
member of the US-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce in Washington,
set up in 1995 to promote US companies' interests in Azerbaijan's
multibillion-dollar oil industry. Democracy versus stability for
oil investments-few Azeris will forget what side the US government
It need not be that way. The US-supported
overthrow in November of strongman Eduard Shevardnadze in neighboring
Georgia, a linchpin country for the pipeline export of Caspian
oil and gas, showed that protecting strategic energy interests
can, however accidentally, go hand in hand with promoting democracy.
To be sure, the Bush Administration's motives for dropping Shevardnadze
had less to do with a sudden pro-democracy epiphany than with
hard-nosed realpolitik: Washington's longtime pet ally-who had
secured nearly $100 million in annual US aid for Georgia, which
is more per capita than any other country except Israel-could
no longer provide stability in Georgia and had recently allowed
Russian companies to buy up most of the country's energy sector,
which increased Moscow's clout on this crucial Great Game battleground
at Washington's expense.
While it is too early to tell how things
in Georgia will play out, one general lesson appears clear: The
September 11 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. American dealings with Saudi Arabia
have become a fatal affair. President Bush acknowledged as much
in recent speeches calling on Saudi Arabia to start democratic
reforms to dry up the breeding ground for terrorism.
In Central Asia, however, the current
US policy of aiding tyrants repeats the very same mistakes that
gave rise to bin Ladenism in the 1980s and '90s. Most Central
Asians believe that US antiterror troops are stationed in their
region mainly to secure American oil interests. I lost count of
how many Azeris, Uzbeks, Afghans and Iraqis I met during my travels
who told me that "it's all about oil." Right or wrong,
this distrust of the US government's motives is one of the key
factors in the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The presence
of US troops on their soil motivates angry Muslim men to sign
up with Al Qaeda-like terror groups. However terribly they suffered
under Saddam Hussein, few Iraqis today believe that America would
have sent its young men and women to the region if there were
only strawberry fields to protect.
With or without military force, there
are obvious limits to any US government's ability to nudge autocratic
petrostate regimes toward democratic reform-especially as long
as America is becoming ever more dependent on oil imports. An
addict is hardly able to force his pusher to change his criminal
activities. In the United States, 4 percent of the world's population
consumes one-fourth of the world's energy. One out of every seven
barrels of oil produced in the world is burned on American highways.
This is not quite a position that allows us to tell Arab oil sheiks
and Central Asian despots, "If you don't stop churning out
angry young men, we won't do business with you anymore."
For the common people in all oil-producing
countries (except Norway and Britain), oil wealth has been more
of a curse than a blessing, leading to corruption, political instability,
economic decline, environmental degradation, coups and often bloody
civil wars. This is why oil is known as the "devil's tears."
Today, however, the local people's problems are America's too,
because it has become clear since the September 11 attacks how
the politics of oil contribute to the rise of radical Islamic
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 the
most powerful weapon 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 continue in the wrong
direction. It is time to realize that more gas-guzzling Hummers
on US highways only lead to more Humvees (and American soldiers)
near oilfields. What is urgently needed instead-for security reasons-is
a sustainable alternative energy policy.
Ultimately, no matter how cleverly the
United States 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 may prove too
vulnerable to terrorist attacks to guarantee a stable supply.
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
Lutz Kleveman (lutz@,kleveman.com) is
the author of The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia
(Atlantic Books, www . newgreatgame. com).
Central Asia watch