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Long-Term Prospects for the U.S. Military Presence in the Persian Gulf Region

Author: Lionel Beehner
December 9, 2005

Introduction

As the debate over drawing down U.S. forces from Iraq continues, questions have arisen about the likely configuration of a long-term U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region. Experts agree some kind of U.S. military footprint will remain in the region. The most likely scenario involves a redeployment of troops from Iraq to form a so-called quick-reaction brigade based in Kuwait or another neighboring country, enabling the U.S. to rapidly reenter and support Iraqi forces if the security situation were to deteriorate. "Kuwait's become a place d'armes for us," says Barry Posen, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seymour Hersh, writing in a recent New Yorker piece, quotes U.S. officials as saying the presence of a "special-mission unit" in the region could also be aimed at striking insurgents crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border.

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What other U.S. troops are deployed in the region?

Outside of the 140,000-plus U.S. forces deployed to fight in Iraq or support combat operations in the region, the U.S. military has more than 6,000 active troops stationed throughout the Middle East, according to the Department of Defense's own Defense Manpower Data Center. The biggest presence is in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is also headquartered, followed by Qatar, home to a large U.S. Air Force base, which has about 415 U.S. personnel; just under 400 are based in the continuing multinational observer force, created in Egypt's Sinai Desert by the Camp David Accords for Middle East peace in 1978. Another 2,000 troops, most of them U.S. Marines, are stationed on amphibious vessels in the Persian Gulf.

What is the history of U.S. troops in the region?

The United States has always kept a small presence of troops in the region stretching back to World War II. In 1955, a military base was established at Incirlik—then called Adana—in Turkey. In 1958, some 5,000 U.S. marines were briefly stationed in Lebanon during its civil war, and in 1982, Marines returned, but with tragic results. The U.S. military kept a strong naval presence in the Arabian and eastern Mediterranean Sea throughout the Cold War. In 1990, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and several neighboring countries invited American and other foreign forces onto their soil and joined in the liberation of Kuwait. U.S. and British warplanes based in Incirlik and Kuwait patrolled no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq and regularly bombed anti-aircraft sites in Iraq throughout the 1990s to protect the country's Kurdish and Shiite populations. In Saudi Arabia, U.S. troops—between 15,000-20,000 at various times—stayed on through the 1990s and right up to the launch of the Iraq war in March 2003. Most U.S. forces left Saudi soil soon after Saddam Hussein fell from power.

"Is a base in Iraq essential? No. For putting pressure on Iran and Syria, it's not necessary. We still have a presence in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Gulf," says Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute.

Does the United States plan to establish permanent bases in Iraq?

The Bush administration says it opposes establishing a permanent military presence in Iraq. In his November 31 speech in Annapolis, President Bush emphasized that more than a dozen bases had been handed over to the Iraqi forces, including Saddam Hussein's former palace in Tikrit. Experts say a permanent military base in Iraq would only undermine the U.S. attempts to democratize the region. "Is a base in Iraq essential? No. For putting pressure on Iran and Syria, it's not necessary. We still have a presence in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Gulf," says Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute. "Now, would there be American involvement if there's a truly democratic government in Iraq? I'd say not only yes, but hell yes."

What are some of the specific troop-redeployment scenarios being proposed?

Several plans have been proposed by official and nonofficial sources. Among them:

  • Strategic redeployment. This plan, devised by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, envisions redeploying large segments of the 140,000-plus troops in Iraq in two phases: 80,000 out by the end of 2006 with the remainder out by the end of 2007, leaving behind only a small contingent of Marines to guard the U.S. embassy, a few military advisers, and counterterrorist units to train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Of the first group, around 20,000 would be redeployed to support counterterrorist efforts in Afghanistan, Asia, and Africa. The reserve forces would return home and the remaining 14,000 would relocate to Kuwait or offshore in the Persian Gulf. If no timetable for withdrawal is set, Korb and Katulin argue, the Iraqi government will continue to "use the United States as a crutch."
  • Immediate pullout. This is the proposal, famously put forth by Congressman Jack Murtha (D-PA), a decorated Vietnam War veteran with thirty-seven years of Marines experience who makes frequent trips to Iraq. He claims the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is what's fueling the insurgency and favors a complete withdrawal within six months. His evidence: Attacks in Iraq have skyrocketed from 150 a week to more than 700 a week over the past year. Republicans were critical of Murtha's plans for an immediate withdrawal. Military experts, however, say such a scenario is virtually impossible, given the situation in Iraq and after a series of recent speeches by President Bush indicating he would stay the course in Iraq.
  • Phased withdrawal. This Democratic plan, first proposed by Ike Skelton (D-MO) in late October, calls for a phased withdrawal of U.S. brigades based on the progress levels of Iraqi security forces. For every three Iraqi brigades that attains a readiness rating of Level I—or fully capable to carry out counterinsurgency missions with no coalition forces support—the Pentagon would redeploy a U.S. brigade from Iraq. Not every expert supports this exit strategy. "I can't believe there's a true technical analysis that supports this [ratio]," Posen says. "It may not be implausible but it sounds like a judgment call." Others say this redeployment plan, given the slow pace of training Iraqi soldiers, would leave U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely. Over the summer, the Pentagon revealed that the number of combat-ready brigades among Iraqi forces had dropped from three to one.
  • Gradual drawdown of forces. This is the Bush administration's "as they stand up we'll stand down" proposal. After the December 15 elections in Iraq, the plan is to draw down 23,000 troops that were added in the lead-up to Iraq's election to provide additional security. Two brigades, from Kansas and Kuwait respectively, were scheduled to be sent all at once to Iraq after the elections. Instead, as Pentagon officials told the New York Times, the brigade from Kansas, comprising some 5,000 troops, will be sent to Iraq in smaller units to help train Iraqi security forces and guard important facilities. The latter brigade is expected to remain in Kuwait as a "quick-reaction brigade," though if the security situation in Iraq stabilizes after the election, soldiers may be sent home. Officials expect by the latter half of 2006 that there should be roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Is a permanent U.S. military presence in the region popular among experts?

Experts disagree on the issue. There "should not even be the perception of an American land grab," Goure says. However, Stephen Biddle, research professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, says no other country or international organization can provide the necessary security other than the United States. "We're the only show in town at the moment," he says. "If we leave, you get a region-wide conflagration." William Nash, director of Council's Center for Preventive Action, favors U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq but envisions some form of limited military presence remaining in the region. "We need to keep sufficient force in the region to ensure the survival of this government [in Iraq]," he says. "This is not a case of getting in our helicopters and saying, 'You're on your own.' The training mission will need to continue, but it doesn't mean it has to be as robust as it is now."

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