The Secret War: Gladio and the Battle for Eurasia
by James Corbett
Central Asia is a vast expanse of the map whose defining characteristic is its ability to defy characterization. Stretching from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the west to the border of China in the east, and from Iran and Pakistan’s doorstep in the south to Russia’s in the north, it encompasses everything from the snow-capped slopes of Victory Peak in Kyrgyzstan to the remarkable “door to hell” in Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert to the sprawling grasslands of the Kazakh Steppe.
The much smaller Caucasus region, a narrow land bridge sandwiched between the Black and Caspian seas, is equally diverse. The region contains over 50 ethnic groups and is home to three local language families and several dozen languages, from the obscure Bohtan Neo-Aramaictongue with less than 500 native speakers to the more widely spoken Azerbaijani and Armenian languages.
Despite the rich history and culture of the region, it is still completely off the radar screens of many in the west. “Tajikistan,” “Abkhazia” and “Astrakhan Oblast” are hardly names to conjure by in the popular imagination, after all. Those names that do resonate are related to specific stories that have been given coverage in the western media; Dagestan equals “The Boston Bombing” to many Americans, for example, and many Europeans will recognize Chechnya as “that place that Russia is at war with.”
Just because the -stans, Oblasts, republics and autonomous regions that make up this part of the globe are not well known to the average western citizen, however, does not mean that they are not important squares on the global chessboard. And just because they may not be on the radar of the general public does not mean they are not on the radar of some of the richest and most powerful players in global geopolitics.
As one example of this interest, I present to you the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, an organization that sounds about as important to global geopolitics as the Groningen Chamber of Commerce. But look at its list of current and former advisors, chairmen and directors: former Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush family advisor James Baker III and his son James Baker IV, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Richard Armitage and, of course, former National Security Advisor and perennial Washington insider Zbigniew Brzezinski.
There are two answers to that question. The first is the old real estate sales line: location, location, location! The region’s key location in the backyard of some of the key powers of the Eurasian landmass, Russia and China foremost amongst them, has made it a geostrategic prize stretching back thousands of years. Dominated at different times and in varying degrees by Persian empires, Chinese dynasties, Mongol invaders and Soviet forces, the region has a rich history of being acted upon and a relatively short history as a geopolitical actor in its own right. Its position has long made it a key transport route, from the Han Dynasty’s famed Silk Roadconnecting China and Persia thousands of years ago to President Xi Jinping’s 21st century equivalent seeking to connect China to Turkey and beyond.
But more important even than its location and strategic value are the region’s vast, largely untapped resources. The oil and gas fields of the Caspian Sea region are particularly sought after, containing the third-largest reserves of any fields on the planet. Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and Kazakhstan in Central Asia both have direct access to Caspian Sea oil, with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan providing ample gas reserves.
Another equally important, although seldom acknowledged, resource in the region revolves around the extensive opium trade, especially in Afghanistan. The Afghan opium trade is estimated to bring in as much as $200 billion a year, accounting for as much as 92% of the world supply. As we shall see, control of this region involves domination of that especially lucrative business and all of the attendant economic benefits that result from it.
The importance of a long-term US presence in the region to establish western dominance over this location and its resources is no secret. It has been written about extensively by the think tanks that typically serve as the mouthpiece for NATO’s foreign policy interests.
Take for example a 1992 analysis of the region from RAND’s National Defense Research Institute entitled “Central Asia: The New Geopolitics.” It was written shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union while the newly independent republics of the region were still orienting themselves to their new geopolitical reality and it was penned by Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul whose name will come up again later in our study. He wrote:
“It is primarily Central Asia’s strategic geopolitical location—truly at the continent’s center—and the broadly undesirable course of events that could emerge if the region were to drift toward instability, that constitute the primary American interest (in the region).[…]Thus, given the potential for untoward developments in the region for Western interests, modest hands-on American influence in the region is desirable.”
By 2004 the need for this “modest hands on American influence” had gained momentum. In an article published that year by the Cambridge Review of International Affairs called “The United States and Central Asia: In the Steppes to Stay?” Svante E. Cornell of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute raised some of the key reasons for increasing US involvement in the region:
“As US engagement in Central Asia becomes more permanent, it will increasingly become a factor in both regional politics and the domestic politics of the several Central Asian countries. That role raises a host of questions. Chief among them is how regional powers such as Russia and China will react to the US presence. A second concerns the implications both for the political development among the region’s states and for the future of radical Islam.”
And in 2011 the Project 2049 Institute, which includes Zbigniew Brzezinski’s son on its Board of Directors, published a document proclaiming “An Agenda For the Future of U.S. – Central Asia Relations” which contains this interesting passage:
“U.S. policymakers have been careful to avoid the metaphor of a “Great Game” in Central Asia. Yet it has been often invoked by others, not least by observers in Moscow, Beijing, and other neighboring powers. The U.S. must continue to reject this metaphor, for such notions are based on flawed assumptions and fraught with risks for the United States.”