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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MILITARY MEMO

U.S. Air Bases Forge Double-Edged Sword

Deployment: Presence in nine countries ringing Afghanistan enhances capability but also fuels Islamic extremism.

January 06, 2002|WILLIAM M. ARKIN | TIMES SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

The deployments are both frequent and lengthy, however. On any given day before Sept. 11, according to the Defense Department, more than 60,000 military personnel were conducting temporary operations and exercises in about 100 countries.

While the mammoth European installations have been cut back, Defense Department records show that the new operational mode calls military personnel away from home about 135 days a year for the Army, 170 days for the Navy and 176 days for the Air Force.

For the Army, each soldier now averages a deployment abroad once every 14 weeks.

Beyond the burdens it places on those involved, the new system draws the military into situations that are murkier and potentially riskier. Consider the case of Master Sgt. Evander Earl Andrews, the first American casualty of Operation Enduring Freedom. Andrews, an 18-year Air Force veteran, died in a construction accident. He was one of more than 2,000 civil engineers currently deployed in the region building and fixing up bases.

The Defense Department initially said Andrews was at a "forward deployed location" supporting the Afghanistan war. Eventually, it divulged that the location was Al Adid in the tiny state of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula.

Al Adid is a billion-dollar base. Its 15,000-foot runway is one of the longest in the Gulf region. Construction began after an April 2000 visit by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. Qatar already housed equipment for an Army brigade and, in 1996, hosted 30 Air Force fighters on an "expeditionary" deployment.

Though the original justification for Gulf bases such as Al Adid was preparedness for renewed action against Iraq, a senior defense official said last year that the Qatar facilities were "not focused at one particular country or another, but part of a system we would like to have in place."

Issues of decision-making, jurisdiction and authority held by the host country are spelled out in documents called status of forces agreements. As of Sept. 11, according to Pentagon documents, the United States had formal agreements of this sort with Qatar and 92 other countries.

During the Cold War, the agreements were usually public documents. Many of the newer ones are classified, including those with Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates as well as certain supplements for Saudi Arabia. "Host nation sensitivities" require that the arrangements be secret, officials say.

To lower the U.S. military profile further, in most Gulf countries, permanent U.S. military and contractor personnel nominally work for organizations with innocuous-sounding names like the "Executive Coordinating Agency."

That may blur the picture for Americans, but not for the local population. On Nov. 7, an attacker was shot and killed after exchanging gunfire with two U.S. military and one Qatari guard at Al Adid.

Since Sept. 11, new classified arrangements have also been established with Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the four "stans," as they are sometimes called. The United States had no military facilities or appreciable presence in these places before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Typical is Uzbekistan, which very early on extended use of its Kandabad air base at Karshi for military and CIA operations. Journalists have descended on Uzbekistan since early October, but most report that the obvious American presence is not much of an issue for public discussion.

In this former Soviet province, national security secrecy is a way of life. The state-controlled press of President Islam Karimov has said the base is a staging area for search-and-rescue missions and humanitarian work in Afghanistan. The Pentagon sidesteps discussion of Uzbekistan's human rights record or the implications of the U.S. presence, saying that it leaves it to the host nation to describe its cooperation with the United States.

Central Command chief Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have been frequent visitors to the "stans." They are like the hood ornaments on a big truck:

In November a Central Command assessment team landed in Tajikistan to examine three military installations as possible areas to base U.S. troops: Kulyab, Khojand and Turgan-Tiube. Tajikistan is about 85% Muslim.

Just prior to Christmas, engineers arrived at Manas airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to open the airfield for U.S. use. Facilities for up to 3,300 personnel are being created. Kyrgyzstan also has a largely Muslim population.

How long will the United States remain? The answer, officials suggest privately, recalls the old wartime song, "Over There." The song ended, "And we won't be back till it's over over there."

No one inside the Pentagon or at Central Command headquarters has a timetable or master plan for when U.S. forces will withdraw, but it may be instructive to recall that the Persian Gulf bases have now been occupied for more than a decade. They were constantly upgraded and improved during the 1990s, setting the stage for the current deployments. The process went forward on a largely ad hoc basis, focused on practical arrangements and conditions in each country.

Then, as now, what seems to have been missing was a broad conceptual view of what the whole effort might add up to, or what its more distant implications might turn out to be.

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