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Pipelineistan Revisited, PART 12a

There is little doubt that al-Qaeda was incubated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1980s in Pakistan. Peter Schweizer, in Victory - The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Atlantic Monthly Press), describes how "twenty thousand mujahideen were being pumped out every year by these schools dubbed 'CIA U' by some wags". A few hundred of these Arab-Afghans may now have joined the Iraqi resistance.

And there is also little doubt that September 11 provided the ultimate excuse for the US to install its military bases in Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus - a former Soviet sphere. So the "war on terror" is not about a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and not even solely about "terrorism".

The name of the game is basically Pipelineistan: monster oil corporate profits to be made by controlling Central Asia-Caspian Sea oil and gas, bypassing both Russia and Iran, and exerting extra pressure on China. As countless watchdogs have stressed, this is a ruthless "do or die" corporate war. As From the Wilderness puts it, it will be carried out "at any cost, no matter the suffering it may bring to human beings or the devastation it unleashes upon the environment. Such are the characteristics of today's imperialism, the source of war and terrorism."
Dec 24, 2003

PART 12a
Pipelineistan revisited

Part 1: The last frontier: China's far west  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/EK01Ad01.html
Part 2: The king of the steppes  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EK05Ag01.html
Part 3: In pursuit of the snow leopard  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EK08Ag01.html
Part 4: Touching base  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EK15Ag01.html
Part 5: A new learning experience  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EK20Ag01.html
Part 6: Peaceful jihad  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EK25Ag01.html
Part 7: The American client  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EL03Ag03.html
Part 8: The Sufi way  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EL05Ag01.html
Part 9: The Samarkand circle  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EL10Ag02.html
Part 10: Turkmenbashi, it's a gas, gas, gas  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EL12Ag01.html
Part 11: Russia's 'liberal empire'  http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/EL18Ag01.html

BAKU, Azerbaijan - Tzaev Ilman, a friendly Shi'ite Azeri fond of Platin vodka and always caressing his proud possession - a Samsung mobile - may not know how important a player he is in the New Great Game. As a crew member of the "Azerbaijan" ferry, owned by the Caspian Shipping Co, this Caucasian, melancholic version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ancient mariner plies the waters of the Caspian - a 400,000 square kilometer expanse of water and a privileged source of oil and caviar, unrivalled wealth and explosive conflict - between Baku, Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan and Aktau in Kazakhstan.

Last week though, even the ferries were silent in Baku's harbor. Heydar Aliyev, 80, Azerbaijan's "father" and president, had died in an American clinic of heart failure only a few hours before captive Saddam Hussein's images were transfixing the world.

Aliyev had ruled Azerbaijan since 1969 - as a general heading the local branch of the Soviet KGB, then as Communist Party secretary, and finally as president. Like Saddam and other Central Asian dictators, such as Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, his image and his slogans were and still are splashed all over the country.

In a flash, more than a million mourners were crying for Aliyev in the streets of Baku. This was unseen since the death of Josef Stalin - Saddam's icon - 50 years ago. The mourners, from all corners of the Caucasian republic, streamed down avenues strewn with carnations towards the Palace of the Republic, where his body lay in state. His son, Ilham, 41, former playboy, casino owner and vice president of the state oil company SOCAR, is now president. In the first dynastic succession in the post-Soviet sphere, he inherited power last October in a rigged election.

The Paris of the Caspian

Tzaev does not see much during his ferry's pit stops. In Aktau, he hardly has any time to mingle with the local Russians, Kazakhs and Caucasians. Aktau, cornered between the Caspian and the desert, with its water coming from a nuclear-powered desalinization plant, has "attractions" like a huge Vladimir Lenin statue, a real MiG stuck on a pedestal, literally in the middle of nowhere.

Even the monster Tengiz oilfield - operated by the joint venture Tenghizchevroil - is 200 kilometers northeast. Aktau is not even Kazakhstan's oil city: this is Atyrau, in the Urals, 350 kilometers north of Tengiz: although Atyrau is not on the Caspian, the Caspian is coming to Atyrau, and the city may be under water by 2050. As for Aktau, it is certain to become a boom town when Caspian offshore oil exploration begins in earnest.

Tzaev is envious of Caspian waters in Turkmenbashi: they are a clear blue, compared to polluted Baku. For US$100 one can buy a kilogram of the finest beluga caviar, which would cost $260 in Baku. Very few Turkmen live in the port city: most people are Russian and Azeri. This was a key crossroads when Tzarist Russia built the Trans-Caspian railway. Then it was decadence, but now Turkmenbashi is the only port and sea link with Russia and - via the Volga and the Sea of Azov - the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. And this is where Turkmenistan's oil and gas reserves are.

Tzaev lives in a gritty Baku suburb, Surakhani, where families exchange their gloomy Soviet apartment blocks for extended promenades side by side with oil derricks. This Baku, smelling of oil, sulfur and sturgeon, is not the art deco Baku of old, smelling of saphron, enveloped by olive trees and vines, and greener than London. Now, destitute but dignified old ladies are forced to beg in the streets. Like most Azeris, Tzaev is very close to Anatolian Turks by language, physical traits and way of life. But in religion he is more like an Iranian, as he is Shi'ite. Yet ethnicity in Azerbaijan is more important than religion: the key references are Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey, from where they adopted the adapted the Latin alphabet, watch the movies - porno included - and follow politics closely.

A key question for the immediate future is the possibility of moderate Islam - now in power in Turkey - also seducing Azerbaijan. Azeris are fervent Muslims, even if the social facade is Soviet and somewhat Westernized, and there are fewer veiled women in Baku than in a Paris suburb. In hotel rooms, arrows pointing to Mecca coexist with condoms. Azerbaijan is already a member of the Council of Europe - and dreams of becoming, sooner or later, a full member of the European Union.

The Azeri military also collaborates with the Americans in Iraq. There was not a single peep from Washington on the new Azeri "republican dynasty" - a-la North Korea and Syria. Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, in a recent visit to Baku, was mum. Azeris themselves also don't seem to mind. Their major wounds remain the Soviet past, the demented excesses of Stalinism and the fact that Karabakh Armenians joined Armenia and forced hundreds of thousands of Azeri refugees to come to Baku - in a sort of Caucasian replay of India and Pakistan during partition in 1947.

Baku's fond memories are from the golden age when it was "the Kuwait of the Tzarist empire" and "the Paris of the Caspian". The city now would like nothing more than to celebrate the return of the French branch of the Rothschild family - which once had a crucial financial role in the city. This is a city with a certified chic CV.

A crucial cast of characters

Baku's funereal mood lasted for a full week, during which state TV, adding a new totalitarian post-Soviet twist to Chinese torture - or information control - took over all terrestrial channels, including Turkish and Russian, broadcasting for a whole week only throngs of people mourning Alyev. Many Azeris weren't even aware that Saddam had been arrested.

Among the mourners at the funeral was a crucial cast of characters: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Georgia's former leader Eduard Shevardnadze, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, George W Bush's special envoy - oil man Brent Scowcroft. Putin said in so many words that he "loved" Aliyev. Recep Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey, with which Azerbaijan is extremely close, said: "The Turkic world has lost an outstanding individual." Shevardnadze was unconsolable: Alyev had been his personal friend for more than three decades. Every project involving oil and power between the two countries was dependent on their friendship.

In May, during a solemn pipe-laying ceremony for the start of the Georgian stretch of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC), Georgia oil executive Georgy Chantiurua said: "This was the start of the integration of Georgia into the NATO zone ... this pipeline will become an artery feeding energy to the US and European countries." The US$3.6 billion oilfield and pipeline development project involves a 1,767 kilometer pipeline, the world's longest, snaking from Baku through Georgia to a new terminal at Ceyhan on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

The elder Aliyev said that the relationship between Georgia and Azerbaijan was a model, and he hoped that "in 2005 the presidents of the two countries will take part in the ceremony to load the first tanker from Ceyhan with Caspian oil". Little did he know that he and his great friend Shevardnadze would miss it: one of them is now dead and the other has been toppled. And no one at the moment is even betting that the main actors at the 2005 ceremony will be the younger Alyev and "Misha" Saakashvili, now at the interim helm in Georgia.

BTC and the regional context

The New Silk Road - as far as Washington is concerned - could be summarized by one acronym: BTC. The pipeline will be a massive snake: 443 kilometers in Azerbaijan, 248 kilometers in Georgia and 1,076 kilometers in Turkey. Its projected capacity is 50 million tons per annum. The plan is to start exporting Azerbaijani oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan to Western markets by the second quarter of 2005. BTC has become a true American obsession. According to the official version in Baku of the consortium building the pipeline, led by British oil giant BP, 25 percent of the construction is already finished. The Azerbaijani stretch should be finished by September 2004, the Georgian by October and the Turkish by December.

But this is Pipelineistan politics at its messiest. Nobody knows how stable the new post-Shevardnadze Georgian government - following January 4 elections - will be. Nobody knows how politically competent Ilham Aliyev is, although a Baku insider says that as long as oil wealth keeps flowing in, the elite from different clans may continue to support him.

David Woodward, BP's top employee in Baku, essentially says that both Georgia and Azerbaijan remain on board the project. Saakashvili says that BTC is "a matter of survival". Official lenders like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development say that all's well with the pipeline, despite uncertainty in Georgia.

But the fact is the geopolitical armwrestling between Russians and Americans for control of these crucial Eurasian lands is nothing less than titanic. Rumsfeld visited Baku on December 3, met Ilham Aliyev and proposed the deployment of mobile US military forces. This was the swift response in the incendiary words of Nikolay Ryabov, Russia's ambassador to Azerbaijan: "There has not been and there will not be any kind of American presence in the Caspian. We will not allow it, they have nothing to guard here." Crucially, Colonel-General Safar Abiyev, the Azeri minister of defense, admitted that he and Rumsfeld had discussed the security of BTC.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Ivanov was also alarmed. But Vafa Guluzade, head of the pro-American Caspian Political Studies Foundation, is sure that "the issue of the location of NATO bases in Azerbaijan has already been agreed upon between the Azerbaijani and the US governments". Guluzade says that Russia may not be happy - a splendid euphemism - with NATO knocking on its doors, but it doesn't have the power to prevent it. Guluzade has been in favor of NATO in Azerbaijan since the late 1990s, when he was a foreign affairs advisor to the elder Aliyev. Before the rigged Azeri presidential election last October, Aliyev junior went to Russia and stressed the "strategic character" of the bilateral relationship. He will be back to Moscow in mid-February, when he will certainly be forcefully reminded of his words by Putin.

American moves in the Caspian are directed against both Russia and Iran. So Iran also had to react against the militarization of the Caspian. The commander of the Iranian navy, Abbas Mohtaj, called all five Caspian countries "to unite efforts to prevent foreign military interference in the Caspian".

The Georgia factor

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been extremely tense for years. Tbilisi accuses Moscow of supporting the separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces, and of ordering assassination attempts against Shevardnadze in 1996 and 1998. Georgians are overwhelmingly against a Russian presence in the tiny republic. Moscow for its part is fiercely against BTC, and also accuses Tbilisi of supporting Chechen guerrillas. In 2001, Moscow even slapped visas on Georgian visitors.

Russia's man in Georgia is definitely Aslan Abashidze, the flamboyant governor of the Black Sea province of Ajaria. He regarded Shevardnadze's ouster as "a coup". Ajaria, the biggest Georgian seaport, is also the site of Russia's largest military base in the country. Abashidze strongly denies he wants to secede from Georgia, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian journalist Khatuna Kviralashvili says that Abashidze will secede only if he is sure to have support from the local people and from Russia: "But it's very unlikely that Ajaria's people will support his secessionist sentiments."

Georgia and Azerbaijan are joined by their security fears. Avtandil Iioseliani, head of Georgian intelligence - echoing Azerbaijan's security minister Namig Abasov - says there's credible information of possible sabotage against BTC by "some Arab countries". Geydar Jemal, chairman of the Russian Islamic Committee, says that there will be no holds barred: Russia may slap visas on Azeris as retaliation - like it did with Georgians in 2001 - if Azerbaijan welcomes NATO mobile military bases. This will be an enormous problem: at least 2 million Azeris live in Russia and send money every month to their families, a vital source of Baku's foreign exchange. According to Jemal: "It's obvious the US are interested in Azerbaijani territory for strengthening military pressure on Iran. But this would not serve the real interests of Azerbaijan."

The Chechen factor

Freelance Russian journalist Andrei Smirnov managed to meet and get a stunning interview from Amir Ramzan, the commander of one of the Chechen groups operating against the Russian military in the Northern Caucasus. Ramzan says that "not only do we carry out raids to various areas in the Caucasus, but we also form local jama'ats [groups], militant sabotage groups, locally. We are joined by a lot of Kabardinians, Dagestanis, Karachaevans, Ingushetians and even Ossetians."

In the interview, Ramzan issues a chilling warning: in 2004 "the war will seize the entire Caucasus from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Apart from Ossetia and Ingushetia, this year another guerrilla war has already started in two areas of Dagestan bordering Chechnya. I swear by Allah, this is only the beginning."

Significantly, Ramzan suspects that "Western governments and their security services also secretly finance us through different Islamic funds and organizations. I am convinced that there are Western powers in whose interests it is to keep Russia permanently involved in such a slow-burning conflict as the war in the Caucasus."

Chechen President Akhmad Kadirov, in a recent press conference in Grozny, said that Russia's anti-terrorism operations in Chechnya will be over after the "elimination" of master guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev, accused by the president of being supported by foreigners and hiring foreign mercenaries. The majority of Chechens consider Kadirov a Russian puppet.

The big picture

There is little doubt that al-Qaeda was incubated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1980s in Pakistan. Peter Schweizer, in Victory - The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Atlantic Monthly Press), describes how "twenty thousand mujahideen were being pumped out every year by these schools dubbed 'CIA U' by some wags". A few hundred of these Arab-Afghans may now have joined the Iraqi resistance.

And there is also little doubt that September 11 provided the ultimate excuse for the US to install its military bases in Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus - a former Soviet sphere. So the "war on terror" is not about a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and not even solely about "terrorism". The name of the game is basically Pipelineistan: monster oil corporate profits to be made by controlling Central Asia-Caspian Sea oil and gas, bypassing both Russia and Iran, and exerting extra pressure on China. As countless watchdogs have stressed, this is a ruthless "do or die" corporate war. As From the Wilderness puts it, it will be carried out "at any cost, no matter the suffering it may bring to human beings or the devastation it unleashes upon the environment. Such are the characteristics of today's imperialism, the source of war and terrorism."

"Grand chessboard" theoretician Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security advisor, defines Persian Gulf/Central Asia as the "global zone of percolating violence": it will become "a major battlefield, both for wars among nation-states and, more likely, for protracted ethnic and religious violence". Pentagon officials talk of an "arc of instability" running from the Andes in South America through North Africa, the Middle East and into Southeast Asia. American military intervention is making sure this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The US energy strategy is being guided by the Baker report - commissioned by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. The report stresses "the concentration of resources in the Middle East Gulf region and the vulnerability of the global economy to domestic conditions in the key producer countries". So the big picture as far as Washington is concerned is to mould these "domestic conditions" by carrots and by the biggest sticks to be found anywhere. As Larry Everest analyzes it in his book Oil, Power and Empire (Common Courage Press), the Baker report says, for instance, that "more than 90 percent of the world's proven oil reserves are owned by countries, national oil companies and the Russian oil companies" - a substantial majority closed to foreign direct investment. So it comes as no surprise that the road map for what will happen in the next few years is Cheney's May 2001 energy report: the strategy is to to gain access, leverage and control of oil and gas from Colombia and Venezuela in South America to Iraq in the Middle East and the Caspian. Thus the American demonization of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the fight against FARC in Colombia, the war against Iraq, the push for BTC in the Caspian, the courtship of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, etc.

Europe's thirst for oil until 2015 is expected to grow by only 1 million barrels a day. But Asia's is expected to grow by at least 10 million barrels a day. So the logic of the game dictates Pipelineistan should preferentially go East. The problem is this new golden oil road requires the longest pipelines in the world. The Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan mountains, for example, have to be bypassed. The shorter southern route has to go via either Iran or Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran is anathema in Washington. So as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey became the chosen ones for Pipelineistan going west, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the chosen ones for Pipelineistan going east.

TOMORROW: Pipelineistan revisited, Part 12b

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