The U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf area looks a lot like the buildup that preceded the first Gulf War, but there will be one vast difference between this war and the previous one: American troops were quickly withdrawn at the end of Desert Storm. This time, they will stay right where they are -- possibly for a very long time.
The reason for this difference lies in the contrasting aims of the first President Bush and the second. In 1991, Bush the elder sought to expel Iraqi forces in Kuwait and eliminate the threat to Saudi Arabia. Once that goal was accomplished, American troops were free to return home -- which they did with remarkable dispatch.
But this President Bush has a much larger and more demanding agenda: to eradicate Saddam's regime; to put top Iraqis on trial for war crimes; to disarm Iraq of all major weapons systems; to reconstruct the Iraqi government and military along U.S.-approved lines; to rebuild the Iraqi oil industry; to keep all of Iraq under one multi-ethnic roof; and to spread the blessings of democracy to the greater Middle East. All of this, and a whole lot more, is encapsulated in the administration's long-stated goal of "regime change."
No doubt some Iraqis will welcome the U.S. effort to disassemble their country and rebuild it. But others can be expected to resist this effort. The Kurds will fight any plan that gives Turkey a presence in the country or leaves the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul under non-Kurdish rule. The Shiites will contest any government headed by Sunnis (and vice versa). Finally, officeholders in the old regime will resist being replaced by exiles brought in by the United States. The list of would-be dissenters is a long one.
It is to contain this internal disorder that U.S. military authorities anticipate the need for a large, long-term military presence in Iraq. Asked in February how many troops would be required for this purpose, the Army's chief of staff, General Eric K. Shinseki, was unequivocal: "I would say that what's been mobilized to this point, something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers."
General Shinseki's estimate was later disputed by top civilian officers at the Department of Defense, who say the job can be done with fewer U.S. troops. But experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington public-policy organization, estimate that at least 150,000 U.S. soldiers will be needed in Iraq until some degree of order is established -- a task that will take many months and probably years to achieve (and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars).
American troops will be needed not just to maintain order but to also deal with the inevitable Muslim backlash. There will be an upsurge of anger throughout the Muslim world, where age-old resentment of colonialism and growing anti-Americanism constitute an explosive mix. There will be the inevitable massive demonstrations against the U.S. occupation in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and a half-dozen other countries, possibly accompanied by angry riots and violence against American embassies, consulates, and businesses.
These riots could prove so persistent and violent as to threaten the survival of key pro-U.S. governments, such as that of General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Under these circumstances, it is not unlikely that the United States will send forces to these countries, either to protect the oil fields (in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms) or to prevent the takeover of a friendly state by anti-American regimes.
Where this strategy will lead is anyone's guess, but we can expect a large American military presence to remain in the region for a long time to come. It is the open-ended occupation of Iraq, and not the impending war, that is likely to prove most costly and dangerous over the long run.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College and the author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict.
This article first appeared on AlterNet.