A Resource War
Is the conflict in Afghanistan a resource war?
an interview with Michael Klare
Multinational Monitor magazine, November 2001
Michael Klare: The conflict in Afghanistan derives from American
efforts to dominate the resources of the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan
itself is only peripherally related to resource conflicts. The
origins of the current conflict lie in Saudi Arabia -in the efforts
of anti-government extremists like Osama bin Laden to overthrow
the royal family and install a more doctrinaire Islamic regime.
And since Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil producer, and
the United States has no intention of allowing Bin Laden to overthrow
the Saudi regime, by extension it's a resource conflict.
MM: To what extent are U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia a cause
of Osama bin Laden's anti-U.S. activities?
Klare: They are both a provocation and an invitation.
They are a provocation in his eyes and in those of his militant
followers, because they represent what they view as a sacrilege
of the Muslim Holy Land. They view the Arabian Peninsula as the
home and Holy Land of Islam and they view so many American troops-most
of who are non-Muslims, and therefore considered infidels-as an
insult to their religion. And they blame the Saudi royal family
for bringing those troops in.
Their real argument is ultimately with the Saudi royal family.
I think the principle aim of Osama bin Laden is to overthrow the
Saudi royal family and establish a Taliban-like government in
Saudi Arabia. That's his number one objective. But one of his
complaints against the royal family is that they invited American
troops to come and stay.
U.S. forces are also an invitation in the sense that they
are terrorist targets. U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia have been attacked
at least twice before in terrorist attacks; the 1995 attack on
the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) headquarters in Riyadh,
which killed 5 American soldiers; and the 1996 attack on Khobar
Towers that killed 19 American soldiers.
MM: Are U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to protect against external
or internal threats?
Klare: The U.S. has two kinds of forces in Saudi Arabia. It
has regular military units - mainly Air Force units, whose job
is primarily to protect Saudi Arabia against external enemies
- primarily Iran and Iraq. But the U.S. also has military advisers
and military contract personnel who work with the Saudi Arabian
National Guard to provide internal security for the Saudi regime,
for the royal family. This has put the U.S. in a direct clash
with Saudi dissidents who have had periodic clashes with the SANG,
and so have come to despise the U.S. for being associated with
a repressive force.
MM: When did U.S. deployment in the Middle East and in Saudi
Arabia begin, and how did it evolve?
Klare: All of this goes back to the March 1945 meeting between
President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the
father of the present king, and the founder of the modern Saudi
regime. They met in Egypt after the Yalta conference and worked
out a bargain, a compact whereby the U.S. would have privileged
access to Saudi oil in return for a pledge to protect the royal
family. That agreement remains the basis for U.S. ties to the
The nature of U.S. protection has evolved over time. Originally
it was provided in indirect forms of support such as military
advisers and arms aid. Over time the direct presence of U.S. military
forces has increased to the point where the U.S. now has between
5,000 and 10,000 soldiers on Saudi soil, and a much larger number
offshore, on ships and the island of Bahrain.
MM: What are the internal threats feared in Saudi Arabia?
What opposition forces exist?
Klare: The first thing that has to be borne in mind is that
the Saudi government does not permit legal forms of dissent. There's
no parliament. There's no free speech or assembly, no political
parties. So there's no opportunity for people to voice their grievances
against the regime.
A lot of opposition to the regime includes the sort of grievances
you would expect to find in a country ruled by a feudal dynasty,
especially issues about the distribution of the nation's oil wealth
and how it is spent. There's a lot of anger that excessive amounts
of money are spent on things like palaces and Mercedes while not
enough is spent on public welfare. There's also dissent from women
who object to the second-class status that they're forced to endure.
And there are objections from those who want to democratize the
country, who want human rights and democracy like you have in
any modern state. Those people are not allowed to voice any grievances.
What happens is that the only real opportunity for dissidence
is in radical fundamentalist movements, which are tolerated by
the regime because they are based in the mosques and in the religious
seminaries that are protected by the government.
And they're expressed in Islamic terms. So the royal family
has closed off legitimate forms of dissent, and the only option
therefore is extremist Islamic movements, some of which have turned
violent. If there were democracy in the country, my guess is that
there wouldn't be much to worry about, because a lot of these
grievances would then take the form of parliamentary opposition,
as they do in [the United States] and other countries. But because
that option doesn't exist in Saudi Arabia, those with grievances
have increasingly turned to extremist factions which advocate
the use of violence, including terrorism and, ultimately, armed
revolt. As people's anger grows-and it's growing in Saudi Arabia
because of the war-the fear is that people will turn to these
extremist movements and stage a revolt of one sort or another.
MM: Why do U.S. planners view the extremists in Saudi Arabia
as a threat to U.S. interests?
Klare: Because of fears for the survival of the Saudi monarchy.
The royal family has always provided U.S. interests a privileged
position with respect to Saudi oil supplies, in terms of both
the access to oil and the pricing of oil. The Saudi royal family
has been the most friendly to the U.S. in
OPEC in maintaining prices at a level that do not produce
a heavy burden to the U.S. economy. The fear is that if the extremists
took over, they might deny U.S. access to Saudi oil and/or push
prices up, and therefore produce an even worse economic situation
than we have today. Either way, it would cause great harm to the
MM: Is U.S. entanglement in resource wars inevitable so long
as the nation relies so heavily on oil?
Klare: I think resource wars are inevitable so long as we
rely so heavily on imported oil to make up for the shortfall in
our own production and to the degree that we do not engage in
some kind of international system of resource allocation that's
reasonably equitable. The problem is that we use a vast amount
of oil and we also want to engineer local politics in other countries
to be friendly to serving that need. We want local governments
to be amenable to providing the U.S. with as much energy as we
want at low prices. That means we get involved in local politics,
and very often we get involved in local politics in areas where
there are a lot of pre-existing divisions-religious, ethnic and
political. We wind up taking sides and we get enmeshed in conflicts,
which is what has happened in Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. has also risked getting involved in local conflicts
in other countries because of its interest in their petroleum
resources. We've been enmeshed in the internal politics of Iran-we
were very close to the Shah, and when the Shah was overthrown,
there was a backlash against us. Historically, we've been involved
in conflicts in Mexico over oil. We're now involved in Colombia
in a conflict that's as much about oil as it is about drugs.
It's not just the demand that is important, but the fact that
the U.S. has historically viewed oil as a national security concern
and organized its foreign policy and military policy around the
protection of that oil. That gets us involved in local messy situations
that often turn violent.
MM: Do you think there will be a fundamental reexamination
of the notion of defining national security in the United States
as a result of these issues?
Klare: I think in the short term that people aren't giving
this a whole lot of thought, but I do think that there's a growing
awareness that the conflict we're currently involved in has roots
in the Middle East. I think it will lead people to examine those
roots more carefully. Some of that will involve looking more carefully
at the Israel-Palestinian conflict to see whether there shouldn't
be changes in how we address that conflict, perhaps to be more
even-handed in our response. I think it's going to force the U.S.
to reexamine its relationship to Saudi Arabia. I hope that will
lead to the U.S. putting greater distance between itself and the
royal family, leaving greater room for democracy in that country.
But I think that's a long-term process and could be overtaken
by events that we can't foresee yet.
Michael Klare is the author of numerous books including Resource
Wars (Metropolitan Books). He is Five College Professor of Peace
and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.