The New Great Game: blood and oil in Central Asia by Lutz
A battle over black gold in the new El Dorado
By Michael Church
The Independent - 14 October 2003
This book's title is so similar to that of Ahmed Rashid's classic,
Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, as
to provoke suspicion. But it quickly emerges that Lutz Kleveman's
book ploughs an important new furrow. Starting in Baku, he progresses
through Georgia to Ingushetia, through Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, to wind up among jihadis in Pakistan.
He is ostensibly looking into oil deals, but that means scrutinising
the politics behind them: US foreign policy, and the response
from countries it is clumsily wooing.
The Caspian is the world's new El Dorado: the US is eyeing it
as a way of decreasing dependence on Saudi Arabia. It's alleged
that the Afghan and Iraq wars were really about oil. Kleveman
is scrupulous with facts, but everywhere finds evidence to support
this. Oil is the reason for the US bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan
and Uzbekistan (where human rights abuses are ignored by America,
anxious not to antagonise its new friend).
The US wants the oil piped through Georgia: the alternative is
through "axis-of-evil" Iran. Kleveman's Georgian sojourn
illustrates the pitfalls of the northern route, where corruption
has replaced the rule of law and sabotage is likely. Kazakhstan
and Turkmenistan are subverting America's scheme, with Moscow
playing along. Kyrgyzstan is entering the fray: in that small
mountain country, where Russia and the US have bases cheek by
jowl, China is contemplating one too. One informant quotes a Russian
proverb: "If you have guests in the house, there are two
times when you are happy. One is when they arrive, the other is
when they leave,"
This book's strength lies in the author's sharp journalistic
eye, and his apparent fearlessness. He fails to pass the Russian
cordon into Grozny, but gets banged up in Vladikavkaz. He penetrates
the pariah state of Abkhazia and the mountain fastness of Badakshan,
both of which carry a serious health warning. He gatecrashes an
oil mafioso's private flight, and questions him. Describing how
a group of boys playfully ambush the US jeep he has hitched a
lift with in Afghanistan, he shows how calamity is often just
round the corner.
Anyone who has wandered the immaculate streets of Kazakhstan's
new capital Astana, experienced the eerie silence of Dushanbe's
market, or gagged on the fume-filled air in Baku, will agree that
as travel writing his book is spot-on. But this is first and last
a political book, and its conclusion is stark. By squandering
the global goodwill which accrued after 11 September 2001, the
US may already have dished its chances in the new Great Game.