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 bases.
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 negative.)
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 operating bases.”)
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 place.
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.