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http://www.smh.com.au/news/0110/25/world/world9.html

Control of Central Asia's oil is the real goal

By Ben Aris in Moscow and Ahmed Rashid in Lahore, 10/25/2001

For all the talk of international alliances and the future of Afghanistan, the real game in Central Asia is control of the region's lucrative oil supply.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia has kept Central Asia's huge oil and gas reserves bottled up by restricting access to export pipelines - all of which run over Russian territory.

The United States has been pushing alternative pipeline projects out of the region that do not run over Russian soil.

The US National Security Adviser, Condoleeza Rice, assured the Kremlin last week that Washington had no designs on Central Asia even as a new oil pipeline started up, strengthening Russia's influence in the region.

One of the main reasons that Washington supported the Taliban between 1994 and 1997 was the attempt by the US oil giant Unocal to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, through Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan, to Pakistan and the Persian Gulf. At the time, the US and Unocal hoped the Taliban would swiftly conquer the country.

When the first tanker at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossisk was loaded with oil pumped from Kazakhstan through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium's pipeline, it looked like the rivalry between Moscow and Washington was over. But as US interests intensify in the region, Moscow is nervous about giving Washington a toehold.

Dr Rice's statements were designed to allay fears. She said in an article in the Russian daily Izvestia: "I want to stress this: our policy is not aimed against the interests of Russia. We do not harbour any plans aimed at squeezing Russia out of there."

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have some of the largest reserves of oil and gas in the world, but Russia cut them off from international markets as all their export pipelines run over Russian territory. The US tried aggressively to break the Kremlin's stranglehold over the region, but Dr Rice's comments were the strongest sign yet that Washington is prepared to concede Russia's dominance of the region.

US-Russian relations have been recast since the terrorist attacks in America.

In a brave decision, President Vladimir Putin thumbed his nose at Russia's generals still labouring under Cold War prejudices and gave the go-ahead for Central Asian states to play host to US forces. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are allied to Moscow through the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, and have donated airfields.

After a decade of grand promises of an oil pipeline by international oil firms failed to materialise, Kazakhstan has sided with the Russians.

The Caspian Pipeline Consortium's line is the first big one to be built since the fall of the Soviet Union. Led by Chevron, CPC brought together the governments of Kazakhstan, Russia and Oman, as well as several other oil companies, for financing.

Most of the 1,850-kilometre route runs across Russian territory.

The war in Afghanistan may have brought an end to America's ambitions in the area as a quid pro quo for Russia's co-operation in the US-led campaign. But when peace and a stable government eventually comes to Kabul, US oil companies will be looking closely at Afghanistan because it offers the shortest route to the Gulf for Central Asia's vast quantities of untapped oil and gas.

The companies have invested $US30billion ($59billion) in developing oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan but exporting to the West involves lengthy and expensive pipelines.

Washington is currently proposing a $US3billion pipeline from Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia, to Turkey's Mediterranean coast - a lengthy and expensive project.

US companies could build a similar pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Karachi at half the cost, if the next Afghan government can guarantee its security.

Russia fears that is exactly what the Americans want and, now that US troops are based in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, they will not leave.

The Telegraph, London


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