Book Review of Kleveman’s 2003 “The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia”

[I posted this book review at yahoo group energyresources back in 2004 when the average American still thought the Iraq war was about weapons of mass destruction. It is still relevant today.  Alice Friedemann ]

Lutz Kleveman. 2003. “The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia”. Atlantic Monthly Press.

Countries with unexploited oil are rare these days, often hard to get to and dangerous to visit. Lutz Kleveman takes you on a wild ride in and out of countries near the Caspian Sea that hope to become rich by exporting their oil and gas (which ER readers know didn’t turn out to be as plentiful as hoped).

Many of these countries are newly liberated from the Soviet Union, and eager to distance themselves. Americans have been allowed to build military bases and have a first crack at the oil as a shield from Russian involvement.

Corruption is widespread. One of the reasons Russia invaded Chechnya was that the black market in oil had gotten out of hand. Russian mafia absconded with vast amounts of stolen crude oil, and the refineries were selling it out the back door. Oil accounted for two- thirds of the revenues coming in to Chechnya, about $900 million in 1993.

Some countries are risky to visit. In Georgia, local bandits find good money can be made by kidnapping UN employees. A few days after Keleveman arrived by UN helicopter, guerillas shot down this copter. Mines are buried in fields everywhere.

Kleveman paints vivid pictures of the decline of civilization as he makes his journey. There are horse-drawn carts, men dragging wheelbarrows and hauling wood, bombed out ruins, and empty promenades at resort towns. The landscape alone brings certainty that this destruction will repeat, and he also weaves the grim history of Stalin and other leaders into the narrative, their past deeds and the wasteland of the present guarantee future unrest and remind the many inclined towards blood feuds to never forgive past injustices. The Chechens certainly haven’t forgotten how Stalin moved a million people to Kazakhstan and Siberia, where they were dropped off without protection in the bitter cold.

In Azerbaijan, fourteen petrochemical factories that provided work for 150,000 people are gone. There were chemical plants, a steel mill and an aluminum factory, which have poisoned the soil as much as anywhere in the former USSR. All the windows are broken, some have collapsing roofs. Kleveman writes “in this apocalyptic postindustrial desert, men and women poke through the rubbish in search of some aluminum scrap that they might be able to sell for a few cents on the black market in Baku”.

The best dictator since Woody Allen’s “Banana Republic” is President Saparmurat Nyazov in Turkmenistan. One day, to find out if his people loved him as much as his ministers told him, he glued on a fake black beard, got in his Mercedes limousine, and drove to the edge of town. He got out and began asking the locals what they thought of their leader. This is a country where no one talks politics, let alone tells a man who’s the spitting image of the President arriving in the President’s limo their true feelings.

Nyazov has named thousands of buildings and streets and even parts of the calendar after himself. His biggest project is a water fountain park. Water games are his passion. He’s gotten labor brigades to construct water fountains of all sizes and fantastic designs in a several square mile park. Every one of them has “animal figures, flamingos, tigers, fish, spewing water. Pebbled paths, lined with palm trees and exotic conifers, crisscross between the fountains”. In the center is the world’s largest water fountain, a huge dark marble pyramid as impressive as those at Giza. Water cascades down the steps.

Best of all are the obscure holidays the President has invented. On melon day, the military makes a huge mountain of tens of thousands of melons. Until dark, the people can eat as many melons as they like.

President Nyazov also offers spiritual guidance to his people. He didn’t think the Bible or Koran were good enough, so he wrote his own book, calling it Ruhnama, which means “The Answer to All your Questions”. Every government office has a weekly study hour to discuss it, and the pink-covered book is part of the mandatory curriculum for all schools and universities.

As you are introduced to country after country, it becomes clear that Americans aren’t as welcome as they think they are. In Kyrgyzstan, a village woman says that she doesn’t like American soldiers treating their village like a zoo where you can feed the children like animals. She doesn’t allow her children to accept any sweets. A local journalist told Kreveman that the locals weren’t happy about the Americans moving in. “The people do not want our country to sacrifice to another great power the independence it has only just gained.”

The advance of Americans into Central Asia also worries the conservative elites in Moscow, who still regard these countries as part of their strategic area. As Russia regains order and grows wealthier from oil revenues, it is likely Putin will once again exert power in this powder keg region, and with both the USA and Russia being nuclear powers, this has potentially larger consequences. As Kreveman points out, we wouldn’t tolerate Russian troops in Mexico for long.

In Afghanistan, he’s told if the USA remains in the country “against the will of the Afghan people, they could meet the same fate as the Russians did”.

Yet it looks as if we intend to stay. Tents are being replaced with long-lasting buildings of concrete. This reflects a shift in American strategy. In 2002, high-ranking officials in the Bush administration began saying that U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan for more than a decade. When asked how long American troops would stay in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks said ” for a long, long time”.

Of all the places where conflict and endless war might begin, Pakistan is where I’d place my bets. A nuclear power with 148 million people, many living in poverty and schooled in militant Muslim teachings, surrounded by hostile neighbors strikes me as a bomb about to go off. Soldiers have been in power for most of their 56-year history, sucking up nearly one-fifth of the national budget, the best farmland in the Indus valley, and run the shipping ports, railroads, and so on.

But the military doesn’t have as complete a grip on things as they’d like. Recently the MMA party, an alliance of six Islamist parties has been gaining in political power. One of their leaders , Maulana Samiul Haq likes to shout “Down with Bush!” and “This is a war between Islam and American infidels!” About a third of Pakistani children, mainly from the poorest families, attends Islamic fundamentalist schools. Kleveman asks some Pashtuns why they voted for the MMA. “We hate America, that is why. America is evil. We want their military out of our country!”.

One of the more moderate MMA leaders, Ahmed, recalled “that during the Indian struggle for independence from Britain, people looked to America for inspiration and support. For us, the country was a haven of liberalism and anti-colonialism. Now the Americans have become as imperialist as the British. They make no effort to look for the reasons why they are hated so much. The United States should change its foreign policy because it is not in their interest, as September 11 has shown.” And Ahmed is one of the more moderate Islamist leaders.

The idea we’d be welcomed with flowers and smiles after the Iraqi invasion has got to be one of the stranger fantasies of the Bush administration.

Klevemans closing paragraph reads “These are only the first signs that the U.S. troops’ self-image of “liberators” is far from being shared by most people in the region. Ultimately, this growing hostility against the American presence in Central Asia might decide the new Grate Game’s outcome.

It’s the Epilogue “Angry Young Men” that really kept me from sleeping. A young man in the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) in Sierra Leone (the army was known for chopping off the limbs of thousands of civilians during the country’s 10-year civil war), told Kleveman why he fought for the RUF. “I grew up sick and hungry, never went to school. I had no hope and was angry, so angry. My life was shit and it was going to be short anyway. So I took up a gun to have a bit of fun before I die. I have nothing to lose.”

Kleveman met many young impoverished men who were potential terrorists, very disgusted with the United States’ alliances with their corrupt dictators. This turns them towards militant Islam and “virulent Anti-Americanism”. Below are some excerpts from the epilogue:

“At the end of the Cold War in 1989, America was admired and loved by the Soviet-oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe not only as the leader of the West but as the champion of democracy, civil liberties, and cultural progress. This cultural appeal was perhaps as powerful, albeit more subtle, a weapon in the struggle with the Soviet Union as NATO’s military might.

Today, the United States has lost most of its cultural attractiveness …and is widely hated for its politics….While B-51’s and Cruise missiles inspire fear and hatred, the building of roads, schools, and hospitals would win people’s hearts and minds. Why has the Bush administration not provided sufficient funds to engage in such nation- building in Afghanistan, instead continuing to support regional warlords who tear the country apart and are deeply implicated in the heroin trade? Why has the Bush administration not helped the Husharraf regime in Pakistan to secularize the country’s tens of thousands of Koran schools that continue to churn out America-hating Islamic militants? These are just two randomly chosen examples of the many myopic U.S. policies in the region that are bound to eventually backfire terribly, as did the CIA’s arming of Islamic Mujahideen like Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s.”

The war in Iraq, “while ostensibly waged to disarm Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction, underscored the fact that the new Great Game over the oil fields and pipelines in Central Asia gives but a foretaste of future energy wars over the world’s remaining oil and gas resources”.

“Most international lawyers see the invasion of Iraq, a sovereign Arab country, as a violation of the UN Charter of 1945, which prohibits aggressive military action unless provoked by an attack or authorized by the UN Security Council.”

“By opening the Iraqi Pandora’s box, the Bush administration also puts at risk the few successes in the war on terror. The invasion and possible occupation of a Muslim country, resented as yet another attack on Islam and an imperialist bid to control the region’s oil reserves, will inevitably fill the ranks of Al Qaeda in the region, increasing, not decreasing, the threat of September 11-style terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe.”

American arrogance of power will not fail to affect relations between the United States and its main rivals in the new Great Game: Russia, Iran, and China. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argued as early as 1997 that “America is now Eurasia’s arbiter, with no major Eurasian issue soluble without America’s participation or contrary to America’s interests. How the United States both manipulates and accommodates the principal geostrategic players on the Eurasian chessboard and how it manages Eurasia’s key geopolitical pivots will be critical to the longevity and stability of America’s global primacy”.

The arrogance ad hubris expressed in such words infuriate the conservative power circles in Moscow who loathe the prospect of a long-term American military presence in Russia’s strategic backyard. At this point, Russia is now more likely to join forces with China in undermining American global supremacy. With its economy increasingly dependent on oil imports from the Middle East and Central Asia, China in particular will assert its interests in those regions even more vigorously. Iran is also likely to step up its actions against U.S. interests and pipeline plans in the Caspian region. Iran might come to see the possession of nuclear bombs as the sole effective defense against a possible American attack.

However vehement the denials by the Bush administration, its true intention in Iraq clearly is to turn the country into a strategic oil supplier for the U.S. economy …as an alternative to Saudi Arabia.

What is at stake behind the rhetoric of disarmament and human rights is nothing less than the control over the earth’s remaining fossil reserves, as envisaged in the May 2001 Cheney report on U.S. national energy policy.

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