The Cost of an Afghan 'Victory'
During the 1990 Kuwait crisis, the stationing of more than 540,000 non-Muslim US troops on the soil of Saudi Arabia--considered sacred as the realm containing Mecca and Medina, the birth and death places of the Prophet Muhammad--angered many pious Saudis, especially the ulema (religious scholars). They argued that under the Sharia it is forbidden for foreign forces to be based in Saudi Arabia under their own flag. Their discontent rose when, having liberated Kuwait in March 1991, the Pentagon failed to carry out full withdrawal from the kingdom. Among those who protested vocally was bin Laden, who established a formal committee that advocated religious-political reform. In 1993 King Fahd created a Consultative Council, all of whose members were appointed by him and served in a merely advisory capacity; this step failed to pacify bin Laden. During the Yemeni civil war of April-July 1994, when Riyadh backed the Marxist former South Yemeni leaders against the government in Sana, bin Laden condemned the official policy. The authorities stripped him of his Saudi citizenship and expelled him from the country.
But bin Laden's banishment (to Sudan) did not deter other Islamic radicals from pursuing their agenda. In November 1995 they detonated a bomb at a Saudi National Guard base in Riyadh, killing five US service personnel stationed there. Of the four Saudis arrested as suspects, three turned out to be "Afghanis." They were found guilty and executed.
However, what put the US military presence in Saudi Arabia in the limelight was the truck bombing on June 25, 1996, outside the Al Khobar complex near the Dhahran air base. The explosion killed nineteen American servicemen and injured more than 400. This occurred a few weeks after bin Laden had arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan, which he was forced to leave when its government came under pressure from Washington and Riyadh.
Bin Laden then called for a jihad against the Americans in Saudi Arabia. "The presence of American crusader forces in Muslim Gulf states...is the greatest danger and [poses] the most serious harm, threatening the world's largest oil reserves," he said. "Pushing out this American occupying enemy is the most important duty after the duty of belief in God."
After the Al Khobar bombing the Saudi authorities grudgingly admitted the presence of some 5,000 American troops on Saudi soil. They were part of the force in charge of 170 US fighters, bombers and tank-killers parked in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Well-informed Saudi watchers, however, put the number of American servicemen in the kingdom at 15,000-20,000, including several thousand in civilian dress, based in Dhahran, Jedda and the defense ministry in Riyadh.
What is the basis of the US military presence in Saudi Arabia, and what are its aims? When on August 6, 1990, King Fahd invited US troops to his kingdom, it was to bolster Saudi defenses against the threat of an Iraqi invasion following Baghdad's occupation of Kuwait. Once the US-led coalition had expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait, this mission was accomplished. So there was no more need for foreign troops, nor was there any official explanation for their presence.
The unofficial explanation is that the purpose of the US warplanes stationed in Saudi Arabia is to enforce the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. This rationale is flawed in at least three respects. First, since Washington has publicly acknowledged defense agreements with Kuwait and Bahrain, why not limit the stationing of warplanes to those countries and exclude Saudi Arabia because of its special religious significance to Muslims worldwide? Second, the southern no-fly zone was not imposed until August 1992, seventeen months after the end of the Gulf War, ostensibly to prevent Saddam Hussein's regime from persecuting the Shiite population of southern Iraq--so this could not have been the reason American aircraft were stationed there before that time. Finally, with one or two aircraft carriers of the US Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, permanently plying the Persian Gulf, is there really a need to station US warplanes on Saudi soil--and thus provide fuel to the likes of bin Laden, who claims that the kingdom is "occupied" by US troops in the same way Afghanistan was by Soviet soldiers?