Nearly 24 years ago I drove through the burning oil fields of southern Kuwait where Iraqi soldiers had set drilling rigs ablaze as they fled advancing U.S. military troops in the first Gulf War. The sky was so thick with clouds of black smoke that the U.S. Marines I accompanied needed flashlights at high noon to read the wrinkled maps spread across the hoods of their armored vehicles. The scene—massive towers of fire against black skies, air so acrid it was nearly impossible to breathe– was a vision of a 20th century apocalypse. I covered war and crisis in the Middle East for almost 20 years as a war correspondent for The Washington Post. During that time, oil and energy resources have been at the core of virtually every conflict: Sometimes as the security excuse the U.S. used to justify an invasion, other times fueling the social and economic divides that led to a nation’s internal unrest and revolution.
What has changed after twenty years?
More than two decades after Iraqi forces torched those Kuwait oil fields, Iraq finds itself on the opposite end of an invasion by what is perhaps the most insidious and cunning terrorist group yet to emerge out of the Middle East. When the Islamic State first invaded the Sunni-dominated areas of northern Iraq, Sunni sympathizers assisted its guerilla soldiers in taking over large swaths of land that included oil fields. Thus, the Islamic State became the first guerrilla terrorist army to seize Middle Eastern oil fields and use those resources to fund the majority of its operations—by some estimates reaping $1 million to $2 million a day. That is a seismic shift in tactics for Middle East military or terrorist organizations. Al Qaeda, the parent group that spawned the Islamic State, depended on financial “donors” with like-minded anti-Western ideology from around the Middle East to finance its operations. And while both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State use kidnapping ransoms and other extortion for funding, the Islamic State has crossed a new threshold for financing extremist recruitment, weapons and operations. After U.S. troops overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the spring 2003, I visited Mosul in northern Iraq where much of the euphoric talk in the tea shops and restaurants centered on the prospects of international energy companies reinvigorating the region’s oil fields, replacing aging equipment that had fallen into disrepair under the international boycotts of the Saddam regime and bringing new technology and new prosperity to northern Iraq.
Instead, at least seven major oil fields in northern Iraq near Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk –with a combined capacity of about 80,000 barrels a day—are now under the control of the Islamic State and are being exploited for the benefit of terrorism and military operations. The terrorist group inflicted so much damage on Iraq’s main oil pipeline into Turkey—including blowing up the major pumping station– it has been shutdown since March and may remain offline for years. Next door in Syria, the Islamic State controls about 60 percent of that country’s oil assets. It is estimated the Islamic State is producing about 50,000 barrels a day there–significantly below Syria’ pre-conflict capacity of about 220,000 barrels a day–but a generous source of income for the terrorist group. Now, some military analysts in Washington are debating whether the only way to cut off the Islamic State’s main revenue spigot is to bomb oil facilities funding the group. U.S. drones already have attacked some mobile refining facilities. The Energy Intelligence Group wrote earlier this fall: “With the help of local middlemen — who control the supply chain by extracting oil, trucking it across territory trucking tankers, paying off border checkpoints and handling sales — the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula has become a black-market zone funding transnational terrorism, led by ISIS and other al Qaeda splinter groups.” So who’s to blame for this mess?
Past mistakes of the U.S.
After two decades in a front row seat to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, I’ve witnessed a troubling trend by the government of my country: We don’t seem to learn from past mistakes. When the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, I watched as the U.S. lost interest. I covered the ensuing bloodshed and violence among competing warlords who filled the vacuum. Then, Afghanis grew weary of the brutality and embraced the Taliban when it stepped in to the leadership vacuum. The Taliban quickly turned brutal, al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York and the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. But the U.S. had no strategy for rebuilding a country and a government from scratch. Instead of capitalizing on the wide-spread good will I witnessed among the Afghan people when the U.S. and coalition forces pushed out the Taliban, the U.S. once again lost interest in Afghanistan and decided, instead, to go after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein using specious arguments about non-existent chemical and biological weapons and ties to al Qaeda. Again, the U.S. had little strategy for rebuilding the country and eventually backed a leader—Nouri al-Maliki—whose sectarian politics divided the country and opened the seams that allowed the Islamic State to make the inroads we’ve witnessed in recent months. In the end, according to Washington insiders, U.S. officials became so distrusting of al-Maliki—who U.S. officials originally supported– that his early warnings about the rise of the Islamic State were dismissed as politically driven rumor on his part. Iraq’s newly elected Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has started down the right path of attempting to bring the country’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds together. But his challenges from the Islamic State are enormous—militarily, politically and economically. Only 10 percent of Iraq’s oil production is in the Kurdistan Regional Government-controlled area. The remaining 90 percent is in the south that for now remains under Baghdad’s control. However, the unstable situation in the north is driving even more of Iraq’s best and brightest to leave the country. Declining global oil prices have prompted the International Monetary Fund to forecast that Iraq’s gross domestic product will shrink by 2.7 percent this year, down from the 5.9 percent growth it had forecast earlier in the year. “The conflict in northern Iraq has started to affect non-oil growth in that country,” the IMF wrote, adding, “Although most oil production is in the country’s south and oil output levels have not been materially affected, the departure of skilled personnel will limit Iraq’s ability to expand or, possibly, even maintain oil production.” Iraq, which pumps about 3.5 million barrels per day, is OPEC’s second largest exporter after Saudi Arabia. So what is the answer?
Where to start in dealing with the Islamic State?
There is little debate that the top priority for Iraq and the rest of the world is cutting off the Islamic State’s funding source. Aerial bombardments, especially if refineries are targets, could limit the energy supply and the Islamic State’s ability to reach its largest customer base—the 8 million people in Iraq and Syria living on territory controlled by the group. Though crude oil directly from the wells can be sold, it’s the refined oil that fills the coffers. And perhaps the U.S. has learned to curb its bravado in a region where coalitions are difficult enough to stitch together and even harder to hold together. Today the U.S. administration and military do not talk about defeating the Islamic State, they talk about “degrading” it. There is a realization that extremist groups are going to continue to morph into new organizations using new channels of financing and international support. Today one of the U.S. administration’s largest problems in reshaping its Middle East policy is the public war fatigue. Even though the Islamic State evokes revulsion with its videos of beheading journalists and Western aid workers, the American public has watched war and its subsequent failures to bring peace and stability –especially in such a volatile region—with increasing cynicism. And as U.S. domestic energy production increases, Americans no longer automatically associate Middle Eastern oil with U.S. national security. There’s one mistake, however, that Americans aren’t apt to make again anytime soon and that’s declaring “Mission Accomplished” any where in the Middle East—as President George W. Bush boasted with his premature banner on a U.S. Navy ship ceremony after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps there have been lessons learned after all after decades of war in the Middle East.