Nothing of significance takes place in Eurasia without an energy angle.
As Barack Obama heads into his second hundred days in office, let's head for the big picture ourselves, the ultimate global plot line, the tumultuous rush towards a new, polycentric world order. In its first hundred days, the Obama presidency introduced us to a brand new acronym, OCO for Overseas Contingency Operations, formerly known as GWOT (as in Global War on Terror). Use either name, or anything else you want, and what you're really talking about is what's happening on the immense energy battlefield that extends from Iran to the Pacific Ocean. It's there that the Liquid War for the control of Eurasia takes place.
Yep, it all comes down to black gold and "blue gold" (natural gas), hydrocarbon wealth beyond compare, and so it's time to trek back to that ever-flowing wonderland -- Pipelineistan. It's time to dust off the acronyms, especially the SCO or Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the Asian response to NATO, and learn a few new ones like IPI and TAPI. Above all, it's time to check out the most recent moves on the giant chessboard of Eurasia, where Washington wants to be a crucial, if not dominant, player.
We've already seen Pipelineistan wars in Kosovo and Georgia, and we've followed Washington's favorite pipeline, the BTC, which was supposed to tilt the flow of energy westward, sending oil coursing past both Iran and Russia. Things didn't quite turn out that way, but we've got to move on, the New Great Game never stops. Now, it's time to grasp just what the Asian Energy Security Grid is all about, visit a surreal natural gas republic, and understand why that Grid is so deeply implicated in the Af-Pak war.
Every time I've visited Iran, energy analysts stress the total "interdependence of Asia and Persian Gulf geo-ecopolitics." What they mean is the ultimate importance to various great and regional powers of Asian integration via a sprawling mass of energy pipelines that will someday, somehow, link the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, South Asia, Russia, and China. The major Iranian card in the Asian integration game is the gigantic South Pars natural gas field (which Iran shares with Qatar). It is estimated to hold at least 9% of the world's proven natural gas reserves.
As much as Washington may live in perpetual denial, Russia and Iran together control roughly 20% of the world's oil reserves and nearly 50% of its gas reserves. Think about that for a moment. It's little wonder that, for the leadership of both countries as well as China's, the idea of Asian integration, of the Grid, is sacrosanct.
If it ever gets built, a major node on that Grid will surely be the prospective $7.6 billion Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, also known as the "peace pipeline." After years of wrangling, a nearly miraculous agreement for its construction was initialed in 2008. At least in this rare case, both Pakistan and India stood shoulder to shoulder in rejecting relentless pressure from the Bush administration to scotch the deal.
Iran's relations with both Russia and China are swell -- and will remain so no matter who is elected the new Iranian president next month. China desperately needs Iranian oil and gas, has already clinched a $100 billion gas "deal of the century" with the Iranians, and has loads of weapons and cheap consumer goods to sell. No less close to Iran, Russia wants to sell them even more weapons, as well as nuclear energy technology.
And then, moving ever eastward on the great Grid, there's Turkmenistan, lodged deep in Central Asia, which, unlike Iran, you may never have heard a thing about.
In the ever-shifting New Great Game in Eurasia, a key question -- why Afghanistan matters -- is simply not part of the discussion in the United States. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the liberation of Afghan women.) In part, this is because the idea that energy and Afghanistan might have anything in common is verboten.
And yet, rest assured, nothing of significance takes place in Eurasia without an energy angle. In the case of Afghanistan, keep in mind that Central and South Asia have been considered by American strategists crucial places to plant the flag; and once the Soviet Union collapsed, control of the energy-rich former Soviet republics in the region was quickly seen as essential to future U.S. global power. It would be there, as they imagined it, that the U.S. Empire of Bases would intersect crucially with Pipelineistan in a way that would leave both Russia and China on the defensive.
Afghanistan, as it happens, sits conveniently at the crossroads of any new Silk Road linking the Caucasus to western China, and four nuclear powers (China, Russia, Pakistan, and India) lurk in the vicinity. "Losing" Afghanistan and its key network of U.S. military bases would, from the Pentagon's point of view, be a disaster, and though it may be a secondary matter in the New Great Game of the moment, it's worth remembering that the country itself is a lot more than the towering mountains of the Hindu Kush and immense deserts: it's believed to be rich in unexplored deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chrome, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, and iron ore, as well as precious and semiprecious stones.
And there's something highly toxic to be added to this already lethal mix: don't forget the narco-dollar angle -- the fact that the global heroin cartels that feast on Afghanistan only work with U.S. dollars, not euros. For the SCO, the top security threat in Afghanistan isn't the Taliban, but the drug business. Russia's anti-drug czar Viktor Ivanov routinely blasts the disaster that passes for a U.S./NATO anti-drug war there, stressing that Afghan heroin now kills 30,000 Russians annually, twice as many as were killed during the decade-long U.S.-supported anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of the 1980s.
And then, of course, there are those competing pipelines that, if ever built, either would or wouldn't exclude Iran and Russia from the action to their south. In April 2008, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India actually signed an agreement to build a long-dreamt-about $7.6 billion (and counting) pipeline, whose acronym TAPI combines the first letters of their names and would also someday deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India without the involvement of either Iran or Russia. It would cut right through the heart of Western Afghanistan, in Herat, and head south across lightly populated Nimruz and Helmand provinces, where the Taliban, various Pashtun guerrillas and assorted highway robbers now merrily run rings around U.S. and NATO forces and where -- surprise! -- the U.S. is now building in Dasht-e-Margo ("the Desert of Death") a new mega-base to host President Obama's surge troops.
TAPI's rival is the already mentioned IPI, also theoretically underway and widely derided by Heritage Foundation types in the U.S., who regularly launch blasts of angry prose at the nefarious idea of India and Pakistan importing gas from "evil" Iran. Theoretically, TAPI's construction will start in 2010 and the gas would begin flowing by 2015. (Don't hold your breath.) Embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who can hardly secure a few square blocks of central Kabul, even with the help of international forces, nonetheless offered assurances last year that he would not only rid his country of millions of land mines along TAPI's route, but somehow get rid of the Taliban in the bargain.
Should there be investors (nursed by Afghan opium dreams) delirious enough to sink their money into such a pipeline -- and that's a monumental if -- Afghanistan would collect only $160 million a year in transit fees, a mere bagatelle even if it does represent a big chunk of the embattled Karzai's current annual revenue. Count on one thing though, if it ever happened, the Taliban and assorted warlords/highway robbers would be sure to get a cut of the action.
In fact, it's as if the New Great Gamesters had just discovered another Everest. This year, Obama's national security strategists lost no time unleashing a no-holds-barred diplomatic campaign to court Turkmenistan. The goal? To accelerate possible ways for all that new Turkmeni gas to flow through the right pipes, and create quite a different energy map and future. Apart from TAPI, another key objective is to make the prospective $5.8 billion Turkey-to-Austria Nabucco pipeline become viable and thus, of course, trump the Russians. In that way, a key long-term U.S. strategic objective would be fulfilled: Austria, Italy, and Greece, as well as the Balkan and various Central European countries, would be at least partially pulled from Gazprom's orbit. (Await my next "postcard" from Pipelineistan for more on this.)
If, one of these days, the Turkmenistani leader opts for TAPI as well, it will open Washington to an ultimate historical irony. After so much death and destruction, Washington would undoubtedly have to sit down once again with -- yes -- the Taliban! And we'd be back to July 2001 and those pesky pipeline transit fees.
As it stands at the moment, however, Russia still dominates Pipelineistan, ensuring Central Asian gas flows across Russia's network and not through the Trans-Caspian networks privileged by the U.S. and the European Union. This virtually guarantees Russia's crucial geopolitical status as the top gas supplier to Europe and a crucial supplier to Asia as well.
Meanwhile, in "transit corridor" Pakistan, where Predator drones soaring over Pashtun tribal villages monopolize the headlines, the shady New Great Game slouches in under-the-radar mode toward the immense, under-populated southern Pakistani province of Balochistan. The future of the epic IPI vs. TAPI battle may hinge on a single, magic word: Gwadar.
Essentially a fishing village, Gwadar is an Arabian Sea port in that province. The port was built by China. In Washington's dream scenario, Gwadar becomes the new Dubai of South Asia. This implies the success of TAPI. For its part, China badly needs Gwadar as a node for yet another long pipeline to be built to western China. And where would the gas flowing in that line come from? Iran, of course.
Whoever "wins," if Gwadar really becomes part of the Liquid War, Pakistan will finally become a key transit corridor for either Iranian gas from the monster South Pars field heading for China, or a great deal of the Caspian gas from Turkmenistan heading Europe-wards. To make the scenario even more locally mouth-watering, Pakistan would then be a pivotal place for both NATO and the SCO (in which it is already an official "observer").
Now that's as classic as the New Great Game in Eurasia can get. There's NATO vs. the SCO. With either IPI or TAPI, Turkmenistan wins. With either IPI or TAPI, Russia loses. With either IPI or TAPI, Pakistan wins. With TAPI, Iran loses. With IPI, Afghanistan loses. In the end, however, as in any game of high stakes Pipelineistan poker, it all comes down to the top two global players. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets: will the winner be Washington or Beijing?