Page 1 of 2 Liquid war: Welcome to Pipelineistan
By Pepe Escobar
What happens on the immense battlefield for the control of Eurasia will provide
the ultimate plot line in the tumultuous rush towards a new, polycentric world
order, also known as the New Great Game.
Our good ol' friend the nonsensical "global war on terror", which the Pentagon
has slyly rebranded "the Long War", sports a far more important, if
half-hidden, twin - a global energy war. I like to think of it as the Liquid
War, because its bloodstream is the pipelines that crisscross the potential
imperial battlefields of the planet. Put another way, if its crucial embattled
frontier these days is the Caspian Basin, the whole of Eurasia is its
chessboard. Think of it, geographically, as Pipelineistan.
All geopolitical junkies need a fix. Since the second half of the
1990s, I've been hooked on pipelines. I've crossed the Caspian in an Azeri
cargo ship just to follow the $4 billion Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, better
known in this chess game by its acronym, BTC, through the Caucasus. (Oh, by the
way, the map of Pipelineistan is chicken-scratched with acronyms, so get used
I've also trekked various of the overlapping modern Silk Roads, or perhaps Silk
Pipelines, of possible future energy flows from Shanghai to Istanbul,
annotating my own do-it-yourself routes for LNG (liquefied natural gas). I used
to avidly follow the adventures of that once-but-not-future Sun-King of Central
Asia, the now deceased Turkmenbashi or "leader of the Turkmen", Saparmurat
Niyazov, head of the immensely gas-rich Republic of Turkmenistan, as if he were
a Conradian hero.
In Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan (before it was moved to Astana, in
the middle of the middle of nowhere) the locals were puzzled when I expressed
an overwhelming urge to drive to that country's oil boomtown Aktau. ("Why?
There's nothing there.") Entering the Space Odyssey-style map room at
the Russian energy giant Gazprom's headquarters in Moscow - which digitally
details every single pipeline in Eurasia - or the National Iranian Oil Company
(NIOC)'s corporate HQ in Tehran, with its neat rows of female experts in full chador,
was my equivalent of entering Aladdin's cave. And never reading the words
"Afghanistan" and "oil" in the same sentence is still a source of endless
amusement for me.
Last year, oil cost a king's ransom. This year, it's relatively cheap. But
don't be fooled. Price isn't the point here. Like it or not, energy is still
what everyone who's anyone wants to get their hands on. So consider this
dispatch just the first installment in a long, long tale of some of the moves
that have been, or will be, made in the maddeningly complex New Great Game,
which goes on unceasingly, no matter what else muscles into the headlines this
Forget the mainstream media's obsession with al-Qaeda, Osama "dead or alive"
bin Laden, the Taliban - neo, light or classic - or that "war on terror",
whatever name it goes by. These are diversions compared to the high-stakes,
hardcore geopolitical game that follows what flows along the pipelines of the
Who said Pipelineistan couldn't be fun?
Calling Dr Zbig In his 1997 magnum opus The Grand Chessboard,
Zbigniew Brzezinski - realpolitik practitioner extraordinaire and former
national security advisor to Jimmy Carter, the president who launched the US on
its modern energy wars - laid out in some detail just how to hang on to
American "global primacy". Later, his master plan would be duly copied by that
lethal bunch of Dr No's congregated at Bill Kristol's Project for a New
American Century (PNAC, in case you'd forgotten the acronym since its website
and its followers went down).
For Dr Zbig, who, like me, gets his fix from Eurasia - from, that is, thinking
big - it all boils down to fostering the emergence of just the right set of
"strategically compatible partners" for Washington in places where energy flows
are strongest. This, as he so politely put it back then, should be done to
shape "a more cooperative trans-Eurasian security system".
By now, Dr Zbig - among whose fans is evidently President Barack Obama - must
have noticed that the Eurasian train which was to deliver the energy goods has
been slightly derailed. The Asian part of Eurasia, it seems, begs to differ.
Global financial crisis or not, oil and natural gas are the long-term keys to
an inexorable transfer of economic power from the West to Asia. Those who
control Pipelineistan - and despite all the dreaming and planning that's gone
on there, it's unlikely to be Washington - will have the upper hand in whatever
is to come, and there's not a terrorist in the world, or even a "long war",
that can change that.
Energy expert Michael Klare has been instrumental in identifying the key
vectors in the wild, ongoing global scramble for power over Pipelineistan.
These range from the increasing scarcity (and difficulty of reaching) primary
energy supplies to "the painfully slow development of energy alternatives".
Though you may not have noticed, the first skirmishes in Pipelineistan's Liquid
War are already on, and even in the worst of economic times, the risk mounts
constantly, given the relentless competition between the West and Asia, be it
in the Middle East, in the Caspian theater, or in African oil-rich states like
Angola, Nigeria and Sudan.
In these early skirmishes of the 21st century, China reacted swiftly indeed.
Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, its leaders were formulating a
response to what they saw as the reptilian encroachment of the West on the oil
and gas lands of Central Asia, especially in the Caspian Sea region. To be
specific, in June 2001, its leaders joined with Russia's to form the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization. It's known as the SCO and that's an acronym you
should memorize. It's going to be around for a while.
Back then, the SCO's junior members were, tellingly enough, the Stans, the
energy-rich former SSRs of the Soviet Union - Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan,
Kazakhstan and Tajikistan - which the Bill Clinton administration and then the
new George W Bush administration, run by those former energy men, had been
eyeing covetously. The organization was to be a multi-layered economic and
military regional cooperation society that, as both the Chinese and the
Russians saw it, would function as a kind of security blanket around the upper
rim of Afghanistan.
Iran is, of course, a crucial energy node of West Asia and that country's
leaders, too, would prove no slouches when it came to the New Great Game. It
needs at least $200 billion in foreign investment to truly modernize its
fabulous oil and gas reserves - and thus sell much more to the West than
US-imposed sanctions now allow.
No wonder Iran soon became a target in Washington. No wonder an air assault on
that country remains the ultimate wet dream of assorted Likudniks as well as
former vice president Dick ("Angler") Cheney and his neo-conservative
chamberlains and comrades-in-arms. As seen by the elite from Tehran and Delhi
to Beijing and Moscow, such a US attack, now likely off the radar screen until
at least 2012, would be a war not only against Russia and China, but against
the whole project of Asian integration that the SCO is coming to represent.
Meanwhile, as the Obama administration tries to sort out its Iranian, Afghan,
and Central Asian policies, Beijing continues to dream of a secure,
fast-flowing, energy version of the old Silk Road, extending from the Caspian
Basin (the energy-rich Stans plus Iran and Russia) to Xinjiang province, its
The SCO has expanded its aims and scope since 2001. Today, Iran, India, and
Pakistan enjoy "observer status" in an organization that increasingly aims to
control and protect not just regional energy supplies, but Pipelineistan in
every direction. This is, of course, the role the Washington ruling elite would
like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to play across Eurasia.
Given that Russia and China expect the SCO to play a similar role across Asia,
clashes of various sorts are inevitable.
Ask any relevant expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing
and he will tell you that the SCO should be understood as a historically unique
alliance of five non-Western civilizations - Russian, Chinese, Muslim, Hindu,
and Buddhist - and, because of that, capable of evolving into the basis for a
collective security system in Eurasia. That's a thought sure to discomfort
classic inside-the-Beltway global strategists like Dr Zbig and president George
H W Bush's national security advisor Brent Scowcroft.
According to the view from Beijing, the rising world order of the 21st century
will be significantly determined by a quadrangle of BRIC countries - for those
of you by now collecting New Great Game acronyms, that stands for Brazil,
Russia, India and China - plus the future Islamic triangle of Iran, Saudi
Arabia and Turkey. Add in a unified South America, no longer in thrall to
Washington, and you have a global SCO-plus. On the drawing boards, at least,
it's a high-octane dream.
The key to any of this is a continuing Sino-Russian entente cordiale.
Already in 1999, watching NATO and the United States aggressively expand into
the distant Balkans, Beijing identified this new game for what it was: a
developing energy war. And at stake were the oil and natural gas reserves of
what Americans would soon be calling the "arc of instability," a vast span of
lands extending from North Africa to the Chinese border.
No less important would be the routes pipelines would take in bringing the
energy buried in those lands to the West. Where they would be built, the
countries they would cross, would determine