History Today November 2004

Poetry, Wordsworth wrote, involves 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'. Many believe that history should be written with similar detachment, and for no other purpose than to inform ourselves about times other than our own. Yet such a view falls foul of the perennial concern that history should be 'relevant'.

Certainly the volume among a selection of the current crop of new paperbacks that demanded immediate attention was the most topical: The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia by Lutz Kleveman (Atlantic, £8.99). Its opening account, of a US helicopter raid on Falluja in May 2003, prompts the author's reflection that America will lose the war in Iraq.

Parallels are drawn with the original Great Game, the tussle between Britain and Tsarist Russia for supremacy in Central Asia, but the focus is squarely on the immediate past and the present. Claims that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction were 'intelligence failures at best and blatant lies at worst': the key issue was and is oil. George W. Bush wishes to be free of the OPEC cartel, and therefore US imperialism is now directed towards the world's largest untapped oil and gas reserves, in and around the Caspian Sea. The United States is thus in competition with Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran. The author's investigations of this theme took him on a journey of thousands of miles - from the Caucasus peaks, across the Central Asian plains, down t the Hindu Kush and Kashmir - that led him to interview the game's players, victims and observers, including diplomats, businessmen, mullah's security guards, bandits, oil workers and generals. The result is a direct and racy account, written mostly in the present tense and with plenty of dialogue (the sort of dialogue one finds in books like this rather than in real life).

What will happen in the future is 'anyone's guess', but Kleveman notes that many of the region's impoverished youth, especially in the ex-Soviet areas of Central Asia, are embracing Islam and militant anti-Americanism.



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