by Tom Engelhardt: The
Urge to Surge
India, a rising
power, almost had one (but the Tajiks said
no). China, which last year became
the world's second largest economy as well as the planet's leading
energy consumer, and is expanding abroad like mad (largely via
trade and the power of the purse), still has none. The Russians
have a few (in Central Asia where "the great game" is
ongoing), as do those former colonial powers Great
Britain and France,
as do certain NATO countries in Afghanistan. Sooner
or later, Japan may even have one.
All of them
together — and maybe you’ve already guessed that I'm talking about
military bases not on one's own territory — add up to a relatively
modest (if unknown) total. The U.S., on the other hand, has enough
bases abroad to sink the world. You almost have the feeling that
a single American mega-base like Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan
could swallow them all up. It's so large that a special Air Force
"team" has to be assigned to it just to deal with the
mail arriving every day, 360,000
pounds of it in November 2010 alone. At the same base, the U.S.
spent $130 million building "a better gas station for aircraft…
[a] new refueling system, which features a pair of 1.1-million
gallon tanks and two miles of pipes." Imagine that: two miles
of pipes, thousands of miles from home — and that's just to scratch
the surface of Bagram’s enormity.
of Wired's Danger Room blog visited
the base last August, found that construction was underway everywhere
(think hundreds of millions of dollars more from the pockets of
U.S. taxpayers), and wrote: "More notable than the overstuffed
runways is the over-driven road. [The Western part of] Disney Drive,
the main thoroughfare that rings the eight-square-mile base,[...]
is a two-lane parking lot of Humvees, flamboyant cargo big-rigs
from Pakistan known as jingle trucks, yellow DHL shipping vans,
contractor vehicles, and mud-caked flatbeds. If the Navy could figure
out a way to bring a littoral-combat ship to a landlocked country,
it would idle on Disney."
or more U.S. troops, and with the usual assortment of Burger Kings
and Popeyes, the place is nothing short of a U.S. town, bustling
in a way increasingly rare for actual American towns these days,
part of a planetary military deployment of a sort never before seen
in history. Yet, as various authors at this site have long
noted, the staggering size, scope, and strangeness of all this
is seldom considered, analyzed, or debated in the American mainstream.
It's a given, like the sun rising in the east. And yet, what exactly
is that given? As Nick Turse, who has been following
plans for this site over the years, points out, it's not as
easy to answer that question as you might imagine. (To catch Timothy
MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Turse discusses
how to count up America's empire of bases, click
here or, to download it to your iPod, here.)
Pentagon Really Have 1,180 Foreign Bases?
States has 460 bases overseas! It has 507 permanent bases! What
is the U.S doing with more than 560 foreign bases? Why does it have
662 bases abroad? Does the United States really have more
than 1,000 military bases across the globe?
In a world
of statistics and precision, a world in which "accountability"
is now a Washington buzzword, a world where all information is available
at the click of a mouse, there's one number no American knows. Not
the president. Not the Pentagon. Not the experts. No one.
The man who
wrote the definitive book on it didn't know for sure. The Pulitzer
Prize-winning New York Times columnist didn't even come close.
Yours truly has written numerous articles on U.S. military bases
and even part
of a book on the subject, but failed like the rest.
There are more
than 1,000 U.S. military bases dotting the globe. To be specific,
the most accurate count is 1,077. Unless it's 1,088. Or, if you
count differently, 1,169. Or even 1,180. Actually, the number might
even be higher. Nobody knows for sure.
In a recent
piece, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made
a trenchant point: "The United States maintains troops at more
than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of
a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull
our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?"
the late Chalmers Johnson, the man who literally wrote the book
on the U.S. military's empire
of bases, The
Sorrows of Empire, made the same point and backed it with
the most detailed research on the globe-spanning American archipelago
of bases that has ever been assembled. Several years ago, after
mining the Pentagon's own publicly-available documents, Johnson
wrote, "[T]he United States maintains 761 active military u2018sites'
in foreign countries. (That’s the Defense Department’s preferred
term, rather than u2018bases,' although bases are what they are.)"
Pentagon updated its numbers on bases and other sites, and they
have dropped. Whether they've fallen to the level advanced by Kristof,
however, is a matter of interpretation. According to the Department
of Defense's 2010 Base Structure Report, the U.S. military now maintains
662 foreign sites in 38 countries around the world. Dig into that
report more deeply, though, and Grand Canyon-sized gaps begin to
In 1955, 10
years after World War II ended, the Chicago Daily Tribune
published a major investigation of bases, including a map dotted
with little stars and triangles, most of them clustered in Europe
and the Pacific. "The American flag flies over more than 300
overseas outposts," wrote reporter Walter Trohan. "Camps
and barracks and bases cover 12 American possessions or territories
held in trust. The foreign bases are in 63 foreign nations or islands."
to the Pentagon's published figures, the American flag flies over
750 U.S. military sites in foreign nations and U.S. territories
abroad. This figure does not include small foreign sites of less
10 acres or those that the U.S. military values at less than $10
million. In some cases, numerous bases of this type may be folded
together and counted as a single military installation in a given
country. A request for further clarification from the Department
of Defense went unanswered.
What we do
know is that, on the foreign outposts the U.S. military counts,
it controls close to 52,000 buildings, and more than 38,000 pieces
of heavy infrastructure like piers, wharves, and gigantic storage
tanks, not to mention more than 9,100 "linear structures"
like runways, rail lines, and pipelines. Add in more than 6,300
buildings, 3,500 pieces of infrastructure, and 928 linear structures
in U.S. territories and you have an impressive total. And yet, it
isn't close to the full story.
Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told me that there were nearly
400 U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps,
forward operating bases, and combat outposts. He expected that number
to increase by 12 or more, he added, over the course of 2010.
I contacted ISAF's Joint Command Public Affairs Office to follow
up. To my surprise, I was told that "there are approximately
350 forward operating bases with two major military installations,
Bagram and Kandahar airfields." Perplexed by the loss of 50
bases instead of a gain of 12, I contacted Gary Younger, a Public
Affairs Officer with the International Security Assistance Force.
"There are less than 10 NATO bases in Afghanistan," he
wrote in an October 2010 email. "There are over 250 U.S. bases
By then, it
seemed, the U.S. had lost up to 150 bases and I was thoroughly confused.
When I contacted the military to sort out the discrepancies and
listed the numbers I had been given — from Shanks' 400 base tally
to the count of around 250 by Younger — I was handed off again and
again until I landed with Sergeant First Class Eric Brown at ISAF
Joint Command's Public Affairs. "The number of bases in Afghanistan
is roughly 411," Brown wrote in a November email, "which
is a figure comprised of large base[s], all the way down to the
Combat Out Post-level." Even this, he cautioned, wasn't actually
a full list, because "temporary positions occupied by platoon-sized
elements or less" were not counted.
Along the way
to this "final" tally, I was offered a number of explanations
— from different methods of accounting to the failure of units in
the field to provide accurate information — for the conflicting
numbers I had been given. After months of exchanging emails and
seeing the numbers swing wildly, ending up with roughly the same
count in November as I began with in January suggests that the U.S.
command isn't keeping careful track of the number of bases in Afghanistan.
Apparently, the military simply does not know how many bases it
has in its primary theater of operations.
Scan the Department
of Defense's 2010 Base Structure Report for sites in Afghanistan.
Go ahead, read through all 206 pages. You won't find a mention of
them, not a citation, not a single reference, not an inkling that
the United States has even one base in Afghanistan, let alone more
than 400. This is hardly an insignificant omission. Add those 411
missing bases to Kristof's total and you get 971 sites around the
world. Add it to the Pentagon's official tally and you're left with
1,073 bases and sites overseas, around 770 more than Walter Trohan
uncovered for his 1955 article. That number even tops the 1967 count
of 1,014 U.S. bases abroad, which Chalmers Johnson considered "the
Cold War peak."
ways to tally the total. In a letter written last Spring, Senator
Ron Wyden and Representatives Barney Frank, Ron Paul, and Walter
Jones asserted that there were just 460 U.S. military installations
abroad, not counting those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nicholas Kristof,
who came up with a count of 100 more than that, didn't respond to
an email for clarification, but may have done the same analysis
as I did: search the Pentagon's Base Structure Report and select
out the obvious sites that, while having a sizeable "footprint,"
could only tenuously be counted as bases, like dependent family
housing complexes and schools, resort
hotels (yes, the Department of Defense has them), ski
areas (them, too) and the largest of their golf
courses — the U.S. military claimed to possess a total of 172
courses of all sizes in 2007 — and you get a total of around 570
foreign sites. Add to them the number of Afghan bases and you're
left with about 981 foreign military bases.
As it happens,
though, Afghanistan isn't the only country with a baseworld black-out.
Search the Pentagon's tally for sites in Iraq and you won't find
a single entry. (That was true even when the U.S. reportedly had
than 400 bases in that country.) Today, the U.S. military footprint
there has shrunk radically. The Department of Defense declined to
respond to an email request for the current number of bases in Iraq,
but published reports indicate that no fewer than 88 are still there,
including Camp Taji, Camp
Operating Base Speicher, and Joint
Base Balad, which, alone, boasts about 7,000 American troops.
These missing bases would raise the worldwide total to about 1,069.
aren't the only secret spots. Take a close look at Middle
Eastern nations whose governments, fearing domestic public opinion,
prefer that no publicity be given to American military bases
on their territory, and then compare it to the Pentagon's official
list. To give an example, the 2010 Base Structure Report lists one
nameless U.S. site in Kuwait. Yet we know that the Persian Gulf
state hosts a number of U.S. military facilities including Camp
Naval Base, Ali
Al Salem Air Base, and Udari
Range. Add in these missing sites and the total number of bases
abroad reaches 1,074.
Pentagon's base tally for Qatar and you'll come up empty. But look
at the numbers of Department of Defense personnel serving overseas
and you'll find more than 550 service men and women deployed there.
While that Persian Gulf nation may have officially built Al Udeid
Air Base itself, to call it anything but a U.S. installation would
be disingenuous, given that it has served as a major
logistics and command hub for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Add it in and the foreign base count reaches 1,075.
is also missing from the Pentagon's tally, even though the current
list of personnel abroad indicates that hundreds of U.S. troops
are deployed there. From the lead up to the First Gulf War in 1990
through the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military stationed thousands
of troops in the kingdom. In 2003, in response to fundamentalist
pressure on the Saudi government, Washington announced that it was
pulling all but a small number of troops out of the country. Yet
the U.S. continues to train and advise from sites like Eskan Village,
a compound 20 kilometers south of Riyadh where, according to 2009
numbers, 800 U.S. personnel (500 of them advisors) were based.
Uncounted, and Unknown
to the unknown number of micro-bases that the Pentagon doesn't even
bother to count and Middle Eastern and Afghan bases that fly under
the radar, there are even darker areas in the empire of bases: installations
belonging to other countries that are used but not acknowledged
by the United States or avowed by the host-nation need to be counted,
too. For example, it is now well known that U.S. drone aircraft,
operating under the auspices of both
the CIA and the Air Force and conducting a not-so-secret war
in Pakistan, take
off from one or more bases in that country.
there are other sites like the "covert forward operating base
run by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani
port city of Karachi," exposed
by Jeremy Scahill in the Nation magazine, and one or more
airfields run by employees of the private security contractor Blackwater
(now renamed Xe Services). While the Department of Defense's personnel
tally indicates that there are well over a hundred troops deployed
in Pakistan, it counts no bases there.
uncounted are the U.S. Navy's carrier
strike groups, flotillas that consist of massive aircraft
carriers, the largest warships in the world, as well as a guided
missile cruiser, two guided missile destroyers, an attack submarine,
and an ammunition, oiler, and supply ship. The U.S. boasts 11 such
town-sized floating bases that can travel the world, as well as
numerous other ships, some boasting well over 1,000 officers and
crew, that may, says
the Navy, travel "to any of more than 100 ports of call
worldwide" from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro.
to conduct logistics functions afloat enables naval forces to maintain
station anywhere," reads the Navy's Naval Operations Concept:
2010. So these bases that float under the radar should really
be counted, too.
A Whimper, and the Alamo of the Twenty-First Century
the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Military Construction,
Veterans, and Related Agencies early last year, Deputy Under Secretary
of Defense Dorothy Robyn referenced the Pentagon's “507 permanent
installations.” The Pentagon's 2010 Base Structure Report, on the
other hand, lists 4,999 total sites in the U.S., its territories,
In the grand
scheme of things, the actual numbers aren't all that important.
Whether the most accurate total is 900 bases, 1,000 bases or 1,100
posts in foreign lands, what's undeniable is that the U.S. military
maintains, in Chalmers Johnson's famous phrase, an empire of bases
so large and shadowy that no one — not even at the Pentagon — really
knows its full size and scope.
All we know
is that it raises the ire of adversaries like
al Qaeda, has a tendency to grate on even the closest
of allies like the
Japanese, and costs American taxpayers a fortune every year.
In 2010, according to Robyn, military construction and housing costs
at all U.S. bases ran to $23.2 billion. An additional $14.6 billion
was needed for maintenance, repair, and recapitalization. To power
its facilities, according to 2009 figures, the Pentagon spent $3.8
billion. And that likely doesn't even scratch the surface of America's
baseworld in terms of its full economic cost.
Like all empires,
the U.S. military's empire of bases will someday crumble. These
bases, however, are not apt to fall like so many dominos in some
silver-screen last-stand sequence. They won't, that is, go out with
the "bang" of futuristic Alamos, but with the "whimper"
began even among Washington lawmakers about this increasingly likely
prospect. "I do not think we should be spending money to have
troops in Germany 65 years after World War II. We have a terrible
deficit and we have to cut back," said Massachusetts Democratic
Congressman Barney Frank. Similarly, Republican Senator Kay Bailey
Hutchison of Texas announced, "If the United States really
wants to assure our allies and deter our enemies, we should do it
with strong military capabilities and sound policy — not by keeping
troops stationed overseas, not siphoning funds from equipment and
arms and putting it into duplicative military construction."
the end of 2010, the White House’s bipartisan deficit commission
— officially known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility
and Reform — suggested cutting U.S. garrisons in Europe and Asia
by one-third, which would, in their estimation, save about $8.5
billion in 2015.
empire of bases, while still at or close to its height, is destined
to shrink. The military is going to have to scale back its foreign
footholds and lessen its global footprint in the years ahead. Economic
realities will necessitate that. The choices the Pentagon makes
today will likely determine on what terms its garrisons come home
tomorrow. At the moment, they can still choose whether coming home
will look like an act of magnanimous good statesmanship or inglorious
decision, the clock is ticking, and before any withdrawals begin,
the U.S. military needs to know exactly where it’s withdrawing from
(and Americans should have an accurate sense of just where its overseas
armies are). An honest count of U.S. bases abroad — a true, full,
and comprehensive list — would be a tiny first step in the necessary
process of downsizing the global mission.
Engelhardt [send him mail]
of the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of
the American Empire
Project. His book, The
End of Victory Culture, has recently been updated in a newly
issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best
of TomDispatch book, The
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire
(Verso), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. His new book
American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's. Nick
Turse is an investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com,
and currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute.
His latest book is The
Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). You can
follow him on Twitter @NickTurse,
on Tumblr, and
His website is NickTurse.com.
To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which
Turse discusses how to count up America's empire of bases, click
here or, to download it to your iPod, here.