The New Great Game: blood and oil in Central Asia by Lutz Kleveman

A battle over black gold in the new El Dorado
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The Independent Culture

This book's title is so similar to that of Ahmed Rashid's classic, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, as to provoke suspicion. But it quickly emerges that Lutz Kleveman's book ploughs an important new furrow. Starting in Baku, he progresses through Georgia to Ingushetia, through Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, to wind up among jihadis in Pakistan. He is ostensibly looking into oil deals, but that means scrutinising the politics behind them: US foreign policy, and the response from countries it is clumsily wooing.

The Caspian is the world's new El Dorado: the US is eyeing it as a way of decreasing dependence on Saudi Arabia. It's alleged that the Afghan and Iraq wars were really about oil. Kleveman is scrupulous with facts, but everywhere finds evidence to support this. Oil is the reason for the US bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (where human rights abuses are ignored by America, anxious not to antagonise its new friend).

The US wants the oil piped through Georgia: the alternative is through "axis-of-evil" Iran. Kleveman's Georgian sojourn illustrates the pitfalls of the northern route, where corruption has replaced the rule of law and sabotage is likely. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are subverting America's scheme, with Moscow playing along. Kyrgyzstan is entering the fray: in that small mountain country, where Russia and the US have bases cheek by jowl, China is contemplating one too. One informant quotes a Russian proverb: "If you have guests in the house, there are two times when you are happy. One is when they arrive, the other is when they leave,"

This book's strength lies in the author's sharp journalistic eye, and his apparent fearlessness. He fails to pass the Russian cordon into Grozny, but gets banged up in Vladikavkaz. He penetrates the pariah state of Abkhazia and the mountain fastness of Badakshan, both of which carry a serious health warning. He gatecrashes an oil mafioso's private flight, and questions him. Describing how a group of boys playfully ambush the US jeep he has hitched a lift with in Afghanistan, he shows how calamity is often just round the corner.

Anyone who has wandered the immaculate streets of Kazakhstan's new capital Astana, experienced the eerie silence of Dushanbe's market, or gagged on the fume-filled air in Baku, will agree that as travel writing his book is spot-on. But this is first and last a political book, and its conclusion is stark. By squandering the global goodwill which accrued after 11 September 2001, the US may already have dished its chances in the new Great Game.

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