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American forces dug in deep across Middle East

U.S. soldiers in Buhriz, Iraq (Spc. Elizabeth Erste/U.S. Central Command)

American soldiers are fighting hard in Iraq right now but units are also dug in deep in no less than 18 other countries across the Middle East, southern Asia and eastern Africa.

In addition to Iraq, where troops are involved in open combat, there are also American forces in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They are stationed at primary deployment, logistics and training facilities.

This dispersion of troops and units from all branches of the American military is organized under the framework of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for 27 nations in a region larger than the continental United States. Created by then-president Ronald Reagan in 1983, CENTCOM is – in its own words – designed “to project American power in the Middle East and East Africa.”

But this massive projection of American power is not necessarily winning friends in the Middle East and is, in fact, repelling many potential allies in Arab countries.

An American soldier maintaining a Patriot missile battery in Jaffa, Israel in March 2003. (Mati Milstein/The Media Line)

Why does the U.S. need to project its power in the Middle East and eastern Africa? What does it want?

A section of an article by Anthony H. Cordesman published online by the Center for Strategic and International Studies entitled ‘U.S. Defense Objectives for Middle East and South Asia,’ quoted U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen’s 1999 Annual Report to the President and the Congress: “The United States seeks a Middle East and South Asia region at peace, where access to strategic natural resources at stable prices is unhindered and free markets are expanding.”

Economics plays a major role in dictating foreign policy and the United States has been dependent upon Middle Eastern oil reserves for decades.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “America spends more than $200,000 per minute on foreign oil… More than $25 billion a year goes for Persian Gulf imports alone.” More than two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves are in the Middle East.

Recognizing America’s dependence upon Persian Gulf states for its energy needs – and the security requirements that accompany preserving access to resources in that area, the U.S. administration is attempting to transfer this dependence out from the Gulf and disperse it around the world. There are, therefore, increased American economic investments and political interests in Angola, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia and Venezuela. However, these states hold just a fraction of the oil resources of Persian Gulf countries.

The various branches of the American military have been seeing cuts – both those of the intentional and of the unintentional varieties. The navy has extended a program offering incentives to personnel who choose to retire before the official end of their service, Navy News Service reported on February 13. On the other hand, the army has recently faced difficulties in meeting recruiting goals and is experiencing manpower shortages – largely as a result of reaction to the war in Iraq. The Marine Corps also failed to meet their recruiting goals early in 2005 for the first time in some 10 years.

According to The Washington Post, the army has cut 300,000 troops – and dropped from 28 active-duty and reserve divisions down to 18 – since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But the American presence in the Middle East has not been reduced. The war in Afghanistan followed by the American invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq has ensured that, despite military budget cuts and drops in manpower, the U.S. troop presence in the Middle East has been on the rise. Since September 11, the U.S. has been placing more and more emphasis on fighting terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

U.S. Army soldiers during an artillery training exercise near Khowst, Afghanistan (Cpl. James L. Yarboro/U.S. Central Command)

Official sentiment in the Arab world varies but civil populations almost universally condemn the large and highly visible American military presence in their midst.

Countries allied with the U.S. such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are generally accepting of American troops on their soil and relate to their presence diplomatically. The Kuwaiti government, for example, views the Americans as their savior in the first Persian Gulf War while Egypt is dependent upon U.S. economic aid and therefore must bend, to a certain extent, to American demands.

On the other hand, regimes such as Syria and Iran (which is Muslim though not Arab) are vociferous in their opposition to American military power in the region.

Arab civil societies see the American military presence in the Middle East much differently than do the Arab regimes that govern them.

“The great majority [of civil society] is hostile to the presence of U.S. troops in the region,” political science Professor Bahgat Korany, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at the American University in Cairo, said. This is largely attributed to the perceived closeness between the American and Israeli diplomatic positions. Arabs often draw harsh parallels between Israeli troops in Palestinian areas and U.S. forces operating in other parts of the Middle East.

An American soldier atop a Humvee guarding a joint U.S.-Israeli Patriot missile site by the Mediterranean Sea in Jaffa, Israel in March 2003. (Mati Milstein/The Media Line)

Citizens of Arab countries also see a double standard in U.S. policy in the Middle East that they believe favors Israel. Korany said this sentiment is not limited to Islamic groups but is felt across the board.

Ironically, recent surveys conducted in the Middle East indicate that between 70 and 80 percent of the populations in Arab countries “friendly” to the U.S. view its presence in the region negatively, Korany said.

“They feel their governments are too close to the U.S. position and they are sending a message to their governments. These are countries that are usually open. They see a lot of Arab satellite television and the images of U.S. military presence really evoke negative sentiments,” he said.

The actual numbers of American troops in the Middle East as well as their visibility skyrocketed with the invasion of Iraq. Reports indicate the U.S. military plans to keep some 160,000 soldiers in Iraq through 2006.

A CENTCOM officer contacted by The Media Line refused to comment on the future of American forces in the Middle East, saying the command does not view the Middle East as a region but rather as a grouping of individual countries. He would not say whether CENTCOM plans to reduce its presence in the region but explained that the deployment of American forces is a response to the individual situations in each one of these countries.

The CENTCOM officer also refused to respond to questions regarding the image of America’s military among local populations in the Middle East.

Arab society was very divided over the American invasion and the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“On the whole they said this guy had to go,” Korany said. “He was ruthless, he was inefficient, he destroyed his country. He created a bad image for himself and for the Arabs. But people realize that [American] invasion and occupation is not a better solution than Saddam’s regime… Because of the American occupation, the suffering is continuing.”

With media images playing a major role in the formation of Arab public opinion of America’s Middle East military presence, the continued occupation of Iraq will continue to turn potential Arab allies into a potentially hostile opposition.