As the United States prepares to withdraw its combat troops from Iraq this summer and the diplomatic confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program continues, it’s important to think about what the security structure of the Persian Gulf region will look like in the near future. By the end of 2011, the United States will have no military presence in Iraq for the first time in eight and half years. Even if the U.S. and Iraqi governments negotiate a new arrangement for some U.S. troops to stay and provide technical support and training, the number of American troops remaining will not be very large.
In the Gulf, the United States will probably maintain a significant naval presence. Right now, the U.S. Navy maintains one aircraft carrier strike group and one expeditionary strike group in the Gulf and Arabian Sea area. This naval posture has been relatively constant since the First Gulf War in 1991, and is unlikely to change after U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq in 2011. In addition, there will likely be about 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops still in Afghanistan that a carrier strike group could support. With the war in Afghanistan likely to continue, long-range U.S. Air Force strike and support aircraft will probably remain based at undisclosed locations in the Gulf region.
As a result of the withdrawal of its land forces from the region, security assistance to Gulf states will become a major component of U.S. strategy for the Gulf. President Bush laid the first groundwork for this evolution when his administration announced a $20 billion arms package for Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia in July 2007. Since that time, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency has notified Congress of some $35.5 billion in potential arms sales to Gulf Arab states.
Among the items requested by these states, primarily Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, are attack and utility helicopters, antitank missiles, and precision-guided bombs. But the most expensive possible purchases were those of anti-aircraft and anti-missile missile systems such as the Patriot PAC-3 and THAAD missile systems.
These potential sales go through the Foreign Military Sales program, a process by which the United States contracts for weapons systems on behalf of a foreign government and that foreign government then pays the United States for the weapons in question. However, the Defense Department has not awarded contracts for many of the major arms sales since the Bush administration’s July 2007 announcement. Only the UAE’s orders for 14 UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters and Patriot PAC-3 missile systems have been awarded, and these awards only came over the last month.
So far the Obama administration hasn’t promulgated an idea of what it expects Gulf security to look like once U.S. troops leave Iraq. Though the Bush administration originally had no intention of leaving Iraq, their solution to the problem of a rising Iran — empowered by the removal of its rival Saddam Hussein — was to dump weapons on friendly local states, while leaving the process by which these states obtained weapons largely dormant, apart from official notifications of possible arms sales.
As the Obama administration thinks about how the United States should manage the security transition in the Gulf, they should move beyond the Bush administration’s arms bazaar policy and toward an integrated security system for the Gulf. Rather than, say, selling as many anti-missile systems like THAAD or the Patriot PAC-3 to as many local states as possible, the goal should be to establish a cooperative anti-missile system that links friendly Gulf states together in a collective security arrangement.
Time is running out for the Obama administration to set forth its vision of the Gulf’s future security architecture. Withdrawing from Iraq and leaving the future security of the region up to a group of disorganized and competitive states is the worst option it can pursue.