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
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.