Military Bases Boost Capability but Fuel Anger

by William M. Arkin

William M. Arkin is a special Correspondent to the Los Angeles Times

This report appeared in The Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2002, page A-1.


United States presence in nine countries ringing Afghanistan enhances capability but also fuels Islamic extremism

Washington -- Behind a veil of secret agreements, the United States is creating a ring of new and expanded military bases that encircle Afghanistan and enhance the armed forces' ability to strike targets through much of the Muslim world.

Since Sept. 11, according to Pentagon sources, military tent cities have spring up at 13 locations in nine countries neighboring Afghanistan, substantially extending the network of bases in the region. All together, from Bulgaria and Uzbekistan to Turkey, Kuwait and beyond, more than 60,000 U.S. Military personnel now live and work at these forward bases. Hundreds of aircraft fly in and out of so-called "expeditionary airfields."

While these bases make it easier for the United d States to project its power, they may also increase prospects for renewed terrorist attacks on Americans.

The new buildup is occurring with almost no public discussion. Indeed, it has passed virtually unnoticed outside the region -- in part because of operational security and force protection considerations in Afghanistan and in part because of agreements between Washington and host governments not to discuss the bases in public.

But the reasoning behind these agreements underscores the risk. Though Washington has obtained the support of the ruling regimes, including some inside the former Soviet Union, virtually all the bases are in countries where an American military presence stirs resentment among Islamic extremists.

"I swear to God that America will not live in peace before all the army of infidels depart the land of the prophet Muhammad," Osama bin Laden said in his first video recording released after Sept. 11.

U.S. policymakers have tended to dismiss such statements as propaganda, but some analysts think they reflect widespread Muslim sensitivities that the United States has been slow to appreciate.

In the view not only of Bin Laden but also of many Islamic sympathizers, the continued presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 constituted "defilement" Muslim holy places.

Without accepting this view as a justification for terrorism, some analysts believe U.S. officials underestimate the impact that prolonged stationing of American forces may have in the Muslim world especially since it is highly visible there, though it has attracted little attention in the West. The Arab press in particular is filled with speculation and conspiracy theories about the ultimate purpose of the U.S. Presence.

Many see it as evidence of an American desire for hegemony and control.

"The old basing structure, honed to fight the Soviet Union," is gone, says defense analyst James Blaker, author of a seminal Pentagon study of overseas bases. "But does the new one open us up to counteractions?"

The American buildup in the region began long before Sept. 11, and it has been paralleled by a shift in the focus of terrorist groups.

As the United States built a network of facilities in a half-dozen Persian Gulf states after the Gulf War, terrorism increasingly focused on large U.S. targets, from the bombing of the Khobar Towers In Saudi Arabia and the destroyer Cole in Yemen to the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

In the words of novelist John le Carre, who has studied the Muslim world extensively and set some of is stories there, "What America longs for at this moment, even above retribution, is more friends and fewer enemies."

Instead, "what America is storing up for herself is yet more enemies," he said in an essay that appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail. "Because after all the bribes, threats and promises that have patched together this rickety coalition, we cannot prevent another suicide bomber being born -- and nobody can tell us how to dodge this devil’s cycle of despair, hatred and, yet again, revenge."

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military presence overseas has changed profoundly. A 1999 Army War College study found, "While permanent overseas presence has decreased dramatically, operational deployments have increased exponentially."

The Pentagon pulled out of 700 facilities in Europe and abandoned the containment ring of bases around the old Soviet Union. In sheer numbers, it reduced the overseas presence to about 60% of what it was when Ronald Reagan took office.

Most of the numerical reduction took place in Germany, as forces were demobilized and the military shrank its Cold War size there by fully two-thirds.

The far more significant change, however, came in the way troops were used abroad. In earlier times, members of the armed forces were routinely "stationed" overseas, usually for tours of several years and often accompanied by their families. Now they are "deployed," with the length of tour more uncertain and dependents almost never allowed.

The deployments are both frequent and lengthy, however. On any given day before Sept. 11, according to the Defense Department, more than 60,000 military personnel were conducting temporary operations and exercises in about 100 countries.

While the mammoth European installations have been cut back, Defense Department records show that the new operational mode calls military personnel away from home about 135 days a year for the Army.