Out of Iraq, Into the Gulf

As Washington talks Iraq withdrawal, the Pentagon builds up bases in the region.

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 3:16 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Despite recent large-scale insurgent suicide bombings that have killed scores of civilians and the fact that well over 100,000 US troops are still deployed in that country, coverage of the US war in Iraq has been largely replaced in the mainstream press by the (previously) "forgotten war" in Afghanistan. A major reason for this is the plan, developed at the end of the Bush years and confirmed by President Obama, to draw down US troops in Iraq to 50,000 by August 2010 and withdraw most of the remaining forces by December 2011.

Getting out of Iraq, however, doesn't mean getting out of the Middle East. For one thing, it's likely that a sizeable contingent of US forces will remain garrisoned on several large and remotely situated US bases in Iraq well past December 2011. Still others will be stationed close by—on bases throughout the region where, with little media attention since the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, construction to harden, expand, and upgrade US and allied facilities has gone on to this day.

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Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee early this year, General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), stated: "The Arabian Peninsula commands significant US attention and focus because of its importance to our interests and the potential for insecurity." He continued:

"[T]he countries of the Arabian Peninsula are key partners... CENTCOM ground, air, maritime, and special operations forces participate in numerous operations and training events, bilateral and multilateral, with our partners from the Peninsula. We help develop indigenous capabilities for counter terrorism; border, maritime, and critical infrastructure security; and deterring Iranian aggression. As a part of all this, our FMS [Foreign Military Sales] and FMF [Foreign Military Financing] programs are helping to improve the capabilities and interoperability of our partners' forces. We are also working toward an integrated air and missile defense network for the Gulf. All of these cooperative efforts are facilitated by the critical base and port facilities that Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE [United Arab Emirates], and others provide for US forces."

In fact, since 2001 the Pentagon has been pouring significant sums of money into the "critical base and port facilities" mentioned by the general—both US sites and those of its key regional partners. These are often ignored facts-on-the-ground, which signal just how enduring the US military presence in the region is likely to be, no matter what happens in Iraq. Press coverage of this long-term infrastructural build-up has been remarkably minimal, given the implications for future conflicts in the oil heartlands of the planet. After all, Washington is sending tremendous amounts of military materiel into autocratic Middle Eastern nations and building-up bases in countries whose governments, due to domestic public opinion, often prefer that no publicity be given to the growing American military "footprint."

Given that the current conflict with al-Qaeda stemmed, in no small part, from the US military presence in the region, the issue is obviously of importance. Nonetheless, coverage has been so poor that much about US military efforts there remains unknown. A review of US government documents, financial data, and other open-source material by TomDispatch, however, reveals that an American military building boom yet to be seriously scrutinized, analyzed, or assessed is underway in the Middle East.

Consider, then, what we can at present know now about this Pentagon build-up, country by country from Qatar to Jordan, and while you're reading, think about what we don't know—and why Washington has chosen this path.

Qatar: The Pentagon's Persian Gulf Pentagon

In 1996, although it had no air force of its own, the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar built Al Udeid Air Base at a cost of more than $1 billion. The goal: attracting the US military. In September 2001, US aircraft began to operate out of the facility. By 2002, tanks, armored vehicles, dozens of warehouses, communications and computing equipment, and thousands of troops were based at and around Al Udeid.  In 2005, the Qatari government spent almost $400 million to build a cutting-edge regional air operations center.

Today, Qatar is all but indispensable to the US military. Just recently, for example, Central Command redeployed 750 personnel from its Tampa, Florida headquarters to its new forward headquarters at Al Udeid to test its "staff's ability to seamlessly transition command and control of operations… in the event of a crisis in the CENTCOM area of responsibility or a natural disaster in Florida."

Qatar has not, however, picked up the whole tab for the expanding US military infrastructure in the country. The Pentagon has also been investing large amounts of money in upgrading facilities there for the last decade. From 2001-2009, the US Army, for example, awarded $209 million in contracts for construction in the energy-rich emirate. In August, Rizzani de Eccher, an Italian engineering and construction giant, signed a $44 million deal with the Pentagon to replace an unspecified facility at Al Udeid. In September, the Department of Defense (DoD) awarded Florida-based IAP Worldwide Services a $6 million contract for "construction of a pre-engineered warehouse building... warehouse bay and related site work and utilities" at the base.

Later in the month, American International Contractors, a global construction firm that specializes in "US-funded Middle East and African infrastructure projects," inked a deal for nearly $10 million to build a Special Operations Forces Training Range, complete with "a two-story shooting house, an indoor range, breach and storage facilities[,] a test fire bunker and bunker road" in Qatar. Just days after that, the Pentagon awarded a $52 million contract to Cosmopolitan–EMTA JV to upgrade the capacity of Al Udeid's airfield by building additional aircraft parking ramps and fuel storage facilities.

Bahrain Base's and Kuwait's Subways

In nearby Bahrain—a tiny kingdom of 750,000 people—the US stations up to 3,000 personnel, in addition to regular visits by the crews of Navy ships that spend time there. Between 2001-2009, the Navy awarded $203 million in construction contracts for military projects in the country. One big winner over that span has been the engineering and construction firm Contrack International. It received more than $50 million in US government funds for such projects as building two "multi-story facilities for the US Navy" complete with state-of-the-art communication interfaces and exterior landscaping.

In September 2009, the company was awarded a new $27 million deal "for the design/bid/build construction of the waterfront development program, US Naval Support Activity, Bahrain." This facility will join the Navy's undisputed crown jewel in Bahrain—a 188,000 square-foot mega-facility known as "the Freedom Souq" that houses a PX or Navy Exchange (NEX). The NEX, in turn, offers "an ice cream shop, bicycle shop, cell phone shop, tailor shop, barber and beauty shops, self-serve laundry, dry cleaning service, rug Souq, nutrition shop, video rental, and a 24/7 mini-mart," while selling everything from cosmetics and cameras to beer and wine.

Work is also going on in nearby Oman where, in the 1930s, the British Royal Air Force utilized an airfield on Masirah Island for its ventures in the Middle East. Today, the US Air Force and members of other service branches do much the same, operating out of the island's Camp Justice. From 2001-2009, the Army and Air Force each spent about $13 million on construction projects in the sultanate. Contractor Cosmopolitan-EMTA JV is now set to begin work there, too, after recently signing a $5 million contract with the Pentagon for an "Expeditionary Tent Beddown" (presumably an area meant to accommodate a potential future influx of forces). Meanwhile, in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, the US Army alone spent $46 million between 2001-2009 on construction projects.

In 1991, the US military helped to push Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. After that, however, the country's leader, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, refused to return home "until crystal chandeliers and gold-plated bathroom fixtures could be reinstalled in Kuwait City's Bayan Palace." Today, about 30 miles south of the plush palace sits another pricey complex. Camp Arifjan grew exponentially as the Iraq War ramped up, gaining notoriety along the way as the epicenter of a massive graft and corruption scandal. Today, the base houses about 15,000 US troops and features such fast-food favorites as Pizza Hut, Hardees, Subway, and Burger King.

Another facility in Kuwait that has become a major stopover point on the road to and from Baghdad is Camp Buehring. Located north of Kuwait City, near the town of Udairi, the installation is chock-a-block full of amenities, including three PXs, telephone centers, two internet cafes, Morale, Welfare and Recreation centers, a movie theater, chapel, gym, volley-ball court, basketball court, concert stage, gift shop, barber shop, jewelry store, and a number of popular eateries including Burger King, Subway, Baskin Robbins, and Starbucks.

Writing about the base recently, Captain Charles Barrett of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team remarked, "There's a USO with computers and a Café. You know the café is good because it has that little mark over the letter 'e.' Soldiers are gaming on XBOX, Play Station and Wii. There are phone banks and board games and a place where parents can read to their kids and have the DVD mailed home."

The price tag for living the big-box-base lifestyle in Kuwait has, however, been steep. From 2003 to 2009, the US Army spent in excess of $502 million on contracts for construction projects in the small, oil-rich nation, while the Air Force added almost $55 million and the Navy another $7 million. Total military spending there has been more massive still. Over the same span, according to US government data, the Pentagon has spent nearly $20 billion in Kuwait, buying huge quantities of Kuwaiti oil and purchasing logistical support from various contractors for its facilities there (and elsewhere), among other expenditures.

In 2006, for example, the international construction firm Archirodon was awarded $10 million to upgrade airfield lighting at Al-Salem and Al-Jaber, two Kuwaiti air bases used by American forces. Recently, there has also been a major scaling up of work at Camp Arifjan. In September, for example, the Pentagon awarded CH2M Hill Contractors a nearly $26 million deal to build a new communications facility on the base. Just days later, defense contractor ITT received an almost $87 million contract for maintenance and support services there.

Saudi Base Building and Jordan's US Army Training Complex

According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, "From 1950 through 2006, Saudi Arabia purchased and received from the United States weapons, military equipment, and related services through Foreign Military Sales (FMS) worth over $62.7 billion and foreign military construction services (FMCS) worth over $17.1 billion." Between 1946 and 2007, the Saudis also benefited from almost $295 million in foreign assistance funding from the US military.

From the lead up to the First Gulf War in 1990 through the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US military stationed thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia. The American presence in the kingdom—the location of some of the holiest sites in Islam—was a major factor in touching off al-Qaeda's current war with the United States. In 2003, in response to fundamentalist pressure on the Saudi government, the US military announced it was pulling all but a small number of trainers out of the country. Yet while many US troops have left, Pentagon contracts haven't—a significant portion of them for construction projects for the Saudi Arabian military, which the US trains and advises from sites like Eskan Village, a compound 20 kilometers south of Riyadh, where 800 US personnel (500 of them advisors) are based.

Between 2003-2009, the US Army awarded $559 million in contracts for Saudi construction projects. In 2009, for example, it gave a $160 million deal to construction firm Saudi Oger Limited for the construction of facilities for a Saudi mechanized brigade based at Al Hasa, a $127 million contract to Saudi Lebanese Modern Construction Co. to erect structures for the Prince Turki Bin Abdul Aziz Battalion, and an $82 million agreement to top Saudi construction firm Al-Latifia Trading and Contracting Company to build ammunition storage bunkers, possibly at the Saudi Arabian National Guard's Khashm Al An Training Area.

Additionally, military weaponry has continued to flow into Saudi Arabia by way of the Pentagon and so, too, have contracts to provide support services for that materiel. For example, earlier this year, under a US Air Force contract extension, Cubic Corporation was awarded a $9.5 million deal "to continue to operate and maintain the air combat training system used to support F-15 fighter pilot training for the Royal Saudi Air Force."

Like the Saudis, Jordan's leader, King Abdullah II, has long had a complex relationship with the US shaped by domestic concerns over US military action in the region and support for Israel. As with Saudi Arabia, none of that has stopped the US military from forging ever closer ties with the kingdom.

Recently, after testing and evaluating various training systems at multiple US Army bases, the Jordanian Armed Forces selected Cubic's combat training center system and under the auspices of the US Army, the company was "awarded an $18 million contract to supply mobile combat training center instrumentation and training services to the Kingdom of Jordan."

The Pentagon has also invested in Jordanian military infrastructure. Between 2001-2009, the Army awarded $86 million in contracts for Jordanian construction projects. One major beneficiary was again Archirodon which, between 2006-2008, worked on the construction of the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC)—a state-of-the-art military and counter-terrorism training facility owned and operated by the Jordanian government but built, in part, under a $70 million US Army contract. In 2009, Archirodon was awarded two additional contracts for $729,000 and $400,000, by the Air Force, for unspecified work in Jordan.

When that 1,235-acre $200 million Jordanian training center was unveiled earlier this year, King Abdullah II himself gave the inaugural address, speaking "of his vision for KASOTC as a world-class special forces training center." Not surprisingly, General Petraeus was also on hand to give a speech in which he lauded Jordan as "a key partner... [which] has placed itself at the forefront of police and military training for regional security forces."

Garrisoning the Gulf

Even as it lurches toward a quasi-withdrawal from Iraq, the US military has been hunkering down and hardening its presence elsewhere in the Middle East with little fanfare or press coverage. There has been almost no discussion in this country of a host of possible repercussions that might come from this, ranging from local opposition to the US military's presence to the arming of undemocratic and repressive regimes in the region. With the sole exception of Iran, the US military has fully garrisoned the nations of the Persian Gulf with air bases, naval bases, desert posts, training centers, and a whole host of other facilities, while also building up the military capacity of nearby Jordan.

The CIA efforts to topple Iran's government in the 1950s, Washington's support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s, the Pentagon's troop presence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s—all were considered canny geopolitical moves in their time; all had unforeseen and devastating consequences. The money the Pentagon has recently been pouring into the nations of the Persian Gulf to bulk up base infrastructure has only tied the US ever more tightly to the region's autocratic, often unpopular regimes, while further arming and militarizing an area traditionally considered unstable. The Pentagon's Persian Gulf base build-up has already cost Americans billions in tax dollars. What the costs in "blowback" will be remains the unknown part of the equation.

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