LATimes: US may be in retreat overall

Rohit Khare rohit at
Sun Apr 20 16:28:01 PDT 2003

This is an excellent counterpoint to the NYT story today about the four  
US bases we may end up with in Iraq. Nobody's talking about a long-term  
island-of-America presence within these societies like Germany and  
Japan had.

It is hard to imagine the scale and scope of Pentagon activity around  
the world. This is a nice decadal-perspective view.


Retreat Is Part of U.S. Strategy
A financial drain and Arab sensibilities are driving military cuts in  
the Middle East.

By Esther Schrader, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON --                   With the threat of Saddam Hussein all  
but extinguished and Arab suspicions of American intentions running  
deep, senior administration officials say the U.S. military has begun  
taking steps to significantly reduce its presence in much of the Middle  

Last week's quiet removal of 30 of the 80 fighter jets and almost half  
the 4,500 personnel from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where the U.S.  
has maintained thousands of troops since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, is  
just the beginning, officials said.

Within months, the Pentagon plans to close down most of its operations  
at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, leaving only a skeleton  
crew, and to move most of its aircraft and troops out of Qatar and Oman.

  The plans, which are preliminary and subject to review, are a response  
to pressure from Arab governments incensed by the U.S. military buildup  
in the region over the last 12 years, the financial burden of  
maintaining vast numbers of troops overseas and the strain it has  
caused for families and military readiness.

"One of the unstated goals of the [Iraq] war was to be able to lance  
that boil and get out of this steady state of a very high-level  
commitment of forces in an area where that not only wears out the  
force, but causes all sorts of political problems," said retired Army  
Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, who commanded U.S. forces in the Mideast from 1991  
to 1994 and helped negotiate agreements to base U.S. troops throughout  
the region after the Gulf War.

"The [Iraq] war has always been envisioned as a way to get out of the  
need to have forces in place designed to protect against an immediate  
assault," he said.

The plans are in line with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's goal  
of transforming the military into an agile, more easily deployed force.

By cutting back on costly overseas deployments in places such as Saudi  
Arabia, where the Pentagon has spent more than $1 billion a year for  
much of the last decade, Rumsfeld hopes to have more money for new  
technologies to modernize the armed forces.

In Europe, the Pentagon is reviewing its big military contingents in  
countries such as Germany and has discussed replacing them with smaller  
units in Romania, Poland and Bulgaria that could jump rapidly into hot  

The decision to shrink what the Pentagon calls its footprint in the  
Middle East does not, for now, affect the more than 160,000 U.S. troops  
in Iraq. Pentagon officials said recently that the military plans to  
maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq for at least a year and  
probably longer.

And Defense and State department officials have been relatively open  
about their hopes of using the U.S. presence in Iraq as a stabilizing  
force throughout the region.

Since the buildup preceding the Gulf War to drive Hussein's forces from  
Kuwait, the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region has been  
the subject of increasing tension. Anger at U.S. troops in the area --  
particularly in Saudi Arabia, home of Islam's two holiest sites --  
helped fuel the terrorist activity that led to the Sept. 11 attacks.  
Osama bin Laden has repeatedly called for their removal from his  

"There's a certain focused hostility in Saudi Arabia to the presence of  
U.S. troops on Saudi soil, and, to the extent you can change that, you  
may be able to change some of the dynamic of tensions to U.S. presence  
around the Arab world," said Jon Alterman, a former member of the  
policy planning staff at the State Department.

"It would not make them start singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' but  
it would remove or lessen a major irritant to U.S.-Saudi or, more  
broadly, U.S.-Arab relations."

Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, suggested that a  
change of the troops' status is only natural in the wake of the Iraq  

"This is more of a military question, and should be directed to the  
Ministry of Defense. But what I know is that after the war in Iraq, a  
new reality has emerged, which is bound to reflect on this question,"  
he told The Times. "Prince Sultan base was basically used for  
monitoring the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. One would assume that this  
will change."

Saad Fagih, a leader of the London-based Saudi opposition, which has  
been critical of U.S. troops in the kingdom, said he believes the U.S.  
waited until after the war to save face.

"They have said that they are aware that the presence of their forces  
is dangerous to them and gives Bin Laden and people like him an excuse  
to go on arguing against not only America, but also against the Saudi  
regime being a traitor to religion and the country.

"So they said, 'If we remove our forces now, they will say Americans  
are cowards, they're just responding to Bin Laden's call. But if we  
remove the official cause of the forces, which is surveillance of the  
no-fly zones, then we have an excuse to say we are now reducing our  
forces. And if we succeed in our campaign in Iraq, nobody will say we  
are cowards. We do this decision with confidence, not with fear.' "

Even before the buildup for last month's invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon  
had 20,000 to 25,000 troops and more than 200 aircraft deployed to the  
Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, Central Asia and surrounding waters. If the  
Pentagon follows through on its plans, that number could shrink by more  
than 12,000 people and more than 100 aircraft within the year, Defense  
officials said.

Weaponry and equipment stored for years in warehouses in Kuwait are  
likely to remain, officials said last week. A small number of U.S.  
troops will remain in Kuwait, which has been spending more than $200  
million a year to maintain a U.S. military presence on its territory,  
and wants at least some U.S. troops to remain, officials said. But the  
Army battalion that has been deployed there since the early 1990s is  
likely to move out, Defense officials said.

A skeleton force of U.S. military aircraft and their crews will remain  
at air bases in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Other troops will  
rotate into the region regularly to conduct military exercises and  
maintain the United States' ability to deploy to emerging trouble spots  
in the region.

But the multibillion-dollar operations in Turkey and Saudi Arabia and  
the vast buildup of ground troops in Kuwait will soon be history. So  
too will much of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, where the  
Pentagon refurbished and flew out of former Soviet air bases to support  
the war in Afghanistan.

Left to take a primary role in future U.S. missions in the region will  
be the aircraft carriers and other surface ships that ply area waters  
and the 4,500 sailors of the Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

The Pentagon has been publicly circumspect about its plans for the  
region. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen.  
Richard B. Myers, hinted Tuesday at the changes when he told a group of  
Arab reporters at the Foreign Press Club in Washington that the future  
of bases in the Persian Gulf "is being looked at."

"Clearly, one of the reasons we had U.S. forces in the region prior to  
this was to enforce the [no-fly zones] in Iraq," Myers said.

"And so those forces that were in Turkey for that purpose, they've  
already returned home. You know we had forces in Saudi Arabia and  
Kuwait as well. And clearly, they're not going to be needed in the  
future for that. So that's all going into the examination of this, and  
I think that sometime here in the fairly near future, we'll be able to  
publicly talk about what kind of U.S. footprint would be in the region."

The number of U.S. troops and ships operating in the Middle East went  
up and down periodically for decades -- up in 1980 after the fall of  
the shah of Iran, then down in the late 1980s with the end of the Cold  

But not until Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 did the permanent U.S.  
military presence in the region swell to tens of thousands of troops  
stocked with tons of weaponry and equipment at air bases, ports,  
warehouses and barracks in more than a dozen countries.

"Prior to the Gulf War, our presence in the region was really primarily  
just a naval presence," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was  
responsible for U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and  
Central Asia from 1997 to 2000.

"After the Gulf War, we wanted to create a set of circumstances where  
we could limit Saddam's movements in the country and not allow him to  
attack dissident elements," Zinni said. "Today, with the fall of  
Hussein, there's going to be a new environment and it's going to  
require new strategic thinking, new security structures out there. It's  
going to require new relationships, and we probably don't need those  
large assets at Incirlik, in Saudi and elsewhere in the region."

In practice, a defense official said, "this all means that Prince  
Sultan is going to be emptied out of permanently deployed forces, and  
we're probably going to get out of Incirlik too, while maintaining the  
connections that allow us to move back in if we need to."

At Incirlik, nearly all of the 80 U.S. warplanes that have been flying  
missions over Iraq daily for years wll be redeployed, along with 4,500  
military personnel.

At Prince Sultan Air Base, 50 miles south of Riyadh, the Saudi capital,  
most of the 4,200 U.S. service members and 70 to 80 airplanes whose  
mission was to patrol southern Iraq's no-fly zone will begin leaving  
within the year, defense officials said.

The Pentagon opened a high-tech Combined Air Operations Center at the  
base in June 2001 that served as the command post for the air campaign  
in Afghanistan. The vast majority of U.S. forces in the country are Air  
Force personnel.

And the Saudi government, while publicly decrying the U.S. military  
presence in its country, has quietly invested hundreds of millions of  
dollars in improving the base for U.S. troops, building a housing  
complex, a gymnasium and recreation and health centers, and has dished  
out an undisclosed amount of money to help feed and supply U.S. troops  
at the air base and more than half a dozen other military facilities to  
help counter the Iraqi threat.

The Pentagon is likely to maintain access to the base and to use it  
with some frequency for military exercises, and it probably will keep  
equipment there and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, defense officials said.

The cutbacks in the region will not affect the U.S. naval presence in  
Bahrain, which dates back almost 50 years, former defense officials and  
military analysts said. The ships and fleet headquarters there have  
been welcomed by the Bahrain government, even as their numbers have  
increased since 1990.

Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to  
this report.

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