The signal – that the United States plan to maintain a credible force in the region – comes at a vital time for the US military, says Michael Singh, a former senior adviser for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.
“The Middle East is very turbulent right now – it’s hard to even imagine all of the different types of conflicts that will challenge our interests,” adds Mr. Singh.
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released Tuesday stresses the “myriad” political and security challenges in the region, “from the Iranian nuclear program to the threat of terrorism.”
But at the top of the list is the ongoing friction with Iran, analysts tend to agree.
“Clearly the day where we had massive US troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to a close,” Singh says. When coupled with what Singh describes as a US response to the Arab Spring that “has in many ways been aloof,” he adds, “I think there’s a perception in the region that the US is pulling back.”
Singh says it’s a perception that Iran is seeking to disseminate for its own purposes – “that America is leaving the region because they have driven US forces out.” And, he adds, it's in the Pentagon’s best interests “to show this narrative is false.”
At the same time, “there are still lingering questions over our military posture in the region” in the wake of looming defense budget cuts and the Pentagon’s strategic pivot toward Asia and the Pacific, notes Singh, now managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee report estimated that the number of US forces in Kuwait is likely to be some 13,500 following the US drawdown in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that he ultimately envisions some 40,000 US troops stationed in the Middle East region.
Yet the report warns, too, that the US “must carefully shape its military presence so as not to create a popular backlash,” but at the same time retain “the capability to protect the free flow of critical natural resources and to provide a counterbalance to Iran.”
This means preserving the “lily pad” bases throughout the Persian Gulf, “which permits the rapid escalation of military force in case of emergency.” This includes keeping bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
There is an increasingly urgent need, too, to stem the flow of weapons and people out of Libya, warned Amanda Dory, deputy secretary of defense for African Affairs this week.
US troops in Kuwait will be “one part of a broader deployment in the region,” Singh notes. “The Iranians will have to look at our aircraft carrier presences, our fighter presence, and at these troops in Kuwait.”
The troop level in Kuwait “isn’t just symbolic,” he adds. “These troops enable us to do real and significant things – conduct exercises, coordinate with allied troops in the region. It’s a sufficiently sizable troop presence that we can do things with – and it will give the Iranians pause.”