Page 1 of 2 Pipelineistan goes Af-Pak
By Pepe Escobar
As United States President Barack Obama heads into his second 100 days in
office, let's head for the big picture ourselves, the ultimate global plot
line, the tumultuous rush towards a new, polycentric world order. In its first
100 days, the Obama presidency introduced us to a brand new acronym, OCO - for
Overseas Contingency Operations - formerly known as GWOT (as in "global war on
Use either name, or anything else you want, and what you're really talking
about is what's happening on the immense energy battlefield that extends from
Iran to the Pacific Ocean. It's there that the liquid war for the control of
Eurasia takes place.
Yep, it all comes down to black gold and "blue gold" (natural gas), hydrocarbon
wealth beyond compare, and so it's time to trek back
to that ever-flowing wonderland - Pipelineistan. It's time to dust off the
acronyms, especially the SCO or Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the Asian
response to NATO, and learn a few new ones like IPI and TAPI. Above all, it's
time to check out the most recent moves on the giant chessboard of Eurasia,
where Washington wants to be a crucial, if not dominant, player.
We've already seen Pipelineistan wars in Kosovo and Georgia, and we've followed
Washington's favorite pipeline, the BTC, which was supposed to tilt the flow of
energy westward, sending oil coursing past both Iran and Russia. Things didn't
quite turn out that way, but we've got to move on, the New Great Game never
stops. Now, it's time to grasp just what the Asian Energy Security Grid is all
about, visit a surreal natural gas republic, and understand why that Grid is so
deeply implicated in the Af-Pak war.
Every time I've visited Iran, energy analysts stress the total "interdependence
of Asia and Persian Gulf geo-ecopolitics". What they mean is the ultimate
importance to various great and regional powers of Asian integration via a
sprawling mass of energy pipelines that will someday, somehow, link the Persian
Gulf, Central Asia, South Asia, Russia and China. The major Iranian card in the
Asian integration game is the gigantic South Pars natural gas field (which Iran
shares with Qatar). It is estimated to hold at least 9% of the world's proven
natural gas reserves.
As much as Washington may live in perpetual denial, Russia and Iran together
control roughly 20% of the world's oil reserves and nearly 50% of its gas
reserves. Think about that for a moment. It's little wonder that, for the
leadership of both countries as well as China's, the idea of Asian integration,
of the Grid, is sacrosanct.
If it ever gets built, a major node on that Grid will surely be the prospective
US$7.6 billion Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, also known as the "peace
pipeline". After years of wrangling, a nearly miraculous agreement for its
construction was initialed in 2008. At least in this rare case, both Pakistan
and India stood shoulder to shoulder in rejecting relentless pressure from the
Bush administration to scotch the deal.
It couldn't be otherwise. Pakistan, after all, is an energy-poor, desperate
customer of the Grid. One year ago, in a speech at Beijing's Tsinghua
University, then-president Pervez Musharraf did everything but drop to his
knees and beg China to dump money into pipelines linking the Persian Gulf and
Pakistan with China's far west. If this were to happen, it might help transform
Pakistan from a near-failed state into a mighty "energy corridor" to the Middle
East. If you think of a pipeline as an umbilical cord, it goes without saying
that IPI, far more than any form of US aid (or outright interference), would go
the extra mile in stabilizing the Pak half of Obama's Af-Pak theater of
operations, and even possibly relieve it of its India obsession.
If Pakistan's fate is in question, Iran's is another matter. Though currently
only holding "observer" status in the SCO, sooner or later it will inevitably
become a full member and so enjoy NATO-style,
an-attack-on-one-of-us-is-an-attack-on-all-of-us protection. Imagine, then, the
cataclysmic consequences of an Israeli preemptive strike (backed by Washington
or not) on Iran's nuclear facilities. The SCO will tackle this knotty issue at
its next summit in June, in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
Iran's relations with both Russia and China are swell - and will remain so no
matter who is elected the new Iranian president next month. China desperately
needs Iranian oil and gas, has already clinched a $100 billion gas "deal of the
century" with the Iranians and has loads of weapons and cheap consumer goods to
sell. No less close to Iran, Russia wants to sell them even more weapons, as
well as nuclear energy technology.
And then, moving ever eastward on the great Grid, there's Turkmenistan, lodged
deep in Central Asia, which, unlike Iran, you may never have heard a thing
about. Let's correct that now.
Gurbanguly is the man
Alas, the sun-king of Turkmenistan, the wily, wacky Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi"
Nyazov, "the father of all Turkmen" (descendants of a formidable race of
nomadic horseback warriors who used to attack Silk Road caravans) is now dead.
But far from forgotten.
The Chinese were huge fans of the Turkmenbashi. And the joy was mutual. One key
reason the Central Asians love to do business with China is that the Middle
Kingdom, unlike both Russia and the United States, carries little modern
imperial baggage. And of course, China will never carp about human rights or
foment a color-coded revolution of any sort.
The Chinese are already moving to successfully lobby the new Turkmen president,
the spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to speed up the
construction of the Mother of All Pipelines. This Turkmen-Kazakh-China
Pipelineistan corridor from eastern Turkmenistan to China's Guangdong province
will be the longest and most expensive pipeline in the world, 7,000 kilometers
of steel pipe at a staggering cost of $26 billion. When China signed the
agreement to build it in 2007, they made sure to add a clever little
geopolitical kicker. The agreement explicitly states that "Chinese interests"
will not be "threatened from [Turkmenistan's] territory by third parties”. In
translation: no Pentagon bases allowed in that country.
China's deft energy diplomacy game plan in the former Soviet republics of
Central Asia is a pure winner. In the case of Turkmenistan, lucrative deals are
offered and partnerships with Russia are encouraged to boost Turkmen gas
production. There are to be no Russian-Chinese antagonisms, as befits the main
partners in the SCO, because the Asian Energy Security Grid story is really and
truly about them.
By the way, elsewhere on the Grid, those two countries recently agreed to
extend the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline to China by the end of
2010. After all, energy-ravenous China badly needs not just Turkmen gas, but
Russia's liquefied natural gas (LNG).
With energy prices low and the global economy melting down, times are sure to
be tough for the Kremlin through at least 2010, but this won't derail its push
to forge a Central Asian energy club within the SCO. Think of all this as
essentially an energy entente cordiale with China. Russian Deputy Industry and
Energy Minister Ivan Materov has been among those insistently swearing that
this will not someday lead to a "gas OPEC [the Organization of Petroleum
Exporting Countries]" within the SCO. It remains to be seen how the Obama
national security team decides to counteract the successful Russian strategy of
undermining by all possible means a US-promoted East-West Caspian Sea energy
corridor, while solidifying a Russian-controlled Pipelineistan stretching from
Kazakhstan to Greece that will monopolize the flow of energy to Western Europe.
The real Afghan war
In the ever-shifting New Great Game in Eurasia, a key question - why
Afghanistan matters - is simply not part of the discussion in the United
States. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the liberation of Afghan women.) In
part, this is because the idea that energy and Afghanistan might have anything
in common is verboten.
And yet, rest assured, nothing of significance takes place in Eurasia without
an energy angle. In the case of Afghanistan, keep in mind that Central and
South Asia have been considered by American strategists as crucial places to
plant the flag; and once the Soviet Union collapsed, control of the energy-rich
former Soviet republics in the region was quickly seen as essential to future
US global power. It would be there, as they imagined it, that the US Empire of
Bases would intersect crucially with Pipelineistan in a way that would leave
both Russia and China on the defensive.
Think of Afghanistan, then, as an overlooked subplot in the ongoing Liquid War.
After all, an overarching goal of US foreign policy since president Richard
Nixon's era in the early 1970s has been to split Russia and China. The
leadership of the SCO has been focused on this since the US Congress passed the
Silk Road Strategy Act five days before beginning the bombing of Serbia in
March 1999. That act clearly identified American geostrategic interests from
the Black Sea to western China with building a mosaic of American protectorates
in Central Asia and militarizing the Eurasian energy corridor.
Afghanistan, as it happens, sits conveniently at the crossroads of any new Silk
Road linking the Caucasus to western China, and four nuclear powers (China,
Russia, Pakistan and India) lurk in the vicinity. "Losing" Afghanistan and its
key network of US military bases would, from the Pentagon's point of view, be a
disaster, and though it may be a secondary matter in the New Great Game of the
moment, it's worth remembering that the country itself is a lot more than the
towering mountains of the Hindu Kush and immense deserts: it's believed to be
rich in unexplored deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chrome,
talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc and iron ore, as well as precious and
And there's something highly toxic to be added to this already lethal mix:
don't forget the narco-dollar angle - the fact that the global heroin cartels
that feast on Afghanistan only work with US dollars, not euros. For the SCO,
the top security threat in Afghanistan isn't the Taliban, but the drug
business. Russia's anti-drug czar Viktor Ivanov routinely blasts the disaster
that passes for a US/NATO anti-drug war there, stressing that Afghan heroin now
kills 30,000 Russians annually, twice as many as were killed during the
decade-long US-supported anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of the 1980s.
And then, of course, there are those competing pipelines that, if ever built,
either would or wouldn't exclude Iran and Russia from the action to their
south. In April 2008, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India actually
signed an agreement to build a long-dreamt-about $7.6 billion (and counting)
pipeline, whose acronym TAPI combines the first letters of their names and
would also someday deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India
without the involvement of either Iran or Russia. It would cut right through
the heart of Western Afghanistan, in Herat, and head south across lightly
populated Nimruz and Helmand provinces, where the Taliban, various Pashtun
guerrillas and assorted highway robbers now merrily run rings around US and
NATO forces and where - surprise! - the US is now building in Dasht-e-Margo
("the Desert of Death") a new mega-base to host President Obama's surge troops.
TAPI's rival is the already mentioned IPI, also theoretically underway and
widely derided by Heritage Foundation types in the US, who regularly launch
blasts of angry prose at the nefarious idea of India and Pakistan importing gas
from "evil" Iran. Theoretically, TAPI's construction will start in 2010 and the
gas would begin flowing by 2015. (Don't hold your breath.) Embattled Afghan
President Hamid Karzai, who can hardly secure a few square blocks of central
Kabul, even with the help of international forces, nonetheless offered
assurances last year that he would not only rid his country of millions of land
mines along TAPI's route but somehow get rid of the Taliban in the bargain.
Should there be investors (nursed by Afghan opium dreams) delirious enough to
sink their money into such a pipeline - and that's a monumental if -
Afghanistan would collect only $160 million a year in transit fees, a mere
bagatelle even if it does represent a big chunk of the embattled Karzai's
current annual revenue. Count on one thing though, if it ever happened, the
Taliban and assorted warlords/highway robbers would be sure to get a cut of the
A Clinton-Bush-Obama great game
TAPI's roller-coaster history actually begins in the mid-1990s, the Clinton
era, when the Taliban were dined (but not wined) by the California-based energy
company Unocal and the Clinton machine. In 1995, Unocal first came up with the
pipeline idea, even then a product of Washington's fatal urge to bypass both
Iran and Russia. Next, Unocal talked to the Turkmenbashi, then to the Taliban,
and so launched a classic New Great Game gambit that has yet to end and without
which you can't understand the Afghan war Obama has inherited.
A Taliban delegation, thanks to Unocal, enjoyed Houston's hospitality in early
1997 and then Washington's in December of that year. When it came to energy
negotiations, the Taliban's leadership was anything but medieval. They were
tough bargainers, also cannily courting the Argentinean private oil company
Bridas, which had secured the right to explore and exploit oil reserves in