This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.
On a visit to Baghdad on May 20, 2011 for meetings with Iraqi political leaders, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had the task of discussing a delay of the withdrawal of his country's troops from Iraq, casting some doubt on past promises that all American forces would leave Mesopotamia by the end of 2011. In this context, Iraqi Kurdish author Othman Ali's book The Future of U.S.-Kurdish Relations: Will Kurdistan be an American base? seems prescient; through his book, Ali describes what he claims are plans for America to maintain a permanent presence in Iraq, under the guise of either their embassy in the country - the largest in the world - their bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, or other things. Ali points out in his introduction that a number of reports surfaced in both the American and Kurdish media during November and December of 2008 which pointed to the possibility of the US establishing a permanent presence in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. When these same reports were picked up by Arabic-language media in the Middle East, in many cases somewhat sensationally, they seemed to confirm a long-standing suspicion among many in the region that Iraqi Kurdistan would become an American colony or, in other words, a second Israel in the Middle East.
The author looks at the issue through the lens of stated positions taken by well-known American and Kurdish figures, and of their own interests in the case. Ali asserts that in order to predict whether or not Kurdistan will host one or more permanent American military facilities, one needs to understand a number of issues related to US interests. First, would the United States risk its relationship with Turkey for the sake of a few bases in landlocked territory? Second, would the United States prefer to build its bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, as opposed to having a presence across Iraq? Finally, what would be the political, economic, societal and moral implications of such US bases in Kurdistan?
Ali also examines the extent of US-Iraqi relations, in particular the November 2008 bilateral security agreement, which delineates the strategic relationship between the two countries beyond security and into realms such as investment, diplomacy and culture. There are no secret clauses within that agreement, and its terms do not allow for the presence of US forces in the country beyond 2011. According to a number of observers, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet at the time was keen on exploiting then-US President George W. Bush's desire to finalize the security agreement as a way of sealing his legacy. They sought, therefore, to impose some of their own conditions, which were aimed at helping to assuage the anger of many anti-American Arabs and some of Iraq's neighbors, especially Iran. As the author argues, however, the United States invested too much blood and treasure in Iraq for anyone to expect that it will simply walk away without securing significant and lasting influence on the country's domestic and foreign affairs for decades to come. In the author's opinion, this outlook remains a driver for the US government to use all means at its disposal in order to amend the security agreement so that it creates space for a presence of American forces in the future. Washington might even go so far, Ali warns, as to stoke internal strife within Iraq, along sectarian and/or ethnic lines, in a bid to weaken the country and sow divisions. Such a scenario might then provide the impetus for the Iraqi government to revise the security agreement and extend the presence of US troops.
Ali's conclusion, described above, is based on his reading of the original US plans for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, including the post-Saddam Hussein period, as well as his understanding of previous foreign wars fought by the Americans. According to the author, the American vision - one shared by many in the Obama Administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden - includes plans for 40,000-50,000 US troops to remain in Iraq for a period of no less than 50 years.
Reports carried on May 13, 2007 by The Los Angeles Times newspaper and The Associated Press news agency suggested that Bush foresaw a future in which American soldiers would help preserve the stability of Iraq in the long term, a mission along the lines of what the US military has been doing in South Korea for more than half a century. According to these reports, Bush appears to have believed that US troops would no longer be called on for combat operations, but that they would remain necessary to fend off threats and help protect against internal strife.
New York Times journalist David Sanger elaborated on the parallels with South Korea in an article titled "With Korea as Model, Bush Team Ponders Long Support Role in Iraq" (New York Times, June 2, 2007). "Administration officials and top military leaders declined to talk on the record about their long-term plans in Iraq," Sanger wrote. "But when speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, they describe a fairly detailed concept. It calls for maintaining three or four major bases in the country, all well outside of the crowded urban areas where casualties have soared. They would include the base at Al Asad in Anbar Province, Balad Air Base about 50 miles north of Baghdad, and Tallil Air Base in the south." In the words of former US President Jimmy Carter (in an interview with Larry King Live on CNN, February 5, 2006), "There are people in Washington ... who never intend to withdraw military forces from Iraq and they're looking for ten, 20, 50 years in the future ... The reason that we went into Iraq was to establish a permanent military base in the Gulf region, and I have never heard any of our leaders say that they would commit themselves to the Iraqi people that ten years from now there will be no military bases of the United States in Iraq." The United States, it seems, has traded in its former military bases in Saudi Arabia, which had to be shut down to provide political cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for new ones in the latter. In the meantime, Qatar serves as a logistics, command, and basing hub for the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and hosts the US Combat Air Operations Center for the Middle East. Simultaneously, thousands of American soldiers remain based in Kuwait, where they receive training within easy distance of both Iraq and Qatar. Nonetheless, most infrastructure has already been moved to Iraq.
In addition to this, White House planners set about constructing the largest embassy on the planet when Iraqi militias plunged Baghdad into a chaotic sectarian war. Plans for the USD 600 million compound called for 21 buildings on 104 acres (41.6 hectares) in the heart of the protected Green Zone, complete with its own supplies of electricity, water and food. This massive complex is by far the largest in the world. It will also be home to no fewer than 12,000 diplomats, spies, guards, security contractors and foreigners ("third-country nationals") working to service the residents of the American compound.
American thinking on this issue is driven by simple considerations: the strategic stakes are very high. When we take history and the importance of Middle Eastern oil into account, Iraq emerges as the epicenter of the geopolitical struggle for control of the world's energy resources. Basing his assertions on the performance of previous US governments, Ali suggests that Washington would never leave a country it has occupied without first guaranteeing for itself a lasting foothold there. Examples of this behavior which Ali discusses include the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, which the United States secured after its victory in the Spanish-American War (1898-1901); extensive rights and facilities in the Philippines (also gained in the Spanish-American War); Germany and Japan after the World War II; South Korea after the Korean War; and the Gulf Arab states following the Gulf War of 1991. In each of these cases, military victory paved the way for permanent US bases which served long-term objectives.
Othman notes that the Obama Administration faces a difficult dilemma with regard to this issue, particularly given the serious economic pressures facing America, which already have undermined Obama's ability to make good on his promises of change. Like any empire, the author argues, the Americans need to establish "colonies" and military forces in various locales to help impose and extend its own economic model (in this case capitalism) and to guard the shipping lanes that carry strategic energy supplies, i.e. oil and gas. When America's occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan are viewed through this prism, Ali asserts, Obama will not be able to face down the lobbies of both the oil and the defense industries. Indeed, in a very clear break from the pledges during his election campaign to withdraw American forces from Iraq within 16 months, Obama announced on February 3, 2009 that 50,000 troops would remain positioned inside the country until the end of 2011. Ali sees within this change of heart a return to the Bush Doctrine, and the clear imprints of Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. No longer do senior American officials hide their belief that some forces will remain in Iraq, even after this deadline, to assist the Iraqi government in security matters and to protect US diplomats in Iraq.
According to Ali, the number of new US bases constructed in the past two decades has surpassed any other period in history. The foremost American military historian, Chalmers Johnson, had this to say about the issue: "Our country deploys well over half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, teachers, dependents, and civilian contractors in other nations and just under a dozen carrier task forces in all the oceans and seas of the world. We operate numerous secret bases outside our territory to monitor what the people of the world, including our own citizens, are saying, faxing, or e-mailing to one another." For Johnson, the "war on terrorism" is just cover for imperialist expansion. He wrote in his book Sorrows of Empire: "But the ‘war on terrorism' is at best only a small part of the reason for all our military strategizing. The real reason for constructing this new ring of American bases along the equator is to expand our empire and reinforce our military domination of the world."
Ali makes the point that while the media might highlight the stories of how the American empire makes the world better for many people - e.g. by freeing Afghan women from Islamic extremism, helping victims of natural disasters in the Philippines, or protecting Kosovar Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, or Iraqi Kurds from ethnic cleansing - the same empire has let down Rwandans, Turkish Kurds and the Palestinians, all of whom have suffered at the hands of US allies.