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Afghanistan may turn out to be one of the great misbegotten “stimulus packages” of the modern era, a construction boom in the middle of nowhere with materials largely shipped in at enormous expense to no lasting purpose whatsoever. With the U.S. military officially drawing down its troops there, the Pentagon is now evidently reversing the process and embarking on a major deconstruction program. It’s tearing up tarmacs, shutting down outposts, and packing up some of its smaller facilities. Next year, the number of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition bases in the southwest of the country alone is scheduled to plummet from 214 to 70, according to the New York Times.
But anyone who wanted to know just what the Pentagon built in Afghanistan and what it is now tearing down won’t have an easy time of it.
At the height of the American occupation of Iraq, the United States had 505 bases there, ranging from small outposts to mega-sized air bases. Press estimates at the time, however, always put the number at about 300. Only as U.S. troops prepared to leave the country was the actual — startlingly large — total reported. Today, as the U.S. prepares for a long drawdown from Afghanistan, the true number of U.S. and coalition bases in that country is similarly murky, with official sources offering conflicting and imprecise figures. Still, the available numbers for what the Pentagon built since 2001 are nothing short of staggering.
Despite years of talk about American withdrawal, there has in fact been a long-term building boom during which the number of bases steadily expanded. In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claimed that it had nearly 400 Afghan bases. Early this year, that number had grown to 450. Today, a military spokesperson tells TomDispatch, the total tops out at around 550.
And that may only be the tip of the iceberg.
When you add in ISAF checkpoints — those small baselets used to secure roads and villages — to the already bloated number of mega-bases, forward operating bases, combat outposts, and patrol bases, the number jumps to 750. Count all foreign military installations of every type, including logistical, administrative, and support facilities, and the official count offered by ISAF Joint Command reaches a whopping 1,500 sites. Differing methods of counting probably explain at least some of this phenomenal rise over the course of this year. Still, the new figures suggest one conclusion that should startle: no matter how you tally them, Afghan bases garrisoned by U.S.-led forces far exceed the 505 American bases in Iraq at the height of that war.
Bases of Confusion
There is much confusion surrounding the number of ISAF bases in Afghanistan. Recently, the Associated Press reported that as of October 2011, according to spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Olson, NATO was operating as many as 800 bases in Afghanistan, but has since closed 202 of them and transferred another 282 to Afghan control. As a result, the AP claims that NATO is now operating only about 400 bases, not the 550 to 1,500 bases reported to me by ISAF.