MANAMA, Bahrain — Years of political unrest in Bahrain have repeatedly raised questions about the future of the U.S. 5th Fleet’s strategic naval base here, and a senator is now asking the Defense Department about contingency plans should the U.S. presence on the tiny island nation become untenable.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, dated July 15, Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., asked whether the U.S. has a contingency plan for the 5th Fleet if “the political situation in Bahrain deteriorates further.” The question reflects concerns about the possibility of losing strategic basing rights.
“If the Department of Defense is not conducting such planning, I request your explanation of why you deem it unnecessary,” Casey wrote. The letter was posted to the Humanrightsfirst.org website, and its authenticity was verified by Casey’s office.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Wesley “Jack” Miller said Wednesday that Hagel’s response to the letter from Casey was being drafted.
The predominantly Shiite Muslim opposition movement in Bahrain is demanding political and economic reforms from the ruling Sunni establishment. Shiites make up more than two-thirds of Bahrain’s citizens.
Casey, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, expressed concerns about the “violent suppression of dissent” reported by human rights organizations, as well as the use of force by security forces documented in the Bahrain Independent Commission on Inquiry. The commission examined Bahrain’s human rights record in the aftermath of violent protests in February 2011 that led Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to deploy forces to Bahrain at the request of the ruling royal family.
At the time, the U.S. Navy evacuated American families from the country.
Since then, tensions have eased somewhat and families have returned to the country, where foreigners have not been targeted.
However, Bahrain has continued to experience small-scale violent protests with police occasionally responding with baton charges and tear gas.
In the past few weeks, there has been an uptick of unrest. A bomb Saturday injured three police officers, and earlier this month a car bomb exploded outside a mosque near where members of the royal family live. No injuries were reported.
At an emergency session of the National assembly Sunday tougher measures against “terrorism” were discussed.
“It is critically important, both for U.S. National security and democratic values, that we continue to press the Bahraini government to respect the human rights of its citizens and to make necessary democratic reforms,” Casey wrote. “However, I am concerned that we apparently have not developed plans for an alternative contingency facility in this strategically critical and dynamic region.”
Casey wrote that his inquiry was spurred in part by a policy paper published in June by Navy Commander Richard McDaniel for the Brookings Institution titled “No ‘Plan B’: U.S. Strategic Access in the Middle East and the Question of Bahrain.”
In the executive summary, McDaniel calls the U.S. base in Bahrain “arguably, the most important U.S. strategic base in the heart of the Middle East.”
“In view of the ongoing political unrest, the possibility of losing strategic basing rights in Bahrain is something that should be carefully considered,” McDaniel wrote. “Unfortunately, military leaders state there is no ‘Plan B’ if strategic basing in Bahrain is jeopardized.
“While losing Bahrain is not a foregone conclusion, it remains a distinct possibility under a variety of different circumstances and scenarios. The absence of a U.S. presence could potentially create a power vacuum, destabilize the region, and eliminate the moderating effect of U.S. influence in any Bahraini crisis,” McDaniel wrote.
The U.S. 5th fleet is home to about 7,000 U.S. personnel. In early July, three U.S. coastal patrol ships were permanently stationed in Bahrain. Work has begun on projects to enhance infrastructure, and even the Navy Exchange is expanding to accommodate incoming U.S. families.
The U.S. Navy took over the base from the British in 1971 after London decided to end its military presence east of Suez.