While most Americans are focused on how soon U.S. troops can get out of Iraq, the Army and Air Force are pouring an awful lot of concrete there.
An Associated Press investigative report suggests that there is a certain air of permanence to the military construction we’re doing in Iraq. Massive development at several U.S. outposts raises the prospect that the administration may be contemplating the U.S. installations designed to outlast insurgency and the creation of a stable Iraqi government.
We’ve all been hearing about the permanent bases for awhile, but I haven’t seen many details reported by the evil ol’ libruhl media. Some googling brought up the AP report cited above, by Charles Hanley:
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq – The concrete goes on forever, vanishing into the noonday glare, 2 million cubic feet of it, a mile-long slab that’s now the home of up to 120 U.S. helicopters, a “heli-park” as good as any back in the States. At another giant base, al-Asad in Iraq’s western desert, the 17,000 troops and workers come and go in a kind of bustling American town, with a Burger King, Pizza Hut and a car dealership, stop signs, traffic regulations and young bikers clogging the roads.
At a third hub down south, Tallil, they’re planning a new mess hall, one that will seat 6,000 hungry airmen and soldiers for chow.
Are the Americans here to stay? Air Force mechanic Josh Remy is sure of it as he looks around Balad.
“I think we’ll be here forever,” the 19-year-old airman from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., told a visitor to his base.
Yesterday President Bush cheerfully informed the nation that the U.S. military would be in Iraq as long as he is president. William Douglas reported for Knight Ridder:
President Bush said Tuesday that U.S. troops will be in Iraq until after his presidency ends almost three years from now.
Asked at a White House news conference whether there’ll come a time when no U.S. forces are in Iraq, he said “that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.” Pressed on that response, the president said that for him to discuss complete withdrawal would mean he was setting a timetable, which he refuses to do.
Note to news media: Next time Bush gives a news conference, one of you should ask him about the concrete.
Hanley of the AP continues:
Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman on international security, told The Associated Press it would be “inappropriate” to discuss future basing until a new Iraqi government is in place, expected in the coming weeks.
Less formally, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked about “permanent duty stations” by a Marine during an Iraq visit in December, allowed that it was “an interesting question.” He said it would have to be raised by the incoming Baghdad government, if “they have an interest in our assisting them for some period over time.”
In Washington, Iraq scholar Phebe Marr finds the language intriguing. “If they aren’t planning for bases, they ought to say so,” she said. “I would expect to hear ‘No bases.'”
Right now what is heard is the pouring of concrete.
In 2005-06, Washington has authorized or proposed almost $1 billion for U.S. military construction in Iraq, as American forces consolidate at Balad, known as Anaconda, and a handful of other installations, big bases under the old regime.
Note to news media: Next time Rummy gives a news conference, one of you should ask him about the concrete.
According to Hanley, the plan seems to be to lower the profile of U.S. troops by withdrawing from cities to the safety of fortified concrete bases.
They have already pulled out of 34 of the 110 bases they were holding last March, said Maj. Lee English of the U.S. command’s Base Working Group, planning the consolidation.
“The coalition forces are moving outside the cities while continuing to provide security support to the Iraqi security forces,” English said.
The move away from cities, perhaps eventually accompanied by U.S. force reductions, will lower the profile of U.S. troops, frequent targets of roadside bombs on city streets. Officers at Al-Asad Air Base, 10 desert miles from the nearest town, say it hasn’t been hit by insurgent mortar or rocket fire since October.
And the bases being built sound, um, permanent —
Al-Asad will become even more isolated. The proposed 2006 supplemental budget for Iraq operations would provide $7.4 million to extend the no-man’s-land and build new security fencing around the base, which at 19 square miles is so large that many assigned there take the Yellow or Blue bus routes to get around the base, or buy bicycles at a PX jammed with customers.
The latest budget also allots $39 million for new airfield lighting, air traffic control systems and upgrades allowing al-Asad to plug into the Iraqi electricity grid – a typical sign of a long-term base.
At Tallil, besides the new $14 million dining facility, Ali Air Base is to get, for $22 million, a double perimeter security fence with high-tech gate controls, guard towers and a moat – in military parlance, a “vehicle entrapment ditch with berm.”
Jack Murtha proposed that U.S. troops in Iraq redeploy “over the horizon.” The Bushie plan is to have troops redeploy “over the concrete.”
So why haven’t we heard more about this?
If long-term basing is, indeed, on the horizon, “the politics back here and the politics in the region say, ‘Don’t announce it,'” [Gordon] Adams [of George Washington University] said in Washington. That’s what’s done elsewhere, as with the quiet U.S. basing of spy planes and other aircraft in the United Arab Emirates.
Army and Air Force engineers, with little notice, have worked to give U.S. commanders solid installations in Iraq, and to give policymakers options. From the start, in 2003, the first Army engineers rolling into Balad took the long view, laying out a 10-year plan envisioning a move from tents to today’s living quarters in air-conditioned trailers, to concrete-and-brick barracks by 2008.
In early 2006, no one’s confirming such next steps, but a Balad “master plan,” details undisclosed, is nearing completion, a possible model for al-Asad, Tallil and a fourth major base, al-Qayyarah in Iraq’s north.
Back to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
The administration may see strategic advantages to a U.S. military footprint in the oil-rich but volatile Middle East. It would give the military more “punch” than aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and perhaps deter aggression by Iran.
But the risks are vast. U.S. military presence in the Middle East was among the rationale claimed by Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks. The establishment of long-term U.S. bases would shatter the administration’s claim that Americans are in Iraq as “liberators, not occupiers.”
Cynics might argue that a Mideast military foothold is a more believable motive for Bush’s invasion of Iraq than the capture of weapons of mass destruction, ferreting out terrorists or bringing democracy to the Iraqis.
If the administration doesn’t intend to create permanent bases in Iraq, why not clearly say so? Or devote the $1 billion proposed for military construction there to providing Iraqis with electricity and water.
Um, news media? Do you want to start asking the Bush Administration about the concrete?