Kuwait City, Kuwait -- Across a broad belt of growing instability that stretches from North Africa through the Persian Gulf to Pakistan, the United States is sliding into a hazardous new era, lacking the grand strategy to guide it through the complex perils ahead, and short of the military forces ready to safeguard America's vital interests, according to U.S. military officers and outside strategists.
Attention is riveted this week on Iraq, as Gen. David Petraeus and President Bush prepare to report on the state of the war and their strategy for salvaging the U.S. intervention there and bringing troops home. But beyond the immediate horizon, strategists warn, darker troubles are gathering and the stakes are high.
Offshore from this bustling, sweltering port city, a line of oil wells looms on the shimmering horizon, part of the Persian Gulf's oil and gas reserves on which the world economy depends. This vast region holds as well the multitudes of people whose energies in the years ahead will turn to political activism and economic progress -- or to sullen extremism and terrorism.
Already, radical Islamist violence and hostility to American ideas seem to be spreading through the region. A resurgent al-Qaida is plotting new attacks, and Iran is racing to join Pakistan and Israel as states with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. All these problems, military analysts say, are expected to get worse.
Defending critical American interests here is the "first challenge" for the United States, Adm. Mike Mullen, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently. The explosive strains within the region, he said, "all threaten to tear at fragile seams and all bear directly on the safety of the United States."
Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which now seem likely to require American troops and money for years to come, are devouring the conventional military and special operations forces needed to help stabilize this vast region. The uncertainties of Iraq, and the more pressing needs of the battle zones, have delayed long-term planning, leaving the United States dangerously vulnerable to unpleasant shocks, critics say.
"This is a huge point of crisis. This should be a national obsession, Job One: What is the strategy, what are the powers we bring to bear, who's in charge," said Robert H. Scales, former commandant of the Army War College and an acknowledged senior strategist and historian.
"Everybody is holding their breath for the Petraeus report," he said. "The real thing is, what comes after Iraq? I don't see a lot of 'What happens next?' going on."'
Analysts see these problems ahead:
Spillover from Iraq. Two million Iraqi refugees already have surged out of Iraq, mostly into Syria and Jordan, creating major strains on housing, schools and employment, and the flow continues. Sectarian fighting inside Iraq is radicalizing much of the region, analysts said, and they predict it will lead to new waves of violence. The region's oil fields are particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack, said Daniel Byman, a former CIA and White House official who teaches at Georgetown University. "I don't panic, but I do worry about it," he said.
Chronic instability. Despite the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf states, the region has been unable to provide jobs for many of its people. The problem will worsen as the youth population "bulges" by as much as 80 percent over the next two decades, demographers say. As in Iraq, unemployed and resentful youth can be ready recruits to violence. "That portends a great deal of instability in that part of the world, where there are people willing to indoctrinate that youth bulge to do things we don't want them to do," said a senior Pentagon strategist.
Distrust of American goals. The United States is increasingly unpopular in the region, raising fresh hurdles for security and diplomatic initiatives. Large majorities now believe the U.S. goal is to undermine Islam (78 percent in Morocco, 92 percent in Egypt, 73 percent in Pakistan), according to a recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Large majorities, averaging 74 percent, want the United States to remove all its military bases from Islamic countries.
Vulnerable bases. Despite such sentiments, the United States has engaged in a building spree. New construction includes a U.S. military-only highway linking American bases here in Kuwait, and major new special operations forces facilities in the conservative Muslim state of Qatar. The huge al Udeid air base there, a city of 8,000 Americans, is the U.S. air headquarters for the region. Amenities include an after-hours beer hall, a rarity in this mostly alcohol-free region. Other construction projects stretch from Djibouti on Africa's Red Sea coast to a new drone spyplane base at the al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates.
Yet commanders believe that U.S. forces here already are vulnerable.
"I worry every day about force protection," said an Air Force general at a Persian Gulf air base that under Pentagon rules cannot be identified for security reasons. He said he worries about insurgent rocket and mortar attacks of the kind that are happening close by in Iraq. "I've got $10 billion worth of aircraft sitting out there on the ramps, including national reconnaissance assets [spy planes] that would be a blow to lose," he said.
New forms of warfare. From simple roadside bombs that defeat the best American armor to high-tech, sea-skimming missiles, insurgent groups in the region are possing new worries. Last summer, Hezbollah, until then considered a mere guerrilla group, held the vaunted Israeli military at bay, terrorizing the population with unguided Katyusha rockets and severely damaging an Israeli warship with an anti-ship missile. Its soldiers' ability to maneuver under fire and willingness to shelter among civilians effectively neutralized Israel's key weapon, its air power, raising warning flags for U.S. airpower strategists. The use of primitive suicide bombs, which spread from Iraq to Afghanistan and Jordan, has proved deadly and unstoppable.
But the Pentagon, saddled with an unwieldy process for responding quickly to emerging threats, is still building a traditional force. Its $176 billion budget this year for new weapons is focused on missile defenses, stealth jet fighters, satellites and warships such as the $2.7 billion Virginia-class nuclear submarine.
Exhaustion of U.S. forces. Gen. George Casey, the Army's top officer, said his troops are "consumed" with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The demand for our forces exceeds the sustainable supply," he said recently. No U.S. ground forces currently are being kept on stand-by alert for emergencies, a standard practice until last January when the alert force was sent to Iraq. Soldiers and Marines no longer practice the skills they'll need in the region, senior officers said.
An operation to free oil fields seized by insurgents, for instance, would begin with air assaults or amphibious landings to secure airfields or beachheads for reinforcements. Neither skill is practiced on a large-scale basis. Combined arms exercises, which teach officers to conduct large-scale ground maneuvers with air support, artillery and armor -- ably demonstrated in the 1991 Desert Storm operation -- also are a thing of the past.
Potential nuclear warfare. U.S. forces are unprepared to fight in a nuclear environment, a Pentagon assessment said. That is a particular vulnerability in a region that includes Pakistan -- a nuclear-armed Islamic state; Israel, which is said to have a clandestine nuclear weapons force; and Iran, which is on a path to acquire nuclear weapons within five years, according to U.S. estimates.
The Pentagon report, issued in 2005 by the Defense Science Board, said it is "becoming more likely that U.S. forces will have to operate in a nuclear environment in regional operations." The effect of nuclear blast and electromagnetic radiation on satellite navigation systems, intelligence and targeting systems and communications could be "catastrophic," it concluded. It also said that carrier battle groups, big airfields and mass troop formations -- all critical to the way U.S. forces operate in the region -- are especially vulnerable. "Few of today's decision-makers appear interested" in the problem, the Pentagon panel said.
Senior officers said little has changed since the report was issued. Neither the current White House National Security Strategy nor the Pentagon's most recent strategic review mention the issue. "Systems that are operating in that environment are likely to be damaged or in some way degraded," a senior Air Force officer acknowledged, adding: "You'd really have to think that one through."
Despite this daunting list of threats, the United States has no up-to-date strategic blueprint for the region, Pentagon and State Department officials said. There is no plan resetting priorities for defense budget investments, no guide for how future military operations should be structured, no recent plan to guide decisions on how, where and what kind of bases to build.
Nor is there a coherent campaign plan to deploy and coordinate all the military and diplomatic, economic, commercial and political powers of the United States against clear objectives in the region, according to outside critics such as Andrew Krepinevich, a West Point-educated retired Army officer and former senior Pentagon strategist.
When the White House earlier this year asked retired Marine Gen. John J. Sheehan, former NATO commander, to take charge of Iraq war policy, he declined. "There is no agreed-upon strategic view of the Iraq problem or the region," he explained in a public letter. "Where does Iraq fit in a larger regional context? There has to be some linkage between short-term operations and strategic objectives that represent long-term U.S. and regional interests."
The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for interviews on strategic plans and what the military calls "force posture" and basing in the region.
State and Defense Department officials said the Joint Staff and U.S. Central Command, the Middle East war-fighting headquarters, have their hands full with current combat operations and the immediate future of Iraq.
Broad, long-term strategic and operational military planning, let alone the crucial inter-agency coordination needed for such an effort, is not getting full attention, they said.
"The military has become very good at tactics ... and pretty darn poor at strategic thinking," said Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a centrist Washington think tank.
The most recent official U.S. national security strategy was issued by the White House in March 2006, about the time the Pentagon completed its latest strategic assessment. Both came before major developments in the region, including the resurgence of al-Qaida and the advance of Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Both also were written before Hezbollah stood up to Israel last summer and before the radical Islamist group Hamas won democratic parliamentary elections in the occupied Palestinian territories and then seized control in Gaza, again shifting the strategic calculus of the region.
The U.S. plan for bases in the region, written in 2004, predates all these developments.
Under that plan, the Pentagon would rely on local bases for emergency access. Rather than stationing large troop units here, it would cache weapons and war materiel, as it did before the Iraq war. Troops could be flown in quickly and get the equipment out of storage.
The problem is that stockpiles once stored here have all been used up in Iraq and have not been replaced, senior Army officers have said. "We lack sufficient funding," the Army explained in a statement last month.
The lack of strategy has also led to a squabble among the services over who takes charge in the region after Iraq.
"Forces are going to come out of Iraq at some point. I believe the lead elements of the engagement and influence plan after that will be naval forces," Mullen, currently the chief of naval operations, recently asserted.
The Army, arguing that the region's instability will require "boots on the ground," is seeking money from Congress for a major expansion. But the Air Force, which is already short of modern cargo planes, has yet another view.
"When the mullahs in Tehran wake up in the morning, they really do not worry about an army coming over the Straits of Hormuz -- they worry about the United States Air Force crushing their national" interests, said Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.
Sorting out these military squabbles may have to wait until the Pentagon has a breather from the pressures of the Iraq war.
"Strategically, it's hard to think ahead when you're up to your elbows in alligators," said Clark Murdock, a former senior strategic planner for the Air Force and the secretary of defense. "That's particularly true near the end of an administration where you are asking, and I know Secretary Gates has been asking his people, 'What can we do in the next 15 months?' "
Civilian planning has suffered as well, critics say, allowing a number of problems to surface.
For instance, a coherent strategy for the region might answer the question of whether the United States should have direct communications with Iran, an issue that has generated feverish debate.
As things stand, the United States is "blind" in the region because it has little knowledge about Iran's capabilities and intentions, said John Tierman, director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But if the United States chooses not to "reward" Iran's bad behavior by opening talks, it might compensate by adding more military capability in the Persian Gulf in a policy of containment.
Without a broad strategic concept for the region, the administration seems to wobble from one approach to another.
Two years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a clean break from 60 years of trying to achieve "stability without liberty in the Middle East." Instead, she said the United States would press autocratic regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia for democratic reforms. Democracy -- not force -- would provide the region real stability and progress, she said. But now, the Bush administration is offering these same regimes billions of dollars in economic and military aid and commercial arms sales with no mention of democracy.
"You need an inter-agency process that allows all the key decision-makers, on a Cabinet level, to think collectively, to sit back and think strategically about the Middle East," said Murdock. "This is worse than usual." The White House National Security Council, entrusted with coordinating such work, "hasn't been as weak as this for some years," Murdock said.
"Managing that interagency collaboration is increasingly complex," said a Pentagon official. "That's a unique capability that we haven't tapped for a while at this broad strategic level."
The result is a growing concern among strategic analysts that the United States, for all its good intentions and critical interests in the region, may simply be outrun by its opponents.
"At the strategic level, there is almost no discussion of how you look at this theater of operations, which stretches from the Mediterranean all the way to India," said Krepinevich.
Instead, it is Iran that has a coherent game plan for the region, he said.
"They have a comprehensive approach, supporting Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, playing multiple sides in Iraq, supporting insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said. "We clearly lack one. We just seem to be too slow at this."