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
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
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 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
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
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.
Paris, May 2004