AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — It’s a sweltering 104 degrees outside, and that’s not counting the geopolitical heat that swirls around this once-classified yet massive U.S. Air Force hub located in the heart of the Persian Gulf.
But inside, Maj. Gen. David S. Nahom’s office, atop a nondescript building housing the logistical brain of American air power stretching from the edge of Africa all the way to Afghanistan, the mood is very cool.
It has to be. This is where one of the most complex campaigns in the history of the U.S. Air Force is being orchestrated to pound Islamic State into submission — without setting off an unintentional conflict with Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces also buzzing over the battlefield.
Gen. Nahom knows this and the stone-like calm across the muscular features of his face seems only to be driven by it.
“Just to give you an idea,” he says, pausing to direct a green laser pointer toward a movie-theater-sized map of Syria and Iraq that his office looms over: “If you look right here, this is mine, every green thing is one of our airplanes.”
The vast digital screen is peppered with hundreds of green dots, and a particular glut of them is clustered around the besieged headquarters of the Islamic State in Syria. “That’s Raqqa,” said the general. “You can see that stack of airplanes right now.
“You can see the numbers up there, and then imagine Afghanistan,” he adds, driving home the sheer scope of what is being monitored and directed from Al Udeid, which is also a linchpin overseeing air operations against the Taliban some 1,100 miles to the northeast.
But as vital as it is, the American presence at the base also finds itself a pawn in a damaging diplomatic feud that has divided Qatar from Washington’s other critical Arab allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. As the Saudi camp presses the Trump administration to take its side in the dispute, the Qataris hold a crucial bargaining chip of having such a strategic U.S. military operation located inside their borders.
The base is technically Qatari property playing host to the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command. But there is little question that its sun-drenched expanses, hosting about 11,000 U.S. personnel, represent one of the U.S. military’s most enduring and most strategically positioned operations on the planet.
It’s a point Gen. Nahom and others emphasized during visit by The Washington Times — offering a sober counternarrative to speculation swirling in Washington over whether Al Udeid could prove a casualty of the diplomatic breakdown among American allies.
The feud exploded into public view in June when the Saudis and their allies launched a diplomatic and economic offensive against Qatar, reflecting what they said was the tiny, energy-rich country’s too-soft posture toward Iran and support for jihadi groups, including al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. The clash reflected a number of other personal and political vendettas, including animosity to Qatar’s ruling emir and Doha’s funding of the Arab-language news service Al-Jazeera.
While Qatar vehemently denies the charges, the Trump administration has sent mixed messages. President Trump, who made his first overseas trip as president to Riyadh to try to rally an Arab coalition against Iran, warned Qatar via Twitter that America won’t tolerate its “funding of radical ideology,” while Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has called for all sides to “sit down together” and work things out.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has assured his Qatari counterparts that everything is fine with the U.S.-Qatari “strategic relationship,” a message he backed up with a surprise visit last week to Al Udeid.
But the situation lays bare a predicament for Washington that Qatar’s rivals are eager to exploit. The UAE’s ambassador to the United States has called on Congress to “consider moving” American operations out of Al Udeid and suggested that the UAE, already the site of a key U.S. Navy port of call, also could host the air base.
Mr. Trump stoked the speculation in July by telling the Christian Broadcasting Network that “if we ever had to leave [the base], we’d have 10 countries willing to build us another one, [and] believe me, they will pay for it.”
Air Force ‘nerve center’
Here’s the catch: None of the commanders interviewed by The Times at Al Udeid in late September offered even the slightest hint that the regional diplomatic crisis has sparked consideration of packing up and leaving.
To hear Gen. Nahom tell it, the reasons are simple. “If you had to put a thumbtack on the map, you could not ask for a better strategic location,” he said of the Qatari peninsula, which juts like an appendage from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf adjacent to Iran.
There is also the “unbelievable quality in the size of the runways and ramps [here],” said the general, who serves as deputy commander of U.S. Air Force Central Command.
Sources at the Pentagon indicate that about 100 U.S. planes operate from Al Udeid. They include C-17 cargo jets and KC-135 Stratotankers, famous as the Air Force’s “flying gas stations.” An undisclosed number of B-52 bombers, which require especially long and durable runways, are here as part of Washington’s increased campaign against Islamic State.
“Al Udeid is a logistics hub,” Brig. Gen. Jason R. Armagost said in an interview at the base in September, adding that the base is prepared should the Trump administration significantly ramp up operations in Afghanistan.
“It’s a theater hub for large aircraft,” said Gen. Armagost, who heads the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, technically the largest expeditionary wing in the Air Force. “On any given day, we service Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Whereas a base in Jordan or a base in Afghanistan deals with their local tactical problem, we support … theater problems.”
But there’s something else at Al Udeid that sets the base apart from other Air Force installations around the world: a secretive facility known as the Combined Air Operations Center, or CAOC.
It’s above the CAOC that Gen. Nahom has his office. It’s also there that representatives from the vast U.S.-led global coalition to defeat Islamic State coalesce around a range of intelligence feeds to direct all air support and precision airstrikes across the 20-nation region overseen by Central Command.
Video from surveillance drones played on large screens during a September visit to the CAOC, which Pentagon literature describes as “the nerve center of the air campaign.”
A hub for allies
The center offers unique assets not lost America’s coalition partners against Islamic State. Britain’s Royal Air Force headquarters, along with about 100 British military personnel, are also based at Al Udeid.
“One of the reasons we’re [here] is because this is where the [Central Command] CAOC is,” British Air Commodore Johnny Stringer said. “Not only are my own U.K. intelligence and targeting and ops teams on the floor in the CAOC, but we also have a whole number of [other] U.K. embeds across the CAOC as well.”
The U.S. has by far the most aircraft deployed in the region. But Commodore Stringer said the CAOC allows for a level of allied military-to-military cohesion and coordination not seen in American fighting since World War II.
“No one country has got either all the ideas or all the assets; so therefore, having that exchange of ideas and the ability to mix capabilities in the air is a real strength,” he said. “What did Churchill say? ‘Coalition warfare is the worst type of warfare, until you’ve tried all the others.’ Or words to that effect. The coalition is the real strength.”
Losing the base to Arab diplomatic infighting would be a major setback.
“Qatar,” the commodore said, “has been incredibly supportive — look at what they host here.”
But the very fact that the CAOC is at Al Udeid, and that there are so many partners involved — including the Qataris, who are accused of secretly backing terrorism even as they support the U.S.-led mission against Islamic State — are causes for concern and even conspiratorial cynicism among some in the wider U.S. counterterrorism community.
“You ever wonder why ISIS and AQ leaders always seem to know when our bombs are coming? The fact that all this targeting is being run out of Qatar might explain it,” a high-level adviser to the U.S. military in the region told The Times on the condition of anonymity.
Why not Saudi Arabia?
The history of the U.S. military presence in Qatar stretches back to before Sept. 11, 2001.
It’s a history inexorably tied to the Clinton administration’s decision during the late 1990s to begin moving personnel out of Saudi Arabia following a series of nightmarish developments — most notably the 1996 terrorist bombing of a housing complex in the Saudi city of Khobar that left 19 U.S. service members dead.
U.S. frustration over operating in Saudi Arabia was already boiling when al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi, cited the American military’s presence in the nation — and more precisely, near the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina — as a core motivation behind 9/11 and the Khobar Towers attack.
To put it bluntly, said one U.S. official, the Americans were “looking for new real estate.”
Leaders in Qatar, whose roughly 300,000 citizens have long existed in the shadow of much larger Saudi Arabia, saw an opportunity. They began pouring money into Al Udeid and making overtures to the Americans to relocate. Donald H. Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, announced abruptly in April 2003 that the Pentagon was pulling all U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia and turning over control of the base to Saudi officials.
“The American military basically had to flee Saudi Arabia, and Qatar took them in, welcomed them in, in the middle of the night,” a senior Qatari official said on background.
Washington began using the base on a clandestine basis during the weeks after 9/11 as part of the U.S. military’s scramble to open a campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In 2003, the base was vital to Mr. Bush’s campaign to topple to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Operations and permanent U.S. structures at Al Udeid have been growing since. But, reflecting regional sensitivities, the Pentagon long sought to keep the base’s role quiet. As late as 2013, American military personnel were ordered not to speak about the base or disclose its location beyond describing it as somewhere in Southwest Asia.
Such protocols have eased in recent years and appear to have washed away almost entirely amid the diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar.
Photos of at Al Udeid were splashed across the Arab press after Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani made a special Sept. 11 visit to the base to pose with personnel from Qatar’s Emir Air Force in front of warplanes and to meet with U.S. commanders at the base.
The Qataris are building their own air force headquarters at al Udeid and, despite Mr. Trump’s threatening Twitter comments, the White House is pushing a $12 billion sale of F-15 fighter jets to Doha. Gen. Nahom said U.S. forces can be expected be here for the foreseeable future.
“I just think we have a good friend in Qatar, and we have a very good location to operate out of,” he said. “I don’t see us reducing for a long time.”
Swimming pools and beer
Daily life for U.S. military personnel at Al Udeid also does not suggest big changes are at hand.
The base isn’t far from the capital of Doha, a city experiencing huge economic growth — with dozens of gleaming skyscrapers, parks and opulent museums opening or under construction as revenue pours in from a global natural gas boom.
“You’re watching the birth of a nation here,” one American official told The Times. “It’s the largest construction project in the world — no kidding, Doha, Qatar.”
Security concerns are so low that a number of U.S. officers and their families live in the city and commute daily to Al Udeid. “I live downtown with my wife,” said Air Force Col. Brian M. Stumpe. “I’m safer here than probably most large cities back home. I’ve never once felt threatened or in danger.
“Most folks have children with them,” he added. “The schools are incredible.”
But it’s the improvements inside Al Udeid, including permanent electric, plumbing and housing facilities, that would be most difficult to replicate quickly elsewhere.
“We are an expeditionary base that is in transition to an enduring presence,” Gen. Armagost told The Times. “If you drive around this base, you see cranes and heavy equipment operations.”
“Quality of life [on base] has improved a lot since we started coming here,” said Col. David B. Fisher, who recalled living in trailers during a previous deployment to Al Udeid in 2009. “There’s a lot of investment going on,” he said, adding that he lives this time around in a building that feels more “like an apartment” on the base.
Dozens of reddish-brown dorms dot the landscape. On a recent drive through Al Udeid, another service member remarked: “We’re spoiled here. At most bases in the Middle East, it’s tents — not buildings like this.”
One end of the base features a state-of-the-art gym with sleek, air conditioned basketball courts and an indoor swimming pool. Al Udeid’s vast base exchange is essentially an American-style mall boasting a Pizza Hut, Arby’s and Taco Bell. There’s also a sports bar for those in need of a drink.
While things rarely turn rowdy there because of a two-beer-a-day limit observed by all U.S. personnel, the place offers a nice respite from the near-endless roar of American planes taking off and landing nearby.