The Observer, August 22, 2004

'To me, I confess, they are the pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world.' So Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, described Afghanistan, Persia and their central Asian neighbours in 1898.

In that Great Game, Russia and Britain jostled for control of the region, sending soldiers and explorers to pursue each other across desolate mountain passes. More than a century later, Lutz Kleveman takes an engaging tour across the same chessboard, where he finds a new Great Game being played, this time for a far bigger prize, the immense energy reserves which lie beneath the Caspian Sea.

America with its insatiable thirst for oil, has taken Britain's place at the chessboard; there is a host of new players, including Iran and China. But the political and military shenanigans still exact an immense human cost.

Kleveman lets the many pawns in the contest tell their own stories: the dispossessed Chechen family sheltering in a pigsty in neighbouring Ingushetia; the Muslim leaders of Tashkent looking on as US bombs fall on Afghanistan; the ethnic Uighurs suppressed by China in its western province of Xinjiang.

As he meanders through the mountainous and remote region, peeling back the layers of ethnic unrest and religious tension, and bringing alive a cast of shady characters worthy of a le Carré novel, Kleveman repeatedly finds the influence of Russia or the US and the corrupting power of oil at work.

Part travel-writing, part polemic, this eminently readable book slots the hostilities in Iraq into the context of a much longer-term struggle for resources.

Updated to take Iraq into account, the paperback edition warns in a strident epilogue that one consequence of the US's 'energy imperialism' will be to radicalise many more 'angry young men' across central Asia to take up the struggle against the superpower.

It's a much-voiced argument these days, but unlike many of those who make it, Lutz Kleveman has spent time meeting those desperate young men and giving them a voice.



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