When the US declared its intention to overthrow the Taliban government in Afghanistan after the attacks on New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, there were knowing smiles among those familiar with the US oil industry’s long interest in the region. Two years later, a great deal has changed. The ‘war on terror’ continues, apparently unable to prevent regular bombings of American and Western targets around the world. Afghanistan remains in chaos, with the Taliban and other resistance groups preventing the US and its chosen instrument, Hamid Karzai, from controlling more than a fraction of the country. The main focus of attention has subsequently shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, with increasing pressure also being brought to bear on Iran on the grounds of its nuclear programme. All the while, however, the US has continued to consolidate its presence in Central Asia, regarded as being of strategic importance for all the US’s Middle Eastern adventurism, but also valued in its own right as potentially a major source for oil in coming decades.
It’s all about the oil… Such has been the effect of US propaganda that referring to the US’s oil interests at all has come to be seen as a conspiracy theory. But the reality speaks for itself. Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region are now the world’s greatest untapped fossil fuel resources. Estimates of the amount of oil there range from 110 to 243 billion barrels of crude oil, worth up to $4 trillion. The US department of energy estimates that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone may have more than 130 billion barrels of oil; three times the US’s own reserves. Little wonder that oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP have already invested more than $30 billion in production facilities in the region.
Addressing oil industrialists in 1998, Dick Cheney, now vice president of the US, said that "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian." In May 2001, after George W. Bush’s election victory, in which donations from oil interests paid (sorry, ‘played’) a major role, Cheney wrote in a national energy policy report that: "the president makes energy security a priority in our trade and foreign policy" and pointed to the Caspian basin as "a rapidly growing new area of supply."
In January 2002, the US opened its first military base in the former Soviet Union, when the Kyrgyz government granted them permission to build a 37-acre military airfield at Manas, 19 miles from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. This was a result of 9/11; a few months earlier, the thought of Russian permitting the establishment of a US military base in its southern sphere of influence would have been unthinkable. Now Manas, originally a tented city intended as a base for Afghan operations, is a permanent facility, and just one of several in the region. The US also has the use of military bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Georgia. Russia is worried enough about losing influence over its former empire to have recently opened a new airbase of its own less than 35 miles from Manas, apparently in an attempt not to leave the US presence unchallenged.
But the US offers so much more: it has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to these countries in military and development aid; helped their governments against domestic Islamic movements, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU); and supposedly contributes to their political democratization, although the latter seems somewhat dubious; with the former communist rulers still in charge, it appears more accurate to say that it helps these tyrants create the facade of legitimacy, a patter familiar enough in other areas of the Muslim world that have been under US hegemony for much longer. Last year, the US removed Uzbekistan from the list of countries where freedom of religion is under threat, even though Islam Karimov remains in charge; he infamously once told the Uzbek parliament that Islamists "must be shot in the head. If necessary I will shoot them myself."
Two years ago, we all became familiar with the debates about alternative possible routes for pipelines for bringing Central Asian oil and gas out of the area into the market. Russia favours routes through its territory; Iran has offered its established network of routes; and China also has an interest in Kazakh oil. Meanwhile the US continues to favour pipelines which would bypass both Russia and Iran. Little doubt whose opinion counts in the region nowadays; construction of a $3.8 billion pipeline from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan has already begun. The dreams of a pipeline through Afghanistan are further from realization but have most certainly not been abandoned. The US is capable of operating on many fronts, and at many levels, simultaneously; and we should not let things to go out of our minds just because they are out of our sight.