US secretary of defense Robert Gates ended his brief whirl around the Middle East on April 20, leaving his hosts in Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Iraq perplexed and without clear answers to some tough questions. For instance –
1. Is the Bush administration bent on attacking Iran – and if so when?
2. What other armed conflicts are in store for the region this coming summer and what role will the US play?
3. What happens in the event of a sudden military meltdown in Iraq? What are America’s priorities then?
According to DEBK-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources, the officials he spoke to in the different capitals were unclear as to whether the US defense secretary had made up his mind on these issues; moreover, he conveyed different impressions in difference places. One local official suggested that Gates had not decided which hat he wore in any given conversation – sometimes he sounded like the Pentagon chief; at others, like a secretary of state, even acting at times as though he was now calling the shots in the White House and overriding vice president Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice.
But the strongest message he left behind him was that Washington had developed a political strategy for the long-term protection of US Middle East interests and the containment of Iran’s ambitions, which transcended the Bush administration’s current internal politics and differences with the Democrats. At the same time, answers for the immediate term were in short supply.
As to if and when the US was contemplating military action against Iran, Gates implied an attack might take place sooner rather than later. Pressed to be more specific about a timeline, the defense secretary said July, 2007 was under consideration – but not finalized.
(Details of US regional preparations for a possible attack are disclosed in other articles in this issue.)
The Persian Gulf air and naval buildup is irreversible
A clearer picture of Americans plans was expected to emerge from the testimony given to Congress by the commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, Wednesday, April 25, ahead of House approval of the controversial Iraq withdrawal-war funding bill. The commander and his aides expected some tough grilling and questions he would find hard to answer. In the event, Petraeus testified that sectarian killings in Baghdad were only a third of what they were in January, before President George W. Bush began sending in extra US forces.
He described progress in the insurgent-al Qaeda hotbed of Anbar in western Iraq as “breathtaking”. He also thought Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was “doing his best” at leading the country.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources disclose that this guarded recommendation rests on Gen. Petraeus’ close cooperation with the Iraqi intelligence chief Gen. Ali Shavani, his conduit to the prime minister whose influence has induced Maliki to take some constructive steps in the war. In a closed-door session with members of Congress, the general confided that this connection had been the key to the recent improvement in Maliki’s performance.
His consultations with President Bush before returning to Iraq were expected to produce major decision-making on Iraq and Iran, some of which may be unfolding already.
One process that cannot be easily or quickly reversed, according to one of the defense secretary’s senior advisers, is the continuing surge in the Persian Gulf of US military strength, aircraft carriers heading strike groups and large-scale air force units. Some are present; others are steaming toward their new positions, following complicated arrangements negotiated with allied coastal nations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly summarizes the core message the US defense secretary brought to Cairo, Amman, Baghdad and Jerusalem:
The United States has begun redeploying and regrouping its military strength in the Middle East. Some units currently fighting in Iraq and others based in the Persian Gulf region will be drawn in to fashion a four-level shield for guarding American military, political and economic interests in the region, while also reining in Iran’s aggressive expansionism (referred to in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 297 of April 20: Tehran Takes First Step in Sectarian War for Shiite Domination).
Less ground troops, more air and naval power
The reorganized forces, resting in future less on ground troops and more on massive air and naval power, will be highly mobile, on call for swift intervention at any point in the Middle East and capable of long-distance operation. The American footprint in the countries of the region will be much less visible.
In Gates’ view, this restructured format will afford the US and its armed forces the flexibility necessary for backing up and securing American interests, instead of having US troops pinned down in one place, Iraq, by daily high-intensity combat against insurgencies and al Qaeda terrorists. The Iraq situation, says a Gates aide, holds the US army down to a single mission and leaves it undermanned on other fronts.
Military experts point to the analogous trap in which the Israeli army is entangled by the war on Palestinian terror. The Israeli high command’s exclusive focus on this conflict blinded the generals to the buildup on the northern border of its greatest foe, Hizballah. The IDF was therefore caught unprepared by the Hizballah’s summer 2006 offensive and transfixed in the wrong tactics for tackling an enemy of a caliber quite different from the Palestinians.
According to our sources, the US secretary is determined to haul the US army out of its single-purpose pit in Iraq. Drawing on some of the units to be pulled out of the embattled country, he means to start inculcating in the American military a measure of operational flexibility.
The Pentagon has charted four strategic levels, or safety devices, of the shield for guarding American interests in the Middle East in the coming months and the longer term.
II. The Persian Gulf, hinging on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and a line of US bases dotted across the Persian Gulf.
III. An outer rim comprising the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal. Jordan and Israel will play a role here, as well as hosting American bases.
IV. The Kuwait project.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly elaborates on each of these four levels from its exclusives sources in the next articles.