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Under the Radar: U.S. Troops Return to Saudi Arabia

By Marvin Zonis

The United States is deploying hundreds of troops to Saudi Arabia, the first U.S. troops to be stationed in the Kingdom after their exit 16 years ago.

To understand the significance e of this move, a little history:

January 16, 1979. The shah of Iran leaves his country for an exile around the globe until his death in Cairo.

February 1, 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran from exile to transform Iran into an Islamic Republic.

Three events characterized the Iranian revolution. First, the overthrow of a monarch who had ruled since 1941. Second, the revolutionary ouster of an entire ruling class. Third, the institution of an Islamic Republic. These three events unleashed instability across the entire Middle East; instability that characterizes the region until this day.

November 20, 1979. The Grand Mosque in Mecca is seized by Saudi subjects declaring that the Mahdi had arrived in the form of their leader and the House of Saud should immediately be overthrown -- finally quelled by the end of December with the aid of French troops. The traumatized Saudi monarchy responded by imposing new Islamic strictures on its populace.

December 24, 1979. The USSR sends troops into Afghanistan to preserve a collapsing communist government. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel respond by supporting anti-Soviet forces with money, weapons, and intelligence. Osama Bin Laden, a son of the owner of the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia, was receiving an annual stipend of $7 million. He used the money to finance resistance to the Soviet invasion and became a hero among Arabs.

September 22, 1980. Iraq invades Iran to seize Iranian oil fields in the midst of political turbulence within Iran. By June of 1981, Iran had forced the invaders back into Iraq. Saddam proposed peace talks. But Ayatollah Khomeini sought revenge and vowed to fight on.

May 15, 1988. The Soviet Union begins to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Various Afghan factions begin an internal war for control of the country.

August 11, 1988. Bin Laden forms al-Qaeda in Afghanistan with Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

August 20, 1988. Ayatollah Khomeini agrees to end the war with Iraq after Iraq began sending missiles into Iranian cities. The Ayatollah equated his declaration to “drinking a poison chalice.”

August 2, 1990. Iraq invades Kuwait giving Saddam control of as much as 20% of world oil output. With Iraqi troops on the Kuwait-Saudi border, King Fahd fears for the Kingdom. Bin Laden meets with the King and offers al-Qaeda’s troops to protect the Kingdom. King Fahd refuses the offer. He invites the U.S. to send troops -- as many as 25,000 American soldiers land in Saudi Arabia.

In mid-January, 1991, the U.S. launched a major military onslaught driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Most American troops withdrawn from the Kingdom but a residual force remained until 2003.

February 26, 1993. Bombing of World Trade Center. Six killed. More than 1000 injured.

1994. After years of continuous internal warfare, Pakistan sends the Taliban into Afghanistan to seize power and restore order. The Taliban were composed primarily of Afghan exiles studying in Islamic schools in Pakistan who were organized, financed and trained by Pakistan.

May 8, 1966. Osama Bin Laden returns to Afghanistan, establishes a close relationship with the Taliban and declares war against the United States for “occupying” Saudi Arabia, the center of the Muslim world.

June 25, 1996. A bomb hidden in a diesel fuel truck exploded on the perimeter of the air base at Dharan killing 19 U.S. service personnel and injuring over 400, mostly of other nationalities.

February 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri co-signed a fatwa in the name of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, which declared the killing of North Americans and their allies an "individual duty for every Muslim" to "liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca) from their grip." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osama_bin_Ladenworld)

September 11, 2001. Attacks on the two towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the foiled attack, on the Capital building in DC.

This bit of superficial history suggests several important conclusions.

*The overthrow of the Shah unleashed a period of instability in the Middle East which has not yet run its course.

*The stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait radicalized Osama Bin Laden against the United States and, eventually, led to the outrages of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent U.S. wars against the Taliban and against Saddam – wars from which the U.S. has not yet been able to extricate itself.

*The return of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia – while in much smaller numbers than in 1990 – is bound to inflame radical Muslim sentiment despite efforts to shield their presence by stationing them at an isolated Saudi base.

The unanswered question is what led to the return of U.S. troops to the Kingdom? Fear of Iran on the part of Mohammad Bin Salman? The use of American troops as a tripwire so that any damage to them will lead to a U.S. military response? A message to Iran to calm its Houthi allies in Yemen? President Trump’s push to establish ever closer relations between the U.S. and the Kingdom and Israel as a common front against Iran?

What seems unmistakably clear is the absence of any credible military threat from Iran to Saudi Arabia.

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