Global Policy Forum

US General Maps Out Strategic Refit for


By Richard Norton-Taylor

February 7, 2006

Number of troops 'may be contributing to instability.' Public profile of ground forces to be lowered.

A senior US officer admitted yesterday that the presence of more than 300,000 foreign troops in the Middle East, most of them American, was a "contributory factor" to instability in the region.

The admission was made by Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt - a key strategist in the US central command covering the Middle East - as he spelled out the American military's plan to "reposture" its forces over an area stretching from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east, and from Kazakhstan in the north to Uganda in the south.

The US would "not maintain any long-term bases in Iraq" he said in a major speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Our position is when we leave we will not have any bases there." He did not speculate when that might be, though he said the US could not stay in the region for as long as its forces have remained in Germany or Japan. American troops are still deployed there 60 years after the end of the second world war.

Nor did he say what would happen to four large air bases that the US is building around Baghdad. The implication behind his remarks is that the bases would be handed over to the Iraqis. Although he said the US would not keep permanent military bases inside Iraq, Brig Gen Kimmitt made clear it would retain assets and enough forces nearby to protect its interests there.

He suggested that the US had learned from past mistakes and that in future it would be "more sensitive to [the] culture" of the people who lived in the Middle East. He referred, as British military commanders have traditionally done, to the need to attract "hearts and minds". The US army was setting up a corps of officers, he added, which would "understand the Middle East".

Senior British military and intelligence officers have accused the US of "heavy-handed" tactics in Iraq and are likely to welcome any evidence that America is developing a coherent strategic approach to the region. "Reposture" was one of a number of crucial principles that Brig Gen Kimmitt said underlined America's new approach. The other was "helping others help themselves" - a reference to "nation building", another task which, the American military concedes, has not been one of its priorities.

However, he made plain that the new strategy in America's "long war" against al-Qaida and its affiliates would ensure that US forces, when they left Iraq, would not be far away. The US would have "sufficient forces to deter, and to protect partners and its key national interests" in the region, Brig Gen Kimmitt said.

And he said that America's preoccupations in Iraq should not lead to what he called "misunderstandings" about its ability to conduct other operations in the area. The US would "retain sufficient military capability" to strike Iran, he said. Those who believed otherwise were making a "very serious mistake", he added. He made it clear that under America's military "reposturing", its forces would be withdrawn from army bases in Iraq and other countries in the region, although the US will keep its Bagram base in Afghanistan under a new "strategic agreement" signed by the two countries.

With that exception, the idea is to base fewer, more mobile, special forces - along with strike aircraft - further afield, where their presence would be less visible and less provocative. US central command has its headquarters in the Gulf state of Qatar and it will be able to use its air base on the British Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia. It could also have at its disposal the large RAF base at Akrotiri in southern Cyprus.

Brig Gen Kimmitt described the American base in Djibouti on the Red Sea as a "model for the future". He said: "Twelve thousand Americans have the ability to maintain a presence with a very small footprint on the ground." The base covered a number of countries in the Horn of Africa and beyond, he said, including Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Yemen.

He declined to say what role Nato would have in the "long war" against Islamist extremists and terrorists. The European allies are locked in a debate about this - not least with regard to their role in Afghanistan, where peacekeeping and nation-building tasks could be embroiled in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorist operations. Brig Gen Kimmitt's speech is the latest indication that the American army is planning significant reductions in its 130,000-strong force in time for the mid-term congressional elections, to be held in November. The number of British troops in Iraq - now totalling 8,500 - is also likely to be reduced in a synchronised move.

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