Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stands with U.S. troops before departing Monday from the Islamabad International Airport in Pakistan. Secretary Hagel made a brief stop in Pakistan to meet with military officials and the Prime Minister. (Mark Wilson / AP)
AL UDEID AIR BASE, QATAR — The U.S. air operations center in Qatar has long been a hub where combat sorties into Iraq and Afghanistan were tracked and international forces kept watch over hotspots in the Persian Gulf and western Mediterranean Sea. But for years it’s kept a low profile in a region sometimes reluctant to advertise its significant U.S. military presence.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured the center at al Udeid Air Base in the desert outside Doha and spoke of its importance.
His visit lifted a veil from a key American base and underscored one of the themes of Hagel’s weeklong trip across the region: telling allies that the end of the Afghanistan war, the tentative Iran nuclear deal and budget pressures at home do not mean that the U.S. will abandon them.
He pressed that message in meetings in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, where differences over U.S. policies on Iran and Syria have made Gulf allies nervous
In recent years U.S. officials have tried to limit public talk of al Udeid, although its existence is not a secret. But on Tuesday Hagel walked through the operations center, with about a dozen journalists trailing him, as three huge video screens lit up with maps of the Gulf, the western Mediterranean Sea and Syria, and tracking of bomber flights into Afghanistan.
Around the room, troops sat at computer stations, tracking the numbers and dots on the maps representing fighter and bomber flights into the warzone, and commercial and military air traffic through the Gulf. According to Air Force Col. Mike Schnabel, director of combat operations, troops in the operations center are tracking about 50 close air support flights a day to Afghanistan, although only a small fraction of those represent troops in contact with the enemy. There’s also a big flow of surveillance coming in from around the region.
Al Udeid, represents the future, Hagel said.
“Our partners are going to be as important and probably more so than they’ve ever been for our own national security, for their national security,” he told troops gathered outside the operations center. “The more we can understand each other, work with each other, the better the world is going to be.”
Outside, he said his earlier message to Saudi Arabian leaders was “we’re not going to get disconnected from our allies in this region. Our common interests are very clear here.”