Iraq: Oil and Terror

"It's important for Americans to remember that America imports more than 50 percent of its oil -- more than 10 million barrels a day. And the figure is rising. [..] this dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security. To put it bluntly, sometimes we rely upon energy sources from countries that don't particularly like us." George W. Bush, February 25, 2002

The day after U.S. Army soldiers shot and killed Yaass Abbass, back in May 2003, I realized that America would lose the war in Iraq. The 28-year-old truck driver from Falluja, a center of Iraqi guerrilla resistance in the Sunni ?triangle of death? west of Baghdad, had been an innocent civilian, but that was not the point. Nor was it the sobbing of his five orphaned sons during the bereaved family's mourning ceremony in a hastily set up tent. Not even the outrage of the tribal representatives who arrived to offer condolences, shrouded in white dishdasha robes and turbans. What struck me was the U.S. Air Force Apache combat helicopter, which kept hovering above the tent, the engines' roaring noise drowning out the men's recital of verses from the Koran. 'The Americans treat us like animals,' said Kudair Abbass, one of Yaass' brothers. When I asked him if he wanted revenge, he kept silent but his eyes were filled with tears and hate. The answer was clear, and had nothing to do with loyalty to Saddam Hussein.

Falluja was just one destination on my many travels through post-Saddam Iraq that took me from Baghdad to the Kurdish areas in the north, the Shiite cities in the south, and the Sunni region in the West - journeys which reminded me in so many ways of my research for this book in Central Asia. After seeing the Saddam regime's mass graves south of Baghdad, I believe ousting a terrible tyrant was a good cause, however poorly planned and executed. Even the idea that this ouster could remedy the lack of democracy in the Middle East, one of the root causes of terrorism, has had its idealist attractions. Yet I lost count of how many Iraqis I met, be they dignitaries or ordinary men, who told me that "the war is all about oil".

By contrast, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed, typically for a Bush administration that has tried to brand war-for-oil critics as conspiracy theorists, that the war 'had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with oil.' But as the US government's claims of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda have turned out to be intelligence failures at best and blatant lies at worst, such denials of the central role of oil in this war are hardly more credible. Surely the US military would not be engaged in the Gulf region if there were only strawberry fields to protect. 'Why otherwise was the oil ministry the only government building in Baghdad the American forces never attacked and never allowed the ali babas to loot?' an Iraqi once asked me. His question was typical of the distrust of the US government's motives, which has been one of the key factors in the popular insurgencies currently engulfing the country.

Among the many reactions this book received since its publication in the autumn of 2003, one reviewer detected a 'not-quite-subconscious European delight in portraying Americans as clumsy imperialists'. Fair enough, but the sober truth is that long before the US military's torture practices were revealed, many Iraqis' gratitude for the liberation from the tyrant had been replaced by resentment of their erstwhile liberators behaving as heavy-handed military occupiers. In the increasingly violent and lawless environment the American troops and civil administrators were seen as incapable of providing security. The initial plan to rebuild Iraq with the help of oil revenues has largely failed because the country's oil industry is in deplorable shape and the insurgents have repeatedly disrupted exports by sabotaging Iraq's 4000-mile-pipeline system and the Basra oil terminals. As French, German, and other offers to help finance a massive reconstruction effort, provided it be undertaken under UN auspices, were spurned by Washington the bill for American taxpayers has soared well beyond $100 billion. Since George W. Bush triumphantly declared hostilities in Iraq over on May 1, 2003, hundreds of American, British and other coalition servicemen have been killed in combat and bombings, as well thousands of Iraqis.

The revelation that US military and intelligence services have for months used systematic and widespread torture against Iraqi detainees at the notorious Abu Ghraib and other prisons has further outraged the Arab community, as well as the rest of the world. It's difficult to underestimate how much damage the revolting images of American soldiers perpetrating (with at the very least the tacit approval of their superiors) beatings, humiliations, sexual perversities, as well as alleged cases of rape and murder, have done to America's image and moral authority. Suffice to say, they seem to confirm Arab suspicions of the 'war on terror' being all but a crusade against Muslims and Islam. Worse, these terrible violations of the Geneva Conventions undermine the very liberal and democratic ideals the United States has claimed it went to war for.

By not preventing the abuses in Iraq (and in Afghanistan and Guantanamo) and by generally bungling the post-war occupation, the Bush administration has given Osama bin Laden just what he wanted. Across the Middle East, the American presence on Arab soil motivates angry Muslim men to sign up with Al Qaeda-like terror groups which have perpetrated heinous attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, and other countries. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Bush administration's Iraq gamble, one of the 'boldest hostile takeovers of all times' (Wall Street Journal), has all but backfired, seriously undermining America's chances of winning the struggle against terrorism.

The Iraq war has also had repercussions in neighbouring Central Asia where the new Great Game about oil and hegemony has raged on, with new and intriguing developments. In Afghanistan, powerful warlords such as Ismail Khan now openly challenge the US-supported Karzai regime in Kabul while the Taliban are on the rebound in the south. They are doubtless heartened by the news from Iraq and by videos of Osama bin Laden taking relaxed afternoon strolls in some alpine valley in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. Successive joint US-Pakistani special forces operations to hunt down the Al Qaeda leader have failed so far.

They have, however, continued to serve as a useful pretext for the United States to consolidate its military presence throughout Central Asia. In an effort to deepen crucial alliances in the region, top US officials have routinely visited the region to court its despotic leaders. Contrary to previous assurances that American troops would stay only temporarily, Pentagon officials have now begun to openly talk about a permanent presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as a new base in Azerbaijan.

Moscow reacted in November 2003 by setting up a new military base of its own in Kyrgyzstan, for hundreds of troops and dozens of aircraft. Ominously, the base (the first to be opened outside of Russia since the Cold War) lies a mere thirty-five miles away from the US airbase at Manas, raising the spectre of interstate conflict. At the same time, China has intensified its military cooperation with the Central Asian republics. Even India, which had until recently been a behind-the-scenes player in the new Great Game, has entered the fray by establishing a military foothold in Tajikistan.

In October 2003, shortly before his death, the long-time ruler of oil-rich Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, rigged elections to pass on the presidency to his playboy son Ilham. Opposition protests against the establishment of the first dynasty in the former Soviet Union were brutally crushed by Aliyev's security forces who beat and arrested hundreds of people. Still, US Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage, apparently less concerned with democracy than with stability for Western oil investments, phoned the fledgling dictator to congratulate him on his "strong showing" in the elections. When American pundits or politicians wonder aloud 'why they hate us so much,' actions like Armitage's phone call might provide some answers.

It need not be that way. The US-supported overthrow in December 2003 of the Georgian strongman Eduard Shevardnadze, following equally fraudulent elections, showed that protecting strategic energy interests can, however accidentally, also promote democracy. To be sure, the Bush administration's motives for dropping Washington's long-time pet ally in favor of the more pro-American and US-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili was the result of hard-nosed realpolitik. Presiding over an abominably corrupt regime, Shevardnadze was no longer able to provide stability in Georgia, the corridor for major Caspian pipelines and a crucial Great Game battleground. He had previously allowed Russian companies to buy up most of the country's energy sector, which increased Moscow's clout at Washington's expense. The 'rose revolution' has done nothing to lessen the rivalry between the United States and Russia, with Moscow reasserting its support for Georgia's separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although in May 2004 the Saakashvili regime restored central control over the secessionist province of Ajaria by forcing the local strongman Aslan Abashidze into Russian exile, a new civil war is still a possibility in Georgia.

These developments highlight this book's central argument that the sudden Caspian oil boom has been more of a curse than a blessing for the local people. Today, this tragic 'paradox of plenty' (Terry Karl) increasingly affects America and Europe, too, as it has become clear since 11 September how the politics of oil contribute to the rise of radical Islamic terrorism. Saudi petrodollars have been and are still being used to fund anti-American jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda. Now the radical Wahhabis pose a threat to the corrupt Saud dynasty itself, committing frequent terror attacks in Riyadh and endangering a stable supply of oil to the industrialized world.

In Saudi Arabia as in Iraq, terrorists have realized that oil, once described in a statement by Al Qaeda as the 'the provision line and the feeding to the artery of the life of the crusader nation', is their most lethal weapon. A successful attack on Ras Tanura, the world's largest offshore terminal in Saudi Arabia, 'would be more economically damaging than a dirty nuclear bomb set off in midtown Manhattan or across from the White House in Lafayette Square,' wrote former CIA Middle East field officer Robert Baer. This 'would be enough to bring the world's oil-addicted economies to their knees, America's along with them.'

For decades, successive American and European governments were indifferent towards how badly the Middle Eastern regimes treated their people and how much anti-Western hatred they inculcated their youth with - as long they kept the oil flowing. Today, this has become a fatal affair. President Bush acknowledged as much in long overdue speeches in late 2003 where he called on the Egyptian and Saudi governments to make democratic reforms and drain terrorist breeding grounds.

The US government's ability to nudge autocratic regimes towards democratic reform does have its limits. The Bush administration has a credibility problem by repeating the same mistakes in Central Asia, wooing some of the region's most tyrannical dictators such as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. Similar to Saddam Hussein in his brutality, the ex-communist ruler ruthlessly suppresses Islamic groups and any other opposition. After an assassination attempt in 1999, Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying, 'I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. ... If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.' Uzbek security forces are notorious for secret executions and ghoulish torture methods such as boiling people alive.

Although the U.S. State Department acknowledges that the Uzbek authorities use 'torture as a routine investigation technique' against tens of thousands of political prisoners, Washington in 2002 paid $500 million to the Karimov regime in exchange for the airbase it allowed the Pentagon to set up on Uzbek territory during the Afghan campaign. This cynical policy has only produced more Islamic terrorists. Some of them perpetrated deadly attacks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in April 2004, including the first-ever suicide bombings in Central Asia. More than forty people died in gun battles between the terrorists and security forces.

Another problem with the proclaimed goal of bringing democracy to the cradles of terrorism, especially the autocratic petrostates in the Middle East, is that an addict cannot force his pusher to change his criminal activities. The United States and Europe are highly dependent on increasingly expensive oil imports. One out of every seven barrels of oil produced in the world is burned on American highways. Much of the oil imports come from the Middle East where two thirds of the planet's fossil reserves lie. This is the West's Achilles heel which so far prevents any government from telling Arab sheiks, 'Stop churning out terrorists or else we?ll stop doing business with you.'

So is it worth mortgaging our security to pursue oil interests? Clearly not. What is urgently needed is a sustainable alternative energy policy to reduce this dependence on oil and to 'defuel' hostile petrostates - for environmental and for security reasons. In the short term, this means saving energy through cleaner and more efficient technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells. The US government's archaic energy policies of yet more fossil fuel production and waste continue in the wrong direction. We need to realize that more gas-guzzling Hummer SUVs on US highways only lead to more Humvees (and American soldiers) near oilfields. The Caspian region may be the next big gas station but, as in the Middle East, an awful lot of men are already running around throwing matches. A bold policy to end the nefarious addiction to oil would therefore be the best strategy to win the epic struggle against terrorism - and may be the only one that works.

Lutz Kleveman

Paris, May 2004

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