20 June 2008

Canada joins the Great Game

The Great Game refers to the 19th century rivalry between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in central Asia. The struggle, centered on Afghanistan, continues even though the rivals have changed.

Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have recently agreed to build a pipeline to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's huge reserves down through Afghanistan into Pakistan and India. The pipeline would go a long way to serve the needs of energy-starved Pakistan and India. India currently produces only half the natural gas it needs and imports 70 percent of its crude oil.

India and Pakistan have also been negotiating with Iran to build a pipeline from Iranian gas fields through Pakistan into India, a cheaper and much safer route, avoiding both Afghanistan and the volatile frontier region of Pakistan. And herein lies a problem. Keen to isolate Iran, the United States opposes this project. For this reason, and also because it wants to reduce Russian influence over energy supplies in the region, it strongly supports the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India proposal. In the 1990s, the Americans were talking with the Taliban about such a pipeline. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Bloucher, has admitted his government has a fundamental strategic interest in Afghanistan that goes well beyond the terrorism issue.

The route of the proposed pipeline takes it squarely through -- now here's a surprise -- Kandahar province. It seems Canadian troops could wind up as pipeline guards.

It appears that, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, we are not in Afghanistan only to rebuild the country and suppress terrorism. We are there for broader geopolitical reasons. We are involved in the 21st century version of the Great Game. It seems that Canada, unwittingly one hopes, has joined the sport of empires.

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