issue 236 - October 1992
Crazy for oil
Oil and arms ignited the Gulf explosion and set the fuse
for future North-South conflict. Paul Rogers explains.
The first months of 1974 were not a happy time for governments in Western Europe and North America. Across the industrialized world a full-blown energy crisis was in progress caused by Arab oil producers pushing up oil prices during the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War the previous October.
In Britain Edward Heath's Conservative Government was in greater difficulties as it tried to face down the coal miners who had embarked on a bitter strike over pay. Early in February Heath called a General Election on the issue - which he lost.
Just before the start of the election campaign a low-key ministerial statement to the House of Commons announced an agreement with the US which was to have far-reaching implications over the next 18 years. US armed forces were to expand massively their base on a British territory in the Indian Ocean, the collection of islands known as Diego Garcia, a mere spot on most maps.
The islands had been leased from Britain eight years previously as a communications centre. The Illois inhabitants had been 'transferred' against their will to Mauritius, where most were living in penury. Now the US intended to spend $18 million (more than $150 million at 1992 prices) on expanding harbour, storage and air-base facilities. Diego Garcia was to become one of the US's most powerful overseas bases, full of supplies for use in a future conflict in the Middle East.
Why? The roots of the situation reach back to the day in October 1973 when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and the world oil crisis began. Within a week, with US help, Israel was on the verge of victory. On 17 October the Arab members of the oil producers' group, OPEC, decided to use oil as their best weapon against Western support for Israel. Production was cut back to engineer an artificial scarcity, prices were hiked by 70 per cent and all oil exports to the US were halted.
A few days later the war ended in a cease-fire with Israel having to stop short of victory. By early 1974, oil prices had quadrupled, causing one analyst to comment that it represented the biggest redistribution of wealth since the Spanish plundered Latin American gold.
At the root of the success of the oil producers was the West's increasing dependence on OPEC oil. The Pentagon's biggest concern was the result of some military assessments done in the wake of the 1974 energy crisis which seemed to suggest that, if the US had wanted to take over Middle East oil fields by armed force, they simply did not have the military capability to do so.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s the issue of resource supplies simmered away. By 1979, the US armed forces had their response - the establishment of the Joint Rapid Deployment Task Force. This included rapid-reaction army units, aircraft carriers, thousands of marines and hundreds of supporting ships and aircraft. In theory the Rapid Deployment Force could go anywhere, but its main sphere of operations was to be the Middle East.
The Force grew in importance when the far-right Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. The new Cold War was under way, Afghanistan was Soviet-run, the fundamentalists controlled Iran and Uncle Sam needed even more Middle East oil.
An expanded Rapid Deployment Force, to be called US Central Command or CENTCOM, would look after US security interests throughout the Middle East and South-West Asia, protecting Gulf oil from both the Ayatollahs and the much bigger Soviet threat. By 1984 CENTCOM was established with up to 400,000 troops based in the US and Europe for crisis response, some ready to move at a few hours notice. Diego Garcia was full to bursting.
Meanwhile war broke out between Iran and Iraq. Throughout this war Iraq was seen, by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as well as the US, as a buffer against Iranian extremists. US support for Iraq reached a peak in April 1988 when forces assigned to CENTCOM destroyed key units of the Iranian navy in an afternoon, reportedly killing several hundred sailors. Soon afterwards, and faced with Iraqi success in land battles, Iran sued for peace, giving Saddam Hussein the opportunity to turn his attention to regional aggrandisement.
By mid-1990 Iraq was deep in a bitter argument with Kuwait over the latter's oil pricing policy. Other Arab states attempted to mediate in the dispute, but failed. Within days of the Iraqi invasion that followed, the US military were dusting down CENTCOM plans for threats to Gulf oil. The biggest exercise in military force projection in a generation was under way, with the head of CENTCOM, General Norman Schwarzkopf, at its helm.
The West was now, if anything, even more dependent on Gulf oil than it had been in 1973. After the 1973-4 oil price rises, most oil analysts had expected a surge in exploration, thereby decreasing the significance of the Gulf. To some extent this happened, with substantial discoveries in Alaska, the North Sea and Mexico.
But what surprised the industry was that much larger reserves were discovered back in the Middle East, especially in the western Gulf states. Kuwait alone had nearly three times the oil reserves of the whole of the US. Iraq had even more and, together with Kuwait, controlled one fifth of world oil reserves. Saudi Arabia had another quarter, and Abu Dhabi a further tenth. These four territories alone controlled 55 per cent of all the world's oil.
What really worried the West was the control of long-term reserves. These were becoming more significant by the year as European and North American reserves were run down. Saddam Hussein was simply too great a risk for his action against Kuwait to be accepted.
The military planners back in the 1970s may have seen the Soviets as the main threat to the US in the Gulf, but their planning had ensured that the US could now go to war against Iraq, using the huge forces committed to CENTCOM. This would safeguard oil supplies for the West, demonstrate US resolve to protect its interests by force where necessary and, more generally, establish that there was only one superpower in the post-Cold War world. A New World Order would be established.
Desert Storm has been hailed by the US military as the classic example of 'keeping the violent peace' in this New World Order. The talk is now of the need to safeguard security in a deeply polarized, violent and unstable world. The language used is blunt. The prestigious Proceedings of the US Naval Institute saw naval force projection as necessary to tackle 'that swirling pot of poison made up of zealots, crazies, drug-runners and terrorists'.
As defence budgets decline, analysts alight with fervour on the conflicts likely to arise in a polarized, divided and insecure world. They call for more spending on anti-guerilla special-operations forces, on cruise missiles that can target Third World countries, on anti-missile systems that can destroy Third World ballistic missiles, and even on new mini-nuclear weapons intended specifically for 'small wars in far-off places'. Within a year of the end of the Cold War, the lines of conflict are already being drawn for a progressive North-South confrontation, for which the Gulf War was a dangerous model.
Paul Rogers is Professor of Conflict Analysis at Bradford University. His most recent book with Malcolm Dando is A Violent Peace: Global Security After the Cold War, (Brassey's, London, 1992).
In the winter of 1991, across' an expanse of desert, half a million young Iraqi men faced the most powerful array of military power that had ever been amassed.
'Nadar', an Iraqi Christian who had already spent eight years in Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards, was among them. 'It was like a big storm which destroys everything,' he says. 'At least the Iran war didn't touch the life in our towns.'
'Issa' - another Iraqi soldier afraid to use his real name - was across the border in Kuwait. 'Even today my friends are still nervous, like a bottle with the cork ready to pop,' he says. 'We're still afraid aircraft will come and bomb us... When we weren't under attack we were worrying about our families who we knew had no food... You feel like you're going crazy. You get nervous at everything. Lots of men run away.'
There is no way to prepare mentally for the sight, smell and sound of modern warfare. Post-traumatic stress disorder or 'shell shock' affects as many as a third of all combat troops and some suffer permanent psychological scars. Symptoms include emotional withdrawal and temporary paralysis.
By early February Kuwaiti hospitals were filled with hundreds of wounded and thousands more were trying to reach them. The condition of Iraqi troops was worsening steadily in the absence of adequate food. At the same time the Iraqi Government barred the Red Cross from the area.
Iran, whose war reportage was often the most accurate, estimated 20,000 Iraqis dead and 60.000 wounded before the land battle even began. Epidemics were reported to be spreading in the South, where one million Iraqis had taken to the roads, fleeing the aggression against Basra.
About 10,000 Iraqis were taken prisoner in the first 12 hours of the War. Saddam Hussein went on radio and asked his men to be ready to die. The following day 20,000 Iraqis surrendered. One group seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon holding wooden poles flying white vests. Barefoot survivors who had seen dozens of their compatriots killed said they had had no food and little water for days. 'It's not our war,' surrendering soldiers told journalists.
On 26 February Saddam Hussein ordered his armies to withdraw. News reports said his commanders had begged him to do so for days. Whole divisions, the Coalition said, had been 'disabled or destroyed'. Iraq's army 'had disintegrated'. The Coalition used grenades to 'clear' trenches of soldiers.
Later, along the 'highway of death' from Kuwait, Radio Tehran reported the War's fiercest bombing. Bombers 'picked off' vehicles, their bumper-to-bumper traffic pummelled with 1,000-pound bombs. The Gulf War ended; the Allies estimated 100 soldiers dead and 200 wounded. Iraq's casualties were well over 100,000.
Jill Hamburg is a freelance writer on the Middle East, currently living in Cairo.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7