The New Geography of Conflict

Courtesy Reuters


In October 1999, in a rare alteration of U.S. military geography, the Department of Defense reassigned senior command authority over American forces in Central Asia from the Pacific Command to the Central Command. This decision produced no headlines or other signs of interest in the United States but nevertheless represented a significant shift in American strategic thinking. Central Asia had once been viewed as a peripheral concern, a remote edge of the Pacific Command's main areas of responsibility (China, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula). But the region, which stretches from the Ural Mountains to China's western border, has now become a major strategic prize, because of the vast reserves of oil and natural gas thought to lie under and around the Caspian Sea. Since the Central Command already controls the U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, its assumption of control over Central Asia means that this area will now receive close attention from the people whose primary task is to protect the flow of oil to the United States and its allies.

The new prominence of Central Asia and its potential oil riches is but one sign of a larger transformation of U.S. strategic thinking. During the Cold War, the areas of greatest concern to military planners were those of confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet blocs: central and southeastern Europe and the Far East. Since the end of the Cold War, however, these areas have lost much strategic significance for the United States (except, perhaps, for the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea), while other regions -- the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea basin, and the South China Sea -- are receiving increased attention from the Pentagon.

Behind this shift in strategic geography is a new emphasis on the protection of supplies of vital resources, especially oil and natural gas. Whereas Cold War-era divisions were created and alliances formed along ideological lines, economic competition now drives international relations -- and competition over

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