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 U.S. 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 "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 U.S. 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.
In fact, within days of the president's announcement it was reported that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. U.S. military commanders have, however, repeatedly spoken of the possibility of extending the U.S. military's stay well into the future. Just recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates let the Iraqi government know that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. taxpayers who continue to fund America's "empire of bases." As has been true in recent years, the latest U.S. 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 U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding environs will be formidable well into the future.