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David Vine: Baseworld Profiteering

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Every now and then, news about U.S. military bases abroad actually gets a little attention.  The most recent example: Afghan President Hamid Karzai's announcement that the U.S. will be able to keep nine bases after the 2014 withdrawal of its combat troops.  (""They want nine bases... across the country, in Kabul, Bagram, Mazar, Jalalabad, Gardez, Kandahar, Helmand, Shindand and Herat,' he told faculty members and students [at Kabul University]. "We agree to give the bases. We see their presence after 2014 in Afghanistan as a positive.'")  These aren't, of course, small bases.  Two of them, Bagram and Kandahar, are veritable monsters, and so offer some indication of Washington's possible plans -- evidently still in flux -- for keeping U.S. troops, trainers, advisors, special operations forces, CIA types, private security contractors, assorted allied Afghan militias, and whatnot in place once the war is officially "over" and "withdrawal" complete.

Most of the time, though, you have to be a fanatic news jockey to notice pieces about what could be considered the most singular aspect of the American overseas persona: our "empire of bases" (as Chalmers Johnson used to call it).  Though base numbers remain staggering and historically unprecedented, most Americans are hardly aware of their existence.  So, picking and choosing from the last month of overlooked base news, how many of you noticed that a U.S. KC-135 refueling plane, based at an American "military installation" connected to Manas International Airport near Bishtek, went down over northern Kyrgyzstan?  How many of you knew that the U.S. had a military installation in Kyrgyzstan, just a hop, skip, and a jump across Tajikistan from Afghanistan?  How many of you can even locate Kyrgyzstan?  (I just checked my own atlas to be sure!)

How many of you heard that a U.S. military helicopter, evidently from a U.S. base -- one of a number -- in South Korea, crashed recently near the North Korean border? Or that the Chinese press is now plugging for the "return" of the Japanese island of Okinawa, with its huge U.S. military complex?  How many of you realized that 68 years after the end of World War II, the U.S. still has dozens of bases there and that Okinawans continue to protest the construction of a new base amid the staggering concentration of foreign military installations on their soil?

How many of you noticed that Spain, going through tough economic times and significant defense cutbacks, has upped its basing relationship with the U.S.? According to the Christian Science Monitor, "500 U.S. Marines are in the process of deploying to Morón Air Base in southern Spain as part of a rapid reaction force that will act as the vanguard to protect American interests in the increasingly volatile North African region." And speaking of Northern Africa, did you notice the report by John Reed at Foreign Policy mapping U.S. installations, especially drone bases, there and elsewhere in Africa, including satellite shots of installations you've probably never heard of in places like Arba Minch in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger, the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, and Lamu on the Kenyan coast? (Hey, don't beat up on yourself. We Americans have next to no idea what's being done in our name globally!)

You get the gist, right? Set foot just about anywhere on this planet other than China, Russia, and Iran, and you're likely to find some kind of U.S. base, installation, or shared facility, and some news that goes with it, though you could pay endless attention to the U.S. media and never know that.  You can watch our TV news for months and not have the slightest clue that we are the most militarized of global landlords and that this is the face we present to much of the world.  Nor would you know that, as TomDispatch regular David Vine reports today, in tough economic times your tax dollars are still flowing bounteously to a small group of private contractors, making money hand over fist supporting that empire of bases.  As he indicates, they are working hard to ensure that crony capitalism, like garrisoning the planet, remains as American as superheroes and cheeseburgers. Tom

Where Has All the Money Gone? 
How Contractors Raked in $385 Billion to Build and Support Bases Abroad since 2001 
By David Vine

Outside the United States, the Pentagon controls a collection of military bases unprecedented in history. With U.S. troops gone from Iraq and the withdrawal from Afghanistan underway, it's easy to forget that we probably still have about 1,000 military bases in other peoples' lands. This giant collection of bases receives remarkably little media attention, costs a fortune, and even when cost cutting is the subject du jour, it still seems to get a free ride.

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With so much money pouring into the Pentagon's base world, the question is: Who's benefiting?

Some of the money clearly pays for things like salaries, health care, and other benefits for around one million military and Defense Department personnel and their families overseas. But after an extensive examination of government spending data and contracts, I estimate that the Pentagon has dispersed around $385 billion to private companies for work done outside the U.S. since late 2001, mainly in that baseworld. That's nearly double the entire State Department budget over the same period, and because Pentagon and government accounting practices are so poor, the true total may be significantly higher.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to such contracts and given our recent wars, the top two countries into which taxpayer dollars flowed were Afghanistan and Iraq (around $160 billion). Next comes Kuwait ($37.2 billion), where the military has had a significant presence since the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, followed by Germany ($27.8 billion), South Korea ($18.2 billion), Japan ($15.2 billion), and Britain ($14.7 billion). While some of these costs are for weapons procurement, rather than for bases and troop support, the hundreds of thousands of contracts believed to be omitted from these tallies thanks to government accounting errors make the numbers a reasonable reflection of the everyday moneys flowing to private contractors for the world of bases the United States has maintained since World War II.

Beyond the sheer volume of dollars heading overseas, an analysis of Pentagon spending reveals a troubling pattern: the majority of benefits have gone to a relatively small group of private contractors. In total, almost a third of the $385 billion has flowed into the coffers of just 10 top contractors, including scandal-prone companies like KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton, and oil giant BP.

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In addition, Pentagon spending on its baseworld has been marked by spiraling expenditures, the growing use of uncompetitive contracts and contracts lacking incentives to control costs, outright fraud, and the repeated awarding of non-competitive sweetheart contracts to companies with histories of fraud and abuse. There's been so much cost gouging that any attempt to catalog it across bases globally would be a mammoth effort. The $31-$60 billion in contracting fraud in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars alone, as calculated by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which Congress established to investigate waste and abuse, suggests the global total could be astronomical.

Since 2001, U.S. taxpayers have effectively shipped hundreds of billions of dollars out of the country to build and maintain an enormous military presence abroad, while major Pentagon contractors and a select group of politicians, lobbyists, and other friends have benefited mightily.

Peeling the Potatoes and Bringing Home the Bacon

While a handful of overseas bases, like Guanta'namo Bay, date to the turn of the twentieth century, most have existed since the construction of thousands of bases during World War II. Although the number of installations and troops ebbed and flowed in the Cold War years and shrank by about 60% once it was over, a significant infrastructure of bases remains. Scattered from Aruba and Belgium to the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, the Pentagon's global landholdings are bigger than all of North Korea and represent by far the largest collection of foreign bases in history.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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