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U.S. threads needle of politics to run air war against ISIS from base in Qatar

AL UDEID AIR BASE, QATAR

From his office on the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, Air Force Maj. Gen. David Nahom can look out his window into a cavernous room with banks of screens and find the position of any aircraft in the region.

Just outside his office is a smaller room with a hotline to the Russians, staffed 24 hours a day by Russian-speaking personnel who help keep the two air powers from running into each other in the skies or bombing one another’s troops or allies on the ground.

As the second in command of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Nahom helps runs aerial bombardment campaigns against the Islamic State, the Taliban, al-Qaida and other jihadi groups from here in the Combined Air Operations Center.

He has a lot on his hands.

But political developments that have thrust Al Udeid into the headlines haven’t added to the load, Nahom says. Operations continue as scheduled with the base’s complement of aerial refueling tankers, B-52 bombers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as units from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa working closer to the fighting.

On June 5, host nation Qatar found itself cut off diplomatically by a coalition of some fellow Arab nations — Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. They claim Qatar, the world’s richest nation per capita, is funding terrorism, cozying up to Iran and fomenting regional unrest through its Al-Jazeera media outlet.

Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the United States, even hinted last month that the United States should move its operations out of Al Udeid and into his nation.

But Nahom told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview at the base July 2 that there have been “no effects, in terms of operations, the fight, the tempo . . . we’ve been able to operate in full.

“We are here as the guest of the Qatari government and we’re doing everything as we were,” Nahom said. “There is no hindrance to our mission or to our people, They can still go downtown. They can do everything.”

Any move to relocate the base, he said, would be daunting.

“Obviously we have a lot of operations here,” he said. “And we have a lot of aircraft on the ramp. So you can’t just pick up and move. We could do temporary operations somewhere, but to build all this up it would take some time and a lot of money.”

The base, he added, is essential to operations now under way against jihadi groups.

“You can’t beat the location where Qatar is,” Nahom said. “This base is just invaluable for its location and what we have established here.”

• • •

Al Udeid is a sprawling, sweltering home to some 9,000 U.S. and international coalition personnel. From the air, it looks like a massive swath of tan broken up only by two black 12,000-foot runways, the longest in the region.

For recreation, troops can work out at a gym or chill at an outdoor beer garden and pool known as the Base Recreational Area — BRA for short, both acronym and slang for the two tents sheltering the spot from temperatures that can exceed 120 degrees in the summer.

Al Udeid, “The Deed” to troops here, is familiar territory for personnel from commands based at MacDill. These include air crews from the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing, who fly with Al Udeid’s 379th Air Expeditionary Wing; U.S. Central Command; and U.S. Special Operations Command Central.

Al Udeid was built by the Qataris in 1996 for about $1 billion as an alternate location for U.S. operations following the June 1996 terrorist attack at Khobar Towers that killed 19 U.S. airmen. In 2003, the $60 million air operations center opened there after the United States decided to leave a base in Saudi Arabia.

The dispute between Qatar and the other Arab nations — most of them also U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State — is a familiar one to William Fallon, the former CentCom commander who oversaw a large expansion of Al Udeid during his time at the MacDill-based command.

This small nation of 300,000 Qatari citizens — roughly the population of the city of Tampa — has outsized influence thanks to massive oil and natural gas deposits.

“There has been friction for many years now,” Fallon said. “It has always been difficult to get everyone on the same sheet of music.”

The nations who cut off relations with Qatar, he said, “probably thought they had a signal that they were on top of the heap here” after a visit by President Donald Trump to the Middle East in June.

Trump said in a tweet June6, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”

• • •

Caught in the middle of the diplomatic crisis, Al Udeid remains the nerve center of the U.S. military’s busiest air campaign.

During three full days — June 30, June 31 and July 1 — while the Times was visiting Al Udeid, there were nearly 50 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

The battle to retake Mosul from ISIS, which the Iraqi government declared complete Sunday, was “a horribly tough fight in the city, house to house,” Nahom said. “I would say airpower has been decisive in its assistance to the ground forces.”

One key consideration, he said: “Make sure we are targeting enemy forces and we are not targeting civilians and non-combatants. It’s incredible the care they take to ensure the safety for those around the battle.”

Airwars, a nonprofit organization tracking the aerial campaigns, estimates that more than 4,300 civilians have been killed in airstrikes since the start of the campaign against ISIS, known as Operation Inherent Resolve.

The U.S. military has the capability to divert weapons even after they’re fired if a noncombatant comes into view, said Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, spokesman for Air Forces Central Command.

“It’s on our minds every single day,” Nahom said. “With every single weapon that comes out of an airplane. How do we take care of the enemy without hurting non-combatants. And when there is an allegation, we take it very seriously, we investigate it very seriously, and we do it very publicly to show we’re not hiding anything.”

• • •

As the battle against ISIS winds down, and the battlefield shrinks, the potential for unintended consequences increases. Skies grow crowded with U.S. and coalition aircraft, as well as those from Russia, Turkey and Syria. Israel, too, has conducted strikes against Syrian targets it feels are threatening.

Last month, a U.S. warplane downed a Russian-made Syrian Su-22 fighter and two Iranian-made Syrian drones that were menacing U.S. allies.

“Our objectives against ISIS, and the regime and Russian objectives, could very well find themselves in the same piece of ground or piece of sky,” Nahom said. “And we watch it very closely, because we want to make sure there is not a strategic miscalculation or we inadvertently have our troops hurt by their operations, or vice versa.”

The Russians are of particular concern with their advanced aircraft, antiaircraft weapons and electronic warfare capabilities.

“I am always concerned when there is another air force flying that is not on the same air tasking order and not flying alongside us,” Nahom said.

He would not discuss the nature of conversations with the Russians on the so-called deconfliction line outside his office — a plain, black plastic desk phone that carries an unclassified line linking the operations center with its Russian counterpart at an airfield in Syria.

The conversations take place up to a dozen times a day. There are English speakers on the Russian end, too.

“It’s obviously a challenge,” Nahom said. “The Russians have been professional in their interactions with us, and that goes not just for their pilots, but their surface-to-air systems as well. . . .

“That being said, it is still a concern.”

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

U.S. threads needle of politics to run air war against ISIS from base in Qatar 07/10/17

[Last modified: Sunday, July 9, 2017 10:11pm]


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