Can You Say 'Permanent Bases'?
by Tom Engelhardt
www.antiwar.com, February 15,
We're in a new period in the war in Iraq
- one that brings to mind the Nixonian era of "Vietnamization":
A president presiding over an increasingly unpopular war that
won't end; an election bearing down; the need to placate a restive
American public; and an army under so much strain that it seems
to be running off the rails. So it's not surprising that the media
is now reporting on administration plans for, or "speculation"
about, or "signs of," or "hints" of "major
draw-downs" or withdrawals of American troops. The figure
regularly cited these days is less than 100,000 troops in Iraq
by the end of 2006. With about 136,000 American troops there now,
that figure would represent just over one-quarter of all in-country
U.S. forces, which means, of course, that the term "major"
certainly rests in the eye of the beholder.
In addition, these withdrawals are -
we know this thanks to a Seymour Hersh piece, "Up in the
Air," in the Dec. 5 New Yorker - to be accompanied, as in
South Vietnam in the Nixon era, by an unleashing of the U.S. Air
Force. The added air power is meant to compensate for any lost
punch on the ground (and will undoubtedly lead to more "collateral
damage" - that is, Iraqi deaths).
It is important to note that all promises
of draw-downs or withdrawals are invariably linked to the dubious
proposition that the Bush administration can "stand up"
an effective Iraqi army and police force (think "Vietnamization"
again), capable of circumscribing the Sunni insurgency and so
allowing American troops to pull back to bases outside major urban
areas, as well as to Kuwait and points as far west as the United
States. Further, all administration or military withdrawal promises
prove to be well hedged with caveats and obvious loopholes, phrases
like "if all goes according to plan and security improves"
or "it also depends on the ability of the Iraqis to"
Since guerrilla attacks have actually
been on the rise and the delivery of the basic amenities of modern
civilization (electrical power, potable water, gas for cars, functional
sewage systems, working traffic lights, and so on) on the decline,
since the very establishment of a government inside the heavily
fortified Green Zone has proved immensely difficult, and since
U.S. reconstruction funds (those that haven't already disappeared
down one clogged drain or another) are drying up, such partial
withdrawals may prove more complicated to pull off than imagined.
It's clear, nonetheless, that "withdrawal" is on the
propaganda agenda of an administration heading into mid-term elections
with an increasingly skittish Republican Party in tow and congressional
candidates worried about defending the president's mission-unaccomplished
war of choice. Under the circumstances, we can expect more hints
of, followed by promises of, followed by announcements of "major"
withdrawals, possibly including news in the fall election season
of even more "massive" withdrawals slated for the end
of 2006 or early 2007, all hedged with conditional clauses and
"only ifs" - withdrawal promises that, once the election
is over, this administration would undoubtedly feel under no particular
obligation to fulfill.
Assuming, then, a near year to come of
withdrawal buzz, speculation, and even a media blitz of withdrawal
announcements, the question is: How can anybody tell if the Bush
administration is actually withdrawing from Iraq or not? Sometimes,
when trying to cut through a veritable fog of misinformation and
disinformation, it helps to focus on something concrete. In the
case of Iraq, nothing could be more concrete - though less generally
discussed in our media - than the set of enormous bases the Pentagon
has long been building in that country. Quite literally multi-billions
of dollars have gone into them. In a prestigious engineering magazine
in late 2003, Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army engineer "tasked
with facilities development" in Iraq, was already speaking
proudly of several billion dollars being sunk into base construction
("the numbers are staggering"). Since then, the base-building
has been massive and ongoing.
In a country in such startling disarray,
these bases, with some of the most expensive and advanced communications
systems on the planet, are like vast spaceships that have landed
from another solar system. Representing a staggering investment
of resources, effort, and geostrategic dreaming, they are the
unlikeliest places for the Bush administration to hand over willingly
to even the friendliest of Iraqi governments.
If, as just about every expert agrees,
Bush-style reconstruction has failed dismally in Iraq, thanks
to thievery, knavery, and sheer incompetence, and is now essentially
ending, it has been a raging success in Iraq's "Little America."
For the first time, we have actual descriptions of a couple of
the "super-bases" built in Iraq in the last two and
a half years and, despite being written by reporters under Pentagon
information restrictions, they are sobering. Thomas Ricks of the
Washington Post paid a visit to Balad Air Base, the largest American
base in the country, 68 kilometers north of Baghdad and "smack
in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq." In a piece
entitled "Biggest Base in Iraq Has Small-Town Feel,"
Ricks paints a striking portrait:
The base is sizable enough to have its
own "neighborhoods" including "KBR-land" (in
honor of the Halliburton subsidiary that has done most of the
base-construction work in Iraq); "CJSOTF" ("home
to a special operations unit," the Combined Joint Special
Operations Task Force, surrounded by "especially high walls,"
and so secretive that even the base Army public affairs chief
has never been inside); and a junkyard for bombed out Army Humvees.
There is as well a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, "an ersatz
Starbucks," a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges where
TVs, iPods, and the like can be purchased, four mess halls, a
hospital, a strictly enforced on-base speed limit of 10 MPH, a
huge airstrip, 250 aircraft (helicopters and predator drones included),
air-traffic pileups of a sort you would see over Chicago's O'Hare
airport, and "a miniature golf course, which mimics a battlefield
with its baby sandbags, little Jersey barriers, strands of concertina
wire and, down at the end of the course, what appears to be a
tiny detainee cage."
Ricks reports that the 20,000 troops stationed
at Balad live in "air-conditioned containers" which
will, in the future - and yes, for those building these bases,
there still is a future - be wired "to bring the troops Internet,
cable television, and overseas telephone access." He points
out as well that, of the troops at Balad, "only several hundred
have jobs that take them off base. Most Americans posted here
never interact with an Iraqi."
Recently, Oliver Poole, a British reporter,
visited another of the American "super-bases," the still-under-construction
al-Asad Airbase ("Football and Pizza Point to U.S. Staying
for Long Haul"). He observes, of "the biggest Marine
camp in western Anbar province," that "this stretch
of desert increasingly resembles a slice of U.S. suburbia."
In addition to the requisite Subway and pizza outlets, there is
a football field, a Hertz rent-a-car office, a swimming pool,
and a movie theater showing the latest flicks. Al-Asad is so large
- such bases may cover 15-20 square miles - that it has two bus
routes and, if not traffic lights, at least red stop signs at
There are at least four such "super-bases"
in Iraq, none of which have anything to do with "withdrawal"
from that country. Quite the contrary, these bases are being constructed
as little American islands of eternal order in an anarchic sea.
Whatever top administration officials and military commanders
say - and they always deny that we seek "permanent"
bases in Iraq - facts-on-the-ground speak with another voice entirely.
These bases practically scream "permanency."
Unfortunately, there's a problem here.
American reporters adhere to a simple rule: The words "permanent,"
"bases," and "Iraq" should never be placed
in the same sentence, not even in the same paragraph; in fact,
not even in the same news report. While a LexisNexis search of
the last 90 days of press coverage of Iraq produced a number of
examples of the use of those three words in the British press,
the only U.S. examples that could be found occurred when 80 percent
of Iraqis (obviously somewhat unhinged by their difficult lives)
insisted in a poll that the United States might indeed desire
to establish bases and remain permanently in their country; or
when "no" or "not" was added to the mix via
any American official denial. (It's strange, isn't it, that such
bases, imposing as they are, generally only exist in our papers
in the negative.) Three examples will do:
The secretary of defense: ""During
a visit with U.S. troops in Fallujah on Christmas Day, Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said 'at the moment there are no
plans for permanent bases' in Iraq. 'It is a subject that has
not even been discussed with the Iraqi government.'"
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmett, the Central Command
deputy commander for planning and strategy in Iraq: "We already
have handed over significant chunks of territory to the Iraqis.
Those are not simply plans to do so; they are being executed right
now. It is not only our plan but our policy that we do not intend
to have any permanent bases in Iraq."
Karen Hughes on the Charlie Rose Show:
"CHARLIE ROSE: [T]hey think we are still there for the oil,
or they think the United States wants permanent bases. Does the
United States want permanent bases in Iraq? KAREN HUGHES: We want
nothing more than to bring our men and women in uniform home.
As soon as possible, but not before they finish the job. CHARLIE
ROSE: And do not want to keep bases there? KAREN HUGHES: No, we
want to bring our people home as soon as possible."
Still, for a period, the Pentagon practiced
something closer to truth in advertising than did our major papers.
At least, they called the big bases in Iraq "enduring camps,"
a label which had a certain charm and reeked of permanency. (Later,
they were later relabeled, far less romantically, "contingency
One of the enduring mysteries of this
war is that reporting on our bases in Iraq has been almost nonexistent
these last years, especially given an administration so weighted
toward military solutions to global problems; especially given
the heft of some of the bases; especially given the fact that
the Pentagon was mothballing our bases in Saudi Arabia and saw
these as long-term substitutes; especially given the fact that
the neocons and other top administration officials were so focused
on controlling the so-called arc of instability (basically, the
energy heartlands of the planet) at whose center was Iraq; and
especially given the fact that Pentagon prewar planning for such
"enduring camps" was, briefly, a front-page story in
a major newspaper.
A little history may be in order here:
On April 19, 2003, soon after Baghdad
fell to American troops, reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt
wrote a front-page piece for the New York Times indicating that
the Pentagon was planning to "maintain" four bases in
Iraq for the long haul, though "there will probably never
be an announcement of permanent stationing of troops." Rather
than speak of "permanent bases," the military preferred
then to speak coyly of "permanent access" to Iraq. The
bases, however, fit snugly with other Pentagon plans, already
on the drawing boards. For instance, Saddam's 400,000 man military
was to be replaced by only a 40,000 man, lightly armed military
without significant armor or an air force. (In an otherwise heavily
armed region, this insured that any Iraqi government would be
almost totally reliant on the American military and that the U.S.
Air Force would, by default, be the Iraqi Air Force for years
to come.) While much space in our papers has, of late, been devoted
to the administration's lack of postwar planning, next to no interest
has been shown in the planning that did take place.
At a press conference a few days after
the Shanker and Schmitt piece appeared, Secretary of Defense
Rumsfeld insisted that the U.S. was "unlikely to seek any
permanent or 'long-term' bases in Iraq" - and that was that.
The Times' piece was essentially sent down the memory hole. While
scads of bases were being built - including four huge ones whose
geographic placement correlated fairly strikingly with the four
mentioned in the Times article - reports about U.S. bases in Iraq,
or any Pentagon planning in relation to them, largely disappeared
from the American media. (With rare exceptions, you could only
find discussions of "permanent bases" in these last
years at Internet sites like TomDispatch or Global Security.org.)
In May 2005, however, Bradley Graham
of the Washington Post reported that we had 106 bases, ranging
from mega to micro in Iraq. Most of these were to be given back
to the Iraqi military, now being "stood up" as a far
larger force than originally imagined by Pentagon planners, leaving
the U.S. with, Graham reported, just the number of bases - four
- that the Times first mentioned over two years earlier, including
Balad Air Base and the base Poole visited in western Anbar Province.
This reduction was presented not as a fulfillment of original
Pentagon thinking, but as a "withdrawal plan." (A modest
number of these bases have since been turned over to the Iraqis,
including one in Tikrit transferred to Iraqi military units which,
according to Poole, promptly stripped it to the bone.)
The future of a fifth base - the enormous
Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport - remains, as far
as we know, "unresolved"; and there is a sixth possible
"permanent super-base" being built in that country,
though never presented as such. The Bush administration is sinking
between $600 million and $1 billion in construction funds into
a new U.S. embassy. It is to arise in Baghdad's Green Zone on
a plot of land along the Tigris River that is reportedly two-thirds
the area of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The plans for
this "embassy" are almost mythic in nature. A high-tech
complex, it is to have "15-ft. blast walls and ground-to-air
missiles" for protection as well as bunkers to guard against
air attacks. It will, according to Chris Hughes, security correspondent
for the British Daily Mirror, include "as many as 300 houses
for consular and military officials" and a "large-scale
barracks" for Marines. The "compound" will be a
cluster of at least 21 buildings, assumedly nearly self-sufficient,
including "a gym, swimming pool, barber and beauty shops,
a food court, and a commissary. Water, electricity, and sewage
treatment plants will all be independent from Baghdad's city utilities."
It is being billed as "more secure than the Pentagon"
(not, perhaps, the most reassuring tagline in the post-9/11 world).
If not quite a city-state, on completion it will resemble an embassy-state.
In essence, inside Baghdad's Green Zone, we will be building another
more heavily fortified little Green Zone.
Even Tony Blair's Brits, part of our
unraveling, ever shrinking "coalition of the willing"
in Iraq, are reported by Brian Brady of the Scotsman ("Revealed:
Secret Plan to Keep UK Troops Permanently in Iraq") to be
bargaining for a tiny permanent base - sorry a base "for
years to come" - near Basra in southern Iraq, thus mimicking
American "withdrawal" strategy on the micro-scale that
befits a junior partner.
As Juan Cole has pointed out at his Informed
Comment blog, the Pentagon can plan for "endurance"
in Iraq forever and a day, while top Bush officials and neocons,
some now in exile, can continue to dream of a permanent set of
bases in the deserts of Iraq that would control the energy heartlands
of the planet. None of that will, however, make such bases any
more "permanent" than their enormous Vietnam-era predecessors
at places like Danang and Cam Rahn Bay proved to be - not certainly
if the Shi'ites decide they want us gone or Ayatollah Sistani
(as Cole points out) were to issue a fatwa against such bases.
Nonetheless, the thought of permanency
matters. Since the invasion of Saddam's Iraq, those bases - call
them what you will - have been at the heart of the Bush administration's
"reconstruction" of the country. To this day, those
Little Americas, with their KBR-lands, their Pizza Huts, their
stop signs, and their miniature golf courses remain at the secret
heart of Bush administration "reconstruction" policy.
As long as KBR keeps building them, making their facilities ever
more enduring (and ever more valuable), there can be no genuine
"withdrawal" from Iraq, nor even an intention of doing
so. Right now, despite the recent visits of a couple of reporters,
those super-bases remain swathed in a kind of policy silence.
The Bush administration does not discuss them (other than to deny
their permanency from time to time). No presidential speeches
deal with them. No plans for them are debated in Congress. The
opposition Democrats generally ignore them and the press - with
the exception of the odd columnist - won't even put the words
"base," "permanent," and "Iraq"
in the same paragraph.
It may be hard to do, given the skimpy
coverage, but keep your eyes directed at our "super-bases."
Until the administration blinks on them, there will be no withdrawal