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Twenty-First Century Blowback?

As prospects dim in Iraq, the Pentagon digs in deeper around the Middle East.

| Tue Nov. 16, 2010 6:18 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The construction projects are sprouting like mushrooms: walled complexes, high-strength weapons vaults, and underground bunkers with command and control capacities—and they're being planned and funded by a military force intent on embedding itself ever more deeply in the Middle East.

If Iran were building these facilities, it would be front-page news and American hawks would be talking war, but that country's Revolutionary Guards aren't behind this building boom, nor are the Syrians, Lebanon's Hezbollah, or some set of al-Qaeda affiliates. It's the US military that's digging in, hardening, improving, and expanding its garrisons in and around the Persian Gulf at the very moment when it is officially in a draw-down phase in Iraq.

On August 31st, President Obama took to the airwaves to announce "the end of our combat mission in Iraq." This may, however, prove yet another "mission accomplished" moment. After all, from the lack of a real Iraqi air force (other than the US Air Force) to the fact that there are more American troops in that country today than were projected to be there in September 2003, many signs point in another direction.

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In fact, within days of the president's announcement it was reported that the US military was pouring money into improving bases in Iraq and that advance elements of a combat-hardened armored cavalry regiment were being sent there in what was politely dubbed an "advise and assist" (rather than combat) role. On September 13th, the New York Times described the type of operations that US forces were actually involved in:

During two days of combat in Diyala Province, American troops were armed with mortars, machine guns, and sniper rifles. Apache and Kiowa helicopters attacked insurgents with cannon and machine-gun fire, and F-16's dropped 500-pound bombs.

According to the report, US troops were within range of enemy hand grenades and one American soldier was wounded in the battle.

Adhering to an agreement inked during George W. Bush's final year in office, the Obama administration has pledged to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. US military commanders have, however, repeatedly spoken of the possibility of extending the US military's stay well into the future. Just recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates let the Iraqi government know that the US was open to such a prospect. "We're ready to have that discussion if and when they want to raise it with us," he said. As the British Guardian's Martin Chulov wrote last month, "[T]he US is widely believed to be hoping to retain at least one military base in Iraq that it could use as a strategic asset in the region."

Recent events, however, have cast US basing plans into turmoil. Notably unnerving for the Obama administration was a deal reportedly brokered by Iran in which Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—whose forces had repeatedly clashed with US troops only a few short years ago—threw his support behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, currently vying for a second term in office. This was allegedly part of a regional agreement involving Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah that could leave the US military out in the cold. A source informed the Guardian that "Maliki told [his new regional partners that] he will never extend, or renew [any bases] or give any facilities to the Americans or British after the end of next year."

Even if the US was forced to withdraw all its troops from Iraq, however, its military "footprint" in the Middle East would still be substantial enough to rankle opponents of an armed American presence in the region and be a drain on US taxpayers who continue to fund America's "empire of bases." As has been true in recent years, the latest US military documents indicate that base expansion and upgrades are the order of the day for America's little-mentioned garrisons in the nations around Iraq.

One thing is, by now, clear: whatever transpires in Iraq, the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding environs will be formidable well into the future.

Middle Eastern Mega-Bases

As the "last" US combat troops withdrew from Iraq under the glare of TV lights in the dead of night and rolled toward Kuwait, there was plenty of commentary about where they had been, but almost none about where they were going.

In the Gulf War of 1991, the US military helped push Saddam Hussein's invading Iraqi army out of Kuwait only to find that 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, the US military's Camp Arifjan, which grew exponentially as the Iraq War ramped up, sits 30 miles south of the refurbished royal complex and houses about 15,000 US troops. They have access to all the amenities of strip-mall America, including Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Hardees, Subway, and Burger King. The military talks little about its presence at Arifjan, but Army contracting documents offer clues about its intentions there. A recent bid solicitation, for example, indicated that, in the near future, construction would begin there on additional high strength armory vaults to house "weapons and sensitive items."

In addition to Camp Arifjan, US military facilities in Kuwait include Camps Buehring and Virginia, Kuwait Naval Base, Ali Al Salem Air Base, and Udairi Range, a training facility near the Iraqi border. The US military's work is also supported by a Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) distribution center in Kuwait, located not on a US base but in the Mina Abdulla industrial zone about 30 miles south of Kuwait City.

Unlike other DLA hubs, which supply US garrisons around the world, the Kuwaiti facility is contractor owned and operated. Made up of a walled compound spanning 104 acres, the complex contains eight climate-controlled warehouses, each covering about four acres, one 250,000-square-foot covered area for cargo, and six uncovered plots of similar size for storage and processing needs.

Typical of base upgrades in Kuwait—some massive, some modest—now on the drawing boards, recent contracting documents reveal that the Army Corps of Engineers intends to upgrade equipment at Kuwait Naval Base for the maintenance and repair of ships. In fact, the Department of Defense has already issued more than $18 million in construction contracts for Kuwait in 2010.

The US military also operates and utilizes bases and other facilities in the nearby Persian Gulf nations of Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.

During the 1930s, the British Royal Air Force operated an airfield on Oman's Masirah Island. Today, the US Air Force and members of other service branches have settled in there, operating from the island as well as other facilities by special agreement with the sultanate. The Air Force is also supported in Oman by "War Reserve Materiel" storage and maintenance facilities, operated by defense contractor Dyncorp, in Seeb, Thumrait, and Salalah Port.

From 2001 to 2010, the US military spent about $32 million on construction projects in Oman. In September, the Army upped the ante by awarding an $8.6 million contract to refurbish the Royal Air Force of Oman's air field at Thumrait Air Base.

US efforts in Bahrain are on a grander scale. This year, the US Navy broke ground on a mega-construction project to develop 70 acres of waterfront at the port at Mina Salman. Scheduled for completion in 2015, the complex is slated to include new port facilities, barracks for troops, administrative buildings, a dining facility, and a recreation center, among other amenities, with a price tag of $580 million.

There are similar expenditures in neighboring Qatar. In 1996, lacking an air force of its own, Qatar still built Al Udeid Air Base at a cost of more than $1 billion with the goal of attracting the US military. It succeeded. In September 2001, US aircraft began to operate out of the facility. By 2002, the US had tanks, armored vehicles, dozens of warehouses, communications and computing equipment, and thousands of troops at and around Al Udeid. In 2003, the US moved its major regional combat air operations center out of Saudi Arabia and into neighboring Qatar where the government was ready to spend almost $400 million on that high-tech command complex.

From then on, Al Udeid Air Base has served as a major command and logistics hub for US regional operations including its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, the Pentagon awarded a $52 million contract to further upgrade its airfield capabilities, a $44 million deal to upgrade other facilities there, and a $6 million contract for expanded warehousing capacity. Nor does the building boom there show any signs of abating. A report by the Congressional Research Service issued earlier this year noted:

The Obama administration requested $60 million in FY2010 military construction funds for further upgrades to US military facilities in Qatar as part of an ongoing expansion and modernization program that has been underway since 2003 at a cost of over $200 million. The administration's FY2011 military construction request for Qatar is $64.3 million.

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