Wim De Ceukelaire
Intal – Belgium
Prepared for the International Panel Discussion on Overseas US Military Bases, Quezon City, Philippines, 6 July 2011
Officially, the US military operates 909 facilities in 46 countries and territories worldwide. In fact, it has a military presence in over 130 countries, ranging from vast installations to smaller spy bases or joint training camps, stores for nuclear missiles, “rest and recreation” facilities and refueling stations. In addition, the US has port-of-call rights, landing rights for military and intelligence planes, refuel rights and flyover rights, often formalized in a Status of Forces Agreement.
After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the US started a massive “base restructuring” program. The program intended to reduce the number of US troops based in Europe and East Asia, while at the same time expanding its global military reach by opening strategic, often small, bases in previously US-army free areas.
The inability to sustain military ground invasions in Somalia in the 1990s and in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade has shed doubt among US military elites over the original aim to reduce the presence of its ground troops overseas. In addition, the US seems to be planning about a dozen “enduring” bases supporting thousands of its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, actually expanding its overseas military infrastructure as well as putting debates about US “withdrawal” into perspective.
Next to nuclear weapons dominance, there is no more universally recognized symbol of the US superpower status than its overseas basing system. Pentagon documents indicate that overseas US military bases are seen as military assets for power projection in the region in which they are located. The United States has been extremely reluctant to relinquish any base once acquired. Bases obtained in one war are seen as forward deployment positions for some future war, often involving an entirely new enemy. US bases in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Diego Garcia were crucial to the prolonged bombing campaigns against Iraq in the 1990s, not to mention the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the US-backed invasion of Lebanon by Israel. The current build-up of military means in Iraq, Afghanistan, central Asia, Pakistan and the Gulf states could allow the US to suppress or even invade Iran in the future.
The projection of US military power into new regions through the establishment of US military bases should not be seen simply in terms of direct military ends. They are always used to promote the economic and political objectives of US imperialism. For example, US corporations and the US government have been eager for some time to build a secure corridor for US-controlled oil and natural gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea in Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The war in Afghanistan and the creation of US bases in Central Asia are viewed as a key opportunity to make such pipelines a reality. The principal exponent of this policy has been the Unocal corporation (now part of Chevron Corporation).
Recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East have brought to light a loss of influence of US imperialism, with the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries rising up against reactionary regimes and aspiring for sovereignty, democracy and social progress. US imperialism, at first taken by surprise, rapidly adjusted to the new situation and took advantage of the turmoil in Libya to re-enter the stage in force, with a full-fledged military intervention.
In the Middle East, there is a number of US military bases that have been left behind by each of the interventions since 1990. The Gulf War, the Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Afghan war and now the Iraq war have left behind these sprawling installations in places where the US didn’t have permanent bases before. And if you look at it collectively, this US sphere of influence sits strategically right in between the EU and China, its two main economic competitors.
US military bases expert Zoltan Grossman observes: “You could say bases were used te be constructed to wage wars. Now you can almost say: wars are being waged in order to station bases. Pentagon documents consider what is left behind after the war as more important than the war itself.” In fact, Syria and Iran are about the only countries left in the region without any US military presence.
Not surprisingly, Iraq contains dozens of US bases. One of the largest of these is Camp Anaconda, near Balad Airbase, 64 km north of Baghdad. It houses 30,000 troops and 10,000 contractors, and extends across 16 square miles with an additional 12-square-mile “security perimeter.” These mammoth base areas are a world apart from Iraq itself, with working lights, proper sanitation, clean streets and strictly observed rules and codes of conduct. Some bases have populations of more than 20,000, with thousands of contractors and third-country citizens to keep them running.
While US combat forces may start withdrawing by the end of 2011, an expected 50,000 troops will remain on several permanent US military bases in Iraq and in the massive fortress in the Green Zone of Baghdad that is the “US Embassy” – as large as the Vatican.
It is easy to understand why the recent uprising in Bahrain became such a headache for US imperialism if you know the tiny Kingdom’s importance in the US military’s structure of overseas bases. Naval Support Activity Bahrain (or NSA Bahrain) is home to US Naval Forces Central Command and United States Fifth Fleet. It is the primary base in the region for the naval and marine activities for the US wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 1996, lacking an air force of its own, Qatar built Al Udeid Air Base at a cost of more than $1 billion with the goal of attracting the US military. Al Udeid Air Base has served as a major command and logistics hub for US regional operations including its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is home to a forward headquarters of the United States Central Command, in charge of military operations in the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Other Middle East countries
There are also US bases and troops in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. It is no coincidence that Saudi troops – trained and armed by the US and its NATO allies – invaded Bahrain to quell the popular protest during the so-called Arab Spring, nor that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were the only Arab countries to participate in the US-led war of aggression against Libya.
It is often forgotten – or deliberately omitted – but US imperialism is also militarily present in the territory of its Middle East satellite Israel. The Dimona Radar Facility is a US-operated radar base in the Negev, staffed by 120 US military personnel, while the Port of Haifa maintains facilities for the US Sixth Fleet.
Incirlik Air Base on the outskirts of Adana, Turkey, is the largest US military facility in a strategically vital NATO ally. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the Incirlik Air Base for US power projection in the Middle East. The entire Iraq policy of the United States hinged on Incirlik.
Resistance to foreign military presence is almost as widespread as the bases themselves. The perception of US military bases as intrusions on national sovereignty is widespread in “host” countries. Even in Iraq, for example, protest organizations are launching sit-ins in front of military bases. Among the protesters is also Muntazer al-Zaidi, the famed Bush shoe-thrower, who helps lead an organization, called the Popular Movement to Save Iraq.
Since the start of the war of aggression on Iraq in 2003, over four thousand US military died in combat, but the total figure of US deaths related to the Gulf War may run into the tens of thousands. Attacks by Iraqi resistance fighters on US troops and bases continue to take place on a weekly basis, all over the country. The Arab Spring didn’t pass unnoticed in Iraq: on several occasions, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to demand an end to the occupation, sovereignty and democracy.
Until the 1990s, direct US military interventions in Africa were relatively marginal. While the US was engaged in the Korean or Vietnam war or in other military projects in Asia and Latin America, they preferred to exert their influence through political pressure and networks. Whenever they needed military power, they relied on local proxies or European allies. The US has become more involved since the importance of Africa for the US has increased.
It is only very recently, in October 2008, that a new US military command structure was established especially for Africa, the AFRICOM. The AFRICOM’s creation is indicative of the increasing competition with the European allies and signals the greater interest of US imperialism to militarily control events in the resource-rich African continent. Already in 2002, a US government think tank, the National Intelligence Council, estimated that by 2015, West African oil exports to the US would constitute about 25% of total US oil import requirements.
One reason why Africa has become an important continent for the US is the growing presence there of its competitors India and China. What makes US and European imperialists nervous is that Africa now has alternatives to Western impositions. It has become increasingly important to show some muscle in order to maintain dominance in the continent.
During a conference on ‘The Evolution of African Militaries,’ in February 2009, co-hosted by US Africa Command and the US Department of State, Professor David H. Shinn, adjunct professor for George Washington University, observed: “China is projected to pass the United States by 2010 as Africa’s largest trading partner. It has diplomatic relations with forty-nine of Africa’s fifty-three countries (four countries still recognize Taiwan) and has an embassy in all forty-nine countries except Somalia. That equals the number of US embassies in Africa, and China has more independent consulates than the United States. India is expanding rapidly in Africa and plans in five years to reach China’s current level of trade with the continent, which exceeds $100 billion. Brazil has made a major push into the continent in recent years, especially with lusophone countries. Several Gulf States, Iran and Turkey are also expanding their ties with Africa. The playing field is much more crowded than it was just ten years ago. This gives the Africans more options, but it also complicates the nature of Africa’s interaction with outside interests.”
“A prosperous and stable Africa is strategically important to the United States,” AFRICOM commander General Carter F. Ham told the US Senate Armed Services Committee last April 7. “An Africa that can generate and sustain broad based economic development will contribute to global growth, which is a long-standing American interest. However, poverty in many parts of Africa contributes to an insidious cycle of instability, conflict, environmental degradation, and disease that erodes confidence in national institutions and governing capacity. This in turn often creates the conditions for the emergence of a wide range of transnational security threats that can threaten the American homeland and our regional interests.”
It shows the objectives of AFRICOM are twofold: On the one hand it wants to maintain and consolidate its control on key African regimes that support its economic interests. On the other hand it acknowledges the threat of people’s protest to these interests. Ham further observed ‘ in his testimony before the Senate Committee that “forty-three percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is below the age of 15. (…) this potential pool of undereducated and unemployed youth could present a possible source of instability and potential recruiting pool for violent extremist organizations or narcotics traffickers.”
AFRICOM is carrying out a whole series of activities designed to strengthen the ability of key African allies to stay in power, through arm sales and providing military training programs for African military forces. There are also various other security assistance programs to strengthen the military capability of, first of all, regimes that control countries which are primary sources of oil and other natural resources like Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and other oil producing countries. There are also some countries that have been able to count on US military assistance in so far as they have been willing and able to serve as proxies for the US on the global war on terror, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia.
In addition to the assistance already mentioned, there has been a dramatic build-up of US naval forces off the coast of Africa, particularly off the oil-rich coast of Guinea and also off the coast of Somalia.
According to Daniel Volman from the African Security Research Project, the US actually knows that this is a strategy which is likely to fail over time. This kind of regimes are not stable and will not stay in power indefinitely, as they tend to collapse with the growing movement of democratization in Africa. The day may come when the US may have to use its own forces to intervene directly in Africa.
This evolution is not unlike what we have seen in the Middle East under the US Central Command, which was established in essentially the same way in 1979. It started out as a small headquarters based in Florida, without any control over or command of troops, but it is currently running two major wars in the Middle East and has major military bases in the region at its disposal.
So far, the US has established, essentially as part of the Central Command, only one base on the African continent in Djibouti, with approximately 2300 troops. Camp Lemonnier originally focused on US involvement in the Middle East but is becoming increasingly focused on the Horn of Africa and East Africa. It’s the base from which the US launches military strikes into Somalia, for example.
In addition the US has concluded what are known as ‘access agreements’. It is understood that it is not desirable for the US to build a lot of expensive and highly visible military bases around Africa. Rather, what they need is access to as many local military facilities as possible. The US has therefore concluded base access agreements with governments across the continent.
Because of these flexible arrangements, the US has the capability to set up very large military bases literally in a few days’ time. That is essentially what happens when a US president visits an African country. They establish a temporary military base for the duration of the trip and bring in thousands of marines, and stockpiles of military equipment and other supplies, including sophisticated communication equipment systems. In addition to that they have started contingency planning and other preparations for direct military interventions in Africa.
Until its closure by Qaddafi in 1970, the US maintained an air force base in Libya, Wheelus Air Base. It is not far-fetched to think that the US or NATO may be interested in re-establishing a military base in an occupied or otherwise controlled Libya, right in between Tunisia and Egypt, and overseeing the entire African continent.
Washington has one major problem: there is a growing resistance and hostility on the African continent against the US as a whole, and against the US military in particular. Of all African nations, only Liberia has publicly expressed willingness to host AFRICOM’s headquarters. The US has been forced to keep the Africa Command headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany for the “foreseeable future”.
The Africans are well aware of the US role in wars fought by proxies. It would have been impossible, for example, for a small country like Rwanda to invade the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2003 without any outside help. Also the ongoing war on Libya is creating more opposition throughout the continent. The African Unity has opposed the aggression from the very beginning, and several high-profile African leaders have tried to broker peace in order to avert and, later, stop the war. Neighboring countries like Niger and Mali are already bearing the brunt of the war because its migrants that used to work in Libya are now unemployed. The more the US gets involved in the war, the more it will be met with resistance from governments and the people across the African continent.