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Tomgram: Nick Turse, Off-Base America

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Last year, it was Kuwait, Qatar, and Iraq. This year, it's Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Next year, it could easily be Afghanistan, Pakistan, Diego Garcia, Bahrain, and Turkey. Or of course they could choose to play in Japan (with a special stop in Okinawa), South Korea, Colombia, and for a little sun and surf, the Bahamas. And while they're at it, the same way bands used to love playing the Palladium, they could make a triumphal return to Guantanamo Bay to bring a little cheer back into American lives, just as they did in 2005. Or they could break out their new camouflage-colored b-ball (which on recent tours sometimes replaces their iconic red, white, and blue one), and as they've done in the past, slam dunk their way onto U.S. aircraft carriers on duty in places like the Persian Gulf.

Oh, come on! You haven't guessed by now? We're talking about the Harlem Globetrotters on their never-ending basketball tour and dropping in no less eternally at the "front lines" of the American war on whatever. In recent years, to entertain the troops, they've visited more than 25 U.S. military bases in all of the countries above, not to speak of Djibouti, Portugal, and others. (And yes, Virginia, aircraft carriers, with the populations of American small towns, are giant, floating military bases.) But here's the strange thing: let them tour those global bases year after year, let them play a baseball schedule of 162 games (and throw in the playoffs and the World Series, too), and they'll still barely scratch the surface of America's baseworld. After all, the more than 25 bases they've visited since 2005 make up only about 15% of the approximately 400 American bases in Afghanistan alone, as Nick Turse has reported for TomDispatch. Who even knows the total number of U.S. military bases globally?

Only one thing is certain: there are enough of them to keep the Globetrotters touring nonstop until hell freezes over. One great mystery of American journalism is that those bases, key to our imperial status on this planet, remain of next to no interest to reporters (unless the Pentagon threatens to close one in the U.S.). The strangest aspect of America's global garrisons is that, while millions of Americans -- soldiers, spies, private contractors, Defense Department civilians, and civilian officials of every sort -- cycle through them each year, most Americans know next to nothing about them and could care less. By the way, surprising numbers of American journalists pass through them, too, and yet, looking for a little "kinetic action" out in our war zones, they almost never bother to focus on and report on these colossi of our imperial world.

Yet, if you don't pay attention to them, you know remarkably little about what our country actually means in, and to, the world. TomDispatch considers them an essential beat, and Associate Editor Nick Turse, who has only recently produced the single (must-read!) book available on how to actually get out of our war in Afghanistan -- The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan -- has been covering them for years at this site and it looks as if he, like the Globetrotters, has years to go. In journalistic terms, they are -- or should be -- the gift that just keeps giving. Tom

Twenty-First Century Blowback?
As Prospects Dim in Iraq, the Pentagon Digs in Deeper Around the Middle East

By Nick Turse

The construction projects are sprouting like mushrooms: walled complexes, high-strength weapons vaults, and underground bunkers with command and control capacities -- and they're being planned and funded by a military force intent on embedding itself ever more deeply in the Middle East.

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If Iran were building these facilities, it would be front-page news and American hawks would be talking war, but that country's Revolutionary Guards aren't behind this building boom, nor are the Syrians, Lebanon's Hezbollah, or some set of al-Qaeda affiliates. It's the U.S. military that's digging in, hardening, improving, and expanding its garrisons in and around the Persian Gulf at the very moment when it is officially in a draw-down phase in Iraq.

On August 31st, President Obama took to the airwaves to announce "the end of our combat mission in Iraq." This may, however, prove yet another "mission accomplished" moment. After all, from the lack of a real Iraqi air force (other than the U.S. Air Force) to the fact that there are more American troops in that country today than were projected to be there in September 2003, many signs point in another direction.

In fact, within days of the president's announcement it was reported that the U.S. military was pouring money into improving bases in Iraq and that advance elements of a combat-hardened armored cavalry regiment were being sent there in what was politely dubbed an "advise and assist" (rather than combat) role. On September 13th, the New York Times described the type of operations that U.S. forces were actually involved in:

"During two days of combat in Diyala Province, American troops were armed with mortars, machine guns, and sniper rifles. Apache and Kiowa helicopters attacked insurgents with cannon and machine-gun fire, and F-16's dropped 500-pound bombs."

According to the report, U.S. troops were within range of enemy hand grenades and one American soldier was wounded in the battle.

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Adhering to an agreement inked during George W. Bush's final year in office, the Obama administration has pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. U.S. military commanders have, however, repeatedly spoken of the possibility of extending the U.S. military's stay well into the future. Just recently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates let the Iraqi government know that the U.S. was open to such a prospect. "We're ready to have that discussion if and when they want to raise it with us," he said. As the British Guardian's Martin Chulov wrote last month, "[T]he U.S. is widely believed to be hoping to retain at least one military base in Iraq that it could use as a strategic asset in the region."

Recent events, however, have cast U.S. basing plans into turmoil. Notably unnerving for the Obama administration was a deal reportedly brokered by Iran in which Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- whose forces had repeatedly clashed with U.S. troops only a few short years ago -- threw his support behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, currently vying for a second term in office. This was allegedly part of a regional agreement involving Syria and Lebanon's Hezbollah that could leave the U.S. military out in the cold. A source informed the Guardian that "Maliki told [his new regional partners that] he will never extend, or renew [any bases] or give any facilities to the Americans or British after the end of next year."

Even if the U.S. was forced to withdraw all its troops from Iraq, however, its military "footprint" in the Middle East would still be substantial enough to rankle opponents of an armed American presence in the region and be a drain on U.S. taxpayers who continue to fund America's "empire of bases." As has been true in recent years, the latest U.S. military documents indicate that base expansion and upgrades are the order of the day for America's little-mentioned garrisons in the nations around Iraq.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("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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