Op-Ed: Pipelineistan and Turkey: The Geo-Political Realities behind Resource Rivalry and the Looming Climate Catastrophe
Recently, I wrote a piece of possibly wider interest for my column ‘The Erimtan Angle’ in the Istanbul Gazette.
In the 21st century, humanity has suddenly come face to face with the stupendous power of nature again. In the latter part of the previous century warnings regarding man-made or anthropogenic climate change started being voiced – arguably commencing in earnest with Professor Hansen’s testimony in front of the U.S. Senate during the summer of 1988. These dire words of caution arguably culminated in Al Gore’s sensational and “inconvenient” 2006 film. The Industrial Revolution and humanity’s subsequent immoderate burning of fossil fuels leading to a disproportionate increase in so-called greenhouse gases appear to be at the root of this apparently unnatural fluctuation in global temperatures – fluctuations which can lead to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes or floods. Very recently, in the first week of March this year actually, researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) and HarvardUniversity seem to have delivered the final verdict on anthropogenic climate change. They namely published the conclusions of their latest study in the journal Science, broadcasting to the wider world their concern with the state of the earth. Their findings reveal that our planet is warmer today than it has ever been during 70 to 80% of the last 11,300 years. As a result, the search for alternative fuels, fuels that would not lead to more greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, should be the world’s leadership’s top priority given the looming threat of climate catastrophe that will eventually turn earth into a planet uninhabitable by humanity. In contrast, geo-political concerns and the simmering resource wars are such that attention remains focused on the remnants of earlier geologies. As a result, the consumption of fossil fuels continues unabated and the search for more hydrocarbon reserves follows suit – meaning that more and more greenhouse gases will keep on being added to the atmosphere for years and possibly decades to come. The war that in many ways started the 21st century can also be interpreted as having a close relationship to man’s endless thirst for ever-more fossil fuels.
The start of the invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001 was presented as an act of war in direct response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11. But there is a back-story to Bush’s relationship with the land of Afghanistan. As such, the Taliban, in charge of the country since 27 September 1996 when they conquered the capital Kabul, sent a delegation to Texas in 1997. In Texas, the then-governor George W. Bush was instrumental in arranging meetings with the Texas oil firm Unocal. Quoting from a piece I wrote in 2010:
Unocal and its partners planned to build a 1,000-mile gas pipeline from resource-rich Turkmenistan to Multan in Pakistan [and then to India], passing through the Taliban heartland of Kandahar. In the waning years of the 20th century, the BBC dutifully reported that this deal was part “of an international scramble to profit from developing the rich energy resources of the Caspian Sea.” In other words, the Unocal deal with the Taliban was instrumental in the 21st-century development of what the Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid has termed the “New Great Game,” in reference to the 19th-century rivalry between the Russian and British empires for supremacy in Central Asia . . . In the south [of Afghanistan], Kandahar is [now] awaiting the completion of the TAPI pipeline, which will traverse the province on its way to Pakistan and India. In meetings held in the Turkmen capitol of Ashgabat [on] April 17-18,  the go-ahead was given and work on the lucrative project started in May, with 2015 as the provisional completion date when Turkmenistan’s liquid gas will start flowing southward. The US government is one of the strongest backers of this project. How do these machinations surrounding the pipeline project relate to the [still ongoing] war in the Hindu Kush region? According to former Pakistani diplomat Niaz Naik, approximately two months prior to 9/11, the Bush administration had already decided to topple the Taliban regime and install a more amenable transitional government of moderate Afghans in its place. In July 2001 a four-day meeting was held in Berlin under the portentous heading of “brainstorming on Afghanistan.” The TAPI project was undoubtedly high on the session’s agenda. Literally one week after the attacks, the BBC’s former Pakistan correspondent George Arney related that Naik had “no doubt that after the World Trade Center bombings this pre-existing US plan had been built upon and would be implemented within two or three weeks.” And Niaz Naik proved right. Was he therefore really a man who knew too much? In early August 2009, Naik was tortured and murdered in his residence in Sector F-7/3 of Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.
Did the TAPI project really play such an important role in the decision to invade Afghanistan? Was the outset of the continuing war against the Taliban (and “its Al-Qaeada allies” as the oft-repeated phrase goes) rather a calculated move to gain the initiative in the Central Asian resource war? Central Asia is a territory literally inundated with pipelines and in this context the investigative reporter Pepe Escobar coined the phrase Pipelineistan to refer to the CaspianBasin and the whole of Eurasia basically. And not just the West is addicted to fossil fuels being transported through this network of pipelines, the other global power which is China in equal measure relies on hydrocarbon assets being moved through Pipelineistan, converging in its Wild West, Xinjiang. From there, these assets are transported to mainland China in the east to fuel the ever-growing economy that has by now become the second-largest in the world. As for the TAPI pipeline, when the go-ahead, backed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), was given for the construction of this huge pipeline, measuring a staggering 1,735 kilometres, Turkey’s State Minister Zafer Çağlayan had also been present in Turkmenistan.
On Pipelineistan’s western edge, Turkey is now actively operating to be included in the scramble for the massive Turkmen gas reserves, located at the Dovletabad and the Galkynysh (‘Southern Yeloten – Osman’) deposits. In early 2012, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammadov was in Turkey, visiting Ankara and Istanbul, and meeting Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül. And also signing a document containing this declaration: “The parties [, i.e. Turkey and Turkmenistan] confirmed the need for continuing work on the development of regional projects aimed at restoring the development of socio-economic spheres [in] Afghanistan. In this regard, the Turkish side expressed its interest in major projects, including the Turkmenistan – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, increasing supply of Turkmen electricity to Afghanistan, as well as projects of transport infrastructure development and expressed its support for these projects” – Turkey now clearly also wants to reap some benefits from the pipeline to transport Turkmen gas to the Arabian Sea.
Turkey also has its own stakes in the infrastructure of Pipelineistan. For starters, there is the BTC or Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline transporting Caspian oil to the Mediterranean. In 1992, the Turkish Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel first proposed the construction of such a pipeline connection. In the further course of the 1990’s, the pipeline project was personally supported by U.S. President Bill Clinton. And finally, on 18 November 1999, when the Ankara Declaration was signed by Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, Clinton’s Energy Secretary Bill Richardson called the event “a major foreign policy victory” for the U.S. – a statement indicative of the continuing geopolitical importance of Turkey as a bridge between east and west. In the first instance, the sanctions on Iraq following the first Gulf War (2 August 1990-28 February 1991) meant that the Kirkuk-Yumurtalık pipeline was no longer able to transport Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean, thereby crippling the Turkish economy and depriving the world economy of an important source of oil, given that Ceyhan was (and still is) a world-class facility able to supply large tankers. In addition, the fall of the Soviet Union subsequently also meant that the vast Caspian oil and gas reserves could now be integrated into the West’s energy supplies’ system. On 25 May 2005, the BTC pipeline was inaugurated at the Sangachal Terminal on the Caspian by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili and Turkey’s President Ahmet Sezer, joined by President Nursaltan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and United States Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman. The pipeline now daily transports 1 million barrels of Capian oil to the Mediterranean.
Another outlier of Pipelineistan present in Turkey is the Nabucco gas pipeline project, which has been in the works since 2005 and aims to be “the new gas bridge from Asia to Europe and the flagship project in the Southern Corridor”, connecting the EU with the major hydrocarbon sources in the Caspian and the Middle East. The project, aimed at liberating Europe from Russia’s energy stranglehold, has been beset by many problems and financial woes – with the German investor backing out last December. At the beginning of this month, the consortium backing the projected Nabucco pipeline signed a memorandum of co-operation with the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), basically cutting the length of the Nabucco pipeline in two and limiting the cost considerably. Originally, the Nabucco pipeline was supposed to start its route from central Anatolia, but now the pipeline will only start its westward journey through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria at the Turco-Bulgarian border, relying on TANAP to supply gas from the Caspian and the Middle East. This shortened version has been called Nabucco West and would constitute a major rival for Russia’s South Stream pipeline project. And once again, Turkey’s trans-Atlantic friend is all but supportive as voiced by US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland last year: “We strongly support Nabucco. We think it’s a very important project. It’s going to bring energy diversification on both sides and market diversification”. In other words, the interpersonal relations between Tayyip Erdoğan and Barrack Obama have not been futile. The U.S. clearly supports Turkey’s new pseudo-Ottoman programme, as a stable Turkey could very well become another foundation for America to build its renewed bridges into the Arab world, following the recent ‘spring weather’ and its ‘unexpected’ consequences. The Obama administration’s support for the west-bound section of Pipelineistan that is Nabucco also seems congruent with the U.S. and Turkey’s joint stance on the Assad regime, Turkey’s erstwhile friendly neighbour.
In fact, the recent civil war in Syria has actually ensured that the Nabucco pipeline project was given another lease of life. The protests against the Assad regime started in March 2011 turning violent the next month, while backdoor negotiations between Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus were underway. These talks led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding for the construction of a pipeline designed to deliver Iran’s natural gas to Iraq and Syria in the next three to five years at a cost of about $10 billion. From Syria, this pipeline could possibly also deliver gas to Lebanon and even to Europe in the future, securing a Mediterranean outlet for embattled Iran fighting sanctions and public disapproval. Now, the anti-Assad violence has ensured that this potential rival to Nabucco would not be able to emerge on the energy scene. Originally, Turkey planned to include Iran as a gas supplier to the pipeline, but the geo-political realities of the day and particularly the Obama administration’s continuation of the Bush era sanctions against Tehran, have managed to exclude Iran from the project. As a result, with the projected Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline, Tehran would still have been able to supply the global market. In spite of Iran’s rich oil and gas holdings, the country is effectively excluded from the confines of Pipelineistan.
The leadership in Tehran, however, seems to be persistent in its effort to find alternative ways to find outlets for its hydrocarbon reserves. Now, Iran’s leadership is looking to the east. Recently, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari attended a ceremony at the Iran-Pakistani border, unveiling a plaque and inaugurating the construction of a pipeline ar a cost of some $1.5 billion. A joint statement read at the ceremony stated that “The completion of the pipeline is in the interests of peace, security and progress of the two countries. It will also consolidate the economic, political and security ties of the two nations”. Iranian gas is supposed to start flowing towards Pakistan at the end of next year. The Iranian gas would be most welcome in Pakistan as the country faces a shortfall of 2 billion cubic of natural gas feet per day and is actually going through a serious energy crisis at the moment. Pakistan is without electricity for up to six hours a day— leading to the loss of export revenues, the closure of tens of thousands of factories, and, most importantly, the loss of millions of jobs.
While the world’s leaders and oil corporations are devising more and more schemes to flood the global energy market with oil and gas to be burnt, the world actually appears to be approaching climate catastrophe at an increased pace. In his 2011 book Deep Future, the climatologist Curt Stager maintains that the effects of current climate change will persist for much longer than we can imagine – he paints the best-case scenario as a world that won’t fully recover from the effects of the burning of fossil fuels for tens of thousands of years, and possibly much longer. Still, the long-term has never been a great concern for Turkish, or any other, policy-makers and the decisions taken today, the pipelines built now and tomorrow, and the fossil fuels consumed in the years to come will change the world beyond recognition. Geo-political interests and the ongoing resource rivalries resulting from humanity’s acute addiction to fossil fuels, coupled with profit-hungry corporations eager to benefit from any kind of fossil fuels found anywhere, now seem to condemn humanity to a bleak future for the sake of short-term profits and power.
 C. Erimtan, “Pipelineistan and Turkey: The Geo-Political Realities behind Resource Rivalry and the Looming Climate Catastrophe” ‘The Erimtan Angle’, The Istanbul Gazette (15 March 2013). http://istanbulgazette.com/pipelineistan-and-turkey-the-geo-political-realities-behind-resource-rivalry-and-the-looming-climate-catastrophe/2013/03/15/.