About a year ago I visited the US air base in Bagram, some thirty miles north of the Afghan capital of 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 American oil interests in Central Asia. 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 geostrategic struggle that has become increasingly intertwined with the war on terror: the new “Great Game.”
In this rerun 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 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, and transnational oil corporations are also pursuing their own interests in a brash, Wild East style.
Since September 11, 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 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 second round.