Does the Maple Leaf Need be There?

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Great Game: 'The maple leaf needs to be there'
by Anthony Fenton l Special to Vue Weekly
Eight years into a war that many commentators are now calling a quagmire from which NATO should extricate itself as soon as possible, most Canadians are unaware of the link between the war and Canada's increasing involvement in the "Great Game" for the region's abundant natural resources.

This lack of understanding is no surprise. The government's public relations strategy—echoed with few exceptions by Canadian media—purposefully avoids discussing the relationship between our presence in Afghanistan and the broader geopolitical interests of Canadian corporations in Central Asia.
The focus is instead kept to more nebulous talking points such as "the effort to stabilize and reconstruct Afghanistan" in the interests of Canada's much-vaunted "3D" approach of defence, development and diplomacy. As one declassified government memo stated, "When presented in the 3D context, the majority of Canadians (68%) [show] support for the mission in Afghanistan."

But behind the public relations façade looms a geopolitical context that finds Canada deeply enmeshed in what experts have long called the "Great Game" for the vast, untapped natural resources of the Central Asian region that Afghanistan bridges.
On the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, Vue looks at Canada's deepening

interest in the region's new 'Great Game'

In their acclaimed book Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, authors Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac define how "Pipelines, tanker routes, petroleum consortiums and contracts are the prizes of the new Great Game."

In his 2008 report prepared for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, A Pipeline Through Troubled Land: Afghanistan, Canada, and the New Great Energy Game, energy economist John Foster draws attention to the fact that a long-proposed TAPI gas pipeline—so named for its 1680 kilometre planned path from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, eventually, India—is slated to be constructed on the very soil that Canadian and US troops now occupy in southern Afghanistan.

Foster notes that Canada has been closely involved in the negotiations and planning meetings for the pipeline via its membership on the board of the Asian Development Bank, the pipeline's coordinating body. Arguing that "The TAPI pipeline proposal could have positive or negative impacts on Canada's role in [Afghanistan]," Foster contends that public debates concerning the matter have "ignored regional geopolitics and energy issues."

Implications concerning the pipeline, construction of which is supposed to begin in 2010 according to the Afghan Ministry of Mines, are not the only questions being ignored. Three Canadian companies have recently been involved in attempts to bid on two gas fields and one oil field as part of the First Afghan Hydrocarbon Bidding Round. At least one of the gas fields is expected to feed into the TAPI pipeline.

One of the Canadian companies to pre-qualify for the bidding is Calgary-based Nations Petroleum, whose CEO, John Imle, is the former Vice-President of UNOCAL, and the person who first proposed the creation of TAPI on the company's behalf in negotiations with the Taliban during the 1990s.

Another of the Canadian companies that attempted to bid on the Afghan resource prizes was AfghCana Energy Inc. In an email response to inquiries by Vue, the Afghan Ministry of Mines revealed that the person behind AfghCana is John Komarnicki, who is also the CEO of Alhambra Resources, a Calgary-based company that also holds gold exploration rights to 2.7 million acres in northern Kazakhstan.

Laura Dalby, an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said in an email reply to Vue that the Canadian government is "aware of the First Afghan Hydrocarbon Bidding Round and is providing information to Canadian companies at their request."

Acknowledging that they were contacted by AfghCana, DFAIT would only say that their Senior Trade Commissioner "provided information" to them. Canada's economic interests in Afghanistan are handled by the embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, and "with a locally engaged officer in Canada's embassy in Kabul."

Shortly after AfghCana failed in its attempt to pre-qualify for the bidding in Afghanistan, Komarnicki was in Kazakhstan, where his company received a favourable court decision enabling him to begin exploring for gold. Offering a sign of Canada's self-conscious stake in the Great Game, beside Komarnicki in the courtroom was a "senior representative of the Canadian ambassador to Kazakhstan."

Komarnicki declined to be interviewed for this article.

On the heels of Komarnicki's favourable outcome, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day travelled to Kazakhstan to bolster economic ties with "president for life" Nursultan Nazarbayev. In a subsequent press release, Day revealed that Alhambra Resources is just one of 170 Canadian companies which now have operations in the country, 40 of which have a permanent presence.

Asked to provide similar data for the other countries in the region—Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan—DFAIT officials declined, stating that compiling such statistics is "rare" and was only done in this one instance in order to publicize Day's meetings.

That Canada has a stake in the Great Game has been acknowledged for years by government officials and parliamentarians. On the eve of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, a Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade study examined Canada's role in the region, publishing an extensive report in June 2001. Testifying to the Committee in April 2000, Dr. Rob Sobhani, president of Caspian Energy Consulting, described how the region's vast resources presented lucrative opportunities for Canadian companies.

"The opportunity for Canada is ... the fact that these are untapped resources. The 150 billion barrels of oil have yet to be discovered. The natural gas has yet to be discovered," said Sobhani. "This is a huge, huge opportunity for Canadian energy companies."

Sobhani urged Canada to become "a participant and a player in this very promising part of the world."

Today, Sobhani agrees that Canada, and NATO, are in the thick of a continuing Great Game.

"Canadian companies have been more aggressive" in the region since his testimony, Sobhani pointed out in an interview with Vue. "There's no doubt that [Canada's military presence] obviously has changed perceptions."

Sobhani adds that Canadian leadership on the question of the TAPI pipeline could help "depoliticize" the involvement of foreign companies in a way that the US or UK cannot.

 "Canada has the potential to beat [its] rivals because it has such a uncheckered history in that part of the world. People like Canadians, Canadians are apolitical," Sobhani argues. "If America puts [a plan] forward, it's going to get criticized. If the British put it forward, it's going to get criticized. Canada's loved by everyone, and so if the Canadians put it together I think the chances of it succeeding are greater."

But Todd Gordon, professor of political science at York University and the author of a forthcoming book on Canadian foreign policy, argues differently.

"Wherever Canadian companies go, especially in the natural resources sector, they leave a trail of human rights and ecological disasters behind them," Gordon says. "It's not a case of a few exceptions to an otherwise benign Canadian capital. It's systemic. Like their counterparts from other nations, Canadian companies are driven by one thing: the pursuit of profit."

Gordon adds that this corporate history is all the more significant given the region's history.

"When you add in the instability caused in the region by decades, and in some cases centuries, of foreign meddling—leading to poverty, internecine violence and so on—Canadian investment will only make matters worse."

Gordon says that Canada's military presence in Afghanistan helps provide it with significant economic leverage in the broader region.

"I don't think you can separate ... Canada's deepening economic presence and its military presence," argues Gordon.

This may not have been what Sobhani meant when in 2000 he told the standing committee that "the Maple Leaf needs to be [in Central Asia]," but, as Gordon says, "Ask yourself this: were Canadian companies bidding on Afghan natural resources before the invasion? While Canada may not have joined the invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan simply to promote economic interests, there's no doubt that a much stronger military and diplomatic presence will facilitate this."

Gordon also disagrees with the notion that Canada is an "apolitical" actor in the region, arguing instead that Canada has an obvious stake in the geopolitics of the region.

"Canada has its own specific economic interests in the region," he says. "It needs to ensure the region is compliant with the interests of Canadian foreign investors—that is, there is a strong rights regime for foreign capital, including liberalized markets, weak environmental protections and low royalty rates. At the same time, Canada is part of a TransAtlantic axis led by the US, the military arm of which is NATO."

As questions loom over the matter of Canada's longer-term presence in Afghanistan—Canadian combat forces are slated to be withdrawn by the end of 2011—equally important if less publicized questions concerning how to protect Canada's deepening economic interests in the region are sure to arise.

Anthony Fenton is an author, independent journalist and researcher based in Pitt Meadows, BC. He can be reached via his website,  

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