The Emerging Geo-Strategic Landscape in Central Asia

15 Junio 2011

Recent developments in Afghanistan suggest the New Great Game is intensifying in Central Asia.

Recent developments in Afghanistan and Central Asia, largely overlooked by the media’s focus on the prospects of the US and NATO defeating the Taliban, may profoundly alter the geo-strategic layout of the region and have far reaching consequences. Whilst the conflict continues to rage in Afghanistan, the United States, China and Russia are desperately vying for control of Central Asia’s vast energy reserves.

Historically, Afghanistan was a “buffer state” between the British and Russian empires in a power struggle termed the “Great Game”. Today, the country’s strategic importance lies in its location as a “land-bridge” through which gas and oil from the Central Asian states can be transported to energy deficient South Asia.

Importantly for the United States, Afghanistan provides a means of diverting energy transport routes away from Iran, the natural supplier to the region, instead sourcing gas from Turkmenistan and undercutting Russian and Chinese efforts to control energy flows as part of a regional grid. This potential has long been recognised. In the 1990s the Taliban were seen as “a possible tool in yet another replay of the Great Game - the race for energy riches in Central Asia,” according to former CIA station chief in Pakistan Milton Bearden. US scholar Barnet Rubin notes that at the time “Interest by several international corporations in oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan”, had increased incentives for supporting a force like the Taliban, which could provide security for “trade routes and pipelines that would break Iran’s monopoly” in Central Asia.

More recently, Richard Boucher, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, stated “One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan so it can become a conduit and hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south… and so that the countries of Central Asia are no longer bottled up between the two enormous powers of China and Russia, but rather that they have outlets to the south as well as to the north and the east and the west.

The US-supported Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, initially proposed during the period of Taliban rule but riddled with setbacks, is appearing increasingly likely to become a reality. In 2010 an accord was reached in Turkmenistan and in April this year the Afghan parliament endorsed the plan to construct the pipeline. In a statement released after the agreement, President Karzai said the pipeline could “enhance the conditions for Afghanistan to resume its central role as a land bridge in this region." The Asian development bank funded project will begin construction next year with a completion date of 2014, corresponding with the tentative date set for the withdrawal of US troops.

Afghan officials have pledged 5,500 to 7,000 troops to be used to guard the pipeline, whilst NATO has also expressed the possibility of expanding its mandate to include the protection of such energy supply routes. Yet, as one analyst has noted, there are still “many hurdles to be overcome before construction gets under way, not least the presence of Taliban militants along the Afghan section of the proposed route.” Notably, this includes Helmand and Kandahar, the latter being the scene of an intense US offensive last year and the pipelines last stop before Pakistan.

China and Russia are watching these developments closely. Along with Iran, Russia is the primary candidate to be an energy supplier to the region, the two controlling around 50% of the world’s gas reserves. A rival to the TAPI, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline proposed by the former, has stalled after India pulled out citing cost and security concerns, although analysts have argued pressure from Washington was the crucial factor. China, for its part, has developed a Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline, under an agreement that included a provision stating “Chinese interests” would not be "threatened from [Turkmenistan's] territory by third parties", a barely veiled reference to US military installations in the Central Asian state.

Vital to Moscow and Beijing’s efforts to impose influence is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), created 4 months before the invasion of Afghanistan, composed of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan, and a possible future rival to NATO; there have even been discussions of the organisation having a military component. Following the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the US has courted Central Asian leaders in an attempt to reduce the level of Russian influence in the former Soviet states, acquiring the use of bases in two SCO member countries, and flatly rejecting the organisations demands that a deadline be put on their removal. Almost 10 years on, US/NATO troops are deployed on the borders of both Iran, which has SCO observer status, and China.

India and Pakistan had submitted applications to enhance their participation from observer to full member status

Aware of the stakes, Beijing and Moscow are pushing back. The pair recently cooperated to bring Afghanistan into the fold of the SCO and reduce the administration’s reliance on the US and NATO. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in May that an Afghan request for SCO observer status – coming closely on the heels of a four-day visit by the Afghan Foreign Minister to China - would be considered in an upcoming summit in June. Furthermore, he added that India and Pakistan had submitted applications to enhance their participation from observer to full member status. These developments are particularly worrying for Washington, which had a previous request for observer status denied and has desperately tried to steer Karzai away from such alliances.

The way this situation plays out will have significant effects on the distribution of power in the region for some time to come. As former Indian ambassador and political analyst M K Bhadrakumar has observed, the creation of the TAPI pipeline is an important initial step in the “consolidation of US political, military and economic influence in the strategic high plateau that overlooks Russia, Iran and China.