Mideast Challenge

While U.S. troops struggle in Iraq, critical American interests are being threatened across the Middle East

Sun Special Report / Iraq: The Road Out

September 09, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,[Sun Reporter]

Kuwait City, Kuwait -- Across a broad belt of growing instability that stretches from North Africa through the Persian Gulf to Pakistan, the United States is sliding into a hazardous new era, lacking the grand strategy to guide it through the complex perils ahead, and short of the military forces ready to safeguard America's vital interests, according to U.S. military officers and outside strategists.

Attention is riveted this week on Iraq, as Gen. David Petraeus and President Bush prepare to report on the state of the war and their strategy for salvaging the U.S. intervention there and bringing troops home. But beyond the immediate horizon, strategists warn, darker troubles are gathering and the stakes are high.

Offshore from this bustling, sweltering port city, a line of oil wells looms on the shimmering horizon, part of the Persian Gulf's oil and gas reserves on which the world economy depends. This vast region holds as well the multitudes of people whose energies in the years ahead will turn to political activism and economic progress -- or to sullen extremism and terrorism.

Already, radical Islamist violence and hostility to American ideas seem to be spreading through the region. A resurgent al-Qaida is plotting new attacks, and Iran is racing to join Pakistan and Israel as states with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. All these problems, military analysts say, are expected to get worse.

Defending critical American interests here is the "first challenge" for the United States, Adm. Mike Mullen, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently. The explosive strains within the region, he said, "all threaten to tear at fragile seams and all bear directly on the safety of the United States."

Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which now seem likely to require American troops and money for years to come, are devouring the conventional military and special operations forces needed to help stabilize this vast region. The uncertainties of Iraq, and the more pressing needs of the battle zones, have delayed long-term planning, leaving the United States dangerously vulnerable to unpleasant shocks, critics say.

"This is a huge point of crisis. This should be a national obsession, Job One: What is the strategy, what are the powers we bring to bear, who's in charge," said Robert H. Scales, former commandant of the Army War College and an acknowledged senior strategist and historian.

"Everybody is holding their breath for the Petraeus report," he said. "The real thing is, what comes after Iraq? I don't see a lot of `What happens next?' going on."'

Analysts see these problems ahead:

Spillover from Iraq. Two million Iraqi refugees already have surged out of Iraq, mostly into Syria and Jordan, creating major strains on housing, schools and employment, and the flow continues. Sectarian fighting inside Iraq is radicalizing much of the region, analysts said, and they predict it will lead to new waves of violence. The region's oil fields are particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack, said Daniel Byman, a former CIA and White House official who teaches at Georgetown University. "I don't panic, but I do worry about it," he said.

Chronic instability. Despite the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf states, the region has been unable to provide jobs for many of its people. The problem will worsen as the youth population "bulges" by as much as 80 percent over the next two decades, demographers say. As in Iraq, unemployed and resentful youth can be ready recruits to violence. "That portends a great deal of instability in that part of the world, where there are people willing to indoctrinate that youth bulge to do things we don't want them to do," said a senior Pentagon strategist.

Distrust of American goals. The United States is increasingly unpopular in the region, raising fresh hurdles for security and diplomatic initiatives. Large majorities now believe the U.S. goal is to undermine Islam (78 percent in Morocco, 92 percent in Egypt, 73 percent in Pakistan), according to a recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Large majorities, averaging 74 percent, want the United States to remove all its military bases from Islamic countries.

Vulnerable bases. Despite such sentiments, the United States has engaged in a building spree. New construction includes a U.S. military-only highway linking American bases here in Kuwait, and major new special operations forces facilities in the conservative Muslim state of Qatar. The huge al Udeid air base there, a city of 8,000 Americans, is the U.S. air headquarters for the region. Amenities include an after-hours beer hall, a rarity in this mostly alcohol-free region. Other construction projects stretch from Djibouti on Africa's Red Sea coast to a new drone spyplane base at the al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates.

Yet commanders believe that U.S. forces here already are vulnerable.

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