The United States is planning a significant military presence of 13,500 troops in Kuwait to give it the flexibility to respond to sudden conflicts in the region as Iraq adjusts to the withdrawal of American combat forces and the world nervously eyes Iran, according to a congressional report.
The study by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee examined the US relationship with the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) against a fast-moving backdrop.
In just the last few days, Saudi Arabia’s ruler named Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz as the country’s new crown prince after last week’s death of Prince Naïf, and Kuwait’s Emir suspended parliament meetings for a month over an internal political feud.
The latest developments inject even more uncertainty as the Middle East deals with the demands of the Arab Spring, the end to US combat operations in Iraq at the end of 2011, fears of Iran’s nuclear program and the counterterrorism campaign.
“Home to more than half of the world’s oil reserves and over a third of its natural gas, the stability of the (Arabian) Gulf is critical to the global economy. However, the region faces a myriad of political and security challenges, from the Iranian nuclear program to the threat of terrorism to the political crisis in Bahrain,” the report said.
The report, obtained by AP in advance of its release, provided precise numbers on US forces in Kuwait, a presence that Pentagon officials have only acknowledged on condition of anonymity.
Currently, there are about 15,000 US forces in Kuwait at Camp Arifjan, Ali Al Salem Air Base and Camp Buehring, giving the United States staging hubs, training ranges and locations to provide logistical support. The report said the number of troops is likely to drop to 13,500.
As it recalibrates its national security strategy, the United States is drawing down forces in Europe while focusing on other regions, such as the Middle East and Asia.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said he envisions about 40,000 troops stationed in the Middle East region after the withdrawal from Iraq. By comparison, a cut of two Army combat brigades and the withdrawal of two other smaller units will leave about 68,000 troops in Europe.
During the 1991 Gulf War, some half a million US forces were in the Middle East region. The United States maintained about 5,000 troops in Kuwait from the end of the Gulf War to March 2003, when U.S. and coalition forces invaded Iraq to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. The US-led invasion was in response to reports, later discredited, that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction.
The 37-page report raises questions about how the United States can leverage its financial aid to force change in the Middle East. Late last year, two Democrats – Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rep Jim McGovern of Massachusetts – opposed the US sale of spare parts and equipment to Bahrain, arguing that the ruling Sunni Monarchy was violating human rights and using excessive force to crack down on protests.
The State Department went ahead earlier this year with the sale of some military equipment, saying it was for Bahrain’s external defense and support for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is based in the country. Bahrain stands as a strategic ally to counter Iran.
The report said the Unites States “should not be quick to rescind security assurances or assistance in response to human rights abuses but should evaluate each case on its own merits.
US government officials should use these tools to advance human rights through careful diplomacy … The United States should make clear that states must not use arms procured from the United States against their own people engaged in peaceful assembly or exploit the US security umbrella as protection for belligerent action against their neighbors”.
The report also recommended that the United States promote the development of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League while strengthening bilateral links to the six countries; seek opportunities for burden-sharing on operations such as missile defense, combat air patrol and maritime security; and push for the integration of Iraq into the Arab fold.
The report emphasized that the region is critical as a counterbalance to Iran, whose conventional military includes 350,000 ground forces, 1,800 tanks and more than 300 fighter aircraft. It also has ballistic missiles with the range to target regional allies, including Israel.
Source: Kuwait Times; AP