Posts Tagged ‘Eurasia’

Afghanistan and the contest for power

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The US-NATO war in Afghanistan has dragged on for nearly eight long years. It has failed to bring sustainability or security from violence, and Afghans continue to suffer from an economy that has fallen on its knees after three decades of continuous warfare.

The national government cannot far project its authority past the capital city, Kabul. Beyond this area, the seal of state power must be delivered at gun point, not by the Afghan National Army or Police, but by foreign forces. A 2008 US government report concluded that, out of a total force of 80,000, not a single national police unit is “fully capable of performing its mission and over three-fourths of units… are assessed at the lowest capability rating.” The Afghan National Army is not much better.

So you have an Afghan security force that is embedded with handlers, and trainers from NATO countries, dependent on the military power and the logistical capacity of Western troops. Not exactly the perfect picture of self-sufficiency.

The local government is also permeated by foreign observers and advisers, through foreign government experts, and the UN. These informal power blocs dole out money to an otherwise financially unsustainable Afghan state. The total cost of the national army and police, an estimated US$3.5 billion annually, is many times greater than the entire revenue of the government, even before the planned expansion of an already bloated local security forces.

The continued spiral of violence and chaos has justified the long presence of foreign troops in an already war ravaged country that sits between three of the US’s geopolitical rivals: Russia, China, and Iran.

The irony of the failure to bring peace to the region by waging a US-led war in the pursuit of justice against Al Qaeda and in the name of a feckless militarized humanitarian mission has given the US and NATO justification to seek out military bases and maintain a military presence in Central Asia. The war can justify the appropriation of large sums of government budgets to reshape not just Afghanistan, but the region, through military action as well as by vigorous diplomatic maneuvering.

“It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America,” writes Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, the ‘Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives.’ Brzezinski was the national security adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter.

Brzezinski adds that, “in that context, how America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical… A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 percent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.”

This continent-spanning contest, termed the Great Game, pivots around Central Asia, a region that happens to be instrumental to the emergence of the New Silk Road: an energy superhighway of oil and gas pipelines that is growing increasingly important.

Meanwhile, the UN estimates that the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has risen sharply, 40% higher in 2008 than in the previous year. The number of civilian dead rose to 2,118 last year. The report claims that 39% of these deaths were caused by coalition and Afghan forces, in great part as a result of air strikes.

The commitment of more US troops, trainers, and resources as well as the policy to expand the war into north western Pakistan implies that we should not expect a turn away from war in the short term. The emphasis has shifted within Eurasia, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(First published at


Fresh U.S. efforts on a natural gas pipeline in Eurasia

April 28, 2009 Leave a comment

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The US is making concerted effort to revive plans for a 3,300 km long natural gas pipeline that stretches from the Caspian sea through Turkey to Austria. This Nabucco pipeline is still very much in its infancy, lacking adequate supply of natural gas as well as lacking transit rites through intermediary countries in order to become viable enough to start building. This pipeline could potentially provide energy from Central Asia, and the Caucasus to Europe, diversifying Europe’s supplies of natural gas.

Russia has so far successfully maintained its dominance over Europe’s energy markets. It has done this by outplaying the US under president Bush with the important energy producers of Central Asia, by sewing insecurity into existing Western energy routes through the region by strafing yet leaving undamaged the Baku-Tbilishi-Ceyhan pipeline during the short Russia-Georgia war, and by promising an alternative to Nabucco: South Stream.

South Stream is a proposed 900 km pipeline that would cross the Black Sea into Bulgaria and branch into Austria and Italy. It is still uncertain whether South Stream, Nabucco, or both might realize expectations of providing increased natural gas supply through to south eastern Europe.

US president Barack Obama last week appointed Richard Morningstar to head up Eurasian energy policy. MK Bhadrakumar writes in Asia Times that Morningstar, under president Clinton, successfully championed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

In 1998, Morningstar was quoted as saying that, “the fundamental objective of the US policy in the Caspian is not simply to build oil and gas pipelines. Rather it is to use those pipelines, which must be commercially viable, as tools for establishing a political and economic framework that will strengthen regional cooperation and stability and encourage reform for the next several decades.”

Bhadrakumar states that Morningstar has been very busy and pragmatic in his first week in office under president Obama. He has been trying to win a supply deal from gas rich Turkmenistan in order to transit that energy across the Caspian sea and through to Europe. He has also stated that the US would consider striking a deal with Iran for natural gas. It has even been suggested that some Western technology may be made available to Iran’s energy sector if a natural gas deal was concluded.

Talk of purchasing natural gas from Iran can well be a carrot in negotiations between the US and Iran on the latter country’s nuclear program. Also, the US has been seeking some degree of increased cooperation from Iran in order to stabalize Afghanistan. It was today announced that Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan officials plan to meet monthly in order to cooperate on security and stability in the region.

Having Iran join the proposed Nabucco pipeline would have that energy rich country enter into what would become an increasingly competitive market for European consumers, eroding Russia’s dominance.

The likelihood of Iran joining the Nabucco project is slim in the short-term. Tensions are still high between the US and Iran, and this proposal is likely to serve both as an incentive to Iran and as a display of how serious the US is about making the proposed pipeline a reality, thus bolstering the confidence of currently lackluster potential investors.

(First published at

Energy pipelines in Eurasia: maps of the New Silk Road

April 21, 2009 1 comment

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I quickly gathered a series of maps of oil and natural gas pipelines that criss-cross Eurasia. Notice that some of the maps, though similar, don’t outline the same routes. This is because, some of the established routes are newly constructed and were not built at the time of the map’s inception. Also, some of the proposed lines vacillate between quite possible to unlikely to ever happen. This energy network is not yet fully established and is undergoing fairly rapid changes over the years. I hope, however, that these maps can provide a sense of the energy routes that span this multi-continent network.

A general view of existing and proposed pipelines based on geostrategic parties


Central Asia


Central Asia and surroundings


Eastern Europe and Caucasus


From the US government’s Energy Information Administration


Railway network


Categories: Asia-Pacific, Energy Tags: , , ,

A swarm of nuclear deals in the Middle East and Asia

April 13, 2009 2 comments

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Many countries in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and North Africa already have nuclear programs or are planning to set up new ones with the help of the US, Russia, Europe, or China.

A great deal of attention has been paid to Iran’s nuclear program, with the UN Security Council making special demands on that country’s research and development that fall outside of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There are a number of in depth articles on this issue currently available, yet not as much is at hand when it comes to a comprehensive review of the proliferation of nuclear technology in the wider region. I will here briefly outline the various nuclear deals and programs in that large yet interrelated swath of territory spanning two continents.

Iran’s desires for nuclear energy began in the late 1950s, under the now deposed Shah, and kicked into full gear with Western help in the early 1970s under US president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. The Iranian revolution put an end to this cooperation in 1979, but, in the 1990s, an independent nuclear program was revived under the Islamic government. (Read about some of this history at the Council on Foreign Relations).

Some of the criticism of the UN Security Council’s barriers in place against Iran’s nuclear program touch on the fact that many of the same opposing countries are actively supporting the expansion of existing programs and the creation of new ones throughout neighbouring regions. Furthermore, Iran is a signatory of the NPT, giving it the right to a civilian nuclear program. The opposition to Iran’s efforts seem mainly based on the assumption that that country seeks to build nuclear weapons and that the presence of a civilian program enables and facilitates a military one. In this case, the proliferation of internationally supported nuclear programs throughout the region raises the question of why other countries might be exempt from similar concern. Perhaps it is believed that the spread of at least civilian technology is inevitable over the medium to long term and that participation in these country’s programs will help mitigate perceived and real threats as well as allow more direct supervision and influence over the programs’ establishment.


Iran’s north western neighbour plans to build a new power plant starting April 1, 2010. The new plant is meant to replace the existing 33 year-old Soviet era Metsamor nuclear power plant that is to be shut down in 2016. The new plant is supposed to generate twice or more energy than its predecessor, enough for Armenia to export electricity to other countries.

Turkey, a NATO member, has been in talks with Armenia to cooperate on the construction of the new plant. This is mainly a political move on Turkey’s part, supported by the current US administration under president Barack Obama. Armenia is close to Russia and bitter rivals with Western-leaning neighbouring Azerbaijan. Though it is very unlikely that Turkey would indeed become involved in the program, the fact that they’re talking about it is a diplomatic measure that may well be used to leverage Armenia away from an unmitigated pro-Russia stance.


Turkey has no nuclear power plants. This makes it even more unlikely that they would get involved in an Armenian program, and supports the notion that Turkey is using nuclear talks to forward NATO’s political aims in the region.

Turkey, however, has expressed plans to build two power plants in the near future (each about the size of the Armenian one). (1)

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

The GCC officially expressed its desire to seek a civilian nuclear program after its December 2006 summit. The GCC is composed of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

In 2007, the GCC asked for help from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in developing a civilian nuclear program and has since had some positive response from the energy agency.

The US, under president George W. Bush, has signed nuclear cooperation agreement with a number of GCC members: with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain (click on each country name to read the agreement). All of these agreements were signed in 2008, save one with the UAE in 2009.


Jordan has expressed its desire for a civilian nuclear program and in September 2007 signed a memorandum of understanding with the US on nuclear cooperation.


Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a nuclear weapons arsenal, with an estimated supply in the hundreds. Its nuclear program was assisted by France (with reactors, heavy water, uranium and components), Norway (heavy water), and the UK (heavy water). The US did not formally support or impede the program.


Egypt plans to go ahead with nuclear power, citing energy concerns. The US had previously agreed to cooperate on the project.

Other Middle Eastern and North African Countries

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen have also expressed their desire to consider launching a civilian nuclear program. These announcements have often coincided with or closely followed announcements by US supported GCC and Egyptian plans. Though these plans may seem unrealistic in the medium term, they signal a growing support for and movement toward nuclear technology in the region.


Iran’s initial dream of nuclear energy was supported by the US. Plans began in the late 1950s, under the Shah.

Recently, there has been talk of a potential shift in US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. International relations expert and former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar has written in a recent article that “according to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is ‘carefully considering’ the setting up of an international uranium fuel bank in Kazakhstan, which could form the exit strategy for the historic US-Iran standoff.”


Kazakhstan possesses no nuclear power plants but is considering plans for the construction of two reactors.

The president of Kazakhstan, Nurusultan Nazarbayev, on April 6, announced that his country would be willing to host a US-backed plan for an international nuclear fuel bank. The US supported plan would place all uranium enrichment under international control and supervision.

Kazakhstan has about 19% of the world’s total uranium deposits and is expected to produce 11,900 tons of it in 2009.


Pakistan has two nuclear reactors(2) as well as nuclear weapons. The program received aid from China.


The passage of a recent India-US nuclear pact has strengthened India’s hand in the field of nuclear technology. Despite India’s refusal to sign the NPT and its active weapons program, the US, under president George W. Bush, brokered a deal that essentially circumvents the non-proliferation treaty and allows India international access to fuel and technology.

The deal may well be used to pull India into US foreign policy plans for the Asia-Pacific region, such as on issues relating to Iran and China.

First published at


Most sources can be found as hyperlinks within the body of the article.

(1) World Nuclear Association, ‘World Nuclear Power Reactors 2007-09 and Uranium Requirements,’ 1 April 2009,
(2) Ibid.

The New Great Game or the Long War Across Europe and Asia

March 25, 2009 Leave a comment

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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.

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