Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies: March 2005

Making Klare more concrete, Lutz Kleveman, in The New Great Game, maintains that Central Asia, especially the Caspian Sea region, is the nodal point of the coming struggles for oil and natural gas, the old Great Game with both old and new players. Today, the US replaces the British Empire, Russia in a new form stands for old Russia, while new entrants include local nationalists, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Krygyks, and China, now a major oil importer. China is militarily encircled by US troops who, for the first time, are also staged in former Soviet regions, with a heavy presence in war-torn Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace, for example.

Kleveman is a journalist. He traveled throughout the region, with side trips to western China and Iran. This though, is no travelogue. The old Great Game inspired the clear voice of 19th century British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, to write this of the initially easy British invasion of Kabul in 1839–which was then followed by an 1840 Afghan uprising that caused a massive retreat from the city:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghan’s plains,
And the women come to cut out the remains,
jest roll on your rifle and blow out your brains,
And go to your Gawd like a soldier (227).

The new great game is more complex, more dangerous. India and Russia are both nuclear powers, as is Pakistan, whose top scientist sold his nation’s nuclear secrets. Russia, the experienced hand in the great game, deals from the top and the bottom, praising the US invasions while attacking nationalist movements in the USSR, eradicating civil rights and the old social safety net, and inching closer to the oil fields.

While Kleveman traces many of the same social tendencies that Johnson and Klare examined–the motive forces of oil and natural gas, the political/military geography of vital pipelines, the intensifying war of haves on have-nots, collapsing civil rights and the barbarization of entire nations under varying forms of irrationalist governments—what is most troubling about his investigation is the possibility of a deadly move in the game by a wild-card player; the boss of Turkmenistan, who the author charges with creating “Stalin’s Disneyland,” or Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, which nurtured the Taliban, probably secrets Usama bin Laden today, and is the shadow government under the enormously unpopular president, Musharraf, who backed the US invasion of Afghanistan. One dramatic intervention, by even a small player like bin Laden, can set in motion a series of events, like a cue ball hitting a rack, that flies out of control. While Kleveman never says, “World War Three,” it is impossible not to consider it.

In addition, the journalist tells a good story, rife with irony. One interviewee, for example, tells Kleveman that Iran is far more democratic than the oil sheikdoms that enjoy so much US support in the Middle East. Another, a former fighter who watched the mujahadeen defeat the superpower USSR in Afghanistan, says, “If American troops go into Afghanistan, sooner or later they will find themselves in hell on earth.”

Another informs him, and perhaps challenges some understandings in the US, that the Taliban had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Kleveman notes that the opium trade, set back by the fundamentalist Taliban, is flourishing in Afghanistan, again, and he neatly traces the routes of the traffic. And Hamed Karzai, the US-installed elected leader of Afghanistan, cannot move in his country without a US escort of special operatives. Chalmers Johnson points out that Karzai was a Unocal employee (Johnson 178).

And what comes of this for Kleveman? It is, again, not a hopeful scenario. He closes with a vivid paragraph of consumerist America watching cruise missiles fall on civilians, in between television commercials.

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