The Cable

Can Trump Find a Better Deal Than the U.S. Air Base in Qatar?

It costs more to maintain the Pentagon’s military bands than to operate the al Udeid base.

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President Donald Trump recently boasted that he could shutter a critical U.S. air base in the tiny Gulf kingdom of Qatar, and “ten countries” in the region would line up to build a new base, “and they’ll pay for it.”

While there might not be ten, there are certainly other places in the Persian Gulf where the U.S.-led air wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria could be headquartered rather than the Qatari-built facility at al Udeid. But it turns out that the Pentagon actually has a pretty good thing going at the base, which costs the U.S. Air Force less to maintain per year than to keep the Pentagon’s military bands humming.

There’s also the benefit of a hands-off landlord, little risk of terrorist attack, and an airstrip giving U.S. planes a short hop into Iraq and Syria, not to mention allowing American aircraft to cover the entire Gulf within minutes.

But the politics of the region are tricky.

The president has mostly backed Saudi Arabia’s economic and diplomatic blockade of Qatar over Doha’s relationship with Tehran, support for the al Jazeera television network, and its cozy ties with Hamas and other militants.

The Qataris are so far weathering the storm and have refused to make concessions, but the longer the crisis continues the more difficult it may become for the base to continue operating normally.

“On the one hand al Udeid is quite important, but on the other it doesn’t mean the Qataris have the leverage” to force Washington into fully supporting its position, said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “Losing the base would certainly be logistical headache, and in the near-term harm our ability to keep up the same level of air operations in the region.”

There are a number of options in the region, including the Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, which supports the Saudi blockade. The United States and France already operate out of the base.

But Washington and its allies have already sunk two decades worth of investments into the facility, with tens of millions in new American construction slated for next year.

Overall, the U.S. Air Force will spend $140 million to sustain 9,000 U.S. troops at the base this year, according to U.S. Central Command. To put that in perspective, when it comes to U.S. military spending, the Pentagon will lay out $437 million to keep dozens of military bands active in 2017.

By the end of this year, the U.S. will wrap up $28 million worth of new construction projects at the base including warehouses, training facilities, dining hall upgrades, and connecting the base sewage system to Qatari system. The upgrades are slated to address years of complaints over living conditions at the facility. Budget documents for 2018 outline another $15 million in new construction.

The new buildings are an acknowledgement that after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States plans to stay, as new threats continue to emerge in the region. The buildings “represent a transition from an expeditionary environment with temporary facilities, to a base with an enduring infrastructure capable of sustaining long-term operations,” U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart told FP.

While Trump said some other country could pay for a new base, the Pentagon didn’t have to pay a dime to build al Udeid. It was established by the Qatari government in 1996 as an alternative for U.S. forces after the June 1996 terrorist attack at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American airmen, and wounded more than 400 others.

The U.S. Air Force continued to use Prince Sultan Air Base and Eskan Village in Saudi Arabia throughout the 1990s in the wake of the attack, but a growing number of restrictions on the type of operations the U.S. conducted from the Kingdom led to the shifting of more troops and aircraft to al Udeid, particularly following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

“We are here at the request of the Qataris, filling a mutually beneficial role,” Pickart said.

As a result of Qatari sensitivities over hosting thousands of U.S. servicemembers, for the first 17 years of its existence al Udeid was a poorly kept secret, with reporters being asked not to disclose the name or location of the headquarters for the air wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in December 2013, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel paid a visit to the air operations center in Qatar and Pentagon officials finally allowed reporters travelling with him to openly refer to the base. The secret that everyone knew was finally out in the open.

But there are concerns over the diplomatic row that has seen Doha isolated from its one-time allies in the region. The U.S. continues to fly in supplies for troops there, and military officials say there has been no change in operations. But other Gulf countries are bristling at the business as usual mindset in Washington, putting pressure on those relationships at a critical time in the fight against the Islamic State, and with Iran working to spread its influence throughout the region.

Even Trump, who has had harsh words for the Qatari government and its relations with Iran and Hamas, has said he thinks the base will likely stay.

Maybe.

“We are going to have a good relationship with Qatar and not going to have a problem with the military base,” Trump said in an interview with CBN News aired last week. “If we ever had to leave, we’d have 10 countries willing to build us another one. And they’ll pay for it. The days of us paying for things are largely over.”

As so often happens in the Trump administration, days later one of the president’s cabinet secretaries had a slightly different take. “There’s no need to look at alternatives” to the Qatar base, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “Right now we’ve had no impact on our military operations.”

Aside from the vast Combined Air Operations Center where 1,000 U.S. and allied troops work, al Udeid houses the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing — the largest expeditionary wing in the Air Force. The air wing is comprised of over 100 aircraft that operate 24 hours a day, providing surveillance over the region and conducting bombing missions to support U.S.-backed troops.

“I think the president’s statements on this were pretty reasonable, Goldenberg said. “We want a good relationship with Qatar. We want to keep the airbase. It’s important and valuable. But if push comes to shove we also have other less ideal options and we shouldn’t subjugate all of our other interests to just the airbase.”  

 

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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