Afghanistan's base bonanza

Army Lt. David McCurdy launches a Puma Dorin airplane at Forward Operating Base Joyce in Afghanistan's Kunar province Aug. 20, 2012. AFP/Getty Images

(TomDispatch) Afghanistan may turn out to be one of the great misbegotten "stimulus packages" of the modern era, a construction boom in the middle of nowhere with materials largely shipped in at enormous expense to no lasting purpose whatsoever. With the U.S. military officially drawing down its troops there, the Pentagon is now evidently reversing the process and embarking on a major deconstruction program. It's tearing up tarmacs, shutting down outposts, and packing up some of its smaller facilities. Next year, the number of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition bases in the southwest of the country alone is scheduled to plummet from 214 to 70, according to the New York Times.

But anyone who wanted to know just what the Pentagon built in Afghanistan and what it is now tearing down won't have an easy time of it.

At the height of the American occupation of Iraq, the United States had 505 bases there, ranging from small outposts to mega-sized air bases. Press estimates at the time, however, always put the number at about 300. Only as U.S. troops prepared to leave the country was the actual -- startlingly large -- total reported. Today, as the U.S. prepares for a long drawdown from Afghanistan, the true number of U.S. and coalition bases in that country is similarly murky, with official sources offering conflicting and imprecise figures. Still, the available numbers for what the Pentagon built since 2001 are nothing short of staggering.

Despite years of talk about American withdrawal, there has in fact been a long-term building boom during which the number of bases steadily expanded. In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claimed that it had nearly 400 Afghan bases. Early this year, that number had grown to 450. Today, a military spokesperson tells TomDispatch, the total tops out at around 550.

And that may only be the tip of the iceberg.

When you add in ISAF checkpoints -- those small baselets used to secure roads and villages -- to the already bloated number of mega-bases, forward operating bases, combat outposts, and patrol bases, the number jumps to 750. Count all foreign military installations of every type, including logistical, administrative, and support facilities, and the official count offered by ISAF Joint Command reaches a whopping 1,500 sites. Differing methods of counting probably explain at least some of this phenomenal rise over the course of this year. Still, the new figures suggest one conclusion that should startle: no matter how you tally them, Afghan bases garrisoned by U.S.-led forces far exceed the 505 American bases in Iraq at the height of that war.

Bases of Confusion

There is much confusion surrounding the number of ISAF bases in Afghanistan. Recently, the Associated Press reported that as of October 2011, according to spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Olson, NATO was operating as many as 800 bases in Afghanistan, but has since closed 202 of them and transferred another 282 to Afghan control. As a result, the AP claims that NATO is now operating only about 400 bases, not the 550 to 1,500 bases reported to me by ISAF.

This muddled basing picture and a seeming failure by the U.S. and its international partners to keep an accurate count of their bases in the country has been a persistent feature of the Afghan conflict. Some of the discrepancies may result from terminology or from the confusion that can result from communications in any international coalition. ISAF, NATO, and the U.S. military all seem to keep different counts. Mainly, however, the incongruities appear to stem from fundamental issues of record-keeping -- of, in particular, a lack of interest in chronicling just how extensively Afghanistan has been garrisoned.

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."

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author/editor of several books, including the recently published "Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050" (with Tom Engelhardt). This piece is the latest article in his series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Tumblr. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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