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"What luck for rulers that men do not think" - Adolf Hitler
"Lest this seem to be the bellicose pipedream of some dyspeptic desk soldier, let us remember that the military deal of our country has never been defensive warfare. Since the Revolution, only the United Kingdom has beaten our record for square miles of territory acquired by military conquest. Our exploits against the American Indian, against the Filipinos, the Mexicans, and against Spain are on a par with the campaigns of Genghis Khan, the Japanese in Manchuria and the African attack of Mussolini. No country has ever declared war on us before we first obliged them with that gesture. Our whole history shows we have never fought a defensive war. And at the rate our armed forces are being implemented at present, the odds are against our fighting one in the near future." - --Major General Smedley D. Butler, America's Armed Forces: 'In Time of Peace', 1935. 1898-1914: The Phillipines.
By Nick Turse, Feb 11, 2010
In the 19th century, it was a fort used by British forces. In the 20th century, Soviet troops moved into the crumbling facilities. In December 2009, at this site in the Shinwar district of Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, United States troops joined members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in preparing the way for the next round of foreign occupation. On its grounds, a new military base is expected to rise, one of hundreds of camps and outposts scattered across the country.
Nearly a decade after the George W Bush administration launched its invasion of Afghanistan, TomDispatch offers the first actual count of American, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other coalition bases there, as well as facilities used by the Afghan security forces. Such bases range from relatively American towns. Today, according to official sources, approximately 700 bases of every size dot the Afghan countryside, and more, like the one in Shinwar, are under construction or soon will be as part of a base-building boom that began last year.
Existing in the shadows, rarely reported on and little talked about, this base-building program is nonetheless staggering in size and scope, and heavily dependent on supplies imported from abroad, which means that it is also extraordinarily expensive. It has added significantly to the already long secret list of Pentagon property overseas and raises questions about just how long, after the planned beginning of a drawdown of American forces in 2011, the US will still be garrisoning Afghanistan.
400 foreign bases in Afghanistan
A spokesman for the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) tells TomDispatch that there are, at present, nearly 400 US and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts. In addition, there are at least 300 ANA and Afghan National Police bases, most of them built, maintained, or supported by the US. A small number of the coalition sites are mega-bases like Kandahar airfield, which boasts one of the busiest runways in the world, and Bagram air base, a former Soviet facility that received a makeover, complete with Burger King and Popeyes outlets, and now serves more than 20,000 US troops, in addition to thousands of coalition forces and civilian contractors.
In fact, Kandahar, which housed 9,000 coalition troops as recently as 2007, is expected to have a population of as many as 35,000 troops by the time President Obama's surge is complete, according to Colonel Kevin Wilson who oversees building efforts in the southern half of Afghanistan for the US Army Corps of Engineers. On the other hand, the Shinwar site, according to Sergeant Tracy J Smith of the US 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, will be a small forward operating base (FOB) that will host both Afghan troops and foreign forces.
Last autumn, it was reported that more than US$200 million in construction projects - from barracks to cargo storage facilities - were planned for or in-progress at Bagram. Substantial construction funds have also been set aside by the US Air Force to upgrade its air power capacity at Kandahar. For example, $65 million has been allocated to build additional apron space (where aircraft can be parked, serviced, and loaded or unloaded) to accommodate more close-air support for soldiers in the field and a greater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. Another $61 million has also been earmarked for the construction of a cargo helicopter apron and a tactical airlift apron there.
Kandahar is just one of many sites currently being upgraded. Exact figures on the number of facilities being enlarged, improved or hardened are unavailable but, according a spokesman for ISAF, the military plans to expand several more bases to accommodate the increase of troops as part of Afghan war commander Stanley McChrystal's surge strategy. In addition, at least 12 more bases are slated to be built to help handle the 30,000 extra American troops and thousands of NATO forces beginning to arrive in the country.
"Currently we have over $3 billion worth of work going on in Afghanistan," says Colonel Wilson, "and probably by the summer, when the dust settles from all the uplift, we'll have about $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion worth of that [in the South]." By comparison, between 2002 and 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers spent more than $4.5 billion on construction projects, most of it base-building, in Afghanistan.
At the site of the future FOB in Shinwar, more than 135 private construction contractors attended what was termed an "Afghan-Coalition contractors rodeo". According to Lieutenant Fernando Roach, a contracting officer with the US Army's Task Force Mountain Warrior, the event was designed "to give potential contractors a walkthrough of the area so they'll have a solid overview of the scope of work". The construction firms then bid on three separate projects: the renovation of the more than 30-year-old Soviet facilities, the building of new living quarters for Afghan and coalition forces and the construction of a two-kilometer wall for the base.
In the weeks since the "rodeo", the US Army has announced additional plans to upgrade facilities at other forward operating bases. At FOB Airborne, located near Kane-Ezzat in Wardak province, for instance, the army intends to put in reinforced concrete bunkers and blast protection barriers as well as lay concrete foundations for Re-Locatable Buildings (prefabricated, trailer-like structures used for living and working quarters). Similar work is also scheduled for FOB Altimur, an army camp in Logar province.
The Afghan base boom
Recently, the US Army Corps of Engineers, Afghanistan District-Kabul, announced that it would be seeking bids on "site assessments" for Afghan National Security Forces District Headquarters Facilities nationwide. The precise number of Afghan bases scattered throughout the country is unclear.
When asked by TomDispatch, Colonel Radmanish of the Afghan Ministry of Defense would state only that major bases were located in Kabul, Pakteya, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and that ANA units operate all across Afghanistan. Recent US Army contracts for maintenance services provided to Afghan army and police bases, however, suggest that there are no fewer than 300 such facilities that are, according to an ISAF spokesman, not counted among the coalition base inventory.
As opposed to America's fast-food franchise-filled bases, Afghan ones are often decidedly more rustic affairs. The police headquarters in Khost Farang district, Baghlan province, is a good example. According to a detailed site assessment conducted by a local contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Afghan government, the district headquarters consists of mud and stone buildings surrounded by a mud wall. The site even lacks a deep well for water. A trench fed by a nearby spring is the only convenient water source.
The US bases that most resemble austere Afghan facilities are combat outposts, also known as COPs. Environmental specialist Michael Bell of the Army Corps of Engineers, Afghanistan Engineer District-South's Real Estate Division, recently described the facilities and life on such a base as he and his co-worker, Realty Specialist Damian Salazar, saw it in late 2009:
An MWR [Morale, Welfare and Recreation] tent was erected on Thanksgiving Day with an operating television; however, the tent was rarely used due to the cold. Most of the troops used a tent with gym equipment for recreation ... A cook trailer provided a hot simple breakfast and supper. Lunch was MREs [ meals ready to eat]. Nights were pitch black with no outside lighting from the base or the city.
According to an official site assessment, future construction at the Khost Farang district police headquarters will make use of sand, gravel and stone, all available on the spot. Additionally, cement, steel, bricks, lime and gypsum have been located for purchase in Pol-e Khomri City, about 135 kilometers away.
Constructing a base for American troops, however, is another matter. For the far less modest American needs of American troops, builders rely heavily on goods imported over extremely long, difficult to traverse and sometimes embattled supply lines, all of which adds up to an extraordinarily costly affair. "Our business runs on materials," Lieutenant General Robert van Antwerp, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, told an audience at a town hall meeting in Afghanistan in December 2009. "You have to bring in the lumber, you have to bring in the steel, you have to bring in the containers and all that. Transport isn't easy in this country - number one, the roads themselves, number two, coming through other countries to get here - there are just huge challenges in getting the materials here."
To facilitate US base construction projects, a new "virtual storefront" - an online shopping portal - has been launched by the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). The Maintenance, Repair and Operations Uzbekistan Virtual Storefront website and a defense contractor-owned and operated brick-and-mortar warehouse facility that supports it aim to provide regionally-produced construction materials to speed surge-accelerated building efforts.
From a facility located in Termez, Uzbekistan, cement, concrete, fencing, roofing, rope, sand, steel, gutters, pipe and other construction material manufactured in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan can be rushed to nearby Afghanistan to accelerate base-building efforts. "Having the products closer to the fight will make it easier for warfighters by reducing logistics response and delivery time," says Chet Evanitsky, the DLA's construction and equipment supply chain division chief.
America's shadowy base world
The Pentagon's most recent inventory of bases lists a total of 716 overseas sites. These include facilities owned and leased all across the Middle East as well as a significant presence in Europe and Asia, especially Japan and South Korea. Perhaps even more notable than the Pentagon's impressive public foreign property portfolio are the many sites left off the official inventory. While bases in the Persian Gulf countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates are all listed, one conspicuously absent site is al-Udeid air base, a billion-dollar facility in nearby Qatar, where the US Air Force secretly oversees its ongoing unmanned drone wars.
The count also does not include any sites in Iraq where, as of August 2009, there were still nearly 300 American bases and outposts. Similarly, US bases in Afghanistan - a significant percentage of the 400 foreign sites scattered across the country - are noticeably absent from the Pentagon inventory.
Counting the remaining bases in Iraq - as many as 50 are slated to be operating after President Barack Obama's August 31, 2010, deadline to remove all US "combat troops" from the country - and those in Afghanistan, as well as black sites like Al-Udeid, the total number of US bases overseas now must significantly exceed 1,000. Just exactly how many US military bases (and allied facilities used by US forces) are scattered across the globe may never be publicly known. What we do know - from the experience of bases in Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea - is that, once built, they have a tendency toward permanency that a cessation of hostilities, or even outright peace, has a way of not altering.
After nearly a decade of war, close to 700 US, allied, and Afghan military bases dot Afghanistan. Until now, however, they have existed as black sites known to few Americans outside the Pentagon. It remains to be seen, a decade into the future, how many of these sites will still be occupied by US and allied troops and whose flag will be planted on the ever-shifting British-Soviet-US/Afghan site at Shinwar.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is currently a fellow at New York University's Center for the United States and the Cold War. He is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books). His website is NickTurse.com.
(Copyright 2010 Nick Turse.)
(Used by permission Tomdispatch.)