JPRI Critique Vol. IX, No. 3, April 2002
U.S "Base-mania" in Central Asia
by Patrick Lloyd Hatcher
            Following the events of September 11, 2001, a key consideration dominates American military strategy. Should the United States obtain Central Asian military bases in order to protect itself from terrorists attacks, now or in the future? The evidence suggests it should not. But foreign real estate has the same attraction for American defense planners that Nimitz-class aircraft carriers do for admirals and B-2 stealth bombers and heavy Abrams tanks do for generals. In other words, they can never have enough. With the campaign in Afghanistan now being called only phase one of a longer struggle against terrorism, the U.S. military’s lust for land-bases has taken it back to a Cold War mindset. It was from approximately 1947 to 1989 that the United States tried, with some success, to ring the Soviet Union with bases from northern Norway to the Korean peninsula. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the logic for these "containment" bases collapsed.
            Faced with this reality and declining budgets, the Defense Department admitted in the early 1990s that it needed fewer bases, both at home and abroad. Congressional delegations screamed when one of "their" bases went on the block, but a complicated formula forced the closures. California alone, a state that in the nineteenth century looked like a military reservation, lost heavily as the U.S. Navy abandoned all its facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the U.S. Army relinquished the jewel of its West Coast properties, the Presidio of San Francisco (see Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, Economic Earthquakes [Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies, 1994]). Internationally, American base closures impacted mainly Europe, especially western Germany, where U.S. military townships dotted that Cold War frontier state.
            More than any other great power, the United States has tried to replicate itself on overseas bases. Grade and high schools sprang up, large family housing projects like Pattonville near Stuttgart appeared on the landscape, along with military shopping malls (dry cleaners, beauty parlors, movie theatres, bowling lanes, commissaries with food flown in from the U.S., base/post exchanges similar to department stores, auto-mechanic garages, and even ski resorts with hotels in Garmisch and Berchtesgaden). In South Korea, Camp Ames had paved roads and permanent cinderblock buildings long before the nearby village had electricity or running water.
            Northeast Asia was not subjected to the same scale of American defense down-sizing. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines asked the United States to leave the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base, while the Nixon Administration’s "Vietnamization" program gave the American military what it hoped was a chance to withdraw "with honor" from  bases in South Vietnam. But Northeast Asian facilities remained relics of the Cold War. (The U.S. did give Camp Ames back to South Korea and moved American defense activities closer to the fleshpots of rejuvenated Seoul and Pusan). Tiny Okinawa with its 38 U.S. bases is even under orders to accept yet another American base, this one to be built in the ecologically sensitive bay at Nago.

Wherever the U.S. Military Goes, Bases Follow

            In Kosovo, the Balkan backwater where former President Clinton committed  the nation for no more than a six month sojourn to enforce peace, the U.S. military is now busy building a permanent base. Camp Bondsteel, little more than a village of tents two years ago, has become a small, self-supporting town of wooden barracks and command centers, helicopter maintenance buildings, a water treatment plant, a movie theatre, gymnasium and a hospital.
            Why not let the European Rapid Reaction Forces help enforce peace on this Euro-zone periphery? Perhaps because U.S. officials like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright spent much of the 1990s urging NATO to expand toward the Russian border. This reckless and regrettable policy hobbled Eastern Europe, which needs economic membership in a dynamic European Union, not military memberships in a missionless alliance. As Kenneth Waltz wrote in The National Interest (Spring, 2000): "Rather than learning from history, the United States repeats past errors by expanding NATO eastward and extending its influence over what used to be the province of the vanquished. This alienates Russia and pushes it toward China." After emasculating Europe and ceding much of Bosnia to Bosnian Serbs, thereby strengthening two pip-squeak dictators—Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, who went on to massacre Serbia’s Muslim minority—the U.S. intervened in Kosovo only belatedly and moved the forward headquarters of the 5th U.S. Army Corps from Heidelberg , Germany, to the Hungarian-Croatian border.
            Another case of "base-mania" occurred following Operation Desert Storm. In 1991, the Pentagon decided it needed to stay in Kuwait, and turned two small warehouses into the present 500-acre complex known as Camp Doha, Kuwait, headquarters for U.S. Army Central Command-Kuwait (ARCENT-KU). Here the Pentagon rotates battalion-sized task forces nearly continuously, flying one unit in from the U.S. while it takes another back. The U.S. Army conducts joint "Intrinsic Action" training with Kuwaiti forces; the U.S. Marine Corps calls theirs "Eagle Mace;" while the Special Operations Forces cover their joint activities under code name "Iris Gold." Not far from Camp Doha sits Ahmed al-Jabat Air Base, Kuwait, a home-away-from home for U.S. Air Force aircraft.

The Central Asia Expansion

            Will Camp Bondstell and Camp Doha act as models for woebegone Afghanistan and its wounded neighbors? "That’s affirm," as the military likes to say and the New York Times reports. Several locations have won approval: in Afghanistan the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul and Kandahar Airport is now home to the 101st U.S. Airborne Division, formerly of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Elsewhere, there is Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, and a new air base going up outside Bishkek, capital of  Kyrgyzstan, as a "transportation hub to house as many as 3,000 troops and accommodate warplanes and support aircraft" (New York Times, January 9, 2002). Also located at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport, there will be a U.S. military surgical ward, gym, and a military exchange (i.e.,  shopping center). This base is located only three hundred miles from the Chinese border. To mask the appearance of unilateral military expansion, the U.S. has invited France to station six Mirage 2000s at Bishkek "for combat air operations in northern Afghanistan."
            Another agreement has been concluded with Tajikistan’s government for a base near Tashkent while talks continue with Kazakhstan for U.S. use of an airfield there. Add to this the February 9, 2002, agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan in which Islamabad’s military government agreed to allow the U.S "to use Pakistani facilities for joint exercises, training, deployments and other military operations" (San Francisco Chronicle, February 10, 2002).
            The ostensible reason given for acquiring Central Asian bases is the U.S. desire to destroy the al-Qaeda as a functioning terrorist organization. As a mainly pan-Arab grouping, the al-Qaeda’s hijacking of a non-Arab government, the Taliban, which had itself hijacked one of the world’s greatest religions, Islam, there is ample evidence that major al-Qaeda operatives know their business. But are American bases in Central Asian and Arab countries the appropriate response?
            With the World Towers inferno, the al-Qaeda made themselves targets. To evade destruction, they went back underground. Where did they hunker down? The best guess is not Afghanistan, where many Afghans would sell them for the price of a rug. Cairo and Riyadh tend to execute dissidents on the spot. More likely hiding places are the European cities of the Islamic diaspora. For example, Islam has emerged as the fastest-growing religion in Britain, with numbers ranging from 1.5 million to 2.5 million followers. The rap sheet of "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid, who terrorized American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami, is instructive. He had a Black Jamaican immigrant grandfather and a father who married an English white woman, the daughter of an accountant and magistrate. Both father and son did time in British jails, where they converted to Islam. British scholars like Ziauddin Sardar suggest that "Islam is a sort of natural religion for underdogs and that’s one reason why Afro-Caribbean people have found its message very attractive" (The Economist, February 2, 2002). Assuming that Europe now contains the remnants of al-Qaeda, central Asian military bases will not help find them, nor will military forces. Instead, it rests with police agencies, intelligence services, and financial institutions.

A Better Solution

            If recent history suggests anything about long-term hospitality in the Islamic world, the U.S. will probably get invited out soon after it settles in. Saudi Arabia provides a perfect example. The almost 4,500-strong military force that the U.S. stations there, along with almost 1,000 British forces, today find themselves proto-prisoners and terrorist-targets. The 1996 bombing of the U.S. Air Force Khobar Towers barracks in the Saudi city of Dhahran killed nineteen U.S. airmen. Now concentrated mainly at the Prince Sultan Air Base outside Riyadh, U.S. forces once numbered 500,000 during the Persian Gulf War. Saudi strategists expected that the Desert Storm military would go home once they finished their job expelling Iraq from Kuwait.  But they stayed on because Washington held that the job remained undone so long as Saddam Hussein was still in power. Baffled at first, the Saudis countered: no flights to bomb Iraq, and then no over-flights of Iraq. Nonetheless, last summer the Pentagon proceeded to open a state-of-the-art command center on the Prince Sultan Air Base.
            Saudi royals have now begun to hint that the Americans have overstayed their welcome. Among the reasons are the secular attitudes of American military personnel that conflict with Saudi religious authorities determined to defend their sacred soil. But such issues pale compared to Saudi rage against what they perceive as America’s one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinians issue.
            The Saudi bases were a mistake from the start. The U.S. should have remained over-the-horizon, its fleet patrolling nearby waters. That is what carrier battle groups do superbly. They function as floating bases that the Pentagon can move about the world’s oceans. Four were deployed after September 11th: the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Arabian Sea, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt in the western Mediterranean, and the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk  in the Indian Ocean. In the recent past, the U.S. Navy has paid short-term rents for pier space for such carriers in Singapore, one of the few places that can take these giant warships. Note the verb rent and the adjective short-term. Moreover, American naval battle groups  can and do use the British Indian Ocean base at Diego Garcia, which has also offered U.S. Air Force B-52s the runways from which to lumber north to drop their payloads on Afghanistan. Stealth bombers have operated over Afghan airspace from their bases back in the United States. Given all this, I would argue that no permanent Central Asian bases are required. 
            One may counter that this combination will not always work. Athough the celebrated historian Paul Kennedy seems overawed by the size and power of U.S. aircraft carriers, they make excellent targets, especially for Russian manufactured Moskit anti-ship cruise missiles, called Sunburns (SSN-22), of which the Chinese bought 48 in 2000 and have stockpiled more ever since. With a range of 80 miles, a speed of Mach 2.34, its high-explosive warhead can sink most U.S. ships. And the warhead can go nuclear, up to 200-kiloton, six–times as powerful as Hiroshima. Beijing bought two Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers from Moscow to go with these Russian anti-ship weapons. Indicators point to their willingness to buy more, particularly upgraded versions. Professor Kennedy may want to revise his use of decrepitude to describe the Russian military (Financial Times, February 5, 2002). Apparently their version of the military-industrial complex still delivers complex weapons systems that work when tested, the first thing that the Chinese did before paying. Seen from Washington this equipment is offensive; Beijing regards it as defensive. But it and other developments mean that the traditional carrier faces a future of limited use, mainly in low-tech environments.
            The Afghanistan conflict has proved the continued usefulness of carriers as floating bases in minimum intensity combat, and Paul Kennedy correctly notes that the U.S. pulled forces from international bases it already shared. And yet, as of March 2002, the U.S. has acquired "a ring of new and expanded military bases established in 13 locations in nine countries near Afghanistan since September 11" (Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2001). Unfortunately, that is not a recipe for catching terrorists and more security  but for  blowback and a continuing cycle of violence aimed at the U.S.
PATRICK LLOYD HATCHER is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, a Ph.D. in history, and author of, among other works, The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists and Vietnam (Stanford University Press, 1990) and North Atlantic Civilization at War (M. E. Sharpe, 1998). He is currently a research scholar affiliated with the Center for the Pacific Rim, University of San Francisco.

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