As Gaza war rages, U.S. military footprint expands across Middle East

OVER THE GAZA STRIP — Lt. Col. Jeremy Anderson tilted up the nose of his U.S. Air Force C-130 and tipped 16 pallets of emergency food aid out of the cargo bay and into the sky above northern Gaza.

Thousands of miles away, off the coast of Yemen, U.S. fighter jets and attack helicopters roared off the flight deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, often just minutes apart, to combat Houthi fighters attacking ships in and around the Red Sea.

In both places, U.S. service members said their missions were unexpected, changing as the White House has moved rapidly to contain wider fallout from the Israel-Gaza war. But now, along with a U.S. Army crew on its way to Gaza to build a floating pier, they are firmly part of the U.S. military’s expanding footprint in the Middle East. It’s a region President Biden had hoped to de-emphasize — and one where American involvement has often been devastating and costly.

“This was definitely not something I anticipated,” Anderson said Tuesday after returning to the Jordanian airfield from which he has been flying the drops. “Little did we know post-Oct. 7 we would be here aiding people during a true crisis.”

Out on the Red Sea, where Houthi fighters from Yemen have attacked ships to protest Israel’s war, Rear Adm. Marc Miguez said his carrier strike group, led by the Eisenhower, was originally scheduled to transit the Middle East, host foreign dignitaries and stage military exercises.

Before the war, “we were going to do a port call in Bahrain, we were going to host a king, we had a lot of things scheduled,” said Miguez, the strike group’s commander. Instead, his forces are intercepting Houthi drone and ballistic missile attacks in one of the world’s most strategic waterways, and striking the group further inland in Yemen.

“We’re going to be here as long as needed,” he said.

The war in Gaza and worsening humanitarian crisis there have taught Biden a lesson many presidents have learned before: It’s not so easy to quit the Middle East.

After the wind-down of the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration had wanted to pivot and direct its foreign policy power toward countering Russian aggression and Chinese expansionism. But the morning of Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters killed about 1,200 people in Israel, changed all that.

Now, the Pentagon finds itself increasingly involved in the region’s most intractable conflict, a widening role that reflects both Biden’s staunch support for Israel and his mounting frustration with how it has prosecuted the subsequent war.

More than 31,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and with Israel rebuffing the administration’s calls to get more aid to the enclave, there are few signs the U.S. military missions will wrap up soon.

Earlier this month, the Army dispatched vessels, including the SP4 James A. Loux, the Monterrey, Matamoros and Wilson Wharf from Virginia to the Mediterranean, as part of an effort to deliver up to 2 million meals a day to Gaza by sea.

U.S. officials say the personnel will help establish a floating pier and causeway that can facilitate aid shipments into Gaza without putting forces on the ground.

“‘Hotel California’ should be the official song of the Biden administration,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. diplomat focused on the Middle East. “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”

The Pentagon began rushing military assets to the region almost immediately after Oct. 7, initially to deter Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful proxy, from opening a new front against Israel, but also to avert a wider war.

It took the unusual step of positioning two aircraft carriers, including the Eisenhower and the USS Gerald R. Ford, in the Middle East. It also deployed ships from the Bataan amphibious ready group off Israel and announced it would send a squadron of F-16 fighter jets and additional air defense systems to the region.

The moves represent an uptick in U.S. military activity in the area, but they remain for now a far cry from the vastly larger footprint the Pentagon oversaw at the height of its post-9/11 insurgent wars, when more than 160,000 troops were deployed to Iraq and some 100,000 to Afghanistan.

Today, in addition to its larger, long-standing bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the United States has some 4,000 troops in Jordan, 2,500 in Iraq and 900 in Syria. And the operations remain relatively modest, with no significant increase to the military’s pre-Oct. 7 presence on land.

The White House is adamant that the Pentagon’s work around the war’s edges will not evolve into a combat role. But there’s no denying the danger for personnel aboard American planes and warships in a theater as volatile as the Middle East.

In Iraq and Syria, the Gaza conflict rekindled a long-simmering campaign by Iranian proxy groups to inflict damage on U.S. forces. The groups have launched more than 170 attacks on those forces since Oct. 7. On Jan. 28, a drone assault killed three U.S. service members at Tower 22, a small support base in Jordan.

In response, the Pentagon launched a large-scale attack and killed a key militia leader in Baghdad, restoring some deterrence and an uneasy calm.

In the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula, however, the United States and other nations have struggled to fully halt the Houthi attacks, despite two months of strikes on the group’s missile sites and infrastructure.

Since October, the Yemeni militants have attacked commercial and naval vessels more than 60 times, diverting global maritime traffic, driving up costs and sinking one cargo ship, the Rubymar. They have also clashed directly with U.S. forces, including firing on Navy helicopters answering a distress call from a commercial ship.

Last week, Miguez and other commanders aboard the Eisenhower said Houthi “activity” has decreased in recent weeks. The group is operating less freely, they said, and the attacks are less brazen.

Still, Miguez described the pace of operations as “a persistent drumbeat.”

Even the aid drops carry risk, according to Anderson, citing the crowded airspace over Gaza as the United States, Egypt, Jordan, Belgium and the Netherlands all deliver supplies out of the same airfield.

“Sometimes there are nine, 10 planes in a very confined space,” Anderson said. “The Israeli [military air traffic] controllers are very good.”

The Israeli military said it was cooperating with the aid flights, deconflicting with its own fighter-jet and helicopter traffic over Gaza. The Israeli military agency responsible for coordinating aid inside of Gaza, COGAT, said it was “involved” in inspecting the bundles before they were dropped but would not say where the inspections took place.

In Israel, reaction to the U.S. military’s new role in Gaza has been mixed.

Some Israeli officials say privately they welcome the U.S. initiative, as they look for alternatives to aid handled by UNWRA, the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency that Israel accuses of complicity with Hamas. Hard-liners contend that most assistance to Gaza is hijacked by the militant group, allowing it to keep fighting.

The American planes have been delivering the supplies literally over the heads of protesters trying to block aid trucks from entering the territory. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been silent on the drops.

An Israeli source familiar with discussions in the prime minister’s office said Netanyahu is treading carefully in order not to anger his conservative base or provoke right-wing ministers.

“He knows that any aid coming into Gaza is problematic for public opinion, the public he needs,” the person said.

Some Israelis see the U.S. military activities around the conflict as a byproduct of Biden’s frustration with Israel’s failure to ease the humanitarian crisis. They fear that they are one step closer to Washington putting restrictions on military assistance to Israel.

“It’s a slap in the face of Netanyahu personally,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and a political science professor at Columbia University.

“It’s the senior ally going around the junior ally to do what it wants,” he said. “If [Netanyahu] doesn’t change course soon, the damage could be severe.”

George reported from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ryan reported from Washington.

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