Oil Wars: Transforming the American Military into a Global Oil-Protection Service

October 9, 2004

In the first U.S. combat operation of the war in Iraq, Navy commandos stormed an offshore oil-loading platform. "Swooping silently out of the Persian Gulf night," an overexcited reporter for the New York Times wrote on March 22, "Navy Seals seized two Iraqi oil terminals in bold raids that ended early this morning, overwhelming lightly-armed Iraqi guards and claiming a bloodless victory in the battle for Iraq’s vast oil empire."

A year and a half later, American soldiers are still struggling to maintain control over these vital petroleum facilities — and the fighting is no longer bloodless. On April 24, two American sailors and a coastguardsman were killed when a boat they sought to intercept, presumably carrying suicide bombers, exploded near the Khor al-Amaya loading platform. Other Americans have come under fire while protecting some of the many installations in Iraq’s "oil empire."

Indeed, Iraq has developed into a two-front war: the battles for control over Iraq’s cities and the constant struggle to protect its far-flung petroleum infrastructure against sabotage and attack. The first contest has been widely reported in the American press; the second has received far less attention. Yet the fate of Iraq’s oil infrastructure could prove no less significant than that of its embattled cities. A failure to prevail in this contest would eliminate the economic basis upon which a stable Iraqi government could someday emerge. "In the grand scheme of things," a senior officer told the New York Times, "there may be no other place where our armed forces are deployed that has a greater strategic importance." In recognition of this, significant numbers of U.S. soldiers have been assigned to oil-security functions.

Top officials insist that these duties will eventually be taken over by Iraqi forces, but day by day this glorious moment seems to recede ever further into the distance. So long as American forces remain in Iraq, a significant number of them will undoubtedly spend their time guarding highly vulnerable pipelines, refineries, loading facilities, and other petroleum installations. With thousands of miles of pipeline and hundreds of major facilities at risk, this task will prove endlessly demanding — and unrelievedly hazardous. At the moment, the guerrillas seem capable of striking the country’s oil lines at times and places of their choosing, their attacks often sparking massive explosions and fires.

Guarding the pipelines

It has been argued that our oil-protection role is a peculiar feature of the war in Iraq, where petroleum installations are strewn about and the national economy is largely dependent on oil revenues. But Iraq is hardly the only country where American troops are risking their lives on a daily basis to protect the flow of petroleum. In Colombia, Saudi Arabia, and the Republic of Georgia, U.S. personnel are also spending their days and nights protecting pipelines and refineries, or supervising the local forces assigned to this mission. American sailors are now on oil-protection patrol in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the South China Sea, and along other sea routes that deliver oil to the United States and its allies. In fact, the American military is increasingly being converted into a global oil-protection service.

The situation in the Republic of Georgia is a perfect example of this trend. Ever since the Soviet Union broke apart in 1992, American oil companies and government officials have sought to gain access to the huge oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian Sea basin — especially in Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Some experts believe that as many as 200 billion barrels of untapped oil lie ready to be discovered in the Caspian area, about seven times the amount left in the United States. But the Caspian itself is landlocked and so the only way to transport its oil to market in the West is by pipelines crossing the Caucasus region — the area encompassing Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the war-torn Russian republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia.

American firms are now building a major pipeline through this volatile area. Stretching a perilous 1,000 miles from Baku in Azerbaijan through Tbilisi in Georgia to Ceyhan in Turkey, it is eventually slated to carry one million barrels of oil a day to the West; but will face the constant threat of sabotage by Islamic militants and ethnic separatists along its entire length. The United States has already assumed significant responsibility for its protection, providing millions of dollars in arms and equipment to the Georgian military and deploying military specialists in Tbilisi to train and advise the Georgian troops assigned to protect this vital conduit. This American presence is only likely to expand in 2005 or 2006 when the pipeline begins to transport oil and fighting in the area intensifies.

Or take embattled Colombia, where U.S. forces are increasingly assuming responsibility for the protection of that country’s vulnerable oil pipelines. These vital conduits carry crude petroleum from fields in the interior, where a guerrilla war boils, to ports on the Caribbean coast from which it can be shipped to buyers in the United States and elsewhere. For years, left-wing guerrillas have sabotaged the pipelines — portraying them as concrete expressions of foreign exploitation and elitist rule in Bogota, the capital — to deprive the Colombian government of desperately needed income. Seeking to prop up the government and enhance its capacity to fight the guerrillas, Washington is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars to enhance oil-infrastructure security, beginning with the Cano-Limon pipeline, the sole conduit connecting Occidental Petroleum’s prolific fields in Arauca province with the Caribbean coast. As part of this effort, U.S. Army Special Forces personnel from Fort Bragg, North Carolina are now helping to train, equip, and guide a new contingent of Colombian forces whose sole mission will be to guard the pipeline and fight the guerrillas along its 480-mile route.

Oil and instability

The use of American military personnel to help protect vulnerable oil installations in conflict-prone, chronically unstable countries is certain to expand given three critical factors: America’s ever-increasing dependence on imported petroleum, a global shift in oil production from the developed to the developing world, and the growing militarization of our foreign energy policy.

America’s dependence on imported petroleum has been growing steadily since 1972, when domestic output reached its maximum (or "peak") output of 11.6 million barrels per day (mbd). Domestic production is now running at about 9 mbd and is expected to continue to decline as older fields are depleted. (Even if some oil is eventually extracted from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, as the Bush administration desires, this downward trend will not be reversed.) Yet our total oil consumption remains on an upward course; now approximating 20 mbd, it’s projected to reach 29 mbd by 2025. This means ever more of the nation’s total petroleum supply will have to be imported — 11 mbd today (about 55% of total U.S. consumption) but 20 mbd in 2025 (69% of consumption).

More significant than this growing reliance on foreign oil, an increasing share of that oil will come from hostile, war-torn countries in the developing world, not from friendly, stable countries like Canada or Norway. This is the case because the older industrialized countries have already consumed a large share of their oil inheritance, while many producers in the developing world still possess vast reserves of untapped petroleum. As a result, we are seeing a historic shift in the center of gravity for world oil production — from the industrialized countries of the global North to the developing nations of the global South, which are often politically unstable, torn by ethnic and religious conflicts, home to extremist organizations, or some combination of all three.

Whatever deeply-rooted historical antagonisms exist in these countries, oil production itself usually acts as a further destabilizing influence. Sudden infusions of petroleum wealth in otherwise poor and underdeveloped countries tend to deepen divides between rich and poor that often fall along ethnic or religious lines, leading to persistent conflict over the distribution of petroleum revenues. To prevent such turbulence, ruling elites like the royal family in Saudi Arabia or the new oil potentates of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan restrict or prohibit public expressions of dissent and rely on the repressive machinery of state security forces to crush opposition movements. With legal, peaceful expressions of dissent foreclosed in this manner, opposition forces soon see no options but to engage in armed rebellion or terrorism.

There is another aspect of this situation that bears examination. Many of the emerging oil producers in the developing world were once colonies of and harbor deep hostility toward the former imperial powers of Europe. The United States is seen by many in these countries as the modern inheritor of this imperial tradition. Growing resentment over social and economic traumas induced by globalization is aimed at the United States. Because oil is viewed as the primary motive for American involvement in these areas, and because the giant U.S. oil corporations are seen as the very embodiment of American power, anything to do with oil — pipelines, wells, refineries, loading platforms — is seen by insurgents as a legitimate and attractive target for attack; hence the raids on pipelines in Iraq, on oil company offices in Saudi Arabia, and on oil tankers in Yemen.

Militarizing energy policy

American leaders have responded to this systemic challenge to stability in oil-producing areas in a consistent fashion: by employing military means to guarantee the unhindered flow of petroleum. This approach was first adopted by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations after World War II, when Soviet adventurism in Iran and pan-Arab upheavals in the Middle East seemed to threaten the safety of Persian Gulf oil deliveries. It was given formal expression by President Carter in January 1980, when, in response to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran, he announced that the secure flow of Persian Gulf oil was in "the vital interests of the United States of America," and that in protecting this interest we would use "any means necessary, including military force." Carter’s principle of using force to protect the flow of oil was later cited by President Bush the elder to justify American intervention in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, and it provided the underlying strategic rationale for our recent invasion of Iraq.

Originally, this policy was largely confined to the world’s most important oil-producing region, the Persian Gulf. But given America’s ever-growing requirement for imported petroleum, U.S. officials have begun to extend it to other major producing zones, including the Caspian Sea basin, Africa, and Latin America. The initial step in this direction was taken by President Clinton, who sought to exploit the energy potential of the Caspian basin and, worrying about instability in the area, established military ties with future suppliers, including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and with the pivotal transit state of Georgia. It was Clinton who first championed the construction of a pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan and who initially took steps to protect that conduit by boosting the military capabilities of the countries involved. President Bush junior has built on this effort, increasing military aid to these states and deploying American combat advisers in Georgia; Bush is also considering the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases in the Caspian region.

Typically, such moves are justified as being crucial to the "war on terror." A close reading of Pentagon and State Department documents shows, however, that anti-terrorism and the protection of oil supplies are closely related in administration thinking. When requesting funds in 2004 to establish a "rapid-reaction brigade" in Kazakhstan, for example, the State Department told Congress that such a force is needed to "enhance Kazakhstan’s capability to respond to major terrorist threats to oil platforms" in the Caspian Sea.

As noted, a very similar trajectory is now under way in Colombia. The American military presence in oil-producing areas of Africa, though less conspicuous, is growing rapidly. The Department of Defense has stepped up its arms deliveries to military forces in Angola and Nigeria, and is helping to train their officers and enlisted personnel; meanwhile, Pentagon officials have begun to look for permanent U.S. bases in the area, focusing on Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Uganda, and Kenya. Although these officials tend to talk only about terrorism when explaining the need for such facilities, one officer told Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal in June 2003 that "a key mission for U.S. forces [in Africa] would be to ensure that Nigeria’s oil fields, which in the future could account for as much as 25 percent of all U.S. oil imports, are secure."

An increasing share of our naval forces is also being committed to the protection of foreign oil shipments. The Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based at the island state of Bahrain, now spends much of its time patrolling the vital tanker lanes of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz — the narrow waterway connecting the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the larger oceans beyond. The Navy has also beefed up its ability to protect vital sea lanes in the South China Sea — the site of promising oil fields claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia — and in the Strait of Malacca, the critical sea-link between the Persian Gulf and America’s allies in East Asia. Even Africa has come in for increased attention from the Navy. In order to increase the U.S. naval presence in waters adjoining Nigeria and other key producers, carrier battle groups assigned to the European Command (which controls the South Atlantic) will shorten their future visits to the Mediterranean "and spend half the time going down the west coast of Africa," the command’s top officer, General James Jones, announced in May 2003.

This, then, is the future of U.S. military involvement abroad. While anti-terrorism and traditional national security rhetoric will be employed to explain risky deployments abroad, a growing number of American soldiers and sailors will be committed to the protection of overseas oil fields, pipeline, refineries, and tanker routes. And because these facilities are likely to come under increasing attack from guerrillas and terrorists, the risk to American lives will grow accordingly. Inevitably, we will pay a higher price in blood for every additional gallon of oil we obtain from abroad.

Michael Klare

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, including the just-published All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change (Metropolitan Books).

Tags: Geopolitics & Military