WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the war winds down, the U.S. is eyeing Central Asia as a new colony. And as America projects its power across the region, it runs the risk of setting off a new cold war with Moscow. A few reasons why:
Big Oil is once again taking a hard look at prospects for building a pipeline carrying Caspian Sea oil across Afghanistan and down through Pakistan to ports on the Arabian Sea. “The large-scale projects aimed at building gas and oil pipelines linking the Caspian region with the attractive international market of the Arabian Sea may become the principal, if not the only, means to breathe a [new] life into Afghanistan,” Martha Brill Olcott, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, told the Moscow paper Izvestia.
Turkmenistan, which used to be part of the Soviet Union and has huge natural gas deposits, is key to controlling the region. In late October, Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, sent a letter to the UN leaders advocating construction of a pipeline bringing Turkmen gas across Afghan territory to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea ports. The Far Eastern Economic Review reports Niyazov claimed the pipeline “will help rebuild this country [Afghanistan], normalize peaceful life and work of the Afghan people and also accelerate socio-economic development of the entire adjacent region.”
In Moscow at the end of last month, Niyazov declared, “We could sell to foreign markets about 120 billion cubic meters of gas annually, but we can not do this due to the lack of pipelines.”
Hooking Turkmenistan’s immense gas fields up to Pakistan ports is a direct slap at Russia, which has traditionally dictated policy in the area. More to the point, if Turkmen gas goes to Pakistan, Russia will get less gas for its own purposes and lose revenues obtained in transporting it. So Moscow is already fighting back, trying to suck Turkmenistan into a long-term gas supply deal, and stepping up military presence in Afghanistan. Russians, of course, back the Northern Alliance and quietly dropped commandos into Kabul when the capital fell to an invading force, whose tank columns reportedly were directed by Russian officers.
Then there’s Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic that already is a key U.S. military base in the Afghan war. While the U.S. forges tighter long-term ties with Uzbekistan through a $100 million aid package, Japan has quietly developed a set of economic links that make it a big time stealth player there. Despite its recession, Japan is financing cotton mills, refineries, and airports in Uzbekistan along with providing help on railroad modernization.
The U.S. wants long-term deals to cement ties with Uzbekistan, provide the country with more military bases, and help it break away from reliance on Russia.
In its new role as Central Asian power broker, the U.S. has no choice but to play an active role in Pakistan’s new world policy of using a dictatorship to oversee democratic procedures. That sounds nice, but really it’s just a device for trying to get the Pakistani military, now well greased with U.S. money, to clamp down on the religious schools in the northern frontier province that spawned the Taliban. And U.S. diplomats will continually be trying to keep India and Pakistan from nuking each other. Not to mention, preventing ever eager Pakistani scientists from building bombs and making deals with nations like Iran. With the Taliban gone, Pakistan is without a presence in Afghanistan and can see regional stability in cozying up to Iran.
Meanwhile Pakistan President Musharaff said in an interview with Far Eastern Economic Review he is all for another new pipeline project, this one connecting Iran to India via Pakistan. Looks great on paper, but just the idea raises tensions between Pakistan and India—even though both countries would benefit from such a pipeline.
Most of all, everyone’s waiting for the big breakthrough, in a long overdue thawing of U.S.-Iran relations, leading almost certainly to oil and gas deals that will provide the U.S. with real throw weight against Saudi Arabia whenever the medieval country and its kooky royal family decide to screw us over. Not to mention something to make the wily KGB agent Putin think twice. If the U.S. buries the hatchet with Iran it will have won an important ally in what easily could become a new cold war pitting Washington and Moscow against one another in Central Asia.