The Global Economic War

The really surprising development in this context was an attack on the deepwater Bonga oilfield on 19 June 2008 by a militia group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend). The Bonga field started production in 2005, was the first of what is expected to be a series of major deepwater facilities, and is already producing a tenth of Nigeria’s entire oil output. It is operated by Shell and is 120 kilometres offshore in a location previously regarded as secure (see Neil Ford, “In Deep Water”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, August 2008).

In the assault, the paramilitaries used a number of rigid inflatable boats to attack a substantial site termed a “floating production, storage and offloading” vessel (FPSO) – a single structure that takes oil direct from the undersea wells and feeds it through to oil tankers. Because an FPSO is self-contained, oil does not have to be piped ashore to sites that would be more directly vulnerable; but in the 19 June attack the Mend militia was able to undertake a 240-kilometre round (and open-sea) journey (see Jeff Vail, “Nigeria – The Significance of the Nigeria Bonga Offshore Oil Platform Attack”, The Oil Drum, 24 June 2008). The aim appears to have been to take over the control room of the structure, possibly to extract a large ransom. This failed, but several people were injured and a US oil worker was kidnapped (though later released).

The failure of this attack to achieve its main aim does not diminish its significance, both in terms of the evolving tactics of targeting economic infrastructure, and the specific example of hitting an important part of Nigeria’s oil industry at a time of worldwide shortages and rising prices.

The broader battle

It is, again, in Afghanistan itself that this kind of targeting is having a more immediate result. The BBC report cited above described an attack against the major highway close to Kabul; but this follows a marked increase in Taliban attacks on the route into Afghanistan from Karachi across western Pakistan (see Douglas Frantz, “Taleban, Al Qaeda Unchecked in Pakistan”, Washington Independent, 14 August 2008). During the early months of 2008, numerous tankers and trucks were hit in repeated attacks close to the border, especially in and near the Khyber pass. The most spectacular was on the night of 23 March, when forty fuel-tankers were destroyed (see Sami Yousafzai, Ron Moreau & John Barry, “An Assault on Supplies”, Newsweek, 7 April 2008).

In the face of these problems, it is possible in principle for United States and other NATO forces to substantially increase patrols on the main routes. This may be a costly diversion from other aspects of their war, but could limit the capacity of militias to disrupt supplies. The problem is that there are indications of Taliban and al-Qaida militias having already thought this through, and planning to move to another area of operations.

One informed estimate suggests that as much as 90% of all of the supplies for NATO’s operations in Afghanistan are routed through the Pakistani port city of Karachi; most head for Kabul and some for Kandahar. While some high-value supplies arrive by air, and small quantities come from Russia, Karachi is the key gateway, especially for fuel (see (Syed Saleem Shahzad, “New al-Qaeda focus on NATO supplies”, Asia Times, 11 August)

The only realistic alternative would be shipment through Iranian ports such as Chabahar on the Indian Ocean coast. While Chabahar is mainly used by large dhows, it has impressive new facilities as well as a road link through eastern Iran to Afghanistan; but the Iranians have, not surprisingly, refused to consider US requests to use this route.

Karachi is not yet the centre for a major Taliban/al-Qaida operation, but the Asia Times reports that al-Qaida has established cells in the city to begin the process. With its concentrated population and vulnerable and overcrowded road system, Karachi lends itself to supply-route attacks (and especially those using suicide-bombers).

In one sense, this last aspect may be the most important one of all. The technique of targeting critical economic infrastructure is nothing new. “The asymmetry of economic war” gives numerous examples, one of the most effective being the use of economic targeting by the Provisional IRA in Britain in the 1990s. But something almost unprecedented is happening: the combination of economic targeting with suicide-attacks. The escalation in the use of suicide-bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the recognition of the vulnerability of supply-lines, make it more than possible that the two will be combined in operations in Karachi. This could be a new and unanticipated focus in 2008-09, the eighth year of the Afghanistan war. Posted by (

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