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Archive for January, 2011

Posted by on January 17th, 2011

From our partners at

By Gareth Porter

Fity years after Dwight D. Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 speech on the “military-industrial complex”, that threat has morphed into a far more powerful and sinister force than Eisenhower could have imagined.  It has become a “Permanent War State”, with the power to keep the United States at war continuously for the indefinite future.  

But despite their seeming invulnerability, the vested interests behind U.S. militarism have been seriously shaken twice in the past four decades by some combination of public revulsion against a major war, opposition to high military spending, serious concern about the budget deficit and a change in perception of the external threat.  Today, the Permanent War State faces the first three of those dangers to its power simultaneously — and in a larger context of the worst economic crisis since the great depression.

When Eisenhower warned in this farewell address of the “potential” for the “disastrous rise of misplaced power”, he was referring to the danger that militarist interests would gain control over the country’s national security policy. The only  reason it didn’t happen on Ike’s watch is that he stood up to the military and its allies.

The Air Force and the Army were so unhappy with his “New Look” military policy that they each waged political campaigns against it. The Army demanded that Ike reverse his budget cuts and beef up conventional forces. The Air Force twice fabricated intelligence to support its claim that the Soviet Union was rapidly overtaking the United States in strategic striking power — first in bombers, later in ballistic missiles.  

But Ike defied both services, reducing Army manpower by 44 percent from its 1953 level and refusing to order a crash program for bombers or for missiles.  He also rejected military recommendations for war in Indochina, bombing attacks on China and an ultimatum to the Soviet Union.

After Eisenhower, it became clear that the alliance of militarist interests included not only the military services and their industrial clients but civilian officials in the Pentagon, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, top officials at the State Department and the White House national security adviser.  During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that militarist alliance succeeded in pushing the White House into a war in Vietnam, despite the reluctance of both presidents, as documented in my book Perils of Dominance. 

But just when the power of the militarist alliance seemed unstoppable in the late 1960s, the public turned decisively against the VietnamWar, and a long period of public pressure to reduce military spending began.  As a result, military manpower was reduced to below even the Eisenhower era levels.

For more than a decade the alliance of militarist interests was effectively constrained from advocating a more aggressive military posture.

Even during the Reagan era, after a temporary surge in military spending, popular fear of Soviet Union melted away in response to the rise of Gorbachev, just as the burgeoning federal budget deficit was becoming yet another threat to militarist bloc.  As it became clear that the Cold War was drawing to a close, the militarist interests faced the likely loss of much of their power and resources.   

But in mid-1990 they got an unexpected break when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. George H. W. Bush – a key figure in the militarist complex as former CIA Director — seized the opportunity to launch a war that would end the “Vietnam syndrome”.  The Bush administration turned a popular clear-cut military victory in the 1991 Gulf War into a rationale for further use of military force in the Middle East.   Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s 1992 military strategy for the next decade said, “We must be prepared to act decisively in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region as we did in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm if our vital interests are threatened anew.”  

The Bush administration pressured the Saudis and other Arab regimes in the Gulf to allow longer-term bases for the U.S. Air Force, and over the next eight years, U.S. planes flew an annual average of 8,000 sorties in the “no fly zones” the United States had declared over most of Iraq, drawing frequent anti-aircraft fire.

The United States was already in a de facto state of war with Iraq well before George W. Bush’s presidency.

The 9/11 attacks were the biggest single boon to the militarist alliance.  The Bush administration exploited the climate of fear to railroad the country into a war of aggression against Iraq.  The underlying strategy, approved by the military leadership after 9/11, was to use Iraq as a base from which to wage a campaign of regime change in a long list of countries.  

That fateful decision only spurred recruitment and greater activism by al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, which expanded into Iraq and other countries.  

Instead of reversing the ill-considered use of military force, however, the same coalition of officials pushed for an even more militarized approach to jihadism.  Over the next few years, it to gained unprecedented power over resources and policy at home and further extended its reach abroad: 

The Special Operations Forces, which operate in almost complete secrecy, obtained extraordinary authority to track down and kill or capture al Qaeda suspects not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in many more countries.

 The CIA sought and obtained virtually unlimited freedom to carry out drone strikes in secrecy and without any meaningful oversight by Congress.

 The Pentagon embraced the idea of the “long war” – a twenty-year strategy envisioning deployment of U.S. troops in dozens of countries, and the Army adopted the idea of “the era of persistent warfare” as its rationale for more budgetary resources.

 The military budget doubled from 1998 to 2008 in the biggest explosion of military spending since the early 1950s – and now accounts for 56 percent of discretionary federal spending.

 The military leadership used its political clout to ensure that U.S. forces would continue to fight in Afghanistan indefinitely, even after the premises of its strategy were shown to have been false.

 Those moves have completed the process of creating a “Permanent War State” — a set of institutions with the authority to wage largely secret wars across a vast expanse of the globe for the indefinite future.  

But the power of this new state formation is still subject to the same political dynamics that have threatened militarist interests twice before:  popular antipathy to a major war, broad demands for reduced military spending and the necessity to reduce the Federal budget deficit and debt.

The percentage of Americans who believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting has now reached 60 percent for the first time.  And as the crisis over the federal debt reaches it climax, the swollen defense budget should bear the brunt of deep budget cuts. 

As early as 2005, a Pew Research Center survey found that, when respondents were given the opportunity to express a preference for budget cuts by major accounts, they opted to reduce  military spending by 31 percent.  In another survey by the Pew Center a year ago, 76 percent of respondents, frustrated by the continued failure of the U.S. economy, wanted the United States to put top priority in its domestic problems.   

The only thing missing from this picture is a grassroots political movement organized specifically to demand an end to the Permanent War State.  Such a movement could establish firm legal restraints on the institutions that threaten American Democratic institutions through a massive educational and lobbying effort. This is the right historical moment to harness the latent anti-militarist sentiment in the country to a conscious strategy for political change.

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Posted by The Agonist on January 17th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

. . . two very important posts over at Registan everyone should read.


Translated from obnoxious mil-speak, she is describing the village being intimidated by the Taliban, who are chased away by soldiers, then “cleared” by special forces, and leveled by massive aerial bombardment, apparently with no casualties. Nowhere in this account is there a sense that the villagers felt any ill-will toward the Americans beforehand—rather, Broadwell explicitly describes the village as being victimized by the Taliban first, then being completely obliterated by the Americans. In other words, rather than actually clearing the village—not just chasing away the Taliban but cleaning up the bombs and munitions left over—the soldiers got lazy and decided to destroy the entire settlement


That’s a lot of text to power through, and there’s a lot more on her page, but it brings to mind an important phenomenon that it worth exploring here. Namely, the assumption that our good intentions are apparent, and always welcomed, coupled with a gullibility of villagers saying nice things to the rich guys with guns.

Read them both and realize how much of a failure our policy in Afghanistan has become.

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Posted by on January 16th, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Yesterday, two more American soldiers engaged in "non-combat activities" were shot to death in Iraq, and a third was wounded. They were killed by an Iraqi soldier who smuggled live ammunition into a training exercise and then turned his gun on his trainers.

While this type of "friendly" fire incident is no where near as prevalaent in Iraq as it is in Afghanistan – only five such incidents have been publicly acknowledged since 2003, as opposed to a dozen such in Afghanistan in just the last three years – every single one has happened in the Mosul area. Nowadays, when you hear about attacks on Iraqi Christians, it happens in Mosul. There's daily violence in Iraq, still, and much of it is in Mosul.

It's always Mosul, which Finnish journalist Jari Lindholm describes as "a miserable COIN failure no one ever cared to properly analyse." Despite claims that the war in Iraq is over, Mosul remains a hotbed of extremist violence and a stronghold for Al Qaeda, tying down a substantial portion of the Iraqi Army. In June, the NYT's Timothy Williams reported:

Whatever the reason, no one has been able to quell Mosul’s violence: It is one of the few urban areas in Iraq where American combat troops patrol the streets. Some 18 Iraqi Army battalions are stationed in the city, and hundreds of Iraqi police officers staff checkpoints.

But in Amil, people say they want nothing to do with the Iraqi Army in particular — which in Mosul is composed primarily of Shiites from southern Iraq. Residents complain the soldiers do not understand their culture, and are rude at best, brutal at worst, suspecting everyone in the neighborhood of being a member of Al Qaeda.

“There’s no trust between the security forces and the people,” said one resident, Hazim Mahmud al-Sahan, whose son was recently killed in Amil, not far from an Iraqi Army checkpoint.

For years, though, the greater scorn was poured on Americans. But in a few months they will be gone, it seems regardless of whether places like Amil descend into worse violence.

“There will be greater problems when the Americans leave,” said Didar Abdulla al-Zibari, a member of the local provincial council. He paused for effect, before saying that America “will be blamed” for leaving.

Strange that in 2007, the city was being hailed as one of General Petraeus' great COIN victories (even as the local Sunnis were doing some ethnic cleansing of the city's Kurds). Of course, when Mosul slid back downhill, the Teflon General had already moved on and was untouched by the failure.

Lindholm, in a post last year, suggested we look to Mosul as one indicator of where COIN in Afghanistan might lead.

After years of much-touted offensives* by both Iraqi and U.S. forces, the northern city remains the deadliest piece of urban real estate in Iraq. A year ago, two large-scale Iraqi Army operations were supposed to break the backbone of the Sunni insurgency and end the cycle of violence fed by nationalism, crime, Islamic fanaticism and general despair. It didn’t. The 15-month tour of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, one of the most accomplished and proficient units in the U.S. Army, was by all accounts a mixed bag. Violence was reduced, but car bombs still wreak havoc, politicians are assassinated, IEDs kill innocents, and after local elections upset the political balance of power, Kurdish-Arab tensions threaten to escalate into war.

The lesson? There are simply too many actors involved in the multilayered conflict in Mosul for classic COIN to work. First of all, the fault lines are not sectarian but ethnic. You can’t protect the population by walling off neighbourhoods, because you wouldn’t know whom to wall in and whom to keep out. Second, you can’t cut off terrorist infiltration because you don’t have enough troops, and a single dirt berm doesn’t do it. Third, you can’t pay off the hardcore militants, because they don’t want your money; and you can’t pay off the gangsters because they don’t need your money. And fourth, you can’t stop the IEDs, because there’s always a jobless IDP willing to dump a pressure plate on a road for ten bucks.

A porous international border, lucrative smuggling routes, a restless refugee population, transnational jihadis mingling with local nationalists, and an explosive ethnic mix — if this rings a bell, it’s because the war in Mosul has more in common with the morass we face in Afghanistan than it has with Baghdad.

Kandahar probably has the best chance to be the Mosul of Afghanistan in another two or three years. After several much-acclaimed offensives, the local hardcore militants will be just as hardcore, the local gangsters will be just as opium-rich, the Afghan security forces patrolling this Pushtun heartland will be just as packed with non-Pushtuns and Petraeus' heavy hand will have ended all chance of American counter-insurgency winning "hearts and minds".

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Posted by The Agonist on January 16th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

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Posted by robertgreenwald on January 16th, 2011

This Monday, January 17th, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s a day for us to celebrate one of the most important peacemaking heroes in our nation’s history, and an appropriate moment to reflect on the power of nonviolent social activism motivated by love and a sense of justice. For the millions of us who oppose the Afghanistan War (and yes, there are many, many millions of us in the U.S.), Dr. King points the way to the end of the Afghanistan War and beyond, to the onset of the Beloved Community.

Just don’t tell the Pentagon.

I was amazed and bewildered to find Pentagon officials and paid military propagandists scrabbling to claim Dr. King as a supporter for war-making. From the general counsel down to the writers at the American Forces Press Service, the military bureaucracy was humming with the asserting that if Dr. King were alive today, he’d “understand” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and would consider the activities that take place while fighting those wars akin to the actions of the Good Samaritan from the Christian gospel story. It was one of the most shameful attempts to cover these brutal, futile wars in humanitarian wallpaper I’ve seen in years.

Of course, Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and the American Forces Press Service are wrong. As our new Rethink Afghanistan video shows, virtually every reason given by King in his “Time to Break the Silence” speech for opposing the Vietnam War would damn the Afghanistan War as well.

Here are just a few examples:

King decried the awful willingness of his country to spend $500,000 per each killed enemy soldier in Vietnam while so many Americans struggled in poverty. Yet last year, a conservative figure for the amount we spent per killed enemy fighter in Afghanistan was roughly $20 million.

King spoke of the “monumental dissent” that arose around the Vietnam War. “Polls reveal that almost 15 million Americans explicitly oppose the war in Vietnam,” he said. But today, 63 percent of Americans oppose the Afghanistan War, and when you do the math, that’s 196 million people, give or take the margin of error.

Dr. King also spoke of the “demonic, destructive suction tube” yanking resources and lives out of the fight to get Americans on their feet. That tube is still demonic and destructive: we’ve spent more than $360 billion on this war so far and it will cost us roughly $3 billion per week in the coming year. Add to that the 10,000 people, including about 500 U.S. troops and countless civilians who died last year alone, and you can see exactly what he’s talking about. The hope of our getting out of this abysmal economic vice is burning on the roadsides of Afghanistan every day we refuse to start bringing troops home.

No, it’s safe to say that Dr. King would not regard any conflict that killed 10,000 people in a year as a humanitarian exercise. Nor would he “understand” how a nation in the grip of an economic meltdown like this one could again throw lives and resources away for almost a decade. It’s safe to say that he would move beyond the “prophesying of smooth patriotism” and stand up to end this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost.

As Dr. King was fond of reminding us, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.” Help us spread the truth about his legacy and fight the Pentagon’s propaganda by sharing our new video with your friends. Then, join others who want to end this war at

Follow Robert Greenwald on Twitter:

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Posted by The Agonist on January 14th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Charley Keyes | Washington DC | 1/14/2011

CNN – I can’t *believe* anybody’s even having this discussion………

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Posted by The Agonist on January 13th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

. . . offered up a 10-point plan towards a negotiated peace in Afghanistan. I’ve talked to a few people in the foreign policy business and they think it has promise.

Here are the ten points, but it’s important to read the full story here.

1. NATO, the Afghan government, and Pakistan free most Afghan Taliban prisoners under their jurisdiction and seek to accommodate them safely in Afghanistan or allow them to seek refuge in third countries. NATO guarantees freedom of movement for Taliban mediators opening an office in a friendly third country.

2. Iran enters into negotiations with the United Nations and European countries to end its safe haven for Afghan Taliban and allow them to return home or seek refuge in third countries. None of these actions includes amnesty or safe passage for al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups.

3. The Taliban respond with confidence-building measures of their own such as publicly dissociating themselves from al-Qaeda, ordering an end to targeted killings of Afghan administrators and aid workers, and an end to suicide bombings and burning schools and government buildings.

4. The US, NATO, and the UN declare their willingness to negotiate directly with the Taliban when the Taliban publicly request it, although they insist that the dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban remain the main avenue for negotiating a peace deal.

5. A new UN Security Council resolution calls for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban to bring the war to an end. The UN resolution mandates its special representative in Kabul to help those negotiations and to start a dialogue between Afghanistan’s neighboring states to reduce their mutual antagonisms and interference; the resolution also calls for Afghan Taliban leaders who do not have ties to al-Qaeda to be struck off the list of terrorism suspects.

6. India and Pakistan enter into secret talks between their intelligence agencies in order to make their presence in Afghanistan more transparent to the other and end their rivalries. Later the two governments come to agreements that would allow each one to tolerate the other’s embassies, consulates, rebuilding activities, and trade interests in Afghanistan. Both pledge not to seek a military presence in Afghanistan or to use Afghan soil to undermine the other.

7. Central to any plan would be a deal with the separatist insurgents in the Pakistani province of Balochistan who make use of territory in Afghanistan to carry out their attacks on Pakistan. To address the problem, Pakistan issues a general amnesty for all insurgent Baloch separatist groups and dissidents and announces its intentions to discuss a new peace formula with all Baloch separatist groups to end the current insurgency. The army and ISI free all Baloch prisoners they are holding including the hundreds of “disappeared” prisoners.

8. The Afghan government makes a commitment to return all Baloch separatist leaders on its soil once agreement is reached on a political deal in Balochistan and safe passage for Baloch leaders to return home is guaranteed by the Pakistan army and an international agency such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

9. Pakistan issues a timetable and deadline of between six to twelve months for all Afghan Taliban leaders and their families who want to do so to leave Pakistan and return to Afghanistan. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the UN would jointly help those Taliban not wishing to return home and not on any terrorism list to seek political asylum in third countries. Simultaneously Pakistan would undertake military action in North Waziristan in an effort to destroy remnants of al-Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani Taliban who may remain and try to sabotage any peace process. Even if such action were not fully successful, the aim would be to limit their capacity to sponsor insurgency.

10. The Afghan government works to build a national consensus inside the country among all ethnic groups, civil society, and the tribes before entering into formal negotiations with the Taliban. Negotiations also start between the US and the Taliban. The US agrees to sharply restrict killing of Taliban leaders by drones and other means.

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Posted by alexthurston on January 13th, 2011

This story originally appeared at

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Last week, Pentagon budget “cuts” were in the headlines, often almost luridly so — “Pentagon Faces the Knife,” “Pentagon to Cut Spending by $78 Billion, Reduce Troop Strength,” “U.S. Aims to Cut Defense Budget and Slash Troops.”  Responding to the mood of the moment in Washington (“the fiscal pressures the country is facing”), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen made those headlines by calling a news conference to explain prospective “cuts” they were proposing.  Summing the situation up, Mullen seconded Gates this way: “The secretary’s right, we can’t hold ourselves exempt from the belt-tightening.”

Gates then appeared on the PBS NewsHour to explain the nature of Pentagon “belt-tightening,” while reminding anchor Jim Lehrer that last year the Pentagon announced plans to cap or cut “programs that, had they been built to conclusion, would have cost the taxpayers about $330 billion.”  The newest $78 billion in cuts over five years was to be considered but an add-on to already supposedly staggering savings, which he described as “changes in the expected dollars that we thought we were going to have when we prepared last year’s budget.”  According to the Secretary of Defense, this massive set of cuts would, in fact, guarantee “modest growth” in the already monstrous Pentagon budget for at least the next three years.

Keeping Mullen’s “belt-tightening” image in mind, what you have here, imagistically speaking, is an especially obese man cutting down on his own future expectations for how much he’s planning to overeat, even as he continues to increase what he’s actually eating.  In other words, this is actually a belt-loosening operation.  (And by the way, the Secretary of Defense knows perfectly well that some of his “cuts,” announced with such flare, will never make it through a Congress where powerful Republicans, among others, prefer to exempt the national security budget from serious cuts, or any cuts at all.)

Consider this indicative of the new thinking we can expect from Washington in a crisis.  As new, in fact, as the announcement less than a week into 2011 — the year President Obama once targeted for a major drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — that 1,400 more Marines were being sent into that country.  It was a small but striking reminder that, as in 2009 and 2010, when it comes to the widening war in the region, the path of “more” (and more of the same) would invariably trump the idea of “less.”  This is the war-zone version of “belt-tightening.”

Similarly, when the President decided to “shake up” his administration for a new era of split-screen government in Washington, he called on a top JPMorgan Chase exec (also deeply enmeshed in the military-industrial complex and Big Pharma) and a former Goldman Sachs advisor, both Clintonistas of the 1990s, to do the shaking.  This passes for “new blood” in our nation’s capital.  Think of it this way: if you fill the room with the same old same old, you’ll always end up with some version of the same old same old.

Today, just to shake things up a tad, TomDispatch offers some actual new thinking of a sort you won’t find in Washington.  It’s from Ann Jones, a hands-on aid worker, TomDispatch regular, and remarkable writer.  Her eloquent new book, War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War, will undoubtedly go largely unreviewed, because when wars “end” even as the destruction of women (and children) continues, it’s no longer really news. 

Worse yet, she favors the “less” path in Afghanistan, where any path heading vaguely in the direction of “peace” (a word now synonymous with “utopian dolt” or “bleeding heart idiot”) will automatically be waved aside as hopeless.  Since putting any money behind thinking about or testing out new pathways towards peace in our world is inconceivable, we’ll never know what might work.  You can put $130 million taxpayer dollars into a new aircraft-fueling system at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or billions of taxpayer dollars into the Pakistani military (defending a country in which the rich go notoriously untaxed), but not one cent for peace.   As for women, well, too bad.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Jones discusses why wars never end for women and girls, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

Why Peace Is the Business of Men (But Shouldn’t Be) 
A Modest Proposal for the Immodest Brotherhood of Big Men 

By Ann Jones

Looking for a way out of Afghanistan?  Maybe it’s time to try something entirely new and totally different.  So how about putting into action, for the first time in recorded history, the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council: Resolution 1325?

Passed on October 31, 2000, more than a decade ago, that “landmark” resolution was hailed worldwide as a great “victory” for women and international peace and security. In a nutshell, SCR 1325 calls for women to participate equally and fully at decision-making levels in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and reconstruction.  Without the active participation of women in peacemaking every step of the way, the Security Council concluded, no just and durable peace could be achieved anywhere.

“Durable” was the key word.  Keep it in mind.

Most hot wars of recent memory, little and big, have been resolved or nudged into remission through what is called a power-sharing agreement.  The big men from most or all of the warring parties — and war is basically a guy thing, in case you hadn’t noticed — shoulder in to the negotiating table and carve up a country’s or region’s military, political, and financial pie.  Then they proclaim the resulting deal “peace.”

But as I learned firsthand as an aid worker in one so-called post-conflict country after another, when the men in power stop shooting at each other, they often escalate the war against civilians — especially women and girls.  It seems to be hard for men to switch off violence, once they’ve gotten the hang of it.  From Liberia to Myanmar, rape, torture, mutilation, and murder continue unabated or even increase in frequency. In other words, from the standpoint of civilians, war is often not over when it’s “over,” and the “peace” is no real peace at all.  Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the notorious “rape capital of the world,” where thousands upon thousands of women are gang-raped again and again although the country has officially been at “peace” since 2003.

In addition, power-sharing agreements among combatants tend to fray, and half of them unravel into open warfare again within a few years. Consider Liberia throughout the 1990s, Angola in 1992 and 1998, Cambodia in 1997, and Iraq in 2006-2007.  At this moment, we are witnessing the breakdown of one power-sharing agreement in the Ivory Coast, and certainly the femicidal consequences of another, made in 2001, in Afghanistan.

It is this repeated recourse to war and the unrelenting abuse and neglect of civilians during fleeting episodes of “peace” that prompted the Security Council to seek the key to more durable solutions.  They recognized that men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth — notably control of a country’s natural resources — while women included at any level of negotiations commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil society.  Women are concerned about their children and consequently about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, health care, education, and the like — all those things that make life livable for peaceable men, women, and children anywhere.

The conclusion is self-evident. Bring women to the table in decision-making roles in equal numbers with male participants and the nature of peace negotiations changes altogether.  And so does the result.  Or at least that’s what the Security Council expects. We can’t be sure because in more than a decade since SCR 1325 was enacted, it has never been put to the test.

At the time, at the exhilarating dawn of a new millennium, the whole world applauded SCR 1325 as a great achievement of the United Nations, pointing the pathway to world peace.  Later, when men in war-torn countries negotiated peace, often with the guidance of the U.N., they forgot all about it.  Their excuse was that they had to act fast, speed being more important than justice or durability or women.  At critical times like that, don’t you know, women just get in the way.

Peace? Not a Chance

My special concern is Afghanistan, and I’m impatient. I’d like a speedy conclusion, too. It’s been nine years since I started doing aid work there, and in that time several of the young Afghan women who were my colleagues and became my friends have died of illnesses they would have survived in better times under the auspices of a government that cared about the welfare of its citizens. Even its women citizens.

Yet now, whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation of SCR 1325 to American big men — thinkers, movers, and shakers — who lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object.  They know the theory, they say, but practice is something else again, and they are precluded from throwing their weight behind SCR 1325 by delicate considerations of “cultural relativism.” Afghanistan, they remind me, is a “traditional” culture that regards women as less than human.  As Westerners, they say, we must be particularly careful to respect that view.

Yet the eagerness of Western men to defer to this “tradition” seems excessive, and their tenderness for the sentiments of bearded men who couldn’t clear airport security in Iowa City strikes me as deliberately obtuse, especially since very few of the Afghan men who actually governed Afghanistan between 1919 and 1989 would have shared their sentiments.

Afghan culture is — and is not — traditional.  Modern ideas, including the idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of internal Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century.  In the 1920s, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women’s complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy, cast away the burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as “bad and evil persons” who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals of Afghanistan.  His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Afghans still remember Amanullah and his modern, unveiled Queen Suraya for their brave endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.

Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared King Amanullah’s modern views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists alike.  But at least since 1979, when the United States and Saudi Arabia joined Pakistan in promoting the ideology and military skill of Islamist extremists who sought to return the country to the seventh-century world of the prophet, Afghanistan’s liberal modernists have taken flight for North America, Europe, and Australia.

Last summer in Afghanistan I talked with many progressive men and women who were running for parliament, hoping to push back against the inordinate power of the Afghan executive in the person of President Hamid Karzai.  To them, he seems increasingly eager to do deals with the most extreme Islamists in opposition to all their progressive dreams for their country.

Yet in August, when President Karzai flagrantly stole the presidential election, President Obama telephoned to congratulate him and the U.S. officially pronounced the fraudulent election results “good enough.”  We might ask: In this contest between entrenched Islamist extremists and progressives who favor equality and democracy, why is the United States on the wrong side?  Why are we on the side of a mistaken notion of Afghan “tradition”?

Our Big Man in Kabul 

In 2001, the U.S. and by extension the entire international community cast their lot with Hamid Karzai.  We put him in power after one of those power-sharing conferences in Bonn, Germany, to which, by the way, only two Afghan women were invited. We paid hundreds of millions of dollars to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and looked the other way while Karzai’s men stuffed the ballot boxes.  Now, it seems, we’re stuck with him and his misogynist “traditions,” even though a growing number of Afghanistan watchers identify the Karzai government as the single greatest problem the U.S. faces in its never-ending war.

We could have seen this coming if we had kept an eye on how President Karzai treats women.  George W. Bush famously claimed to have “liberated” the women of Afghanistan, but he missed one: Hamid Karzai’s wife.  Although she is a gynecologist with desperately needed skills, she is kept shut up at home.  To this day, the president’s wife remains the most prominent woman in Afghanistan still living under house rules established by the Taliban. That little detail, by the way, should remind you of why you ought to care what happens to women: they are the canaries in the Afghan political coal mine.

And what has President Karzai done for the rest of the women of Afghanistan?  Not a thing.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), an association of prominent aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan, including such highly respected non-governmental organizations as Oxfam, CARE, and Save the Children. The Afghan researchers who did the study conducted extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male political leaders, and female leaders locally, provincially, and nationally.

The report notes that President Karzai has supported increasingly repressive laws against women, most notoriously the “Taliban-style” Shia Personal Status Law, enacted in 2009, which not only legitimizes marital rape but “prevents women from stepping out of their homes” without their husband’s consent, in effect depriving them of the right to make any decisions about their own lives. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic freedoms guaranteed to all citizens in the Afghan Constitution, which was passed in 2004 as part of a flurry of democratic reforms marking the start of Karzai’s first term as elected president.  The democratizing spasm passed and President Karzai, sworn to defend that Constitution, failed to do the job.

In fact, Karzai’s record on human rights, as the HRRAC report documents, is chiefly remarkable for what he has not done.  He holds extraordinary power to make political appointments — another indicator of the peculiar nature of this Afghan “democracy” our troops are fighting for — and he has now had almost 10 years in office, ample time to lead even the most reluctant traditional society toward more equitable social arrangements.  Yet today, but one cabinet ministry is held by a woman, the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, which incidentally is the sole government ministry that possesses only advisory powers.  Karzai has appointed just one female provincial governor, and 33 men.  (Is it by chance that Bamyan — the province run by that woman — is generally viewed as the most peaceful in the country?)  To head city governments nationwide, he has named only one female mayor.  And to the Supreme Court High Council he has appointed no woman at all.

Karzai’s claim that he can’t find qualified women is a flimsy — and traditional — excuse. Many of his highest-ranking appointees to government offices are notorious war criminals, men considered by the great majority of Afghan citizens to have disqualified themselves from public office.  The failure of many of his male appointees to govern honestly and justly, or even to show up for work at all, is a rising complaint of NATO commanders who find upon delivery of “government in a box” that the box is pretty much empty.

If fully qualified women are in short supply, having been confined and deprived for years thanks to armed combat and the Taliban government, isn’t that all the more reason for a president sworn to uphold equality to act quickly to insure broad opportunities for education, training, jobs, and the like?  The HRRAC report sensibly recommends “broad sociopolitical reform” to provide “education and economic opportunities for real women’s leadership.”  Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former minister of finance, former president of Kabul University, and presidential contender, spoke in favor of such a “sensible and regular process.”  As he noted, however, “Our government is not a sensible government.”

Flimsy, too, is the argument that Afghanistan’s cultural traditions eliminate women from public service.  Uzra Jafari, the mayor of Daikundi, reports that the city’s inhabitants did not believe a woman could be a mayor, but they soon “accepted that a woman can serve them better than a man.”  “Social obstacles can be overcome,” she says, “but the main problem is the political obstacles.  We have problems at the highest levels.”  The problem, in other words, is President Karzai, the only person in Afghanistan who has the power to install women in political offices and yet refuses to do so.  In short, the president is far more “traditional” than most of the people.

Without the support of male leadership, women leaders (and their families) become easy targets for harassment, threats, intimidation, and assassination. When such threats come from the ultra-Islamist men who dominate the Afghan parliament, they prevent women parliamentarians from uniting in support of women and, in most cases, from speaking out as individuals for women’s rights.  Death threats have a remarkable silencing effect, disrupting the processes of governance, yet President Karzai has not once taken a stand against the terrorist tactics of his cronies.

The Brotherhood of Men

Let’s acknowledge that there are limits to what the West can and cannot do in the very different and more traditional culture of Afghanistan.  Judging by what we have already done, it seems to be perfectly all right for the West — aka the U.S. — to rain bombs upon this agrarian country, with its long tradition of moderate Sufism, and impose an ultraconservative Islamist government and free market capitalism (even at the expense of indigenous agricultural markets) through the ministrations of thousands of highly paid private American “technical assistants.” But it is apparently not okay for any of those multitudinous, extravagantly paid American political and economic consultants to tweak the silken sleeve of President Karzai’s chapan and say, “Hamid, my man, you’ve gotta get some more women in here.”  That would be disrespectful of Afghan traditions.

I don’t buy it.  What we’re up against is not just the intractable misogyny of President Karzai and other powerful mullahs and mujahideen, but the misogyny of power brokers in Washington as well. 

Take, for example, the second most popular objection I hear from American male experts on Afghanistan when I raise my modest proposal.  They call this one “pragmatic” or “realistic.”  Women can’t come to the negotiating table, they say, because the Taliban would never sit down with them.  In fact, Taliban, “ex-Taliban,” and Taliban sympathizers sit down with women every day in the Afghan Parliament, as they have in occasional loya jirgas (deliberating assemblies) since 2001.  Clearly, any Taliban who refuse altogether to talk with women disqualify themselves as peace negotiators and should have no place at the table. But what’s stunning about the view of the American male experts is that it comes down on the other side, ceding to the most extreme Taliban misogynists the right to exclude from peace deliberations half the population of the country. (Tell that to our women soldiers putting their lives on the line.)

Yet these days every so-called Afghanistan expert in Washington has a plan for the future of the country.  Some seem relatively reasonable while others are certifiably delusional, but what almost all of these documents have in common is the absence of the word “women.” (There are a few tiny but notable exceptions.)

In the Loony Tunes category is former diplomat and National Security Council Deputy Robert D. Blackwill’s “Plan B in Afghanistan” appearing in Foreign Affairs, which calls for the U.S. military to flee the south, thus creating a “de facto partition” of Afghanistan and incidentally abandoning — you guessed it — “the women of those areas,” as well as anyone else in the south who wants “to resist the Taliban.”  This scenario may call to mind images of helicopters departing the American embassy in Saigon in 1975, but Blackwill clings to his “strategy,” calling the grim fate of those left behind “a tragic consequence of local realities that are impossible for outsiders to change.”

In the relatively reasonable category is the plan of the Afghanistan Study Group: “A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan.”  Its first recommendation says, “The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.”  Whoops!  No mention of women there.  And power sharing?  We know where that’s headed.  Afghanistan, the undisputed small arms capital of the world, might easily spontaneously combust into civil war.

But what becomes of women?  Even Matthew Hoh, who resigned his position in 2009 as a political officer in the foreign service to protest U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and now heads the Afghanistan Study Group, can’t seem to imagine bringing women to the negotiating table.  (He says he’s “working on it.”) Instead, the Study Group decides for women that “this strategy will best serve [their] interests.”  It declares that “the worst thing for women is for Afghanistan to remain paralyzed in a civil war in which there evolves no organically rooted support for their social advancement.”  Well, no.  Actually, the worst thing for women is to have a bunch of men — and not even Afghan men at that — decide one more time what’s best for women.

I wonder if it’s significant that the Afghan Study Group, much like the Bonn Conference that established the Karzai government in the first place, is essentially a guy club.  I count three women among 49 men and the odd “center” or “council” (also undoubtedly consisting mostly of men).  When I asked Matthew Hoh why there are so few women in the Study Group, he couldn’t help laughing.  He said, “This is Washington.  You go to any important meeting in Washington, it’s men.”

Maybe the heady atmosphere engendered by all those gatherings of suits in close quarters was what inspired Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to abandon all discretion recently and declare that the promise of equal protection in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not extend to protecting women against sex discrimination. If states enact laws discriminating against women, he opined, such laws would not be unconstitutional. (You can be sure some legislators have gotten right to work on it.)

That opinion puts Justice Scalia cozily in bed with former Chief Justice Shinwari, President Karzai’s first appointee to head the Supreme Court of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, who interpreted Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution, which calls for men and women to have equal rights and responsibilities before the law, to mean that men have rights and women have responsibilities to their husbands. (Could this mean that the United States is a traditional culture, too?)

Women leaders in Afghanistan complain that their government does not see them as “human,” but merely uses them as tokens or symbols, presumably to appease those international donors who still rattle on about human rights.  George W. Bush used Afghan women that way.  Obama doesn’t mention them.  Here in the U.S. you take your choice between cynical exploitation, utter neglect, and outright discrimination.

In Afghanistan, Karzai names a High Peace Council to negotiate with the Taliban.  Sixty men.  The usual suspects: warlords, Wahhabis, mujahideen, long-bearded and long in the tooth, but fighting for power to the bitter end. Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network reports that among them are 53 men linked to armed factions in the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s including 13 linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, currently allied with the Taliban.  An additional 12 members of the High Peace Council held positions in the Taliban’s Emirate government between 1996 and 2001.

Under some international pressure, Karzai belatedly added 10 women, the only members of the High Peace Council with no ties to armed militias past or present; they represent the interests of civil society, which is to say the people who might actually like to live in peace for a change and do their utmost to sustain it.  The U.S. signed off on this lopsided Council.  So did Hillary Clinton, a woman who, as Secretary of State, has solemnly promised again and again never to abandon the women of Afghanistan, though she never remembers to invite them to a conference where international and Afghan men decide the future of their country.

Okay, so my modest proposal doesn’t stand a chance.  The deck is stacked against the participation of women, both there and here.  Even I don’t expect men in power to take seriously the serious proposition that women must be equally and fully involved in peacemaking or you don’t get durable peace.  Too many men, both Afghan and American, are doing very nicely thank you with the present traditional arrangements of our cultures.  So, searching blindly for some eventual exit and burdened by their misbegotten notions of “peace,” U.S. and NATO officials busy themselves repeatedly transporting to Kabul, at vast expense, a single high-ranking Taliban mullah to negotiate secret peace and power-sharing deals with President Karzai.  American officials tout these man-to-man negotiations as evidence that U.S. strategy is finally working, until the “mullah” turns out to be an imposter playing a profitable little joke on the powers that be.  Afghan women, who already suffer the effects of rising Taliban power, are not laughing.

Consider this.  We’re not just talking about women’s rights here.  Women’s rights are human rights.  Women exercising their human rights are simply women engaging in those things that men the world over take for granted: going to school, going to work, walking around.  But in Afghanistan today — here’s where tradition comes in again — almost every woman and girl exercising her rights does so with the support of the man or men who let her out of the house: father, husband, brothers, uncles, sons.  Exclude women from their rightful equal decision-making part in the peacemaking process and you also betray the men who stand behind them, men who are by self-definition committed to the dream of a more egalitarian and democratic future for their country.

The sad news from Afghanistan is that a great many progressives have already figured out their own exit strategy. Like generations of Afghans before them, they will become part of one of the world’s largest diasporas from a single country.  Ironically, I’ll bet many of those progressive Afghan men will bring their families to the United States, where women appear to be free and it’s comforting to imagine that misogyny is dead.

Ann Jones is the author most recently of War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan 2010) on the way war affects women from Africa to the Middle East and Asia.  She wrote about the struggles of Afghan women in Kabul in Winter (Metropolitan 2006). She is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Jones discusses why wars never end for women and girls, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

[Note on further reading: The HRRAC report on “Women and Political Leadership” can be found online in .pdf format by clicking here.]

Copyright 2011 Ann Jones

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Posted by Josh Mull on January 12th, 2011

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Something very interesting has been happening with conservatives lately. They’re turning against the war in Afghanistan.

Sure, the majority of Americans have been opposed to the war for some time now, predominantly made up of Democrats and progressives.  But there was always that nagging little problem of the Republican base, specifically their ferocious pro-war attitude.

They carry a lot of weight in the public discourse, so their powerful vocal support for the war would often drown out the (vastly more popular) critical voices. But not anymore. (more…)

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Posted by alexthurston on January 10th, 2011

This story originally appeared at

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India, a rising power, almost had one (but the Tajiks said no).  China, which last year became the world’s second largest economy as well as the planet’s leading energy consumer, and is expanding abroad like mad (largely via trade and the power of the purse), still has none.  The Russians have a few (in Central Asia where “the great game” is ongoing), as do those former colonial powers Great Britain and France, as do certain NATO countries in Afghanistan.  Sooner or later, Japan may even have one.

All of them together — and maybe you’ve already guessed that I’m talking about military bases not on one’s own territory — add up to a relatively modest (if unknown) total.  The U.S., on the other hand, has enough bases abroad to sink the world.  You almost have the feeling that a single American mega-base like Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan could swallow them all up.  It’s so large that a special Air Force “team” has to be assigned to it just to deal with the mail arriving every day, 360,000 pounds of it in November 2010 alone.  At the same base, the U.S. has just spent $130 million building “a better gas station for aircraft… [a] new refueling system, which features a pair of 1.1-million gallon tanks and two miles of pipes.”  Imagine that: two miles of pipes, thousands of miles from home — and that’s just to scratch the surface of Bagram’s enormity. 

Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room blog visited the base last August, found that construction was underway everywhere (think hundreds of millions of dollars more from the pockets of U.S. taxpayers), and wrote: “More notable than the overstuffed runways is the over-driven road. [The Western part of] Disney Drive, the main thoroughfare that rings the eight-square-mile base,[...] is a two-lane parking lot of Humvees, flamboyant cargo big-rigs from Pakistan known as jingle trucks, yellow DHL shipping vans, contractor vehicles, and mud-caked flatbeds. If the Navy could figure out a way to bring a littoral-combat ship to a landlocked country, it would idle on Disney.”

Serving 20,000 or more U.S. troops, and with the usual assortment of Burger Kings and Popeyes, the place is nothing short of a U.S. town, bustling in a way increasingly rare for actual American towns these days, part of a planetary military deployment of a sort never before seen in history.  Yet, as various authors at this site have long noted, the staggering size, scope, and strangeness of all this is seldom considered, analyzed, or debated in the American mainstream.  It’s a given, like the sun rising in the east.  And yet, what exactly is that given?  As Nick Turse, who has been following American basing plans for this site over the years, points out, it’s not as easy to answer that question as you might imagine.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Turse discusses how to count up America’s empire of bases, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

Empire of Bases 2.0 
Does the Pentagon Really Have 1,180 Foreign Bases? 
By Nick Turse

The United States has 460 bases overseas!  It has 507 permanent bases!  What is the U.S doing with more than 560 foreign bases?  Why does it have 662 bases abroad?  Does the United States really have more than 1,000 military bases across the globe?

In a world of statistics and precision, a world in which “accountability” is now a Washington buzzword, a world where all information is available at the click of a mouse, there’s one number no American knows.  Not the president.  Not the Pentagon.  Not the experts.  No one. 

The man who wrote the definitive book on it didn’t know for sure.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist didn’t even come close.  Yours truly has written numerous articles on U.S. military bases and even part of a book on the subject, but failed like the rest. 

There are more than 1,000 U.S. military bases dotting the globe.  To be specific, the most accurate count is 1,077.  Unless it’s 1,088.  Or, if you count differently, 1,169.  Or even 1,180.  Actually, the number might even be higher.  Nobody knows for sure.

Keeping Count

In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made a trenchant point: “The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?”

For years, the late Chalmers Johnson, the man who literally wrote the book on the U.S. military’s empire of bases, The Sorrows of Empire, made the same point and backed it with the most detailed research on the globe-spanning American archipelago of bases that has ever been assembled.  Several years ago, after mining the Pentagon’s own publicly-available documents, Johnson wrote, “[T]he United States maintains 761 active military ‘sites’ in foreign countries. (That’s the Defense Department’s preferred term, rather than ‘bases,’ although bases are what they are.)”

Recently, the Pentagon updated its numbers on bases and other sites, and they have dropped.  Whether they’ve fallen to the level advanced by Kristof, however, is a matter of interpretation.  According to the Department of Defense’s 2010 Base Structure Report, the U.S. military now maintains 662 foreign sites in 38 countries around the world.  Dig into that report more deeply, though, and Grand Canyon-sized gaps begin to emerge.

A Legacy of Bases

In 1955, 10 years after World War II ended, the Chicago Daily Tribune published a major investigation of bases, including a map dotted with little stars and triangles, most of them clustered in Europe and the Pacific.  “The American flag flies over more than 300 overseas outposts,” wrote reporter Walter Trohan.  “Camps and barracks and bases cover 12 American possessions or territories held in trust.  The foreign bases are in 63 foreign nations or islands.”

Today, according to the Pentagon’s published figures, the American flag flies over 750 U.S. military sites in foreign nations and U.S. territories abroad.  This figure does not include small foreign sites of less 10 acres or those that the U.S. military values at less than $10 million.  In some cases, numerous bases of this type may be folded together and counted as a single military installation in a given country.  A request for further clarification from the Department of Defense went unanswered. 

What we do know is that, on the foreign outposts the U.S. military counts, it controls close to 52,000 buildings, and more than 38,000 pieces of heavy infrastructure like piers, wharves, and gigantic storage tanks, not to mention more than 9,100 “linear structures” like runways, rail lines, and pipelines.   Add in more than 6,300 buildings, 3,500 pieces of infrastructure, and 928 linear structures in U.S. territories and you have an impressive total.  And yet, it isn’t close to the full story.

Losing Count

Last January, Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told me that there were nearly 400 U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts.  He expected that number to increase by 12 or more, he added, over the course of 2010. 

In September, I contacted ISAF’s Joint Command Public Affairs Office to follow up.  To my surprise, I was told thatthere are approximately 350 forward operating bases with two major military installations, Bagram and Kandahar airfields.”  Perplexed by the loss of 50 bases instead of a gain of 12, I contacted Gary Younger, a Public Affairs Officer with the International Security Assistance Force.  “There are less than 10 NATO bases in Afghanistan,” he wrote in an October 2010 email.  “There are over 250 U.S. bases in Afghanistan.”

By then, it seemed, the U.S. had lost up to 150 bases and I was thoroughly confused.  When I contacted the military to sort out the discrepancies and listed the numbers I had been given — from Shanks’ 400 base tally to the count of around 250 by Younger — I was handed off again and again until I landed with Sergeant First Class Eric Brown at ISAF Joint Command’s Public Affairs.  “The number of bases in Afghanistan is roughly 411,” Brown wrote in a November email, “which is a figure comprised of large base[s], all the way down to the Combat Out Post-level.”  Even this, he cautioned, wasn’t actually a full list, because “temporary positions occupied by platoon-sized elements or less” were not counted.

Along the way to this “final” tally, I was offered a number of explanations –  from different methods of accounting to the failure of units in the field to provide accurate information — for the conflicting numbers I had been given.  After months of exchanging emails and seeing the numbers swing wildly, ending up with roughly the same count in November as I began with in January suggests that the U.S. command isn’t keeping careful track of the number of bases in Afghanistan.  Apparently, the military simply does not know how many bases it has in its primary theater of operations.

Black Sites in Baseworld

Scan the Department of Defense’s 2010 Base Structure Report for sites in Afghanistan.  Go ahead, read through all 206 pages.  You won’t find a mention of them, not a citation, not a single reference, not an inkling that the United States has even one base in Afghanistan, let alone more than 400.  This is hardly an insignificant omission.  Add those 411 missing bases to Kristof’s total and you get 971 sites around the world.  Add it to the Pentagon’s official tally and you’re left with 1,073 bases and sites overseas, around 770 more than Walter Trohan uncovered for his 1955 article.  That number even tops the 1967 count of 1,014 U.S. bases abroad, which Chalmers Johnson considered “the Cold War peak.”

There are, however, other ways to tally the total.  In a letter written last Spring, Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Barney Frank, Ron Paul, and Walter Jones asserted that there were just 460 U.S. military installations abroad, not counting those in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Nicholas Kristof, who came up with a count of 100 more than that, didn’t respond to an email for clarification, but may have done the same analysis as I did: search the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report and select out the obvious sites that, while having a sizeable “footprint,” could only tenuously be counted as bases, like dependent family housing complexes and schools, resort hotels (yes, the Department of Defense has them), ski areas (them, too) and the largest of their golf courses — the U.S. military claimed to possess a total of 172 courses of all sizes in 2007 — and you get a total of around 570 foreign sites.  Add to them the number of Afghan bases and you’re left with about 981 foreign military bases.

As it happens, though, Afghanistan isn’t the only country with a baseworld black-out.  Search the Pentagon’s tally for sites in Iraq and you won’t find a single entry.  (That was true even when the U.S. reportedly had more than 400 bases in that country.)  Today, the U.S. military footprint there has shrunk radically.  The Department of Defense declined to respond to an email request for the current number of bases in Iraq, but published reports indicate that no fewer than 88 are still there, including Camp Taji, Camp Ramadi, Contingency Operating Base Speicher, and Joint Base Balad, which, alone, boasts about 7,000 American troops.  These missing bases would raise the worldwide total to about 1,069.

War zones aren’t the only secret spots.  Take a close look at Middle Eastern nations whose governments, fearing domestic public opinion, prefer that no publicity be given to American military bases on their territory, and then compare it to the Pentagon’s official list.  To give an example, the 2010 Base Structure Report lists one nameless U.S. site in Kuwait.  Yet we know that the Persian Gulf state hosts a number of U.S. military facilities including Camp Arifjan, Camp Buering, Camp Virginia, Kuwait Naval Base, Ali Al Salem Air Base, and Udari Range.  Add in these missing sites and the total number of bases abroad reaches 1,074.

Check the Pentagon’s base tally for Qatar and you’ll come up empty.  But look at the numbers of Department of Defense personnel serving overseas and you’ll find more than 550 service men and women deployed there.  While that Persian Gulf nation may have officially built Al Udeid Air Base itself, to call it anything but a U.S. installation would be disingenuous, given that it has served as a major logistics and command hub for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Add it in and the foreign base count reaches 1,075.

Saudi Arabia is also missing from the Pentagon’s tally, even though the current list of personnel abroad indicates that hundreds of U.S. troops are deployed there.  From the lead up to the First Gulf War in 1990 through the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military stationed thousands of troops in the kingdom. In 2003, in response to fundamentalist pressure on the Saudi government, Washington announced that it was pulling all but a small number of troops out of the country. Yet the U.S. continues to train and advise from sites like Eskan Village, a compound 20 kilometers south of Riyadh where, according to 2009 numbers, 800 U.S. personnel (500 of them advisors) were based.

Discounted, Uncounted, and Unknown

In addition to the unknown number of micro-bases that the Pentagon doesn’t even bother to count and Middle Eastern and Afghan bases that fly under the radar, there are even darker areas in the empire of bases: installations belonging to other countries that are used but not acknowledged by the United States or avowed by the host-nation need to be counted, too.  For example, it is now well known that U.S. drone aircraft, operating under the auspices of both the CIA and the Air Force and conducting a not-so-secret war in Pakistan, take off from one or more bases in that country. 

Additionally, there are other sites like the “covert forward operating base run by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi,” exposed by Jeremy Scahill in the Nation magazine, and one or more airfields run by employees of the private security contractor Blackwater (now renamed Xe Services).  While the Department of Defense’s personnel tally indicates that there are well over a hundred troops deployed in Pakistan, it counts no bases there.

Similarly uncounted are the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups, flotillas that consist of massive aircraft carriers, the largest warships in the world, as well as a guided missile cruiser, two guided missile destroyers, an attack submarine, and an ammunition, oiler, and supply ship.  The U.S. boasts 11 such carriers, town-sized floating bases that can travel the world, as well as numerous other ships, some boasting well over 1,000 officers and crew, that may, says the Navy, travel “to any of more than 100 ports of call worldwide” from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro. 

“The ability to conduct logistics functions afloat enables naval forces to maintain station anywhere,” reads the Navy’s Naval Operations Concept: 2010.  So these bases that float under the radar should really be counted, too.

A Bang, A Whimper, and the Alamo of the Twenty-First Century

Speaking before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans, and Related Agencies early last year, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn referenced the Pentagon’s “507 permanent installations.”  The Pentagon’s 2010 Base Structure Report, on the other hand, lists 4,999 total sites in the U.S., its territories, and overseas. 

In the grand scheme of things, the actual numbers aren’t all that important.  Whether the most accurate total is 900 bases, 1,000 bases or 1,100 posts in foreign lands, what’s undeniable is that the U.S. military maintains, in Chalmers Johnson’s famous phrase, an empire of bases so large and shadowy that no one — not even at the Pentagon — really knows its full size and scope. 

All we know is that it raises the ire of adversaries like al Qaeda, has a tendency to grate on even the closest of allies like the Japanese, and costs American taxpayers a fortune every year.  In 2010, according to Robyn, military construction and housing costs at all U.S. bases ran to $23.2 billion.  An additional $14.6 billion was needed for maintenance, repair, and recapitalization.  To power its facilities, according to 2009 figures, the Pentagon spent $3.8 billion. And that likely doesn’t even scratch the surface of America’s baseworld in terms of its full economic cost.

Like all empires, the U.S. military’s empire of bases will someday crumble.  These bases, however, are not apt to fall like so many dominos in some silver-screen last-stand sequence.  They won’t, that is, go out with the “bang” of futuristic Alamos, but with the “whimper” of insolvency. 

Last year, rumbling began even among Washington lawmakers about this increasingly likely prospect.  “I do not think we should be spending money to have troops in Germany 65 years after World War II. We have a terrible deficit and we have to cut back,” said Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank.  Similarly, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas announced, “If the United States really wants to assure our allies and deter our enemies, we should do it with strong military capabilities and sound policy — not by keeping troops stationed overseas, not siphoning funds from equipment and arms and putting it into duplicative military construction.”

Indeed, toward the end of 2010, the White House’s bipartisan deficit commission — officially known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — suggested cutting U.S. garrisons in Europe and Asia by one-third, which would, in their estimation, save about $8.5 billion in 2015. 

The empire of bases, while still at or close to its height, is destined to shrink.  The military is going to have to scale back its foreign footholds and lessen its global footprint in the years ahead.  Economic realities will necessitate that.  The choices the Pentagon makes today will likely determine on what terms its garrisons come home tomorrow.  At the moment, they can still choose whether coming home will look like an act of magnanimous good statesmanship or inglorious retreat. 

Whatever the decision, the clock is ticking, and before any withdrawals begin, the U.S. military needs to know exactly where it’s withdrawing from (and Americans should have an accurate sense of just where its overseas armies are).  An honest count of U.S. bases abroad — a true, full, and comprehensive list — would be a tiny first step in the necessary process of downsizing the global mission.

Nick Turse is an investigative journalist, the associate editor of, and currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books).  You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.  His website is  To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Turse discusses how to count up America’s empire of bases, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2011 Nick Turse

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