Unease is growing over the impact of a prolonged Qatar dispute on US military operations at Al Udeid airbase, a statement from the US defence department and the Central Command (Centcom) indicates.
As the rift between Qatar and four fellow Arab states goes into week nine, a spokesperson for Centcom in Florida told The National that “the evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations”.
Major Josh T Jacques, the media operations chief at Centcom, added: “While current operations from Al Udeid Air Base have not been interrupted or curtailed, the evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations.”
The US military official encouraged “all our partners in the region to reduce tensions and work towards common solutions to enable regional security”, adding there were no plans to change the US posture in Qatar.
Al Udeid is the largest airbase for the US in the Middle East, housing more than 11,000 US forces. The base has operated publicly since 2002 and hosts a Combined Air Operations Centre that coordinates flights and attacks against ISIL in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Centcom’s comment followed its commander’s visit to both UAE and Qatar last week. General Joseph Votel met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and the emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said this month that Washington is studying alternatives if the Qatar dispute escalates or drags on.
While Capt Davis reiterated confidence that the US military continues “to have full use and access of the base there”, he hinted at contingency planning already being made. “I think any time you are doing military operations, you are always thinking ahead to Plan Bs and Plan Cs … we would be remiss if we didn't do that," Capt Davis said, according to the Military Times.
Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, explained the US dilemma on Al Udeid as follows. On the one hand and “over the last decade and a half, the US military has found great utility in having Al Udeid serve as a coordinating hub for operations that it conducts in the greater Middle East region”, Mr Heras said.
However, he added that “the bitter political disagreements that have come to a head within the Gulf appear to be endemic”, sending “a signal of political instability among the United States' Gulf Arab partners”. This instability “is a long-term threat to American force posture in the Gulf and in the broader Middle East”, Mr Heras said.
The expert explained a Plan B option for the US military as one “looking at using other basing sites, such as Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi, or other forward operating sites to conduct military operations.” Technically and “in order to design and implement a campaign plan, for example to conduct the counter-ISIS campaign, the US military needs to know what bases it can use, where they are situated, what types of forces they can accommodate, and what logistical requirements are unique to using some sites to operate from versus others.”
Asked how the Qatar dispute hinders the US long-term military planning, Mr Heras pointed out that diplomacy and military operations from partner countries go hand-in-hand. “If there is political instability in the GCC, or if the Trump administration is not settled on how to approach Qatar moving forward, especially if the Qataris renege on their counter-terrorism commitments, that would mean that there is doubt whether a multi-year US military campaign plan could rely on particular basing sites” such as Al Udeid.
In that context, he added, “contingencies would need to be built into the planning, which means a higher likelihood of disruptions in the military operations, say against ISIL, or in support of operations in Afghanistan, or to counter the threat from Iran".
US president Donald Trump raised the prospect of leaving Al Udeid in an interview to CBN two weeks ago, saying that 10 countries would bid to host the base if the US ever decided to pull out.