Conceding to terrorism? The rationality behind the U.S. withdrawal of troops in Saudi Arabia in 2003
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 came along with a list of demands from al-Qaeda to the United States, which were clearly summarized on bin Laden’s open letter to America.[i] Among them was the request that the United States leave Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s home country, considered to host two of the holiest sites for Islam. In 2003, on a move that seemed to concede to al-Qaeda’s demand, the U.S. Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, announced a withdrawal of American troops and aircrafts in Saudi Arabia. However, the U.S. did not compromise on the other demands by the terrorist group. The present memo will focus on this issue, arguing that this apparent concession was a rational move with low costs and high benefits at the time, an analysis that is not valid for the other demands posed by al-Qaeda.
Why was the apparent concession to al-Qaeda rational?
Because leaders of democratic countries cannot easily absorb heavy costs such as the loss of many lives, it seemed clear in 2003 that democracies were to be more responsive to terrorist attrition strategies, like the one pursued by al-Qaeda against the United States.[ii] As reported by most newspapers at that time, Rumsfeld tried to make it clear that the U.S. had reached a common agreement with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan on what concerns the withdrawal, and that the Prince Sultan base would remain wired and could be used the future. Then, at the same time the U.S. was signaling for the terrorist organization that it was giving in in one of their specific demands, it was making an effort not to look weak.
Scholars have argued that one of the most efficient strategies for states to deal with attrition strategies is to concede on inessential issues and stand by other more important issues.[iii] This seems to be a balanced approach to the trade-off of responding to terrorism, by which a too strong response would be more effective, but attract continued retaliation.[iv] The United States pursued a rather swift move in Saudi Arabia and stood by other key issues in its agenda: while conceding on the request to withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, the U.S. did not cut its support for Israel and, in fact, started a war with Iraq without authorization of the United Nations Security Council – a form of retaliation against al-Qaeda.
Withdrawing from Saudi Arabia was a concession with low costs and many benefits, as the war in Iraq had dramatically changed the scenario in the region. Firstly, prolonging the stay in the Prince Sultan base was not in the interest of U.S. officials. The economic costs of maintaining operational a large military base not involved in the war ongoing were high (1), and this would be so due to the increasingly frayed relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia (2)[v], and the fact that the alleged mission of that base, i.e. enforcing the no-fly zone on southern Iraq, had been completed with the beginning of the war (3).
In addition to that, on March 1st, 2003, the Turkish Parliament had rejected the U.S. request to deploy as many as 80,000 troops from Turkey to northern Iraq. [vi] As a consequence, the American strategy for the war had to find an alternative way to position its troops in Iraq (4). Moving the aircrafts was easier, as even before the joint announcement of the withdrawal they had already been moved to the al-Udeid base in Qatar, where they started operation in spite of Saudi restrictions (5).[vii],[viii] But, on what concerns the troops, the U.S. did not have another country in the Middle East to host the forces stationed in Saudi Arabia since 1991 until the war started in Iraq (6). For those reasons, then, withdrawing from Saudi Arabia was a strategic move with relatively low costs and with high benefits. The fact that it also seemed a concession to one of al-Qaeda’s requests without the cost of looking weak made the move even more beneficial.
This cost-benefit assessment is not true for the other requests made by al-Qaeda in 2001, such as eliminating its support to the secular regimes in other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt and Pakistan. The change of regime in Egypt in 2011-2012 did not come as an American demand, and Pakistan remains [officially] an American partner on the fight against terrorism. The U.S. interests in the Middle Eastern politics only grew after 1991. Finally, the support for Israel also remained unchanged, as the Jewish lobby in Washington and the support of the Christian Conservatives both remained intact. Clearly, in those cases, the small benefit (trying to reach a non-credible peace with al-Qaeda) and the high costs made concession in those cases very unlikely.
Had the United States understood the concession as a top priority, the withdrawal would have happened much earlier despite the costs – not in May 2003, more than a year and a half after 9/11. That being said, moving troops and aircrafts from Saudi Arabia (into Iraq and Qatar, respectively) did not harm the American interests. In fact, given that the strategic assessment of the situation in the Middle East changed after the war in Iraq started, the withdrawal helped advancing those interests because the costs of staying in the country were higher than the many benefits of leaving it, thus ending the 12 years of military operations in Saudi Arabia.
* MPIA Candidate, UC San Diego.
[i] As seen on The Guardian (2002). Available in: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver>.
[ii] Kydd, Andrew; and Walter, Barbara (2006). The Strategies of Terrorism. International Security, pp. 49-80. Available in: <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/international_security/v031/31.1kydd.html>.
[iv] de Moura Pereira, A. P., Vilarinhos, B. T., Macedo, N., Cheng, Q. (2012). The multiple faces of contemporary terrorism: complexity, discourses and the case-example of Northwestern Pakistan. In: Sigora, J. A. S., Avellar, C. L. N., Ribeiro, C. A. C. Individual Empowerment in the International System: Toward Development, Through Freedom. AMUN, Pp. 198-241.
[v] Saudi Arabia had not allowed the Americans to perform air strikes from the Prince Sultan base without the previous authorization of the United Nations. Military cooperation between the two countries started in 1991, when Saudi Arabia was used as the American launch pad against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
[vi] Migdalovitz (2003) even suggests that this rejection was due to “the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), an inexperienced leadership”. Read more on: Migdalovitz, Carol (2003). Iraq: Turkey, the Deployment of U.S. Forces, and Related Issues. Congressional Research Service. Available in: <http://congressionalresearch.com/RL31794/document.php?study=Iraq+Turkey+the+Deployment+of+U.S.+Forces+and+Related+Issues>.
[vii] Rennie, David (2003). America to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia. The Telegraph. Available in: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/saudiarabia/1428786/America-to-withdraw-troops-from-Saudi-Arabia.html>.
[viii] One of the reasons why the U.S. built the base in Qatar was precisely because they feared that Saudi Arabia would ban air strikes in Iraq. Read more on: Schmitt, Eric (2003). U.S. to Withdraw All Combat Forces From Saudi Arabia. The New York Times. Available in: <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/29/international/worldspecial/29CND-RUMS.html>.