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Central Asia/Russia

THE ROVING EYE
Pipelineistan, Part 1: The rules of the game

By Pepe Escobar

War against terrorism? Not really. Reminder: it's all about oil.

A quick look at the map is all it takes. It's no coincidence that the map of terror in the Middle East and Central Asia is practically interchangeable with the map of oil. There's Infinite Justice, Enduring Freedom - and Everlasting Profits to be made: not only by the American industrial-military complex, but especially by American and European oil giants.

Where is the realm these days of former US secretary of state James Baker, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former White House chief of staff John Sununu and former defense secretary and current Invisible Man Dick Cheney? They are all happily dreaming of, and working for, the establishment of Pipelineistan.

Pipelineistan is the golden future: a paradise of opportunity in the form of US$5 trillion of oil and gas in the Caspian basin and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In Washington's global petrostrategy, this is supposed to be the end of America's oil dependence on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This is of course the heart of the matter in the New Great Game - compared to which the original 19th-century Great Game between czarist Russia and the British Empire was a childish tin soldier's diversion.

Afghanistan itself has some natural gas in the north of the country, near Turkmenistan. But above all it is ultra-strategic: positioned between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, between Turkmenistan and the avid markets of the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan. Afghanistan is at the core of Pipelineistan.

The Caspian states hold at least 200 billion barrels of oil, and Central Asia has 6.6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas just begging to be exploited. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two major producers: Turkmenistan is nothing less than a "gas republic". Apart from oil and gas there's copper, coal, tungsten, zinc, iron, uranium, gold.

The only export routes, for the moment, are through Russia. So most of the game consists of building alternative pipelines to Turkey and Western Europe, and to the east toward the Asian markets. India will be a key player. India, Iran, Russia and Israel are all planning to supply oil and gas to South and Southeast Asia through India.

It's enlightening to note that all countries or regions which happen to be an impediment to Pipelineistan routes towards the West have been subjected either to a direct interference or to all-out war: Chechnya, Georgia, Kurdistan, Yugoslavia and Macedonia. To the east, the key problems are the Uighurs of China's far-western Xinjiang and, until recently, Afghanistan.

More, much more than Afghanistan is involved. What's at stake is Eurasia. Zbigniew Brzezinski, stellar hawk and Jimmy Carter's former national security adviser, used to wax lyrical on Eurasia: "Seventy-five percent of the world population, most of its material riches, 60 percent of the world's GNP, 75 percent of sources of energy, and behind the US, the six most prosperous economies and the six largest military budgets." Brzezinski is on record stressing that the US would have to make sure "no other power would take possession of this geopolitical space".

The numbers are clear. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, in 2001 America imported an average of 9.1 million barrels per day - over 60 percent of its crude oil needs. In 2020, the country is projected to require almost 26 million barrels per day in imports. So Pipelineistan, in the Caucasus and in Central Asia - for the West and Japan but especially for America itself - cannot but be the strategic-military No 1 goal.

In this geostrategic grand design, the Taliban were the proverbial fly in the ointment. The Afghan War was decided long before September 11. September 11 merely precipitated events. Plans to destroy the Taliban had been the subject of international diplomatic and not-so-diplomatic discussions for months before September 11. There was a crucial meeting in Geneva in May 2001 between US State Department, Iranian, German and Italian officials, where the main topic was a strategy to topple the Taliban and replace the theocracy with a "broad-based government". The topic was raised again in full force at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001 when India - an observer at the summit - also contributed its own plans.

Nor concidentally, Pipelineistan was the central topic in secret negotiations in a Berlin hotel a few days after the G-8 summit, between American, Russian, German and Pakistani officials. And Pakistani high officials, on condition of anonymity, have extensively described a plan set up by the end of July 2001 by American advisers, consisting of military strikes against the Taliban from bases in Tajikistan, to be launched before mid-October.

More recently, while most of the planet that has access to news was distracted by New Year's Eve celebrations, and only nine days after Hamid Karzai's interim government took power in Kabul, Bush II appointed his special envoy to Afghanistan. It comes as no surprise he is Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad - a former aide to the Californian energy giant UNOCAL. Khalilzad wasted no time in boarding the first flight to Central Asia. The Bush II team now does not even try to disguise that the whole game is about oil. The so-called brand-new American "Afghan policy" is being conducted by people intimately connected to oil industry interests in Central Asia.

In 1997, UNOCAL led an international consortium - Centgas - that reached a memorandum of understanding to build a $2 billion, 1,275-kilometer-long, 1.5-meter-wide natural-gas pipeline from Dauletabad in southern Turkmenistan to Karachi in Pakistan, via the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, crossing into Pakistan near Quetta. A $600 million extension to India was also being considered. The dealings with the Taliban were facilitated by the Clinton administration and the Pakistani Inter Services Agency (ISI). But the civil war in Afghanistan would simply not go away. UNOCAL had to pull out.

American energy conglomerates, through the American Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC), are now resuscitating this and other projects. Already last October, the UNOCAL-led project was discussed in Islamabad between Pakistani Petroleum Minister Usman Aminuddin and American Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain. The exuberant official statement reads: "The pipeline opens up new avenues of multi-dimensional regional cooperation, particularly in view of the recent geopolitical developments in the region."

But there are practical problems with these "new avenues". Specialists at the James Baker (who else?) Institute in Texas stress that the main beneficiaries would be Turkmenistan and Afghanistan - which in itself is not a bad idea: Afghanistan would make a little money and perhaps be a little more stable. As far as the gas is concerned - liquefied and exported from Karachi - it would be too expensive compared with gas from the Middle East.

UNOCAL also has a project to build the so-called Central Asian Oil Pipeline, almost 1,700km long, linking Chardzhou in Turkmenistan to Russian's existing Siberian oil pipelines and also to the Pakistani Arabian Sea coast. This pipeline will carry 1 million barrels of oil a day from different areas of former Soviet republics, and it will run parallel to the gas pipeline route through Afghanistan.

Khalilzad is a very interesting character indeed. He was always a huge Taliban supporter. Four years ago, he wrote in the Washington Post that "the Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran". Khalilzad only abandoned the Taliban after Bill Clinton fired 58 cruise missiles into Afghanistan in August 1998, in retaliation for the alleged involvement of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Only one day after the attack, UNOCAL put Centgas on hold - and two months later abandoned plans for the trans-Afghan pipeline.

A little more than a year ago, Khalilzad was reincarnated in print in The Washington Quarterly, now stressing his four mains reason to ged rid of the Taliban regime as soon as possible: Osama bin Laden, opium trafficking, oppression of the Afghan people and, last but not least, oil.

Afghan diaspora sources in Paris acidly comment that Khalilzad will be regarded as nothing less than a traitor by fiercely proud and independent Afghans. Born in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1951, he is part of the Afghan ruling elite. His father was an aide to King Zahir Shah. Khalilzad was studying at the notoriously conservative University of Chicago when Afghanistan was invaded by the Red Army in December 1979. Later he became an American citizen and a special adviser to the State Department during the Reagan years. He was a strident lobbyist for more US military aid to the mujahedeen during the anti-USSR jihad - campaigning for widespread distribution of Stinger missiles.

Khalilzad was undersecretary of defense for Bush I, during the war against Iraq. After a stint at the Rand Corp think tank, he headed the Bush-Cheney transition team for the Defense Department and advised Donald Rumsfeld. But he was not rewarded with any promotions. The required Senate confirmation would raise extremely uncomfortable questions about his role as UNOCAL adviser and staunch Taliban defender. He was assigned instead to the National Security Council - no Senate confirmation required - where he reports to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Rice herself is a former oil-company consultant. During Bush I, from 1989-92, she was on the board of directors of Chevron, and was its main expert on Kazakhstan. Chevron has invested more than $20 billion in Kazakhstan alone. As for The Invisible Man, Vice President Dick Cheney, he was for five years a director of Halliburton, one of the top companies rendering service to the oil industry: present in 130 countries, 100,000 employees, turnover of almost $20 billion, a member of the Fortune 400. Cheney did a lot of business with the murderous Myanmar dictatorship, and invested heavily in Nigeria.

Both Cheney and Bush II spent an important part of their careers in Arbusto, a small company directed by Cheney. Arbusto never made money, but was handsomely supported by very wealthy Saudis. Among the shareholders there was one James Bath, very cozy with Bush I and chief money launderer for shady Gulf superstars, including one Salem bin Laden, one of the 17 brothers of Osama bin Laden.

All American secretaries of state since World War II have been connected with the oil industry - except two: one of them is Colin Powell, but in his case the president, vice president and national security adviser are all part of the oil industry anyway.

So everybody in the ruling plutocracy knows the rules of the ruthless game: Central Asia is crucial to Washington's worldwide petro-strategy. So is a "friendly" government in Afghanistan - now led by the always impeccably dressed and fluent English speaker Hamid Karzai. It does not matter that independent minds from Central Asia in exile in Europe unanimously ridicule Karzai as nothing else than a Taliban himself, and his Northern Alliance ministers as a bunch of crooks.

As for US corporate-controlled media - from TV networks to daily newspapers - they just exercise self-censorship and remain mute about all of these connections.

  • Tomorrow, Part 2: Games nations play

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