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Pentagon To Deploy About 500 U.S. Troops To Saudi Arabia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tensions with Iran are also behind the Trump administration's decision to send several hundred troops to Saudi Arabia. About 500 troops will deploy to Prince Sultan Air Base east of the capital, Riyadh. Marines currently guard the embassy in Riyadh, and airmen help train Saudi forces. But this is the first time since 2003 that Saudi Arabia will host U.S. fighters. To talk about this change, we are joined by Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism.

Welcome.

STEVE COLL: Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Why has Saudi Arabia's King Salman agreed to host U.S. troops in his country for the first time in 16 years?

COLL: I think they're worried about Iran. They can see escalation underway. They're not sure where it's going to end. I think with this deployment to the air base they're signaling a preparedness to meet Iran if they come under attack in any way.

SHAPIRO: What do you expect the American troops to actually do once they're there?

COLL: It's not clear to me. I think the strength of the Saudi defense lies in its missile and air capability in comparison to Iran's. The Iranians have been effective in the Gulf with their kind of attack boats and their swarming patrols. But the Saudi technology for air defense is much stronger than that of Iran's.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying that this is mostly symbolic?

COLL: It's not a lot of troops. I think it must be to strengthen defense capabilities that perhaps the Saudis don't feel they can manage in a wartime environment on their own. It's not the kind of deployment that we saw, for example, in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and there were hundreds of thousands of international troops in Saudi Arabia. This is nothing like a ground combat deployment. But it's, I imagine, something to strengthen Saudi Arabia's air capabilities and its air defenses.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the presence of American troops raises the possibility, the likelihood of war?

COLL: No, I don't. It's not a large deployment. The bigger American deployment in the region is on the water and in air capabilities. And if there were an outbreak of hostilities, I imagine the American plan would be initially to carry out missile or airstrikes on Iranian infrastructure or military facilities or nuclear facilities.

SHAPIRO: So how much have things changed in Saudi Arabia since the last time the U.S. had troops there?

COLL: Well, after 9/11, a longtime relatively low level deployment that had been left in Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War of 1990-1991 was removed at the request of the Saudis amid significant tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia over the fact that 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. And it took a long while for Saudi Arabia to feel that it could afford the kind of intimate alliance with the United States that we've seen during the Trump administration.

SHAPIRO: One reason American troops left in 2003 was that al-Qaida was using it as a PR move, talking about the presence of Western troops in Saudi Arabia. Have conditions in Saudi really changed so much that American troops would be more welcome today?

COLL: You have a government that has really started to evolve into more of a police state than Saudi Arabia used to be. It has a heavy surveillance regime against dissent. You saw in the case of Jamal Khashoggi how ready this government has been to attack, imprison and even murder dissidents, whether they're at home or abroad.

So it may be that this young crown prince, who's really the decision-maker in Saudi Arabia today as we - Mohammad bin Salman, who we call MBS, that he has the confidence that he can withstand any dissent that might arise from the deployment of U.S. troops into the kingdom. That's a possibility.

As to the underlying truth of public opinion, I don't think that the attitude of the average Saudi toward the presence of U.S. soldiers in the kingdom has changed very much from 2003. Al-Qaida has been suppressed, it's true. But the Islamic State's propaganda does reach into the kingdom. And there are stirrings of dissent that would be reinforced by the story of, oh, here come the American infidel troops once again to defend the royal family that claims to be the righteous guardians of Islam's two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.

SHAPIRO: That's Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism and author of "Directorate S: The CIA And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan."

Thanks for speaking with us.

COLL: Good to be with you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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