March 10, 2011

The Manas Boondoggle: U.S. Needs Operational Energy Strategy

Featuring Christine Parthemore

Source: World Politics Review

The story reads like a spy novel.

The setting is Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. government pays billions of dollars to a mysterious American businessman known to the public only as the owner of a burger-and-beer joint. His mission: grease the right wheels in order to purchase and transport large volumes of fuel for the U.S. military. Accusations that the Kyrgyz government took kickbacks from these shady deals lead to the toppling of its leader. The Russians, as top fuel suppliers in the region, get involved, followed by the Chinese. Relations among governments grow strained. Meanwhile, dogged journalists find that the mysterious businessman's fuel companies, registered in Gibraltar, amount to little more than mailboxes. The more the reporters dig, the more surreal the tale gets.

Unfortunately, this is not a work of fiction. It is how the United States ensured the supply of fuel to Manas, an air base critical to conducting the war in Afghanistan.

The Kyrgyz situation does not reflect failures by military logisticians, nor does it appear that the U.S. government has many better fuel-supply choices than the current arrangement. Rather, it highlights the fact that the U.S. launched wars in an era when ubiquitous petroleum availability was taken for granted and in which oversight of war spending was relaxed. More to the point, the Department of Defense lacks a long-term energy strategy, and the U.S. government, broadly speaking, lacks the capacity to address energy issues as they pertain to military operations. Given these conditions, it should be no surprise that acquiring fuel supplies is fraught with both obvious challenges and deep mysteries.

Yet, in considering how the United States will provide for the nation's security in the future, these conditions can no longer hold. The end of the era of near-total dependence on a single fuel, petroleum, is on the horizon. Belt-tightening will be the new norm in Washington. And no matter what scale and character conflicts take beyond Afghanistan, the U.S. military will need to acquire the energy to fuel its operations within a constrained budget environment.

To be sure, there is no silver bullet for fueling the U.S. military without resorting to arrangements involving unsavory and mysterious partners. A combination of efficient technologies, diversified fuel sources and proactive diplomacy will be needed. As for Washington's role, three straightforward steps are necessary to minimize future operational energy boondoggles and mitigate negative geopolitical side effects.

First, the best way to attract the public attention that this problem warrants is through congressional hearings. The House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs has been investigating this subject, but without public hearings the results of these investigations risk remaining below the radar and may not produce corrective action. The new Congress should seriously consider a more public forum upon the completion of the subcommittee's report.

The purpose of congressional hearings would not be to incriminate those responsible for the Kyrgyz fuel contracts. After all, it is likely that the current circumstances were largely unavoidable for a conflict as enduring as Afghanistan. Still, that is no excuse for replicating those conditions in the future.

Public testimony can help the nation's leaders and the Department of Defense identify lessons learned for future military operations and pinpoint where technological and diplomatic solutions could have helped. They can aid in determining measures within U.S. control to mitigate future operational fuel challenges of the magnitude the nation has faced in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the essence of our system of checks and balances, and it is a relatively productive way for Congress to examine ways to improve stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Beyond congressional oversight, the State Department can play an important role in providing energy-focused diplomacy. Several regional and functional bureaus at State currently address energy as a component of their work. But as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, released in late 2010, indicated, establishing a new department-wide Bureau for Energy Resources would significantly improve its capacity to integrate natural resource-related issues into its agenda. This office should be constituted as soon as possible, and coordination with the Department of Defense on operational energy concerns should be made a part of its mission.

Finally, the Department of Defense itself must expand its own operational energy efforts. The services have taken the laudable steps of establishing operational energy offices, and each has developed its own energy strategy. Meeting a mandate from Congress, the Office of the Secretary of Defense also established an operational energy office to focus largely on improving conditions in the current wars.

The service-specific strategies focus mostly on the near term, however, and the department still lacks a comprehensive, long-term strategy that accounts for trends in energy production, demand, reserves and prices. Given that the Defense Department procures assets -- aircraft, ships and equipment -- that will last for decades, its current lack of a broad energy strategy will affect the fueling needs of military operations long into the future. We owe it to our men and women in uniform to improve how we purchase and move fuel in future military operations. We owe it to American taxpayers to minimize the shady deals conducted in the name of protecting U.S. security interests. The way to succeed in these tasks will involve using creative diplomacy to smooth our energy relationships and ensuring that the Department of Defense has the resources it needs to identify and address its long-term energy challenges. Most important, it will require Congress to publicly examine the factors that have led us to rely on extreme measures to procure jet fuel for the war in Afghanistan.



  • Christine Parthemore