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Terror war and oil expand US sphere of influence

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A deal has been struck with Tajikistan – where Russia has 10,000 of its own troops guarding the Afghan border. Americans have held secret military meetings with Armenia – a key Russian ally – and talks with Kazakhstan. Up to 200 American advisers will soon be helping Georgia control its unruly Pankisi Gorge, where terrorists are suspected to be hiding.

While the US may have grand imperial designs – some experts even go so far as to speak of US troops "guarding" Caspian energy resources in case Iraqi oil supplies are disrupted by any American attempt to change the regime in Baghdad – others emphasize common US-Russian economic interests.

"Don't think like a 'cold warrior,' " says Pat Davis Szymczak, the American publisher of the bi-monthly, Moscow-based magazine Oil and Gas Eurasia, who points out that the bulk of Central Asian energy resources reach the market through Russian pipelines.

"Are we going to send a bunch of Marines to stand around an oil well with guns? So they've protected that oil – big deal. Are they going to take it away in armored vehicles?" Ms. Szymczak asks. "The only way to get it from Uzbekistan to cars in New York is by being friends with the Russians."

While the presence of American forces and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan are causing fresh thinking about how to tap Caspian riches, the context of cold war rivalries – played up by regional leaders often eager to wiggle free of Russia's influence – still dominates discourse.

During a recent tour of the region, state Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, warned that "Russia will not endorse the emergence of permanent US military bases in Central Asia."

"The Russians have every reason to be worried" about US intentions in their "soft underbelly," says Thomas Stauffer, an energy strategist and former Harvard professor in Washington. "The only geopolitical logic I can see [to long-term US moves]," Stauffer adds, "is that we want to get a certain amount of space on the checkerboard, with which we can negotiate with the Russians."

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