The U.S. is maintaining a sizable ground, air and sea force in the Persian Gulf, underscoring the need to protect oil-producing states after deposing Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and exiting a democratic Iraq in December.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region’s American military commitment, would not provide details about troop strength and placement, or the number of Air Force strike aircraft and Navy warships in the Gulf.
About 50,000 U.S. military personnel are serving in and around the Gulf. Most are aboard ship or in Kuwait. News reports from the region say 15,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Kuwait as a check against a destabilizing situation in Iraq and the threat of aggression by Iran.
The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln strike group sailed into the Gulf on Monday. Carrier contingents typically include a guided missile cruiser, two destroyers and an attack submarine.
In all, more than 30 U.S. ships and about 22,000 sailors are in the Gulf area.
The U.S. kept a similar force in the Gulf after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It operated air patrols to enforce a no-fly/no-tank zone in southern Iraq, along with Navy patrols to keep the Strait of Hormuz open.
There were some expectations that a smaller force might be needed, given that Saddam is gone, Iraq is a fledgling democracy and there is no no-fly zone to enforce.
But with Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, the oil-rich Gulf’s gateway to the rest of the world, and with Iraq at a transition point, the Pentagon is keeping “slightly more forces” in the region now than during Saddam’s pre-war rule, a military source told The Washington Times.
“We have strategic interests in preserving regional stability,” said James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “The continued presence of U.S. troops forward helps with this. We have an interest in containing Iran, and a strong defense presence helps in that objective.”
The overriding strategic consideration can be summed up in one word: oil.
“Given the projections about how much more oil the world will be consuming the next 20 years, much of this oil will be coming out of the ground in the Gulf, whether we like it or not,” Mr. Russell said. “It’s just an important part of the world for that reason alone, to say nothing of the other concerns about terrorism and nuclear proliferation.”
Over the years, the Pentagon and host nations have invested millions of dollars to set up headquarters, airfields, and logistics and training bases in the Gulf.
The infrastructure started spouting up in the 1980s, after the Iranian revolution created new security threats for oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In 1983, the Reagan administration, looking for a way to project power 8,000 miles away, established U.S. Central Command, which in turn oversaw a steady military buildup.
Today, the Gulf is akin to a mini-U.S. armed forces, with bases at Jebel Ali and Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates; Arifjan, Kuwait; and Al Udeid, Qatar - all short flying distances from Iran, should the U.S. decide to strike the Islamic republic’s nuclear sites.
The Navy’s 5th Fleet has headquarters in Bahrain. The home page of its website emphasizes the fleet’s policemen’s role.
“U.S. Naval Forces Central Command conducts persistent maritime operations to forward U.S. interests, deter and counter disruptive countries, defeat violent extremism and strengthen partner nations’ maritime capabilities in order to promote a secure maritime environment,” it states.
The 5th Fleet has nurtured a growing U.S. and international bureaucracy in Bahrain. Its Naval Support Activity is home to 6,093 military personnel and Defense Department civilians, as well as 90 individual “tenant” commands.
The neighboring Arab nations like it that way.
“The Gulf states don’t want us to leave,” Mr. Russell said. “We have been protecting them since we inherited the job from the British in the early 1970s, when the British withdrew east of Suez. These states greatly fear being politically dominated by the Iranians.
“For our part, we’ve been in an undeclared war with Iran since the ‘79 revolution. So we’re also defending forward to keep Iran from establishing a coercive political framework that would intimidate the smaller oil-producing Gulf states.”
Norman Polmar, an analyst on naval forces, said the U.S. is maintaining a robust presence after leaving Iraq and planning to leave Afghanistan in order to send a message.
“Because we are pulling out of those two countries, we want to show other countries that we’re still a major player in that region,” said Mr. Polmar, whose updated book “Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet” is due out in March.
“The other reason is to think, somehow, our forces will intimidate Iran,” he said. “I’m skeptical because I don’t think, unless [President] Obama thinks he is going to lose the election, that the current administration would do anything from a military viewpoint against Iran.”
He added: “In a couple of years, I predict it will be almost all naval forces. I think we will keep some token force ground, token force air.”