Pipelineistan in Conflict

Blue Gold, Turkmen Bashes, and Asian Grids

As Barack Obama heads into his second hundred 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
hundred 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 Terror). 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

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 $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 U.S. 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 Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (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

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" 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 U.S.-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
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 U.S. global power. It would be
there, as they imagined it, that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Congress passed the Silk Road Strategy Act five days
before beginning the bombing of Serbia in March 1999. That act clearly
identified American geo-strategic interests from the Black Sea to
western China with building a mosaic of American protectorates in
Central Asia and militarizing the Eurasian energy corridor.

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 U.S. 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
semiprecious stones.

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 U.S. 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 U.S./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
U.S.-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 U.S. and NATO
forces and where -- surprise! -- the U.S. 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 U.S., 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 action.

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 eastern Turkmenistan.

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 Zbig 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
CIA 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 Donald Rumsfeld's bombing and invasion of
Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 was the signing by Karzai, Pakistani
President Musharraf and Turkmenistan's Nyazov of an agreement
committing themselves to build TAP, and so was formally launched a
Pipelineistan extension from Central to South Asia with brand USA
stamped all over it.

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 U.S.-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

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 8 billion cubic

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 profits.

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 colleague,
former ambassador M.K. 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 U.S. 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.)


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 stability."

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 U.S. grand strategy
for a "Greater Central Asia" lies in tatters.

Still, Zbig 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-plus billion, 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 transit fees.

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 U.S. 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 course.

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?

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