British coups and oil in Central Asia

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

by Mark Curtis

By 1994, the Pakistani military under Benazir Bhutto’s government was training hundreds of Chechens, Uzbeks and Tajiks at camps in Afghanistan in techniques of guerilla warfare, the aim being to export Islamist revolution in the Central Asian region and reduce Russian influence. There is simply no British criticism of this Pakistani surge in the public record, in sharp contrast to regular condemnations of Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s Iran, an official enemy, for its sponsorship of terrorism at this time. The reason was that Islamabad’s Islamist adventures were useful in hastening the break-up of the Soviet Union and countering its successors, both the communist governments that arose in the Commonwealth of Independent States, declared in December 1991, and Russia itself.

The main prize being fought over was the huge oil and gas reserves of the region – notably in the Caspian Basin and its surrounding countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – which the British oil company BP later stated were on the scale of those in Britain’s North Sea ‘and thus of significant global interest’. The area was seen by the regional powers, and Britain and the US, as a resource-rich new frontier ripe for exploitation by foreign companies. This great power competition was a re-run of the nineteenth-century Great Game and, from the British perspective, an extension of the Afghan War to counter Moscow’s influence in the region. Islamist forces were, once again, useful as the shock troops to help secure the prize.

Between 1993 and 1996 Britain opened six new embassies in Central Asia, which ‘were there to promote British interests, helping British companies win new business and encouraging the development of stable, market based economies,’ Foreign Office Minister Lord Chesham stated. By the end of the decade, BP would have a major stake in big oil projects in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, while another British company, Monument, had a predominant position in Turkmenistan. BP would thank the Foreign Office for ‘securing [its] commercial positions in these countries’.

Pakistan’s new push into Central Asia beyond Kashmir began in Tajikistan in late 1990. Cross-border raids from Afghanistan of the kind promoted by the CIA and MI6 in the mid-1980s were carried out by hundreds of Pakistani-trained mujahideen forces under Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, both of whom continued to receive CIA aid up to 1992, along with money from Saudi Arabia. Their principal aim was to promote unrest against the still communist government, the Tajik Supreme Soviet, in the dying days of the Soviet Union. After the Tajik regime proclaimed independence in 1991, and maintained itself in power following the collapse of the Soviet Union later that year, a civil war ensued between a coalition of Islamic and secular factions against the communist government; by the time a peace accord was signed in 1997, 20,000 people had been killed, 600,000 were displaced and the economy was wrecked.

In the mid-1990s, Pakistan’s ISI was also supporting Islamist insurgents in the Adolat (Justice) movement in Uzbekistan, which also received funds from Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states. Adolat had been formed by Juma Namangani, a former Soviet paratrooper who returned from service in Afghanistan converted to Wahhabism. The party was banned by communist President Islam Karimov, who retained power through rigged elections and repression, and Namangani fled to Tajikistan. In 1998, Namangani founded the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which declared a jihad in the country and formed a network extending across several Central Asian republics. The IMU was backed militarily and financially by the ISI and bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and the Taliban, among others. It began launching terrorist strikes in Uzbekistan in 1999 from bases in neighbouring Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Chechnya was another territory subject to Pakistani-sponsored attack. In 1994 al-Qaida had begun sending fighters into Chechnya from bases in Afghanistan. In April of that year the ISI began training a young Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, and other Chechen militants, at a camp in Afghanistan run by Hekmatyar. After graduating, Basayev and the other Chechens were sent to another camp in Pakistan to undergo training in guerilla tactics, where Basayev met several ISI generals. Basayev’s jihad began in earnest in early 1995 when a battalion of Afghan mujahideen stationed in Pakistan were sent into combat in Chechnya. The ISI retained tactical control over these forces and helped turn what began in the early 1990s as an anti-Soviet struggle for self-determination into an Islamic jihad. In 1996, the ISI and Bin Laden decided to fund and arm hundreds more militants to be sent to Chechnya. By 1998, several hundred Chechens were being trained in ISI-sponsored camps in Afghanistan, while others were being trained by the ISI in Pakistan in ‘sophisticated terrorism and urban warfare’.

Oil coups in Azerbaijan

Alongside these operations by Britain’s key ally, there was one country in which Britain played a very direct destabilising role alongside Islamist forces: Azerbaijan, a country which was emerging from Soviet control and possessed much of the Caspian region’s untapped oil and gas resources. British policy-makers set themselves the goal of getting a large slice of the cake. In the early 1990s, in order to curry Azeri government favour and secure a massive oil deal, the British government helped funnel arms to the Azeris and promoted two coups to establish a pro-Western business environment in the country.

From the evidence that has emerged, it was a group of Americans who began the covert operation in Azerbaijan, just as the Soviet republic was proclaiming its independence from the Soviet Union in late 1991. At this time a US company, run by three career air force officers with CIA links and a past record of involvement in covert operations, set up an office in the Azeri capital, Baku. The company, called Mega Oil, was approached by the Azeri government to recruit and train mercenaries to help fight its war in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the western part of Azerbaijan. What was to become a two-year operation then began to recruit 2,000 Afghan jihadists and procure weapons for them; many were recruited in Peshawar, Pakistan, by being offered $2,000 dollars each. The weapons procurement programme was to amount to some $20 million worth, while training was provided by retired US special forces officers.

In December 1991, a referendum held in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Christian region, resulted in the majority Armenian population declaring independence from predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan; the majority also called for unity with neighbouring Armenia, which was backed by Russia. Full-scale war broke out in 1992 as Azerbaijan launched offensives to regain control of the territory, and both Azerbaijan and Armenia were subject to international arms embargoes. According to Russian intelligence, around 1,500 Afghan veterans entered Azerbaijan in the Autumn of 1993, their numbers rising to 2,500 the following year. Some of these militants had been recruited by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who remained an ally of Bin Laden, who in turn established an office in Baku around this time which acted as a base for jihadi operations in Dagestan and Chechnya. The Afghan fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh took part in various battles against the Armenians, taking high casualties. The war was, however, a catastrophe for Azerbaijan. By the time a ceasefire was imposed in mid-1994, Armenia had captured not just Nagorno Karabakh but other huge swathes of Azeri territory, while 30,000 people had been killed and over half a million people displaced from their homes. The Azeri mujahideen brigade was dissolved, and its remaining fighters took to sabotage and terrorism.

The British government was also covertly helping to arm Azerbaijan. The Independent reported in January 1994 that London had ‘given tacit support to an illegal scheme to supply Azerbaijan with military backing in its war with Armenia.’ A British peer, Lord Erskine of Rerrick, who was reported to be an intelligence officer, was part of a British–Turkish business consortium secretly negotiating with the Azeris to provide arms, British mercenaries and military trainers to the government. The deal, reached in 1993, was worth £150 million annually, which the Azeris would pay mainly in the form of oil.

When questions were asked in parliament about the Independent report, Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg first replied that he was unaware of any discussions with British companies about the supply of arms, contradicting Erskine’s assertion that he had discussed this with the Foreign Office in 1993. Yet two weeks later, in February 1994, Hogg told parliament that ‘investigations to date suggest that there may be truth in the allegation that these attempts [to procure arms and mercenaries] have been made, but as yet we have no evidence that they have succeeded.’ He added that ‘if evidence of illegality is found the matter will be put in the hands of the customs or police.’ Two months later, Hogg reversed his stance, stating that officials have found ‘no evidence to support the allegations of recruitment of United Kingdom mercenaries by the Azerbaijani government.’ No mention was made of arms at all. This was good enough for parliament, and nothing further was heard of the matter.

This was not the only covert British involvement in Azerbaijan. A further aspect of the story centres on the coup in June 1993 which overthrew Abulfaz Elchibey, Azerbaijan’s first non-communist leader, who had been elected with 60 per cent of the vote in June 1992. Elchibey was faced with heavy military defeats in Nagorno-Karabakh which, along with poor management of the economy, provoked a military rebellion to break out in mid-1993. The June coup was led by a Moscow-backed warlord, following which a new president emerged in the person of Heidar Aliev, a former KGB chief who had served in the Politburo in the Brezhnev era. On what turned out to be the eve of the coup, Prime Minister John Major told parliament that ‘there is no doubt that there are huge markets opening up in that part of the world [Azerbaijan] which I believe will be satisfactory for the United Kingdom, provided that we are prepared to take an interest in them at an early stage.’

Indeed, there are allegations that MI6 played a role in the June 1993 coup ‘to secure a more pro-Western, pro-business regime in the country’, and also that its earlier plotting contributed to the May 1992 coup in which a communist government was overthrown by the military and Echilbey’s Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, which led to the elections bringing Echilbey to power. A Turkish intelligence report on the 1993 coup, later reported in the Sunday Times, stated that British and American oil companies were also ‘behind the coup d’état’ and that company representatives offered to supply the incoming government with military equipment in an arms-for-oil deal. BP denied any involvement but said that some other oil company representatives did discuss the supply of arms.

British policy was, once again, based on pure political expediency, with London again finding itself on the same side as mujahideen forces – any regime was suitable, whether led by an anti-communist democratic figure such as Echilbey in 1992 or a former communist tyrant such as Aliev in 1993, as long as it promoted British business interests.

Soon after assuming power, Aliev instituted an autocratic regime that became a byword for corruption, as it suppressed political dissent. The regime also sought to encourage foreign investment and was increasingly keen on Western oil companies. By December 1993, British ministers were saying that relations with Azerbaijan were ‘in very good order’ and that the ‘trade opportunities … especially in the oil sector, are large and important to us’. In September 1994, Aliev handed BP the lead role in a consortium of Western companies (including the US companies Amoco and Unocal) that would manage three giant oil fields in the country – a £5 billion deal. The British government had lobbied intensively for this outcome. Before the June 1993 coup, a Washington Post article had noted that British officials were advocating ‘relentlessly’ for BP to win Azeri oil contracts and that ‘for months Britain’s diplomatic mission to Azerbaijan had operated out of the BP offices’. In April 1995, by which time the major oil contract with BP had been signed, Douglas Hogg told parliament that ‘we enjoy excellent relations with Azerbaijan’.

Throughout the 1990s, further discussions took place on building a 1,700-kilometre-long new oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan; a consortium led by BP would manage the project, which was agreed by the end of the decade. By 2009, the pipeline was pumping over 700,000 barrels of oil a day.