Oil and the New Great Game
by Lutz C. Kleveman
The Nation magazine, February 16, 2004
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 Kyrgyzstan.
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 too long."
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 air base.
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
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 Parliament.
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 threat.
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 Allah."
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 their pockets."
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 took.
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
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
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
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 throwing matches.