The Case For a Major New US Military Base
It is not clear at the time of writing if Turkey will or will not allow the United States to use the NATO air base at Incirlik for airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq. On October 13, national security adviser Susan Rice announced that Turkey had finally agreed to the use of the base, only to be contradicted the very next day by Turkey’s foreign minister. A subsequent press report claimed that the Turks were allowing their American allies to fly reconnaissance drones from Incirlik but no manned aircraft.
The brouhaha exemplifies a troubling downward trend in America’s ability to project power in the Middle East, a trend that goes beyond Turkey and its peculiar, complicated, sometimes hostile relationship with America. The ISIS crisis and the feebleness of the current air campaign don’t just provide evidence that only a foolish leader would preclude putting at least some “boots on the ground” in a military campaign. They also show that the countries that have long given us basing rights in the region may not be as cooperative or as trustworthy as our planners assume them to be, and that this is likely to get worse.
Given this unfortunate development, it is time for America’s planners to consider breaking with tradition and setting up new bases in countries that are likely to remain reliable allies—even if they are not yet recognized as independent states.
Iraqi Kurdistan is just such a place (another is the Somaliland Republic, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen). It is not technically an independent state, as it has not seceded from the battered, unraveling republic of Iraq. But at this point that doesn’t really matter. Baghdad is hardly in a position to object to any deal between the United States and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Indeed, any hope that Iraq has of remaining a single state, federal or confederal, once ISIS has been defeated would depend on Baghdad and whoever controls it (likely a Shiite-dominated government), giving the KRG something very close to de facto independence.
Similarly, the only way Iraqi Kurdistan will feel really safe from invasion by Baghdad-controlled forces, an ISIS-Sunni alliance, a Turkey that has returned to its old anti-KRG ways, or Iran (Syria is unlikely to be a threat for a long time to come) is if there is a U.S. military presence in the country.
For both the Iraqi Kurds and the United States, then, a U.S. base in Kurd-istan—which already has airfields with long military-spec runways—would offer the United States tremendous strategic advantages.
These are all the more important in a region where U.S. influence has diminished, and in which the United States may well lose access to some of its biggest air, land, and naval bases in the medium or long term.
In the short term it obviously makes sense. There has been much talk about the need for the United States and its allies to stand up effective local forces in the war against ISIS. But the 5,000-strong Syrian rebel force that U.S. military leaders think they can stand up within a year or two is nowhere near adequate.
A proper alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan, one that includes the training and equipping of more effective Kurdish armed forces, offers perhaps the only hope of defeating ISIS without having to cooperate militarily with Iran (which would demand nuclear concessions and continue to undermine U.S. interests in Iraq) or Syria’s Assad regime (which has much American as well as Syrian and Iraqi blood on its hands).
Despite the Obama administration’s reflexive hostility to Kurdish aspirations and the official U.S. government preference for dealing only with Baghdad, the airports of Iraqi Kurdistan have reportedly become U.S. military installations as a matter of simple necessity. Some of the big air bases in Iraq proper like Balad and Taji are either too vulnerable to ISIS attack to be used by coalition aircraft or have already been captured. As for bases further south like the Rasheed base in Baghdad, the Iranian military is already using them to launch surveillance drones, and U.S. military officials are rightly nervous about the security implications of sharing an air base with, and being studied by, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
But quite apart from the immediate value of Iraqi Kurdistan in the ISIS campaign, it would make sense for the United States to form a closer military partnership with the KRG. Unlike several of the countries from which we fly our aircraft or base our ships, its leaders and people are pro-American, its ruling regime is not a monarchy ripe for Arab Spring-style overthrow, it’s not trying to replace the United States as a regional hegemon, it does not sponsor Islamist terrorism, and if we did ally with it, we would be guaranteeing its freedom and security in such a way as to bind it to us by the strongest cords of self-interest and gratitude.
Currently, American military efforts in the region are dependent on Qatar, which hosts CENTCOM’s forward HQ and the huge al-Udeid air base, Kuwait, home of the Ali-al-Salem airfield, the UAE, location of the Al-Dhafra air base, and Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Qatar is said to sponsor Islamism and jihadist militancy around the world: Its financial beneficiaries have allegedly included Hamas, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Somalia’s al Shabab, the al Qaeda-allied Nusra Front in Syria, and finally the Afghan Taliban. Alleged Qatari support for ISIS has prompted the U.S. Treasury to single out the kingdom as an especially “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorist financing.
Kuwait, too, has sponsored the Muslim Brotherhood as well as more radical Islamist groupings around the world. It was revealed by WikiLeaks to have been a key transit point for al Qaeda financing.
Moreover, the Arab Spring showed that even the most stable-seeming authoritarian monarchies and dictatorships can be more vulnerable than they look. It should be clear to U.S. planners that it is risky to assume that the rulers of the Gulf States will continue in power or that they will continue to be on America’s side.
Certainly violence in Bahrain, where members of the Shiite majority protested against Sunni rulers and were brutally repressed with Saudi assistance, should have the Pentagon making plans for the day when the regime has been overthrown and neither CENTCOM nor the Navy can use the country as a base.
As for Turkey, now that it sees itself as potential top dog in a region from which America withdrew, it is unlikely ever to give us free rein at Incirlik, regardless of the destination or mission of U.S. aircraft. And even if the Erdogan government were inclined to be more cooperative in the matter of ISIS, the Turkish military has on several occasions shown itself willing to sacrifice the U.S. alliance on the altar of its anti-Kurdish obsession.
There is a strong argument that gaining a permanent U.S. base in Iraq, preferably in Kurdistan, always ought to have been a primary U.S. goal after the 2003 invasion, and not just because such a boon might have quieted those “realist” opponents of the Iraq mission who abhorred talk of fostering democratic government in the Middle East.
The United States has lost several key bases in recent years, the most significant one being the Kharshi Khanabad base in Uzbekistan (thanks to Russian pressure). At the very least, the existence of a major modern U.S.-equipped air base in Kurdistan would offer redundancy for whenever Turkey refuses permission for the use of Incirlik, or for the day when Turkey might cease being even a nominal ally.
A U.S. air base in Iraqi Kurdistan would give America the ability to influence events in the immediate region and also in the Caucasus. Just the reconnaissance capability would be transformative. After all, Sulaymaniyah is only 330 miles from Tehran and 500 miles from Damascus.
A U.S. base in Kurdistan could make all the difference to Washington’s military options when dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. The fact that airstrikes would be significantly less difficult—not to mention the potential for inserting special forces by air or land—might well have a salutary effect on Tehran and therefore make such an action less necessary and less likely.
Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the few places in the world where both the government and the population actively desire an American military presence. Indeed the KRG has been quietly lobbying for more than a decade for the United States to establish a base in its territory.
The Kurdistan Regional Government certainly has its flaws and would continue to have them even if the country asserted its independence and became a formal U.S. ally. Its key institutions are dominated by two rival clans, there are serious problems with corruption, and also periodic problems with press freedom. Still, the country is more democratic and much more religiously tolerant than most others in the region. A formal, quasi-permanent arrangement for a U.S. base in Kurd-istan could transform for the better America’s position in the region. It would also be a good thing for all the Kurds (not just those in Iraq), a good thing for Iraq, and arguably a good thing for a region that otherwise will be a proxy battleground for Iran and Turkey.