Can You Say 'Permanent Bases'
[in Iraq] ?
by Tom Engelhardt
The Nation magazine, March 27,
In a recent Zogby poll, American troops
stationed in Iraq were asked about an otherwise unexplored subject:
the massive network of bases the Bush Administration is building
in that country. Only 6 percent said they believed that America's
"real mission" in Iraq was "to provide long-term
bases for US troops in the region." You can bet your bottom
dollar that if Zogby had been able to do an honest poll of top
Bush Administration officials on the subject, he'd have gotten
quite a different response.
It makes no sense to talk about withdrawal
from Iraq, which has recently been the object of much speculation
(in the same Zogby poll, 72 percent of the troops in Iraq said
they want the United States to exit that country within a year),
without also talking about those bases. Yet they have hardly been
mentioned in our media or in political discussion. We have no
idea, in fact, how many Americans even realize that we have such
Sometimes to get one's bearing it helps
to focus on the concrete. In an online engineering magazine in
late 2003, Lieut. Col. David Holt, the Army officer described
as "tasked with facilities development" in Iraq, was
already speaking of several billion dollars being sunk into base
construction, which has been continuing ever since. In a country
otherwise in startling disarray, our bases are like vast spaceships
from another solar system. A staggering investment of resources,
they are unlikely places for the Bush Administration to hand over
willingly even to the friendliest Iraqi government.
If Bush-style reconstruction, having failed
dismally, is now essentially ending in most of Iraq, it has been
a raging success in Iraq's "Little America." For the
first time, we have descriptions of a couple of our "super-bases"
there, and they are sobering. The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks
paid a visit to Balad Air Base, forty-two miles north of Baghdad
and "smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq."
The largest base in the country, Ricks tells us, has an American
"small-town feel" and is sizable enough to have "neighborhoods,"
including "KBR-land" (in honor of the Halliburton subsidiary
that has done most base-construction work) and the walled-in "CJSOTF"
(the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, so secretive
that even the base Army public affairs chief hasn't been inside).
There is as well a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, "an ersatz
Starbucks," a twenty-four-hour Burger King, two post exchanges
where TVs, iPods and the like, convoyed in, can be purchased,
four mess halls, a hospital, a speed limit of ten miles per hour,
a huge airstrip, 250 aircraft, air-traffic pileups of a sort familiar
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, of the 20,000 troops living in "air-conditioned containers"
(soon to be wired for Internet, cable television and overseas
telephone access), "only several hundred have jobs that take
them off base." Recently, British reporter Oliver Poole visited
the still-under-construction al-Asad Air Base in a stretch of
desert in Anbar Province that "increasingly resembles a slice
of US suburbia." In addition to the requisite Subway and
pizza outlets, this super-base even has a Hertz rent-a-car office.
In fact, al-Asad is so large--such bases may cover fifteen to
twenty square miles--that it has two bus routes.
There are at least four such "super-bases"
in Iraq, little American islands of eternal order in an anarchic
sea. Whatever top officials and military commanders say--and they
always deny seeking "permanent bases"--facts on the
ground speak with another voice.
Unfortunately, there's a problem in grasping
the import of any of this, since American reporters apparently
adhere to a simple rule: The words "permanent," "bases"
and "Iraq" should never be placed in the same news report.
A LexisNexis search of three months of press coverage produced
examples of those three words in British reports, but US examples
occurred only when 80 percent of polled Iraqis (obviously unhinged
by their difficult lives) agreed that the United States might
want to remain permanently in their country, or when "no"
or "not" was added to the mix via any official American
denial--as when Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said recently: "It
is not only our plan but our policy that we do not intend to have
any permanent bases in Iraq." (In other words, in the media
such bases, imposing as they are, generally exist only in the
Still, for a period the Pentagon practiced
something closer to truth in advertising. They called their big
bases "enduring bases," a label that reeked of permanence.
(Later, these were far less romantically relabeled "contingency
One mystery of this war--given an Administration
so weighted toward military solutions to global problems; given
the heft of the bases themselves; given the mothballing of our
Saudi bases, for which these were clearly long-term substitutes;
given the focus of the neocons and other top officials on controlling
what they called "the arc of instability" (basically,
the energy heartlands of the planet) at whose epicenter was Iraq;
and given that Pentagon pre-war planning for "enduring camps"
was, briefly, a front-page story in a major newspaper--is that
reporting on the subject has been next to nonexistent. While much
space has been devoted to the Administration's lack of postwar
planning, next to none has been devoted to what planning did take
A little history may be in order here:
Soon after Baghdad fell, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt reported
on the front page of the New York Times 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 "permanent
bases," the military preferred to speak coyly of "permanent
access" to Iraq. The bases, however, fit snugly with other
Pentagon plans. For instance, Saddam's 400,000-man military was
to be replaced by a 40,000-man one without significant armor or
an air force. (In an otherwise heavily armed region, this insured
that any Iraqi government would be reliant on our military for
years to come.)
At a press conference a few days later,
Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the United States was unlikely to
seek any permanent or "long-term" bases in Iraq--and
the Times piece was consigned to the memory hole. While scads
of bases were being built--including four huge ones whose placement
correlated fairly strikingly with those mentioned in the Times
article--reports about US bases in Iraq, or any Pentagon planning
in relation to them, largely disappeared.
In May 2005 Bradley Graham of the Washington
Post finally reported that we had 106 bases, ranging from micro
to mega, in Iraq. Most of these were to be ceded to the Iraqi
military, leaving the United States with, Graham reported, just
the number of bases--four--that the Times had first mentioned
more than two years earlier, including the bases Ricks and Poole
visited. This reduction was presented not as a fulfillment of
original Pentagon thinking but as a withdrawal plan.
The future of a fifth base--the enormous
Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport--remains, as far
as we know, unresolved; but at least one more super-base is being
built. The Administration is sinking at least $592 million into
a new US Embassy to rise in Baghdad's Green Zone on land reportedly
two-thirds the size of the National Mall. A high-tech complex
with "15 ft blast walls and ground-to-air missiles"
for protection, it will, according to Chris Hughes of the British
Daily Mirror, include as many as "300 houses for consular
and military officials" and a "large-scale barracks"
for marines. According to David Phinney of CorpWatch.org, the
complex's "water, electricity and sewage treatment plants
will all be independent from Baghdad's city utilities." It's
billed as "more secure than the Pentagon" (not, perhaps,
the most reassuring tag line in the post-9/11 world). If not quite
a city-state, it will resemble an embassy-state.
As Middle East expert Juan Cole has pointed
out at his Informed Comment blog, the Pentagon can plan for "endurance"
in Iraq forever and a day. Nothing, however, makes such bases
more "permanent" than their Vietnam-era predecessors
at places like Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, if the Shiites, like the
Sunnis, decide they want us gone.
To this day, those Little Americas remain
at the secret heart of "reconstruction" policy in Iraq.
As long as KBR keeps building them, there can be no genuine withdrawal.
Despite recent press visits, our super-bases remain swathed in
policy silence. The Bush Administration does not discuss them
(other than to deny their permanence). No plans for them are debated
in Congress. The opposition Democrats generally ignore them.
It may be hard to do, given the skimpy
coverage, but keep your eyes directed at those super-bases. Until
the Administration blinks with regard to them, there will be no
withdrawal from Iraq.