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How Can We Be "Withdrawing" from Afghanistan If the US Has 550 Bases There?

The base-building frenzy in Afghanistan one of the greatest construction booms in modern history--and it was in the middle of nowhere.

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In January 2010, for example, Colonel Wayne Shanks, an ISAF spokesman, told me that there were nearly 400 U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts.  He assured me that he only expected that number to increase by 12 or a few more over the course of that year.

In September 2010, I contacted ISAF’s Joint Command Public Affairs Office to follow up.  To my surprise, I was told that “there are approximately 350 forward operating bases with two major military installations, Bagram and Kandahar airfields.”  Perplexed by the apparent 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, ISAF 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’s 400 base tally to the count of around 250 by Younger -- I was handed off again and again until I ended up with Sergeant First Class Eric Brown at ISAF Joint Command’s Public Affairs Office.  “The number of bases in Afghanistan is roughly 411,” Brown wrote in a November 2010 email, “which is a figure comprised of large base[s], all the way down to the Combat Out Post-level.” 

If the numbers supplied by Olson to the Associated Press are to be believed, then between November 2010 and October 2011, the number of foreign military bases in Afghanistan nearly doubled, from 411 to about 800.  Then, if official figures are again accurate, those numbers precipitously dropped by nearly 350 in just four months. 

In February of this year, Lieutenant Lauren Rago of ISAF public affairs told me that there were  only 451 ISAF bases in Afghanistan.  In July, the ISAF Joint Command Press Desk informed me that the number of bases was now 550, 750, or 1,500, depending on what facilities you chose to count, while NATO’s Olson and the Associated Press put the number back down at the January 2010 figure of around 400.  TomDispatch did not receive a response to a request for further clarification from a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan before this article went to press.

Reconciling the numbers may never be possible or particularly edifying. Whatever the true current count of bases, it seems beyond question that the number has far exceeded the level reached in Iraq at the height of the conflict in that country.  And while the sheer quantity of ISAF bases in Afghanistan may be shrinking, don’t think deconstruction is all that’s going on.  There is still plenty of building underway.

The Continuing Base Build-Up

In 2011, it was hardly more than an empty lot: a few large metal shipping containers sitting on a bed of gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence at Kandahar Air Field, the massive American base in southern Afghanistan.  When I asked about it this spring, the military was tight-lipped, refusing to discuss plans for the facility.  But construction is ongoing and sometime next year, as I’ve previously  reported, that once-vacant lot is slated to be the site of a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America’s drone war.  It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a large “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” operations center. 

The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility under construction is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway there.  While some U.S. bases are indeed closing down or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there’s talk of combat operations slowing, as well as a plan for the withdrawal of American combat forces, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram, a gigantic air base about 40 miles north of Kabul. “Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bagram Office told  Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication, last year.  “We’re transitioning... into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base.” 

 
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