The New Great Game or the Long War Across Europe and Asia
A growing network of energy pipelines are criss-crossing Eurasia, giving form to the political instability, military tension, and wars erupting in the large expanse of territory touching eastern Europe to eastern regions of Asia. The war in Afghanistan, the brewing civil war in Pakistan, and international intervention in these and neighbouring countries are increasingly being viewed as outbursts and maneuvers in what is called the New Great Game over the existing and developing arteries — oil and natural gas pipelines — that will transit much of the world’s energy.
The largest players in this battle have been the USA, with its Western allies increasingly under the instrument of NATO, and a China-Russia entente primarily under the auspice of an economic and increasingly security cooperative called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Iran and India are also emerging as significant players in this Great Game that has very concrete material, economic, and security implications for Eurasia and for the globe in terms of the alignment of political powers and destination of economic wealth determined by the flow of the great part of the world’s energy reserves.
The existing and proposed pipelines will tap into the vast energy reserves in Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. Their destination will be the major consumers and distributors in India, Europe, Turkey, China, Russia, and Pakistan. The cheapest pipelines cost billions of US dollars to construct, the sometimes ad-hoc network as a whole costs hundreds of billions simply to construct along sometimes competing pipelines and short sea routes with varying capacity, each tied to a general NATO or SCO alliance of interests.
The point is not simply to deliver energy to an end point, but rather by a dominant political alliance to directly control or at least overwhelming influence the access to energy. This determination will provide economic advantage to the carriers, permit them to exert political pressure by controlling access to energy and even threatening to or actually cutting off supply.
Prior to the late 1990s, the US had become supportive of cooperation with the Taliban because Afghanistan had almost entirely been united under that group’s rule, bringing harsh rule and some level of security stability to the country. In that period, those regions of Afghanistan under Taliban control were under a unified control that made it possible for the US to examine the potential for an energy pipeline running through Afghanistan into Pakistan. The US actively negotiated with the Taliban in order to make this a reality and was keen to apply political players to push out other countries’ corporate energy conglomerates. Of course, the plan did not succeed, the Taliban did not deliver a pipeline to the US energy interest, the civil war in Afghanistan kept re-erupting, and hostilities between the US and the Taliban grew until full war broke out between them.
Recently, there has been increasing talk of the possibility that the US may bomb the Baluchistan region of Pakistan in the south west. Attacks of this sort are conducted by drone planes within Pakistan. This is presented as an extension of the War on Terror, aka the Long War, aka the AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) war conducted by the US and its NATO allies.
Pakistani Baluchistan is mainly cooperating with Pakistan’s central government and has not been the hotbed of Islamist militancy that has swept across much of that country’s north west. True, Baluchistan has at various points in Pakistan’s history revolted, but their resistance has nothing to do with a pan-national Islamic movement. They seek better economic conditions, and are pressing for a nationalist movement that articulates their region’s ethnic and cultural difference and marginalisation from the dominant people within the Pakistani state. So, it doesn’t seem to make sense for the US to bomb this region.
A bombing campaign would almost certainly add to long-standing tensions between Baluchistan and the central government, may lead to political instability in the region, and calls for non-cooperation with the government. The worst case would be for the nationalist movement to be reinvigorated and for Pakistan to lose control of yet another province. Instability in Baluchistan would essentially result in all of Pakistan’s western wing breaking away from direct control and turning to open rebellion.
So why would the US consider bombing Baluchistan when there are little to no major Islamist assets in the region and risk further disempowering Pakistan’s government?
Baluchistan is a necessary passage for a proposed pipeline running from Iran, through Pakistan, to India, with a possible splinter carrying oil to China. This Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline has already seen much difficulty. With the deepening strategic alliance between India and the US, India has been pressured to disinvest from the project. Despite this, the project keeps rearing its head. India depends on energy imports, and will become increasingly vulnerable to energy supplies as it industrialises at a rapid pace. Furthermore, nearly all of India’s energy supplies are delivered via sea lanes, leaving it open to disruption, explaining much of India’s interest in heading off pirate attacks in north east Africa as well as its increasing monitoring operations there. India feels it needs not only a greater supply of oil but also to diversify points of access.
The permanent infrastructure of an IPI pipelines would require cooperation between Iran, Pakistan, and India. This may well demand some rapprochement between India and Iran, and would offset some of the US ability to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran. Furthermore, a splinter into China would extend China’s reach and influence into the intensifying New Great Game over energy supplies.
Just as the Russia-Georgia war disrupted the only pro-Western energy supply line from Central Asia to Europe for a short period and risks to undermine its development by scaring investors and government away, the bombing of Baluchistan could well bury the IPI pipeline before it can become a reality.
For more information on the New Great Game read the following:
Liquid war: Welcome to Pipelineistan, by Pepe Escobar.
From Great Game to Grand Bargain, by Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid.
Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid.