Page 2 of 2 Pipelineistan goes Af-Pak
By Pepe Escobar
In August 1997, financially unstable Bridas sold 60% of its stock to Amoco,
which merged the next year with British Petroleum. A key Amoco consultant
happened to be that ubiquitous Eurasian player, former national security
advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, while another such luminary, Henry Kissinger, just
happened to be a consultant for Unocal. BP-Amoco, already developing the
Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, now became the major player in what had
already been dubbed the Trans-Afghan Pipeline or TAP. Inevitably, Unocal and
BP-Amoco went to war and let the lawyers settle things in a Texas court, where,
in October 1998 as the Clinton years drew to an end, BP-Amoco seemed to emerge
with the upper hand.
Under newly elected president George W Bush, however, Unocal
snuck back into the game and, as early as January 2001, was cozying up to the
Taliban yet again, this time supported by a star-studded governmental cast of
characters, including undersecretary of state Richard Armitage, himself a
former Unocal lobbyist. The Taliban were duly invited back to Washington in
March 2001 via Rahmatullah Hashimi, a top aide to "The Shadow," the movement's
leader Mullah Omar.
Negotiations eventually broke down because of those pesky transit fees the
Taliban demanded. Beware the Empire's fury. At a Group of Eight summit meeting
in Genoa in July 2001, Western diplomats indicated that the Bush administration
had decided to take the Taliban down before year's end. (Pakistani diplomats in
Islamabad would later confirm this to me.) The attacks of September 11, 2001
just slightly accelerated the schedule. Nicknamed "the kebab seller" in Kabul,
Hamid Karzai, a former Central Intelligence Agency asset and Unocal
representative, who had entertained visiting Taliban members at barbecues in
Houston, was soon forced down Afghan throats as the country's new leader.
Among the first fruits of defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's bombing and
invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 was the signing by Karzai,
Pakistani president Musharraf and Turkmenistan's president Saparmyrat Nyazov of
an agreement committing themselves to build TAP, formally launching a
Pipelineistan extension from Central to South Asia with brand USA stamped all
Russian President Vladimir Putin did nothing - until September 2006, that is,
when he delivered his counterpunch with panache. That's when Russian energy
behemoth Gazprom agreed to buy Nyazov's natural gas at the 40% mark-up the
dictator demanded. In return, the Russians received priceless gifts (and the
Bush administration a pricey kick in the face). Nyazov turned over control of
Turkmenistan's entire gas surplus to the Russian company through 2009,
indicated a preference for letting Russia explore the country's new gas fields
and stated that Turkmenistan was bowing out of any US-backed Trans-Caspian
pipeline project. (And while he was at it, Putin also cornered much of the gas
exports of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as well.)
Thus, almost five years later, with occupied Afghanistan in increasingly deadly
chaos, TAP seemed dead-on-arrival. The (invisible) star of what would later
turn into Obama's "good" war was already a corpse.
But here's the beauty of Pipelineistan: like zombies, dead deals always seem to
return and so the game goes on forever.
Just when Russia thought it had Turkmenistan locked in …
A Turkmen bash
They don't call Turkmenistan a "gas republic" for nothing. I've crossed it from
the Uzbek border to a Caspian Sea port named - what else - Turkmenbashi where
you can purchase one kilo of fresh Beluga for $100 and a camel for $200. That's
where the gigantic gas fields are, and it's obvious that most have not been
fully explored. When, in October 2008, the British consultancy firm GCA
confirmed that the Yolotan-Osman gas fields in southwest Turkmenistan were
among the world's four largest, holding up to a staggering 14 trillion cubic
meters of natural gas, Turkmenistan promptly grabbed second place in the global
gas reserves sweepstakes, way ahead of Iran and only 20% below Russia. With
that news, the earth shook seismically across Pipelineistan.
Just before he died in December 2006, the flamboyant Turkmenbashi boasted that
his country held enough reserves to export 150 billion cubic meters of gas
annually for the next 250 years. Given his notorious megalomania, nobody took
him seriously. So in March 2008, our man Gurbanguly ordered a GCA audit to
dispel any doubts. After all, in pure Asian Energy Security Grid mode,
Turkmenistan had already signed contracts to supply Russia with about 50
billion cubic meters annually, China with 40 billion cubic meters and Iran with
eight billion cubic meters.
And yet, none of this turns out to be quite as monumental or settled as it may
look. In fact, Turkmenistan and Russia may be playing the energy equivalent of
Russian roulette. After all, virtually all of Turkmenistani gas exports flow
north through an old, crumbling Soviet system of pipelines, largely built in
the 1960s. Add to this a Turkmeni knack for raising the stakes non-stop at a
time when Gazprom has little choice but to put up with it: without Turkmen gas,
it simply can't export all it needs to Europe, the source of 70% of Gazprom's
Worse yet, according to a Gazprom source quoted in the Russian business daily
Kommersant, the stark fact is that the company only thought it controlled all
of Turkmenistan's gas exports; the newly discovered gas mega-fields turn out
not to be part of the deal. As my Asia Times Online colleague, former
ambassador MK Bhadrakumar put the matter, Gazprom's mistake "is proving to be a
misconception of Himalayan proportions".
In fact, it's as if the New Great Gamesters had just discovered another
Everest. This year, Obama's national security strategists lost no time
unleashing a no-holds-barred diplomatic campaign to court Turkmenistan. The
goal? To accelerate possible ways for all that new Turkmeni gas to flow through
the right pipes, and create quite a different energy map and future. Apart from
TAPI, another key objective is to make the prospective $5.8 billion
Turkey-to-Austria Nabucco pipeline become viable and thus, of course, trump the
Russians. In that way, a key long-term US strategic objective would be
fulfilled: Austria, Italy and Greece, as well as the Balkan and various Central
European countries, would be at least partially pulled from Gazprom's orbit.
(Await my next "postcard" from Pipelineistan for more on this.)
IPI or TAPI?
Gurbanguly is proving an even more riotous player than the Turkmenbashi. A year
ago he said he was going to hedge his bets, that he was willing to export the
bulk of the eight trillion cubic meters of gas reserves he now claims for his
country to virtually anyone. Washington was - and remains - ecstatic. At an
international conference last month in Ashgabat ("the city of love"), the Las
Vegas of Central Asia, Gurbanguly told a hall packed with Americans, Europeans
and Russians that "diversification of energy flows and inclusion of new
countries into the geography of export routes can help the global economy gain
Inevitably, behind closed doors, the TAPI maze came up and TAPI executives once
again began discussing pricing and transit fees. Of course, hard as that may be
to settle, it's the easy part of the deal. After all, there's that Everest of
Afghan security to climb, and someone still has to confirm that Turkmenistan's
gas reserves are really as fabulous as claimed.
Imperceptible jiggles in Pipelineistan's tectonic plates can shake half the
world. Take, for example, an obscure March report in the Balochistan Times: a
little noticed pipeline supplying gas to parts of Sindh province in Pakistan,
including Karachi, was blown up. It got next to no media attention, but all
across Eurasia and in Washington those analyzing the comparative advantages of
TAPI vs IPI had to wonder just how risky it might be for India to buy future
Iranian gas via increasingly volatile Balochistan.
And then in early April came another mysterious pipeline explosion, this one in
Turkmenistan, compromising exports to Russia. The Turkmenis promptly blamed the
Russians (and TAPI advocates cheered), but nothing in Afghanistan itself could
have left them cheering very loudly. Right now, Dick Cheney's master plan to
get those blue rivers of Turkmeni gas flowing southwards via a future TAPI as
part of a US grand strategy for a "Greater Central Asia" lies in tatters.
Still, Brzezinski might disagree, and as he commands Obama's attention, he may
try to convince the new president that the world needs a $7.6 billion-plus,
1,600-km steel serpent winding through a horribly dangerous war zone. That's
certainly the gist of what Brzezinski said immediately after the 2008
Russia-Georgia war, stressing once again that "the construction of a pipeline
from Central Asia via Afghanistan to the south ... will maximally expand world
society's access to the Central Asian energy market."
Washington or Beijing?
Still, give credit where it's due. For the time being, our man Gurbanguly may
have snatched the leading role in the New Great Game in this part of Eurasia.
He's already signed a groundbreaking gas agreement with RWE from Germany and
sent the Russians scrambling.
If, one of these days, the Turkmenistani leader opts for TAPI as well, it will
open Washington to an ultimate historical irony. After so much death and
destruction, Washington would undoubtedly have to sit down once again with -
yes - the Taliban! And we'd be back to July 2001 and those pesky pipeline
As it stands at the moment, however, Russia still dominates Pipelineistan,
ensuring Central Asian gas flows across Russia's network and not through the
Trans-Caspian networks privileged by the US and the European Union. This
virtually guarantees Russia's crucial geopolitical status as the top gas
supplier to Europe and a crucial supplier to Asia as well.
Meanwhile, in "transit corridor" Pakistan, where Predator drones soaring over
Pashtun tribal villages monopolize the headlines, the shady New Great Game
slouches in under-the-radar mode toward the immense, under-populated southern
Pakistani province of Balochistan. The future of the epic IPI vs TAPI battle
may hinge on a single, magic word: Gwadar.
Essentially a fishing village, Gwadar is an Arabian Sea port in that province.
The port was built by China. In Washington's dream scenario, Gwadar becomes the
new Dubai of South Asia. This implies the success of TAPI. For its part, China
badly needs Gwadar as a node for yet another long pipeline to be built to
western China. And where would the gas flowing in that line come from? Iran, of
Whoever "wins," if Gwadar really becomes part of the Liquid War, Pakistan will
finally become a key transit corridor for either Iranian gas from the monster
South Pars field heading for China, or a great deal of the Caspian gas from
Turkmenistan heading Europe-wards. To make the scenario even more locally
mouth-watering, Pakistan would then be a pivotal place for both NATO and the
SCO (in which it is already an official "observer").
Now that's as classic as the New Great Game in Eurasia can get. There's NATO vs
the SCO. With either IPI or TAPI, Turkmenistan wins. With either IPI or TAPI,
Russia loses. With either IPI or TAPI, Pakistan wins. With TAPI, Iran loses.
With IPI, Afghanistan loses. In the end, however, as in any game of high stakes
Pipelineistan poker, it all comes down to the top two global players. Ladies
and gentlemen, place your bets: will the winner be Washington or Beijing?