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.