America needs Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base to fight the war on terrorism

America needs Qatar's Al Udeid Air Base to fight the war on terrorism
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Shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States moved its regional Combined Air Operations Center for the Middle East to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The Combined Air Operations Center is at the heart of managing the highly complex air operations inherent to any conflict, so making the move just prior to the commencement of a major combat operation was not without some risk.

The $60 million facility was built in just seven months, showing a commitment by both the Americans and the Qataris to ensure it would be fully functional prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq. Construction included installation of 67 miles of high-capacity fiber optic cable, the backbone of the most advanced air operations center in history. The center at Al Udeid has been growing in capability and capacity since its inception.

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Rarely do such complex, expensive projects come to fruition so quickly or in such a timely manner, and it was fortunate for the coalition that in this case it did so. There was no other facility in the region to take its place, where the full spectrum of offensive and defensive combat operations, logistical air movements including airborne refueling, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions could be coordinated.

Al Udeid Air Base is also home to the U.S. Central Command forward headquarters and the forward headquarters of several of its component commands. It also has expansive ramp space that serves military aircraft in the U.S. inventory. To believe, as some have recently suggested, that the U.S. could easily replicate the capacity or capabilities available at Al Udeid Air Base stands counter to current fiscal and geopolitical realities. While the United States enjoys great relationships throughout the Gulf region, it seems unlikely that the other Gulf Cooperation Council partners would be willing or able to quickly step up to such a commitment.

While the United States funded much of the infrastructure improvement at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar invested in excess of $5 billion of its own money and American and Qatari troops work side by side every day to ensure safe, smooth operations. Partly as a result of efforts at the Al Udeid Air Base, coalition forces have conducted more than 18,000 strikes against extremist in the region since 2014.

Qatar’s investment in infrastructure and cooperation in combat and support operations are clear indicators of its commitment in the fight against terrorism. During the recently completed Manama Dialogue, former Centcom Commander Gen. David Petraeus highlighted the importance of Al Udeid Air Base and voiced appreciation for Qatar’s support, while also noting that Qatar has periodically taken actions and made policy choices that have been sources of friction. Winston Churchill once famously remarked that the only thing worse than fighting with allies was fighting without them.

Losing access to Al Udeid Air Base, either by our choice or Qatar’s, would not be catastrophic, but it would be highly problematic for continued U.S. engagement in the region. There is no other base that the United States would likely have immediate access to that replicates the capacity, capability or freedom of action the United States enjoys at Al Udeid Air Base, and replicating it would be expensive and time consuming. Moreover, simply walking away because of policy disagreements, especially given the significant challenges in the region, sends the wrong message.

Defense cooperation agreements are intended to be enduring and the resultant access, basing and overflight rights that flow from the agreements enhance trust and highlight mutual interests. When policy differences arise among allies, as they inevitably do, the closer the ties and the better the security cooperation, the more likely the opportunity the partners will work through the policy differences and reach more common ground.

Walking away from Al Udeid Air Base, rather than continuing to work with Qatar to align policies would set a terrible example throughout the region, would make combat, logistic and intelligence gathering operations more challenging. It would almost certainly be viewed by political adversaries as a victory. Significantly, it would further exacerbate the current rift between Qatar and the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Egyptians, which is politically, socially, economically and militarily destabilizing for the region.

Individual nations act in what they perceive to be their own best interests, and it is therefore the burden of any alliance to work through policy disagreements a matter of routine. Complex alliances like NATO have built-in structures to deal with policy differences. Other alliances, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, or bilateral relationships do not necessarily have a structure in place to resolve policy conflict, making resolution more difficult.

A common theme expressed during the Manama Dialogue regarded displeasure with the recent decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Speakers from Gulf Arab states, while not necessarily speaking for their governments, addressed numerous concerns regarding the move, but never suggested breaking diplomatic relations or altering existing military access as an appropriate response.

Considering the lack of success of the just completed Gulf Summit in Kuwait, which was cut short due to a lack of attendance by principals, it is clear that resolution of the crisis in the Gulf region would benefit from external assistance. This is an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate resolve and leadership, but only if we stand by our Gulf partners, all of whom are valued allies in the fight against terrorism.

Al Udeid Air Base is a critically important facility for the coalition effort in the fight against terrorism. Sticking with long-term allies and alliances and working through policy differences is even more important.

John William Miller is a retired vice admiral and former commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, and Combined Maritime Forces. He is a visiting fellow at American Enterprise Institute and president of the Fozzie Miller Group, national security consulting firm.