Pipe dreams
by Lutz C. Kleveman

for Brandeins magazine in October 2001

Henry Kissinger’s voice sounded distinctly unperturbed when, a few hours after the tragic terror attacks on 11 September, he was interviewed by telephone on CNN. In stark contrast to all other interviewees on that day who expressed nothing but utter dismay and sorrow, Kissinger calmly demanded in well-chosen words that the United States should defend itself militarily against the attackers.
It then took the American government only a few days to define the enemy, the evil: Osama bin-Laden and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Washington ordered its troops to move.

Kissinger, though officially retired from politics for a quarter of a century now, is still a very busy and much-demanded man. He earns much of his income from political lobbying for economic heavyweights. One of his clients is the American oil giant Unocal. Six years ago, on 21 October 1995, Kissinger therefore attended a ceremony at which Unocal managers signed a contract with Saparmurad Niyazov, the eccentric dictator of Turkmenistan. It was agreed that Unocal should build two pipelines from the enormous, recently discovered oil and gas fields in the Central Asian country all the way to Pakistan’s coast - straight across Afghanistan.

A bloody civil war was raging in Afghanistan at the time but the Taliban troops were on the advance and seemed poised to finally unite and pacify the country. Or so the US government thought whose allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia massively supported the radical Islamists. When the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996 the Clinton administration rejoiced that this would usher in a time of stability in the Hindu Kush.

The chances of the pipelines being laid across a Taliban-controlled corridor from Herat to Kandahar rose. On invitation by Unocal two Taliban delegations travelled to Washington and Houston in February and November 1997. They had talks with US officials and Unocal executives. At the company’s expense, the mullahs resided in a five-star hotel in Houston and visited supermarkets, the zoo and NASA headquarters.

Only when feminists, supported by Hillary Clinton, protested against the oppression of women in Afghanistan, did the US government distance itself from the Taliban regime and the pipeline plans. The temporary end of the oil and gas project came in August 1998 when American cruise missiles hit bin-Laden’s Afghan training camps, in retaliation for bomb attacks by al-Qaida on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In the past few months, the United States, leading a broad anti-terror coalition, has waged a war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The purpose of the campaign, according to Washington, has been to catch bin-Laden and to eliminate his terror cells. Many people in the region doubt, however, that bin-Laden is really all the Americans are after. It has long been known that the main players in the US government - most notoriously President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and even National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice - were once top executives in the oil industry that massively financed their political careers.

The real booty in this campaign could therefore, sceptics believe, have once again been oil. Only a few hundred miles to the northwest of Afghanistan, on the bottom and on the shores of the Caspian Sea, lie the world’s biggest untapped oil and gas reserves which had previously lured Hitler’s Wehrmacht into the Caucasus. Those natural resources now appear as the great reward in the battle for Kabul. As Vice President Cheney, at the time President of the oil technology company Halliburton, said in a speech to oil industry bosses in Washington in 1998: “I cannot think of a time when we’ve had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”

A post-11-September journey through just this region, the Caucasus and Central Asia, shows why the Afghan campaign may have been just a prelude to a bloody scramble for the black gold in the Caspian’s muddy waters.

Sunset Café, Baku, Azerbaijan
The Sunset is where the oilmen meet. Not the tough guys from the rigs. They drink their beer at O’Mailley’s or the Chaplin’s Pub where no-one minds them being a bit boorish, telling Scottish jokes and making bets on which helicopter is next to crash into the sea. The Sunset rather caters to the execs, the middle-range expat managers whose glasses are too large and khaki trousers too short, and who yearn for a piece of Texas after work.

The Sunset offers just that: blond buxom waitresses in tight jeans and bright red t-shirts serve T-bone steaks with French fries and ketchup. The girls smile relentlessly and, when presenting the menu, attempt to speak English with an American accent. You can pay in dollars instead of manat, the Azeri currency, music blares from a jukebox in the corner, and on a poster on the wall, Louis Armstrong balloons his cheeks. Here the oilmen forget for a few hours that Baku - the boom, bonanza and glittery high-rise buildings in the centre notwithstanding - is still a shithole.

After all, what is the joy of a picturesque old town complete with splendid minarets if, night and day, the nauseating reek of petrol creeps through the streets? To make matters worse, the city’s new mayor has turned out to be a Koran-beating guardian of morals: almost all street cafés, hitherto loci of distinctly un-Islamic flirting, were closed and lately the police have even taken to arresting foreigners who get caught with prostitutes at night. The mood among the oilmen is depressed.

Baku, the “Oil Dorado”, has been compared to California during the gold rush but it is still suffering from a mighty Soviet hangover. It is chock full of villains of all sorts, so the rumour goes, spies, Mafiosi, foreign agents and the inevitable “biznizmeny”. As depicted in the latest James Bond film, The World is not enough, which is set in Baku.

“Agents? Without a doubt. For every oilman in this city you have an agent, and many oilmen work for secret services themselves”, whispers Vahid Mustafayev as he digs the fork into his Caesar salad. In his perfectly tailored dark suit, combined with a broad yellow tie, both made in Italy, the wiry man with the angular face could himself make for a good Bond. Only Mustafayevs short-cropped dark hair, the stubble beard and the nervously shifting eyes are slightly un-English. Rather more Azeri, in fact.

At 35, Mustafayev is already somewhat of a legend in Azerbaijan. Before he became President of the Azerbaijan News Service (ANS), the only independent television and radio station in the country, he became famous as a reckless TV reporter who covered the bloody wars in the Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Chechnya. His unique pictures were shown even on CNN and the BBC. “All these wars were essentially about oil”, Mustafayev says. “The Russians are trying to mess with America’s pipeline plans.”

The background: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years ago international oil companies, superpowers and countries in the region have been wrestling for the fantastic natural resources of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan alone, according to estimates by US Department of Energy after exploratory drilling, sit on reserves of more than 110bn barrels, three times the amount of all proven reserves in the Unites States. Only Saudi Arabia has more: 262bn barrels.

In western capitals, keen to reduce their dependence on OPEC sheiks since the 1973 oil crisis, this presumably last great oil rush in world history has caused euphoria. After all, the United States alone imports crude oil worth $150 million every day, with one third (ca. 2,6 million barrels) originating from the Middle East. While governments are therefore lining up to woo and court corrupt Caspian potentates, oil companies are signing lucrative contracts and have so far invested more than $30bn into new production facilities.

“There is only one catch: the oil lies thousands of miles away from the nearest high sea ports from where tankers could ship it to the markets of the industrialised world”, explains Mustafayev. “That is why pipelines need to be built.” Their routes, however, are fiercely disputed and have triggered conflicts and wars in the Caspian region for the past ten years - with no end in sight.

It is the Great Game all over again. The 19th century geostrategic struggle between Great Britain and Tsarist Russia for control over Central Asia, as romanticised in Rudyard Kipling’s novel “Kim”, is raging once again. The differences being that this time around it is the Americans who oppose the Russians, and that the regional powers - Iran, Turkey, China and Pakistan - are all trying to get their fingers into the pie as well.

Russia, still regarding itself as the imperial overlord of its former Caucasian and Central Asian colonies conquered in the 19th century, is trying to keep the Americans at arm’s length. The world’s second biggest crude oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, Russia insists that the pipelines for the Caspian oil run, as in Soviet times, across its territory north of the Caucasus mountains, to the Black Sea port of Novorossijsk. Says Mustafayev: “The Russians hate the idea that their former colonies down here hit the big jackpot and they don’t get a share of it.”

The United States, for its part, wants to keep the precious natural resources beyond Russia’s reach. At the same time, Washington rules out a southern pipeline route through Iran, America’s arch enemy for the past twenty years. It wants a pipeline that bypasses both Russia and Iran.

“The Americans say they want to break Russia’s monopoly on oil transports in the region in order to strengthen the former Soviet republics’ independence from Moscow”, Mustafayev reiterates Washington’s official policy.

Since 1998 when all export plans through Afghanistan had to be buried Washington has pushed for a gigantic 1050-mile pipeline project from the Azeri capital Baku across neighbouring Georgia all the way to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The first to have this idea was the Turkish government which feared that a Black Sea oil tanker could one day sink in the narrow Straights, with catastrophic consequences for Istanbul.

To build that pipeline would be the job of the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), an international consortium of a dozen oil companies, led by BPAmoco. At first, AIOC was strictly opposed to the pipeline as it seemed too long and, with construction costs exceeding $2,8bn, too expensive. Worse, it would run through extremely unstable regions.

This is still the main problem, Mustafayev believes: “Russia is doing everything it can to destabilise the southern Caucasus, that is to fan crises and wars in order to deter potential investors.” This was the case first in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the early 1990s in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed and close to a million Azeris were displaced. “The Russians stirred up the Armenians’ hatred against us and supported their war effort”, Mustafayev thinks. “Since then it has been clear that no pipeline would run through Armenia and Karabakh.

The young man’s face darkens as he remembers the day in the summer of 1991 when his brother, himself a cameraman, was killed filming a battle in Karabakh. Blown to pieces by a grenade. Mustafayev fetches a wrinkled photograph from his wallet. It shows nothing but blurred blades of grass and a lot of sky. “This was his camera’s last shot after my brother had been hit and fallen to the ground.”

For a while Mustafayev is silent. Then a malicious grin creeps over his face and he says: “The Russians’ problem is just that their old pipeline from Baku to Novorossijsk also runs across territory that is less than peaceful: Chechnya.”

Altievo refugee camp, Nazran, Ingushetia
Beslan Albukarov lives in a pig stable, together with his wife and their two young daughters. As well as two thousand other Chechen refugees who have found shelter in the buildings of the former kolkhoz “MTF Altievo” just outside of Nazran, the capital of the tiny republic of Ingushetia in the northern Caucasus. “We are heading towards our third winter here. Luckily, we have a roof over our heads”, says Albukarov who before his escape from Chechnya at the start of the second war in 1999 owned a small grocery shop in the capital Grozny. His ten-year-old daughter Milona, who already spent the first war from 1994-96 with her mother in Ingushetia, barely remembers her old home. “All my friends are now from the camp”, she says.

“Spontaneous settlements” That is how the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee organisation, officially calls these desolate self-organised camps. Hundreds of such camps and half a dozen giant tent cities are scattered all over Ingushetia, Chechnya’s western neighbour, where about 200,000 Chechen civilians have fled the brutal fighting between separatist rebels and the Russian army. The hostilities began ten years ago when Chechen leaders, following the example of Soviet republics, declared the republic’s independence. Moscow was in no mood to accept this and has since led two ruthless military campaigns in which up to 100,000 people, most of them civilians, are believed to have been killed.

A year ago the Kremlin officially declared the secessionist republic to be pacified and has since called upon refugees to return to their homes - to no avail. “The people are scared. Anarchy and violence in Chechnya are now worse than ever”, says the head of a German aid organisation, one of very few to still deliver food and medicine to the inhabitants of bombed-out Grozny, a two-hour car drive from Nazran.

The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells of Russian mercenaries who systematically comb Chechen villages, kidnapping and brutally torturing male teenagers. The boys are released only when relatives manage to pay a ransom of $1000. “On every trip to Grozny I am seized by the horror. But in the West no-one wants to know about the atrocities anymore that are committed here.” Even less so since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has convinced Washington that Chechen rebels are nothing but Islamic terrorists who need to be fought.

The question of what this war is about elicits few answers of the grandiose sort in the Ingushetian refugee camps on these cold autumn days, such as “freedom” or “independence”. Money is what it is all about, most people here say. Profits from arms sales, from kidnappings, and from the oil business. The old pipeline from Baku runs straight through Grozny. “They would all like to put their hands on that pipeline”, says one Chechen who has lived in Nazran for years. And he adds, with bitter irony: “That is well worth fighting over, isn’t it?”

Meanwhile, a new pipeline has been built in the far north of Chechnya, protected by the Russian army. It links the giant Tengiz oil field in Kazakhstan with a brand new terminal in Novorossijsk on the Black Sea. The 950-mile pipeline that has a capacity of up to 560,000 barrels per day cost $2,8bn. Its operator is an international consortium, led by the recently merged US oil giants Chevron and Texaco.

In mid-October 2001, a few days after the multi-billion dollar merger in Houston, Texas, the first gallons of crude flowed from the Novorossijsk terminal into an Italian tanker. The fact that the US company did not wait for the Washington-backed Ceyhan pipeline but favoured a transport route through Russia, means billions of dollars of tariffs for Moscow and is a first triumph of its heavy-handed foreign policy.

Headquarters BPAmoco, Baku, Azerbaijan
Villa Petrolea, the BPAmoco headquarters in Baku, lie on the city’s southern fringe, only a few minutes by car from the Bibiheybet suburb which ranks among the most horrific industrial wastelands on this planet. Right on what was once a beach hundreds of old derricks and decrepit steel towers rust away amid giant pools of glistening, slimy oil and pink water. Still the derricks move up and down, groaning and rattling, like nodding donkeys made of steel, and suck crude from the barren soil. So polluted is the area the size of several square miles that no green plants grow here, not even a single blade of grass.

This is where at the end of the 19th century Baku’s first oil boom kicked off - the glorious days of yore when the Rothschilds and the Nobel brothers came into town, made fabulous profits and had splendid mansions built for themselves. A hundred years ago, more than half of all crude oil on the world markets came from Baku. Yet, the Russian labour movement, too, had its origins in Baku, with oil workers being harangued by a certain Georgian agitator named Jossif Dschugaschwili, later called Stalin. After the October revolution, the proletarian vanguard chased the oil barons and refined their methods to thoroughly devastate nature.

Ten years ago, Villa Petrolea from where BPAmoco today directs its Caspian operations was still a government building run by communists. “Well, that is the irony of History”, says Steve Lawrence, the jovial company spokesman, looking with a sneer at the many small hammers and sickles that shine from the delicately worked stucco ceiling, each lovingly repainted in a bright red colour. “We were put on this earth to do more than just help people drive to the video store”, a BP advertising poster on the wall exclaims.

Lawrence anticipates the first question: “To say it straight away: yes, the pipeline now seems to make sense economically. If at all possible, we’ll build it.”
After all, BPAmoco, the biggest shareholder in the AIOC consortium for the Ceyhan pipeline’s construction, has already spent $150 million for the planning alone. It is now at the final stage, says Lawrence. “The exact route is not clear yet but the final decision will be made in the summer of 2002.”

On a visit to Baku in June 2001 Lord John Brown, President of BPAmoco, pledged to invest $15bn into new oil development facilities over the coming years. “So we are obviously serious about this”, interprets Lawrence. He concedes that the political pressure is enormous. “For years the American government has urged us to go ahead with this pipeline. But now we believe that we can make our shareholders happy, not just US foreign policy-makers.”

The Ceyhan project’s economic risks are immense, the profit margins narrow. To earn back the construction costs of nearly $3bn, AIOC would have to pump through one million barrels of crude every day, at a world market price of at least $18 per barrel.
A southern route through Iran or Afghanistan would be shorter, cheaper and safer. Moreover, the crude oil could be sold much more easily in the booming markets of South East Asia than in saturated Europe.
“The Iranian route is, of course, the more attractive option but as long as US sanctions against Tehran remain in place there is nothing we can do”, says Lawrence with a perceptible sigh. “We cannot afford to make Washington angry.”

The proven reserves in BPAmoco’s Shah Deniz and Chirag oil fields off the Baku coast, Lawrence admits, would not suffice to fill the Ceyhan pipeline. Exploratory drilling in the past year has yielded disappointing results: more often than not the engineers found expected oil wells to be dry.

Their work is not made any easier by the problem that the five Caspian littoral states still have not agreed on how to divide the Sea and its treasures between themselves. That is why in July 2001 an Iranian gunboat forced a BP-owned ship south of Shah Deniz to immediately stop all exploratory drilling and return to Baku. “Our men were more than a hundred sea miles away from the Iranian coast”, Lawrence remembers. “But the Iranians were armed, there was nothing we could do.” The Iranian foreign ministry justified the intervention by saying that Tehran would not tolerate any concessions Baku gave to foreign oil companies as long as the property disputes remained unresolved.

“That is why for the moment we are trying to get third party oil for the Ceyhan pipeline.” Its most likely origin would be Kashagan, a vast oil field off the Kazakh coast that was discovered in the summer of 2000. Set under a coral atoll aged millions of years, Kashagan is believed to be the second largest oil bubble on earth, at an estimated 30bn barrels. The largest oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, contains about 80bn barrels, all North Sea resources still add up to some 17bn barrels.

Immediately after the sensational discovery the Kremlin demanded from the Kazakh government that a possible new pipeline run across Russian territory. A likely prospect because to pump the Kashagan oil into the Ceyhan pipeline the consortium led by the American oil giant ExxonMobil would first have to somehow ship it across the Caspian Sea to Baku.

And the real problems only start there. Lawrence takes out a map of the Caucasus region. A long, red line marks the pipeline’s planned route. “Obviously, we’ll bypass Nagorno-Karabakh.” His index finger moves further west. “But the riskiest part is Georgia. That is a very dangerous place.”

Rustaveli Square, Tbilisi, Georgia
After his heart attack last year the doctors told Alex Rondeli to stop drinking any more red wine but Sonja, the pretty blonde waitress in the café on Rustaveli square, resolutely takes his flat hand off the glass and pours some more Georgian rouge into it, from the third bottle this evening. “One more glass won’t kill you, professor”, the girl says laughing.
However, Rondeli, a tall and baroque-looking bonvivant with full white hair, pushes the glass away from him. The historian and most respected political observer in Georgia suddenly looks very serious.

“Sooner or later the Russians will attack us and the Americans will look away.” For two years Moscow has been accusing the Georgian government under President Edward Schevardnadze of granting refuge to Chechen rebels in the Georgian mountains. After the 11 September attacks high-ranking Russian politicians, inspired by the American campaign in Afghanistan, called for military action against the Chechen “terrorists” on Georgian soil. In the recent past, Russian warplanes have twice already bombed Georgian villages on the border with Chechnya.

“Russia is our enemy. Since we have become independent Moscow is doing everything it can to destabilise and disintegrate our country”, says Rondeli. He points at the high-rise hotel “Iberia”, just across Rustaveli square, once the best hotel in town. Today laundry flaps listlessly on the balconies most of which have been walled in with wooden boards to create more living space for the thousands of Georgian refugees from the secessionist province of Abkhazia that have crammed the hotel for years. Thousands of an estimated 300,000 people who fled the inter-ethnic strife and atrocities in 1993.
“Russia instigated the civil war to bring back its army to Georgia, in the disguise of so-called peace-keeping troops”, Rondeli says. No-one in Tbilisi would disagree with him.

There is only one way out: “We need the great pipeline so we’ll keep the Americans on our side against the Russians.” As Georgia had little else to offer to the rest of the world, the country should sell its geographical position, on the crossroads, as it were, of a new Great Silk Road between Europe and Asia. This would attract foreign investors, and guarantee security.
“We are beggars, but we prefer to be beggars than to once again live under Moscow’s thumb.”

But Rondeli is worried. For months his friends in the diplomatic corps have told him that Washington’s patience with Georgia’s chaos and its rulers’ unbridled corruption is running out. “To get Russia into the anti-terrorist coalition the Americans will have made a deal with Putin”, Rondeli believes. “Who knows if they have not already sacrificed the Ceyhan pipeline.”

Foreign ministry, Sukhumi, Abkhazia
On the wall behind Sergej Shamba, the Abkhaz foreign minister, is a naked woman. Life-size, with remarkable breasts, an embroidered nude (embroidered indeed, not painted). She is not alone. From three sides a total of seven framed naked women watch Mr Shamba at his desk, all of them quite curvy and presented in thought-provoking poses.
“The artist is a friend of mine, from Sukhumi, and well, I thought, you know, why not?”, Mr Shamba mumbled, slightly uneasy. He would cut an unconvincing figure as a dashing Latin lover, this pensive, well-dressed man with grey temples who was once a respected archaeologist in Georgia.

That minister Shamba’s office decorations could offend many state visitors is unlikely for Abkhazia is recognised by no government in the world. Since 1993 when Georgia’s idyllic Black Sea province seceded from the rest of the country, only the occasional United Nations representative drops by for a visit. About one hundred UN soldiers have for seven years observed a shaky cease-fire, along with 1700 self-appointed peacekeepers from Russia, Abkhazia’s mentor power.

Only a day’s march separates those Russian troops from the Ceyhan pipeline’s planned route - and from an old, smaller pipeline that BPAmoco operates to ship oil from Baku to the Georgian port of Poti, some 90 miles south of Sukhumi. To the south, Poti borders on the Georgian province of Ajara where there are still some Russian troops stationed. Which is presumably why Ajara’s pro-Russian President has for years refused to accept any orders from Tbilisi. Georgia is falling apart.

Minister Shamba’s office offers a sweeping view over Sukhumi’s charred and pockmarked ruins, all the way to the bombed-out remains of the hotels along the once-famed beach promenade. Ramshackle Ladas, which still have Soviet license plates, share the potholed streets with a few, mostly old people and cows. A ghost town. Less than 150,000 people are believed to still live in Abkhazia.

The barracks of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Sukhumi, set up directly on the beach, have been opened to accommodate Russian holidaymakers. Obese Russian women in all-too-bold bathing suits who waddle to the beach, escorted by Kalashnikov-toting soldiers in combat fatigues, make for one of the most surreal sights presently on offer in the former Soviet Union. Despite an eight o’clock curfew Sukhumi is just like home: the Abkhaz currency is still the Russian rouble, Baltika beer is widely available, the clocks are set to Moscow time, and at the gate to the military premises a mosaic shows a larger-than-life portrait of Comrade Vladimir Lenin, wearing a tasteless blue tie.

“Russia is using us to pursue their own interests, we know that”, sighs foreign minister Shamba who himself prefers to speak Russian rather than Abkhaz. “But equally the Americans take advantage of the Georgians for their own objectives. That oil pipeline and the so-called new silk road are just designed to drive away the Russians from the Caucasus.” Inevitably, Mr Shamba adds, in the obligatory post-11-September language: “The Georgian government is giving shelter to international terrorists, especially Chechens. Together they’ll try and retake Abkhazia.”

On the flight back to Tbilisi the UN helicopter passes very low above the devastated border region between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Not a village, not a single house is in sight that had not been burned to the ground. Zolt Romvari, a friendly Hungarian UN officer, says: “There is so much hatred down there. The fighting could start again any time. “

A few days later, that same UN helicopter, on a flight to Sukhumi, is shot down by Georgian militiamen. All crew and passengers die. The following days, dozens of Abkhazians and Georgians are killed in heavy fighting.

Embassy of the United States of America, Baku, Azerbaijan
To get to US ambassador Ros Wilson, Washington’s top man in this part of the world, you need to pass through a metal detector that keeps beeping until you have produced every single pen from your pockets. Upon which the security agents, since 11 September more conscientious in their work than ever, unscrew the pen and look inside - just to make sure.

Ambassador Wilson, a lanky man from Minnesota, probably has a few more files on his desk than usual, too. He seems quite relieved to for once be able to talk about oil again, and not Islamic fundamentalists. His first sentences already betray the well-honed career diplomat. “We do not see ourselves in a Great Game with Russia, and certainly not in some zero-sum game. We have our interests, the Russians have theirs but they need not necessarily collide.” The feeling of some Russians that America was bent on pushing them out of this region was unfounded.

After several innocuous phrases about democracy, peace and cooperation, that are as carefully trimmed as his ginger full beard, Wilson begins to talk plainly: “We want to make sure that the Caspian oil reaches international markets.” This was the main argument for a pipeline that bypasses Russia. Besides, the Azeris knew full well that only the pipeline to Ceyhan would be a ticket to genuine independence.

“Of course, the Azeris are trying to play America and Russia off against each other. But they understand that the United States alone is a guarantor for their independence.” Then Wilson announced, almost like a decision: “The oil will never go across Russia.” To thwart the Ceyhan project, Wilson concedes, Russia had in the past sought to destabilise the southern Caucasus, especially Georgia. “However, this no longer seems to be Moscow’s goal”, he adds cautiously.

A route through Iran was out of question, Wilson then makes clear, despite the recent rapprochement with Tehran in the campaign against the Afghan Taliban. “Like Russia, Iran is one of Azerbaijan’s competitors and would then control the Caspian Sea. Plus, Iran supports terrorists and is developing weapons of mass destruction. That is why we must curtail its ability to earn income.” Wilson recalls the Iranian gunboat incident in July after which Washington delivered two patrol boats to the Azeri coast guard.

But a Great Game, a struggle for oil, agents and spies all around the Caspian Sea? Wilson chuckles, in a hollow and nearly soundless way: “All that happens only in novels.”

Khanabad Airbase, Karshi, Uzbekistan
In the dawn of 6 October 2001, as witnesses would later report, a very large, black airplane lands at Khanabad, a run-down airbase in the vast, desolate steppe of Uzbekistan, about 80 miles north of the Afghan border. The inhabitants of the region understand immediately that the engines rattling them from their sleep belonged to none of the old Soviet Antonovs that normally fly above their houses - but a C-131 transport plane of the US Air Force, the first of hundreds that would fly in and out over the following weeks. The rumours of the preceding days were true: the Americans are coming.

Aboard the planes, as the Pentagon reluctantly acknowledges, are one thousand elite infantry men of the 10th Mountain Division, New York State, as well as special units from Fort Knox, Kentucky. Their official job: to fly humanitarian missions over Afghanistan and to rescue downed US pilots. Further details do not seep through for special Uzbek Interior Ministry forces, armed to their teeth, form a five-mile cordon around the base to keep out potential terrorists, and other curious people.

These are the first American troops on a combat mission to set up camp on the territory of the former Soviet Union, ten years after the end of the Cold War. Why Moscow which still regards Central Asia as its strategic backyard would stomach this deployment remains a mystery to many diplomats in the region. Some suspect a geopolitical deal has been struck between Washington and Moscow which, to put it plainly, left the Caucasus to the Russians and Central Asia to the Americans.

In the communiqués of the post-11-September negotiations between Washington, the Uzbek government and Moscow not a word can be read about oil or pipelines. Instead, there are endless words about the common struggle against international terrorism. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has confirmed that some US forces of the infamous Green Berets began training the Uzbek army as early as the summer of 1999.

Meanwhile, the American troops at Khanabad take their security measures and discretion very seriously: no local is allowed into the base, not even for employment. All work, even cooking and cleaning, is done by military personnel. Translators are the only Uzbeks to be hired but once they have started their job they are not allowed to leave the base again. Only one young translator from the capital Tashkent, who wishes to remain anonymous, asks for permission to go home because his wife just had a baby. He gets off the base only after signing a pledge not to chat about military goings-on. The young Uzbek resists most questions from his curious friends. “All I can say is this: the Americans are setting up the camp as if they were to stay for a very long time.”