The Ministry of Oil Defense

It's not polite to say so, but if Americans understood just how many trillions their military was really spending on protecting oil, they wouldn't stand for it.

Shortly after the Marines rolled into Baghdad and tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein, I visited the Ministry of Oil. American troops surrounded the sand-colored building, protecting it like a strategic jewel. But not far away, looters were relieving the National Museum of its actual jewels. Baghdad had become a carnival of looting. A few dozen Iraqis who worked at the Oil Ministry were gathered outside the American cordon, and one of them, noting the protection afforded his workplace and the lack of protection everywhere else, remarked to me, "It is all about oil."

The issue he raised is central to figuring out what we truly pay for a gallon of gas. The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has reminded Americans that the price at the pump is only a down payment; an honest calculation must include the contamination of our waters, land, and air. Yet the calculation remains incomplete if we don't consider other factors too, especially what might be the largest externalized cost of all: the military one. To what extent is oil linked to the wars we fight and the more than half-trillion dollars we spend on our military every year? We are in an era of massive deficits, so it pays to know what we are paying for and how much it costs.

The debate often hovers at a sandbox level of did-so/did-not. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, insisted the invasion of Iraq had "nothing to do with oil." But even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, rejected that line. "It is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows," Greenspan wrote in his memoir. "The Iraq war is largely about oil." If it is even partly true that we invade for oil and maintain a navy and army for oil, how much is that costing? This is one of the tricky things about oil, the hidden costs, and one of the reasons we are addicted to the substance -- we don't acknowledge its full price.

If we wish to know, we can. An innovative approach comes from Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University who in April published a peer-reviewed study on the cost of keeping aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from 1976 to 2007. Because carriers patrol the gulf for the explicit mission of securing oil shipments, Stern was on solid ground in attributing that cost to oil. He had found an excellent metric. He combed through the Defense Department's data -- which is not easy to do because the Pentagon does not disaggregate its expenditures by region or mission -- and came up with a total, over three decades, of $7.3 trillion. Yes, trillion.

And that's just a partial accounting of peacetime spending. It's far trickier to figure out the extent to which America's wars are linked to oil and then put a price tag on it. But let's assume that Rumsfeld, in an off-the-record moment of retirement candor, might be persuaded to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq was somewhat related to oil. A 2008 study by Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University budget expert Linda Bilmes put the cost of that war -- everything spent up to that point and likely to be spent in the years ahead -- at a minimum of $3 trillion (and probably much more). Again, trillion.

Of course we would have to wait a long time before finding a PowerPoint presentation in the Pentagon or White House (no matter the party in power) on defense spending for oil. Just as cuts to Social Security are a third rail, an accounting of oil-related military spending is nearly unheard of in the halls of power. For politicians and generals, it is a slippery slope: Speak too loudly on the subject, and they risk undercutting the we-only-want-to-make-the-world-a-better-place notion of U.S. foreign policy. It's easier to let the debate idle at vague rhetoric rather than hard numbers.

You would have to go back nearly 20 years to get anything on the subject from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. government that in 1991 estimated that between 1980 and 1990 the United States spent a total of $366 billion to defend oil supplies in the Middle East. The GAO report was just a snapshot of one region in a limited time frame a long time ago when America was not fighting a major war there or elsewhere. The study would have been a good start if it had been followed by other studies that went deeper and further, but that didn't happen (see Hot Potato, Department of).

So it has fallen to a cottage industry of out-of-government experts like Stiglitz and Stern to examine metrics that measure oil's connections to not just war but corruption and poverty. These experts include Paul Collier of Oxford University, who wrote The Bottom Billion, as well as Michael Ross at UCLA, Michael Watts at UC Berkeley, Ian Gary at Oxfam, and Sarah Wykes, formerly with the NGO Global Witness. Their areas of expertise -- economics, geography, political science, corruption -- as well as the metrics on which they focus, are similar to the unconventional backgrounds and ideas of the experts whom Gen. David Petraeus called on to rethink the metrics and practice of counterinsurgency.

Oil has yet to find its Petraeus; it remains a badly quantified problem. The abstraction of global warming, the pity of oil-soaked pelicans, even battlefield deaths in Iraq -- these have not occasioned real changes in our addiction to all things petroleum. The United States consumes more gasoline today than on the day Iraq was invaded and the day of the BP accident. If I had a dollar for every time a politician said, as President Barack Obama did in his Oval Office energy speech in June, "The time to embrace a clean energy future is now," I could build a wind farm. An honest accounting would do a lot more than tired platitudes because it would force us to confront the hidden costs that we don't see at the pump. And after all, the best way to get the attention of consumers is through their pocketbooks.



Straight Outta Kandahar

What soldiers fighting the Taliban can learn from cops policing American inner cities.

If the insurgency raging in Afghanistan seems foreign, wildly complex, and virtually impossible to defeat, consider this: Police and community groups working together in some of America's most dangerous inner cities have successfully engaged, calmed, and sometimes reformed armed groups that have striking parallels to the Taliban.

Innovative tactics being employed in more than four dozen U.S. cities could have a place in America's most daunting overseas conflict. As part of their counterinsurgency training, Camp Pendleton Marines are already embedding with LAPD cops, learning how to better interact with the civilian populace and respond to their security concerns.

Americans often think of the Afghan insurgents as fanatical holy warriors, hiding out in caves and reliant upon donations from ideological supporters to finance their operations. But in their day-to-day street-level activities, the Taliban are surprisingly similar to a more familiar breed: They resemble violent gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, or the Latin American network Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13.

It's not just that all these groups engage in violence and fund their activities through organized crime, including drug trafficking and extortion. There are also striking similarities in the way they are loosely structured and the narratives they use to justify their violent and criminal behavior.

The American media typically refer to the Taliban as if it were a singular, monolithic organization, which, like the Iraqi army, has a defined command structure, identifiable bases of operation, and a unified leadership. But insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan are more like a loose network of armed groups and gangs. And whether they're in South-Central LA or Marja, such violent groups generally lack identifiable hierarchies, and what hierarchies do exist don't actually control very much.

Furthermore, most gang activity is local, personal, and capricious. There may be leaders, like the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar, but the allegiance of cliques or factions ostensibly under their command is often fleeting at best.

In the United States, cliques in the same gang family often fight amongst themselves -- sometimes over who has the right to conduct business in a particular neighborhood, and often in "beefs" that are really about respect or the lack of it. There are similar patterns of infighting in Afghanistan between factions of the Taliban that are ostensibly allied. As with gang members in the United States, many if not most of the Taliban foot soldiers are locals in the communities where they're based. And like in the United States, there aren't actually that many of them relative to the population of the areas where they operate; it takes just a handful of violent actors to terrorize a whole community.

But the most critical parallel may be the similar type of narratives that violent groups use to justify their activities. In violence-wracked African American communities, it's widely whispered that police are part of a conspiracy to destroy the black community, that the Central Intelligence Agency invented crack, and that Washington floods these neighborhoods with drugs as an excuse to put young African-American men in jail. All too often, this narrative makes community members reluctant to work with police, choosing instead to quietly suffer crime and violence.

"No one likes to say it, but the issue is soaked in race," says David Kennedy, a crime-control specialist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, whose innovative programs to reduce inner-city violence are being applied in about 50 American cities through the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC). "And when we discussed race in the context of a core community issue, like reducing violence, we found we could make progress because everybody wanted the same thing."

In Afghanistan, the issue is soaked in Islam. The Taliban narrative echoes the gang narrative in African-American communities: U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world as part of a conspiracy to destroy the religion; Afghan women are being turned into sex slaves at U.S. bases; CIA agents are smuggling heroin to fund U.S. military operations; and Washington uses the drug trade and al Qaeda as an excuse to incarcerate thousands of young Muslim men around the globe.

"In a very real way, we need to deal with the ideas that motivate people in these kinds of groups," Kennedy says. "We need to challenge the dumb ideas that are driving their behavior."

And, he says, we need to challenge the dumb ideas that drive official engagement with such communities. In the United States that meant breaking a misguided narrative among law enforcement: that gang members engaged in violence for no reason, that the community lacked moral backbone and didn't really want to stop the problem, and that there really wasn't much of a community to partner with anyway.

I often hear similar language when American leaders discuss communities in Afghanistan. But when I speak to Afghans, they say they want safe communities, jobs, and schools for their children. The key is getting security providers to work closely with the communities.

Consider how this has worked in the United States. Kennedy helped American police forces develop a strategy, known variously as "Operation Ceasefire" or in law-enforcement jargon as "focused deterrence." Members of the community -- often mothers who lost sons to gang violence and, when possible, former gang members themselves -- gather the gang members as a group and call for an end to violence.

Local government agencies and organizations, meanwhile, offer social services such as vocational training, while police gather offenders to spell out clearly which crimes will draw which responses from law enforcement. Focused-deterrence programs in the United States have reduced homicides on average by 30 to 50 percent, according to the NNSC, with even greater declines in gang violence in some cities.

With some adaptations, focused deterrence could help engage communities and work toward reducing violence in Afghanistan as well. Ordinary Afghans in remote parts of the country will be unlikely to stand up to the Taliban on their own, but NATO forces could provide the security they need to feel safe delivering such messages. Such a program could enhance counterinsurgency tactics that seem to be succeeding in some districts of Afghanistan, while struggling in others.

Of course, Afghanistan would present its own special challenges -- chiefly, that police and local power brokers also victimize the Afghan populace, a prospect that would make it difficult to find reliable local partners in some districts. The strategy could be tested first in relatively promising areas like Nawa, where local governance is at least improving, and where there is a community already willing to engage the coalition.

Change wouldn't happen overnight, making this kind of approach a hard sell at a time when many Americans' biggest concern in Afghanistan is how to get out of it. The experience of police departments in American cities has shown there must be sustained engagement, and real commitment, for these tactics to work.

But we do share one clearly unified goal with the Afghans: A recent poll has shown that security remains the number one concern among the rural populace there, followed by unemployment and corruption. As U.S. casualty figures also climb, force protection must surely be a priority for coalition commanders too. Reducing violence on Afghanistan's streets is a simple, shared objective toward which Americans and Afghans can all agree to work.

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