Pentagon stirs tensions in foreign base shuffle
To fight the terror war, US wants far-flung bases for more mobile military. But some nations balk at US footprint.
WASHINGTON — In the past week, the United States has seen both the promise and the peril of its plan to undertake the biggest reorganization of American overseas military might since the end of World War II.
As the Pentagon transforms its military to meet the more flexible needs of the war on terror, it has also begun to recast the footprint of its overseas bases, and nowhere has this been more obvious than in the remote Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
For more than three years, they have allowed the United States to use a pair of austere airfields to provide crucial support for troops in Afghanistan, and they have served as models of how America will wage its wars in the future. Yet even as Kyrgyzstan reaffirmed its commitment to the United States for the duration of the Afghan war last week, Uzbekistan sent US forces an eviction notice.
It is a glimpse of what awaits the Pentagon as it spreads beyond the stability of cold-war bases in Europe and the Far East. New alliances with nations from Southeast Asia to the Horn of Africa promise quick access to the remotest corners of the globe, but they could increasingly link American security to the whims of fickle allies and controversial regimes.
"We're going to be fighting this global war against irregular forces in much different places than we were willing to fight in the past," says Robert Work, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here. "And in [these places] there are no long-term allies."
For some time, Uzbekistan had been among the staunchest of US allies, using its ties to America to leverage power in a region dominated by Russia and China. Soon after Sept. 11, Uzbek authorities welcomed US forces to the Karshi-Khanabad base for the war in Afghanistan. Yet when the Bush administration called for an international inquiry into the deaths of at least 173 political dissidents in May, the relationship soured.
Now, American units have 180 days to leave the country. Yet the Pentagon had been forewarned. Last month, a group of Central Asian nations demanded a timeline for the withdrawal of US forces from bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In response, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself flew to Kyrgyzstan last week and won from that government a promise that the US could remain so long as the war in Afghanistan continued.
In a sense, the week perfectly encapsulated what the Pentagon expects in the future as it tries to woo new countries. "We're going to find this is going to be a rolling process," Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's undersecretary for policy, told Congress last year.
"Some of what we're planning to do is either not doable because we can't get the kind of legal arrangements or other commitments that we want, in which case we're going to have to make adjustments, or we may find that some countries are so eager to work with us on certain things that the deals they're offering induce us to change some of our plans."
The goal, analysts say, is to cement as many agreements as possible across the world, so that if one country changes course and denies the United States access, the Pentagon will have other options near at hand. But the new course will call on Pentagon leaders to be statesmen as well as military strategists.
"There are more than enough countries that would like to work with us, but a lot depends on how heavy-handed we are," says Mr. Work. "We have to approach it in a clever way rather than bullying them."
The shift is part of the Pentagon's Global Posture Review, which looks at overseas bases in much the same way that the Base Realignment and Closure process is now looking at domestic bases. And as is the case here, the Pentagon contends that its current network of overseas bases is a relic of the cold war.
During the cold war, "we had forward garrison forces configured to fight near and where they were based," said Ryan Henry, the Pentagon's principal deputy undersecretary for policy, in congressional testimony. "Today we no longer can predict where, when, or in what manner our forces may be called on to fight."
That means developing a wider array of alliances and bases. But not of the cold war variety - so-called "Little Americas" that hold thousands of troops and their families for years at a time. Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, for example, is little more than a runway.
Bases like Manas cost the United States relatively little,yet access to them means the United States can send troops and equipment to the far corners of the world at a moment's notice - either from the old cold war bases, which will be consolidated, or from the safety of America itself.The Pentagon expects that its review will bring 50,000 troops home.
"It's a reshuffling of the deck," says Charles Peña, a defense analyst at the Cato Institute. Already, the American military hasexpanded its presence to unfamiliar areas, from Senegal to Singapore. Yet that is taking American forces into more volatile areas. There, they can help stabilize unsettled regions through their presence and training.But in these regions allegiances to America can easily ebb and flow - as happened in 2003 when Turkey denied US forces access to Iraq.
Moreover, the United States risks further unsettling the international scene if it affiliateswith unpopular or repressive regimes. Osama bin Laden cited US bases in Saudi Arabia as evidence of American imperialism - and a rationale for the Sept. 11 attacks. Then, when the United States wanted to use the Saudi bases for its war in Iraq, the country refused.
Says Mr. Peña: "You have to ask yourself if it was worth it."