Center of American Power in the Middle East Shifts from "New Dawn"
SATURDAY OCTOBER 01, 2011
When the United States Pentagon announced changing Operation Iraqi Freedom to the more peaceful-sounding Operation New Dawn in early 2010, it was more than merely semantic. The change represented a transition from a primarily combative role on the part of the US armed forces to one of support and transition to an independent, stable Iraq. But while an economically shaken American public lauds regular reports of the slow and steady decrease in troop numbers in Iraq, recent US Department of Defense contract awards and budgetary allocations reviewed by The International indicate a substantial increase in the resources funneled from the Pentagon into Middle East operations in Kuwait, suggesting an expanding role for US military forces in the region.
The drawdown in Iraq involves numerous staging areas where troops and equipment prepare for the journey home. One such staging ground – Camp Arifjan, south of Kuwait City – grows at a pace that seems larger and more permanent than a mere withdrawal suggests. The camp houses elements of the US Marines, Air Force, Navy and Army, and has served as a center for command, communication and logistical operations throughout the Middle East.
A July report by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-partisan think tank that analyzes international security issues, reveals that vehicles and equipment processed through Kuwait are sometimes shipped back to their home base, but at other times are stored at “pre-positioning” facilities. Though it is unclear how many combat vehicles can be stored on these military bases, it is known that the Pentagon plans to have $82 million worth of permanent storage available in the coming year, according to its 2012 budget. In other words, Camp Arifjan and Ali Al Salem Air Base, both located in Kuwait and two of a few bases in the Persian Gulf that continue to operate in a growing capacity, are being primed to offer more self-sustaining capabilities, as opposed to being utilized as temporary transit hubs for equipment and military personnel from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This November, Department of Defense contractor CH2M out of Chantilly, Virginia, is due to complete a $25.7 million contract for a permanent communications facility at Arifjan. Awarded in 2009, the contract has a due date that goes beyond the ten-year mark of an agreement made with Kuwait in 2001. Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs), such as the one with the Kuwaiti government, define the auspices under which US forces are allowed to establish military bases in other countries. For example, documents from FAS indicate that the agreement with Kuwait allows for US troops on Kuwaiti soil to be governed by American law. The Kuwaiti SOFA has the distinction of being classified, and thus its contents are mostly speculated on by outsiders.
The decision of the Department of Defense to initiate defense contracts beyond the initial scope of the agreement – which some sources report originally denied US forces the right to build permanent structures in Kuwait – suggests that US Central Command (CENTCOM), the element of the American armed forces that coordinates operations throughout countries including Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, has no intention of abrogating operations in the Middle East. In the context of increasing US military operations in Pakistan and Yemen, and a perpetual operational focus on containment of the regional supremacy of Iran, Kuwait would serve as a geographically logical center for sustained military coordination in the absence of US troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, a media relations officer at CENTCOM explained to The International that the agreement with Kuwait is considered a classified “defense cooperation agreement” and therefore he could neither confirm nor deny whether the agreement has been renewed or revised to allow continued, and permanent, US military facilities to operate in Kuwait.
Investigating beyond this standard public relations statement, The International has learned of recent monetary commitments that confirm a long-term vision for the US military to substantially bolster its capabilities in the Middle East, specifically in Kuwait. On July 18, the Pentagon awarded a contract in excess of $267 million to ITT System Corporation. With a late 2015 deadline, the contract broadly covers “base operations and security support services in support of the military troops and equipment moving through the country of Kuwait,” according to the Pentagon contract award notification. This is in addition to an earlier July contract of $68 million under which ITT System Corporation will be working directly from Camp Arifjan to provide “direct theater support for southwest Asia missions.” In total, ITT System Corporation has been awarded over a half-billion dollars in US military contracts this year.
The Department of Defense has made no secret the roles played by Kuwait and Qatar in providing logistical support for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Arifjan continues to serve as a point for deploying and returning units to prepare, repair and ship their vehicles. However, with a major drawdown of forces from Iraq and talks of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the expansion of permanent facilities at Arifjan and the substantial financial investments to increase its capabilities suggests a renewed regional mission.
The combination of lucrative contracts that extend to 2015 and the Pentagon’s internal budgetary allocations suggest this mission goes beyond the shipping and receiving of resources. As the current agreement with Kuwait is classified, the massive influx of resources for American base expansions and the substantial contract awards to private defense contractors over the next several years raise important questions regarding the future role of American forces in the region, especially in the context of continued and increasing focus on Iran, Pakistan and Yemen.
A full spectrum war
Kuwait has long been considered a major non-NATO ally to the United States. Though the relationship between the two nations dates back to the 1950s, a formalized agreement came in 1991 with Operation Desert Storm, wherein the US military, in conjunction with Arab partner nations, ended the occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces. A SOFA was formalized at that time which allowed American and other forces to carry out Operation Northern Watch, the goal of which was to protect Kuwait against further hostilities from Iraq by enforcing a strict no-fly zone.
In September of 2001, Kuwait and the United States renewed their SOFA. Camp Doha – located north of Kuwait city and since turned back over to Kuwait in 2005 – served as a key staging area for the initial combat operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Throughout this time, however, the construction of transitory bases indicated the way large, multipurpose facilities can be built in a temporary fashion. In 2003, for example, Stars and Stripes reported that the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) in Kuwait, a form of shopping center for troops, had upgraded to a 10,000-square-foot, air-conditioned tent. For much of the time since Operation Desert Shield in 1990, the American presence has largely been characterized by such temporary structures set up in open areas of desert. These non-permanent systems allowed for the main command center for Operation Desert Shield, Camp Doha, to be quickly dismantled in 2006, with its pre-positioned assets split between two other bases, one of which was Camp Arifjan.
In 2008, this temporary attitude towards the American presence in Kuwait significantly changed. It was then that CENTCOM announced plans to make Kuwait a center for “full spectrum operations” covering the 20 countries where they hold military jurisdiction. This announcement came at a time when the Iranian government had just unveiled the successful launch of the Kavoshgar 1 rocket and was continuing development of the Shahab-3 missile, which successfully test-fired in July 2008 with a range of 2,000 km.
“Full spectrum operations” became a buzzword repeated throughout military publications in 2008. The phrase was loosely defined in a Stillwater NewsPress article as all military operations in a given region, including “counter-insurgency operations and construction projects.” CENTCOM’s countries of responsibility naturally include Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, but also extend towards recent sites of Middle Eastern and North African conflict, such as Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon and Egypt. According to Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace of the US Army, then commander of Army Central and Coalition Forces Land Component Command, “These commands now have a permanent responsibility to this theater. They’ll have a permanent presence here.”
Iran, Israel and the “Arab Spring”
Iran comes up frequently in foreign policy circles regarding the Middle East. FAS specialist Kenneth Katzman noted in a July Congressional Research Report that Kuwait has recently taken a hardline stance against Iran, a flashpoint of which came from the arrest of several Kuwaiti civil servants suspected of plotting to blow up Kuwaiti energy facilities. Of those arrested, two Iranians were put to death.
Historically, the United States has sold billions of dollars in arms to Kuwait. Originally, this defensive bolstering was geared towards enhancing Kuwait’s ability to repel future attacks from Iraq. In light of Saddam Hussein’s fall, however, the US has continued to arm the Kuwaiti government, giving its 17,000-strong military force a greater advantage in the Middle East, particularly in air supremacy." The United States continues to bolster Kuwait’s defense capabilities," writes Mr. Katzman, “although more so directed against Iran than against Iraq.”
Beyond Iran – perhaps the most iconic embodiment of America’s adversarial role in the Middle East – there are other broad policy agendas that can be linked to a robust US military role in the region, even as combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan decline. The Central Intelligence Agency has been active since 2004 in supporting military operations in northwest Pakistan through unmanned drone attacks. There were 117 such attacks in 2010 and over 50 so far in 2011, according to data compiled by Mr. Bill Roggio and Mr. Alexander Mayer, researchers with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
On September 1, Associated Press reported several US air strikes in Yemen killed an estimated 30 “al-Qaeda suspects,” as described by Yemeni military officials. The Yemeni government has been combating a Shi’a insurgency since 2004 – which some Yemeni officials claim is backed by Iranian elements – while attempting to quell an internal uprising stemming from January protests in the capital, Sana’a.
The uprising in Yemen, however, is simply one facet of a much larger regional upheaval, popularly referred to as the “Arab Spring,” as protest movements have toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and deadly violence continues in Syria and Bahrain. US officials are acutely aware of the uncertain future if popular uprisings are successful in reshaping the political landscape of the Middle East.
The oscillating power dynamic in the region is of no less concern to Israel, whose government exerts tremendous influence over American foreign policy. During a speech to the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) on September 6th, US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro proclaimed that “the test of every policy the Administration develops in the Middle East is whether it is consistent with the goal of ensuring Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state.” To that end, the United States regional strategy is sensitive to the interests of Israel and military build-up in Kuwait reflects those concerns. The Arab Spring has the potential to bring to power new coalitions in the Arab world, coalitions backed with populist support from the Arab street, where the emotions run high and objections to Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories are tenacious. For decades, Egypt, Syria and Jordan have been governed by rulers – Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah bin al-Hussein, respectively – who have maintained non-confrontational relations with Israel and have served as buffers between Israelis and the Arab public. The future of the Arab Spring is thus inextricably linked to the posture of Israel, and consequently, American policy in the region.
While the United States has publicly shown support for these populist movements, its relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia revolve in large part around ensuring stability in the region and rebuffing the growing influence of Iran. “In the region, there are several special relationships for the United States and one of them is with Saudi Arabia,” said Mr. Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment in an interview on June 21st. “Saudi Arabia is an incredibly important state for the United States on a range of issues from energy to defense, to Afghanistan, to the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process. At the same time, the United States is the only country that can provide the security assurances that Saudi Arabia needs.”
Is withdrawal really a withdrawal?
In light of the rapidly changing political and social environment of the Middle East, US President Barack Obama’s 2009 plan to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 appears to be an amorphism, distinct from CENTCOM’s announced full-spectrum strategy. The coincidental timing of the regional upheaval seems to have further entrenched the United States’ interest in retaining military influence in the Middle East, while withdrawal from Iraq gives the American public the opportunity to hear that combat soldiers are returning to their families.
As we reach the end of 2011, nearly $500 million in contracts have been awarded by the Pentagon for projects targeting Kuwait, with nearly $200 million going to projects at Camp Arifjan. The Pentagon’s 2012 budget repeatedly notes that items in their operations and maintenance budgets include “theater-wide support operations in Kuwait and Qatar.” As part of the same budget, the Pentagon requests nearly $170 million for pre-position stocks, nearly double the $92 million requested for 2011.
This recent flurry of activity at Camp Arifjan, and Kuwait more broadly, indicates its growing importance to the United States government. The building sense of uncertainty across the Middle East only cements the interests of the United States in retaining an active presence in the region. While one can only speculate on the over-arching operational goals, it is evident that withdrawal from Iraq, and possibly Afghanistan, is not an indication of an American draw-down from the region.
At the end of the day, Operation New Dawn seems to place a positive spin on operations that seem far from over. Though troops are departing Iraq, it is very clear that the US intends to keep large amounts of resources dedicated to support “full spectrum operations” in the region. Though a new dawn may rise in terms of Iraqi sovereignty, the growing preponderance of evidence suggests no end in sight for a war-weary American public as the US continues its sweeping militarization of the Middle East.