Romancing Ashgabat… Sort Of

by Joshua Foust on 1/29/2008

Joshua Kucera reports that the U.S. remains interested in gaining energy concessions from Stomatologbashi.

Washington is aiming to revive a strategy that led to the greatest US diplomatic triumph in the Caspian Basin to date — the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. Skeptics, however, say the US push may be too little, too late…

The centerpiece of the State Department’s effort to repulse the Russian advance in the Caspian Basin is the creation of a new office, the Coordinator of Eurasian Energy Diplomacy. Steven Mann, formerly US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and US ambassador to Turkmenistan, has been appointed to the post.

Washington is also seeking a high-level envoy to bring more diplomatic heft to the US bargaining position, but the Bush administration is having trouble finding a suitably high-profile diplomat to fill the post. The State Department reportedly had selected Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia and top department official, but he withdrew his name from consideration.

This is the same internal wrangling Steve LeVine has covered admirably as well. But it speaks to something deeper—here it is, 2008, and Washington still is only just now trying to figure out a way of getting at Turkmeni gas (a previous contender for Mann’s post was super-diplomat Thomas Pickering, who, interestingly enough, just finished co-chairing a no-duh assessment that Afghanistan is turning into a “forgotten war”).

That isn’t entirely fair. In the mid-90’s, Unocal was in a strange, tit-for-tat competition with Bridas to see who could more quickly export Turkmeni gas through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan… but such low-level oil diplomacy died out after September 11, 2001. And it’s taken nearly seven years to start it back up again.

Still, it’s better than nothing at all. It would be too easy to downplay the prospect of American interest in the gas fields, but at the moment the U.S. doesn’t exactly have a lot of cachet internationally. Here’s hoping.

Oh, and Russia? Yeah, they’re pretty happy with how things are going down in the East Caspian.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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