The First Resource War of the 21st Century?

by Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (Retired)

In response to the horrific terror attacks on 11 September in New York and Washington, the United States invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty - the first time a NATO member had done so. Article 5 begins: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, [other NATO members] will assist the Party or Parties so attacked…”. Yet, though certainly the most serious assaults on the heart of American financial and military power, they were clearly not military in nature; and non-state actors were involved.

With no-one admitting responsibility, the US quickly blamed the Saudi extremist Osama Bin Laden’s terror network Al Qaeda. President Bush then went further by demanding that the Taliban government of Afghanistan - where Bin Laden had built his first training camp in 1986, ten years before the Taliban gained power - hand him over. When the Taliban asked for evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement, the US - with token military support from the UK - responded with a massive bombing assault against the Taliban’s forces and centres of power, including power stations and other infrastructure.

President Bush and UK Prime Minister Blair have claimed the moral high ground. However, they have raised unachievable expectations by vowing to eradicate the Al Qaeda network, with the prospect of an endless “war” against terrorism – for which there is no agreed definition. This blank cheque comes with clear signals that the US has no intention of being constrained by the same rules as the rest of its nervous allies.

Having briefly invoked its right to self-defence under the UN Charter, the Bush administration has sought no further legal cover for its military response. This makes a mockery of the Charter’s Article 2: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”. Worse, the US has shown no interest in ideas for an international tribunal to try anyone apprehended for responsibility for the terror attacks. Had the US not resisted the establishment of an International Criminal Court in 1998, this crucial element in the struggle against terrorism would have been in place by now. Instead, on 13 November President Bush announced that he had signed a directive giving him emergency powers to order military trials for suspected international terrorists and their collaborators, bypassing the American criminal justice system, its rules of evidence and its constitutional guarantees. This applies to non-US citizens arrested anywhere in the world.

Also, despite the anthrax attacks, the US still refuses to support a protocol strengthening verification of the Biological Weapons Convention. Meanwhile, attempts to suppress dissent in the US and UK raise questions about the exact nature of “freedom, democracy and rule of law” which is being fought for – especially when key allies include corrupt, brutally undemocratic regimes which happen to have oil.

The US has used the anonymous terror attacks as a pretext for a punitive, high-tech air war to oust the undeniably unpopular Taliban, and instal a client regime in a key strategic area for wresting control of the extraction of Central Asian oil and gas from the Russians by opening the way for a pipeline south to the Arabian Sea. This raises the question: are we accomplices in the first resource war of the 21st century? What better way to reward the US arms industry, which did so much to bankroll the Republicans in the election? Other spin-offs include deferring for a few more years the day when the US must wean itself off its dependence on oil; and pressing forward with the globalisation of trade, which until 11 September was under serious threat from the anti-globalisation movement. There is even talk of Bush deliberately calling the terror attacks a “war” in order to save the insurance industry, as acts of war are not covered; and as a pretext for authorising military “kangaroo courts” to “try” any suspects caught alive by US special forces.

There is also the growing risk that nuclear weapons could be used. Pakistan, with its 20-50 nuclear warheads, must be increasingly nervous about the prospect of Taliban refugees seeking revenge for President Musharraf having sided with the US against them. Osama Bin Laden is suspected of trying to obtain nuclear weapons, and also highly radioactive materials (especially plutonium) which could be scattered with conventional explosives in a "radiological bomb" to contaminate an area the size of Manhattan. The latter option is the most likely, and could cause such a large urban area to be evacuated until it could be decontaminated, which could take years.

If terrorists detonated such a weapon in a US city, pressure would grow from "hawks" for the US to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Alternatively, if Osama Bin Laden is found in one of his deeply buried hideouts in the Hindu Kush, but conventional munitions fail to dislodge him and special forces are repulsed with heavy casualties, pro-nuclear experts could press hard for use of low-yield nuclear weapons.

However, a recent Federation of American Scientists report ( challenged Los Alamos claims that low-yield nuclear weapons could neutralise deeply buried targets. It cited evidence from tests that the currently operational B61-11 nuclear weapon penetrated only 20 feet into dry earth. Moreover, deeper penetration is impossible because the weapon casing could not be made strong enough to withstand the impact and temperatures involved; low-yield warheads are too sensitive to the massive shock; and the heavy radioactive fallout could not be contained.

The report condemned as irresponsible those who are pressing for "small" nuclear weapons to be threatened for such use, or in retaliation for a terror attack with weapons of mass destruction. In 1998, General Lee Butler, Commander-in-Chief US Strategic Command in charge of all strategic nuclear weapons from 1992-94, said: "In a single act, we would martyr our enemies, alienate our friends, give comfort to the non-declared nuclear states and impetus to states who seek such weapons covertly." Both Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell are also known to have ruled out use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf War.

If there is a hidden agenda, then what are the prospects for peace with justice in the world? What we see is a growing gulf between ends and means. Far from tackling the causes of terrorism, the US strategy of military punishment – inevitably causing “collateral damage” to innocent civilians - risks fomenting an endless supply of desperate fanatics with a deep hatred of the West. In previous terror attacks in the US, the response had been like that of all other democratic governments: to treat it as a criminal act, hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to trial without making them martyrs. In the case of the British government having to deal with Irish terrorism, it has also pursued ways to remove the motivation, which is the only durable solution.