Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Economics of the Iraq Insurgency

Many countries abundant in natural resources have been development failures. This apparent paradox is sometimes called the "resource curse." In part it is attributable to the opportunities for corruption created by abundant resources and the incentives that exist for diverting effort away from productive activity into fighting - often literally - over the rents associated with resources like oil and diamonds.

The the persistence of the insurgency in Iraq may be another manifestation of the resource curse. The NY Times reports that oil money is fueling the violence:
The sea of oil under Iraq is supposed to rebuild the nation, then make it prosper. But at least one-third, and possibly much more, of the fuel from Iraq’s largest refinery here is diverted to the black market, according to American military officials. Tankers are hijacked, drivers are bribed, papers are forged and meters are manipulated — and some of the earnings go to insurgents who are still killing more than 100 Iraqis a week.

“It’s the money pit of the insurgency,” said Capt. Joe Da Silva, who commands several platoons stationed at the refinery.

Five years after the war in Iraq began, the insurgency remains a lethal force. The steady flow of cash is one reason, even as the American troop buildup and the recruitment of former insurgents to American-backed militias have helped push the number of attacks down to 2005 levels.

In fact, money, far more than jihadist ideology, is a crucial motivation for a majority of Sunni insurgents, according to American officers in some Sunni provinces and other military officials in Iraq who have reviewed detainee surveys and other intelligence on the insurgency....

“It has a great deal more to do with the economy than with ideology,” said one senior American military official, who said that studies of detainees in American custody found that about three-quarters were not committed to the jihadist ideology. “The vast majority have nothing to do with the caliphate and the central ideology of Al Qaeda.”

For more on the resource curse, see this column by Tyler Cowen in the Times last year.

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