Dispatches From the Edge: Oil and Blood: The Looming Battle for Energy

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 11:11:00 AM

In the past month, two seeming unrelated events have turned Central Asia into a potential flashpoint between an aggressively expanding North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a nascent strategic alliance between Russia and China. At stake is nothing less than who holds the future high ground in the competition for the world’s energy resources. 

Early this summer, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted a sharp drop in world oil reserves, which energy expert Michael Klare says means that the “era of cheap and plentiful oil is drawing to a close” and is likely to result in “a new era of cutthroat energy competition.” 

In early July, after a full-court press by Washington and an agreement to increase its yearly rent, Kyrgyzstan reversed a decision to close the U.S. base at Manas, thus allowing the United States a powerful toehold in the countries bordering the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Basin. 

While Manas is portrayed as a critical base for the ongoing campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the war in Central Asia is less over “terrorism” than it is over energy. “Never reading the words ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘oil’ in the same sentence is still a source of endless amusement” says the Asia Times’ Pepe Escobar, author of Globalistan. 

Escobar, who has coined the term “Pipelineistan” to describe the vast network of oil and gas pipelines that “crisscross the potential imperial battlefields of the planet,” sees Afghanistan as strategically placed between the Middle East, Central and South Asia, “at the core of Pipelineistan.” 

As Escobar points out, “It’s no coincidence that the map of terror in the Middle East and Central Asia is practically interchangeable with the map of oil.”  

As the old joke goes: It’s not all about oil; some of it is about natural gas. 

For most Americans and Europeans, Afghanistan appeared on their radar screens shortly after the 9/11 assaults on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. But according to Escobar, three months before the 2001 attack, the United States, Iranian, German and Italian officials got together in Geneva and discussed toppling the Taliban because it was “the proverbial fly in the ointment” in a scheme to run a $2 billion, 800-mile natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Karachi, Pakistan via southern Afghanistan.  

According to the Pakistanis, the United States developed a plan in July for launching attacks into Afghanistan from bases in Tajikistan.  

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO moved aggressively to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Warsaw Pact. One time Soviet allies Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic, along with the former Soviet provinces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were recruited. The Ukraine and Georgia are currently up for membership. 

According to Escobar, one of NATO’s first forays in the energy war was the Balkans. 

While NATO represented the Yugoslav war as a fight to liberate the Albanians in Kosovo, Moscow and Beijing viewed it as an opportunity for the Albanian Macedonian Bulgarian Oil Corporation (AMBO) to build a $1.1 billion pipeline to bring Caspian Basin oil to the West, thus bypassing Iran and Russia 

The AMBO pipeline—due to open in 2011—will transport Caspian Basin oil via Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. The pipeline is protected by the huge U.S. “Bondsteel” base in Kosovo, “The equivalent of a giant immobile aircraft carrier, capable of exercising surveillance not only over the Balkans but over Turkey and the Black Sea region,” says Escobar. 

Certainly the AMBO pipeline, as well as the current Baku-Tblisis-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, makes little economic sense. It would be vastly easier and cheaper to send the oil through Iran. 

“How could Russia, China, and Iran not interpret the war in Kosovo, then the invasion of Afghanistan (where Washington had previously tried to pair with the Taliban and encourage the building of another of those avoid-Iran, avoid-Russia pipelines), and finally Georgia (that critical energy transportation junction) as straightforward wars for Pipelineistan?” Escobar asks. 

For every action, however, there is an opposite and equal reaction. 

In 2001, Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which now has observer status from Iran, Pakistan and India, and growing relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, formally a U.S.-dominated alliance. 

Unlike NATO, the SCO is a regional organization, not a military alliance, but one—counting observers—that embraces a growing percentage of the world’s GNP, and 75 percent of both the world’s energy resources and global population.  

However, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a military alliance that, besides being made up of all of the SCO members, also includes Belarus and Armenia.  

Last February CSTO created a collective rapid reaction force, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says, “will be just as good or comparable with NATO.” The force will consist of a Russian airborne division and air assault brigade, a Kazakh air assault brigade, and battalions from each of the other members, excepting Uzbekistan. According to Russian expert Ilya Kramnik, the collective action force “will give CSTO a quick tool, leaving no time for third parties to intervene.” 

The only “third party” capable of intervening in Central Asia is NATO. 

In many ways, Beijing is the lynchpin in this 21st-century “great game,” because China is weathering the current worldwide depression better than most countries. While its exports have taken a beating, the Chinese have successfully fallen back on their enormous internal market to take up some of the slack. As a result, China recently opened the aid spigots to nations in the region. 

In June, China loaned Turkmenistan $3 billion, which will give it a stake in the Turkman’s enormous Yolotan Osman gas field, rumored to be the world’s largest. The Turkmenistan loan also benefits Moscow by underwriting the Russian oil company Roseneft, and the pipeline buildier, Transneft. Kazakhstan got a $15 billion loan, giving China a 22 percent share in Kazak oil production.  

According to former Indian diplomat and current Asia Times commentator M.K. Bhadrakumar, after years of tension between Moscow and Beijing, the two countries are burying that past and “steering their relationship” in the direction of a “strategic partnership in the overall international situation,” rather than competing over energy resources. 

This past April, Russia and China signed a $25 billion oil agreement that will supply Beijing with 4 percent of its needs through 2034. The two countries are currently negotiating a natural gas deal. 

Beijing is planning an almost 4,000-mile, $26 billion Turkman-Kazakh-China pipeline to run from the Caspian Basin to Guangdong Province in China. Included in the deal is a proviso to keep “third parties”—NATO bases—out of the country  

In the meantime, Russia is paying premium prices to lock up Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkman gas. It is also negotiating to buy more Azerbaijani oil, which if successful, could end up bankrupting the western-controlled BTC pipeline that runs through Georgia.  

Writing in Business Week, S. Adam Cardais, former editor of the Prague Post, says that Russia is “doing its damnedest to keep Europe out of Central Asia,” and that Russia and China “may have already outmaneuvered Europe.” 

But Washington is hardly throwing in the towel. The Manas coup is a case in point, and the Obama administration is increasing aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Apparently the gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan to Pakistan that fell apart shortly before the United States invaded Afghanistan has also been revived. 

In short, the Central Asian chessboard is enormous, the pieces are numerous, and the stakes are high. Pipelineistan is not limited to the Middle East and Central Asia. It exists wherever gas and oil flow, from the steamy depths of Venezuela’s Oronoco Basin, to the depths of the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil.  

“Oil and gas by themselves are not the U.S.’s ultimate aim,” argues Escobar, “It’s all about control.” And if “the U.S. controls the sources of energy of its rivals—Europe, Japan, China, and other nations aspiring to be more independent— they win.” 

The United States has enormous military power, but as Iraq, and now Afghanistan, makes clear, the old days when one could corner a market by engineering a coup or sending in the Marines are fast receding. The old imperial nations are fading, and the up and comers are more likely to be speaking Portuguese, Chinese and Hindi than English. The trick over the next several decades will be how to keep the competition for energy from sparking off brush fire wars or a catastrophic clash of the great powers.