In the 19th century, it was a fort used by British forces. In the 20th century,
Soviet troops moved into the crumbling facilities. In December 2009, at this
site in the Shinwar district of Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, United States
troops joined members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in preparing the way
for the next round of foreign occupation. On its grounds, a new military base
is expected to rise, one of hundreds of camps and outposts scattered across the
Nearly a decade after the George W Bush administration launched its invasion of
Afghanistan, TomDispatch offers the first actual count of American, North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other coalition bases there, as well as
facilities used by the Afghan security forces. Such bases range from relatively
small sites like Shinwar to mega-bases that resemble small American towns.
Today, according to official sources, approximately 700 bases of every size dot
the Afghan countryside, and more, like the one in Shinwar, are under
construction or soon will be as part of a base-building boom that began last
Existing in the shadows, rarely reported on and little talked about, this
base-building program is nonetheless staggering in size and scope, and heavily
dependent on supplies imported from abroad, which means that it is also
extraordinarily expensive. It has added significantly to the already long
secret list of Pentagon property overseas and raises questions about just how
long, after the planned beginning of a drawdown of American forces in 2011, the
US will still be garrisoning Afghanistan.
400 foreign bases in Afghanistan
A spokesman for the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) tells
TomDispatch that there are, at present, nearly 400 US and coalition bases in
Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts. In
addition, there are at least 300 ANA and Afghan National Police bases, most of
them built, maintained, or supported by the US. A small number of the coalition
sites are mega-bases like Kandahar airfield, which boasts one of the busiest
runways in the world, and Bagram air base, a former Soviet facility that
received a makeover, complete with Burger King and Popeyes outlets, and now
serves more than 20,000 US troops, in addition to thousands of coalition forces
and civilian contractors.
In fact, Kandahar, which housed 9,000 coalition troops as recently as 2007, is
expected to have a population of as many as 35,000 troops by the time President
Obama's surge is complete, according to Colonel Kevin Wilson who oversees
building efforts in the southern half of Afghanistan for the US Army Corps of
Engineers. On the other hand, the Shinwar site, according to Sergeant Tracy J
Smith of the US 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, will be a small forward
operating base (FOB) that will host both Afghan troops and foreign forces.
Last autumn, it was reported that more than US$200 million in construction
projects - from barracks to cargo storage facilities - were planned for or
in-progress at Bagram. Substantial construction funds have also been set aside
by the US Air Force to upgrade its air power capacity at Kandahar. For example,
$65 million has been allocated to build additional apron space (where aircraft
can be parked, serviced, and loaded or unloaded) to accommodate more close-air
support for soldiers in the field and a greater intelligence, surveillance and
reconnaissance capability. Another $61 million has also been earmarked for the
construction of a cargo helicopter apron and a tactical airlift apron there.
Kandahar is just one of many sites currently being upgraded. Exact figures on
the number of facilities being enlarged, improved or hardened are unavailable
but, according a spokesman for ISAF, the military plans to expand several more
bases to accommodate the increase of troops as part of Afghan war commander
Stanley McChrystal's surge strategy. In addition, at least 12 more bases are
slated to be built to help handle the 30,000 extra American troops and
thousands of NATO forces beginning to arrive in the country.
"Currently we have over $3 billion worth of work going on in Afghanistan," says
Colonel Wilson, "and probably by the summer, when the dust settles from all the
uplift, we'll have about $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion worth of that [in the
South]." By comparison, between 2002 and 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers
spent more than $4.5 billion on construction projects, most of it
base-building, in Afghanistan.
At the site of the future FOB in Shinwar, more than 135 private construction
contractors attended what was termed an "Afghan-Coalition contractors rodeo".
According to Lieutenant Fernando Roach, a contracting officer with the US
Army's Task Force Mountain Warrior, the event was designed "to give potential
contractors a walkthrough of the area so they'll have a solid overview of the
scope of work". The construction firms then bid on three separate projects: the
renovation of the more than 30-year-old Soviet facilities, the building of new
living quarters for Afghan and coalition forces and the construction of a
two-kilometer wall for the base.
In the weeks since the "rodeo", the US Army has announced additional plans to
upgrade facilities at other forward operating bases. At FOB Airborne, located
near Kane-Ezzat in Wardak province, for instance, the army intends to put in
reinforced concrete bunkers and blast protection barriers as well as lay
concrete foundations for Re-Locatable Buildings (prefabricated, trailer-like
structures used for living and working quarters). Similar work is also
scheduled for FOB Altimur, an army camp in Logar province.
The Afghan base boom
Recently, the US Army Corps of Engineers, Afghanistan District-Kabul, announced
that it would be seeking bids on "site assessments" for Afghan National
Security Forces District Headquarters Facilities nationwide. The precise number
of Afghan bases scattered throughout the country is unclear.
When asked by TomDispatch, Colonel Radmanish of the Afghan Ministry of Defense
would state only that major bases were located in Kabul, Pakteya, Kandahar,
Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and that ANA units operate all across Afghanistan.
Recent US Army contracts for maintenance services provided to Afghan army and
police bases, however, suggest that there are no fewer than 300 such facilities
that are, according to an ISAF spokesman, not counted among the coalition base
As opposed to America's fast-food franchise-filled bases, Afghan ones are often
decidedly more rustic affairs. The police headquarters in Khost Farang
district, Baghlan province, is a good example. According to a detailed site
assessment conducted by a local contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers and
the Afghan government, the district headquarters consists of mud and stone
buildings surrounded by a mud wall. The site even lacks a deep well for water.
A trench fed by a nearby spring is the only convenient water source.
The US bases that most resemble austere Afghan facilities are combat outposts,
also known as COPs. Environmental specialist Michael Bell of the Army Corps of
Engineers, Afghanistan Engineer District-South's Real Estate Division, recently
described the facilities and life on such a base as he and his co-worker,
Realty Specialist Damian Salazar, saw it in late 2009:
COP Sangar ...
is a compound surrounded by mud and straw walls. Tents with cots supplied the
sleeping quarters … A medical, pharmacy and command post tent occupied the
center of the COP, complete with a few computers with Internet access and three
primitive operating tables. Showers had just been installed with hot [water]
... only available from 8am to 10am and 2pm to 4pm.
An MWR [Morale, Welfare and Recreation] tent was erected on Thanksgiving Day
with an operating television; however, the tent was rarely used due to the
cold. Most of the troops used a tent with gym equipment for recreation ... A
cook trailer provided a hot simple breakfast and supper. Lunch was MREs [meals
ready to eat]. Nights were pitch black with no outside lighting from the base
or the city.
What makes a base?
According to an official site assessment, future construction at the Khost
Farang district police headquarters will make use of sand, gravel and stone,
all available on the spot. Additionally, cement, steel, bricks, lime and gypsum
have been located for purchase in Pol-e Khomri City, about 135 kilometers away.
Constructing a base for American troops, however, is another matter. For the
far less modest American needs of American troops, builders rely heavily on
goods imported over extremely long, difficult to traverse and sometimes
embattled supply lines, all of which adds up to an extraordinarily costly
affair. "Our business runs on materials," Lieutenant General Robert van
Antwerp, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, told an audience at a town
hall meeting in Afghanistan in December 2009. "You have to bring in the lumber,
you have to bring in the steel, you have to bring in the containers and all
that. Transport isn't easy in this country - number one, the roads themselves,
number two, coming through other countries to get here - there are just huge
challenges in getting the materials here."
To facilitate US base construction projects, a new "virtual storefront" - an
online shopping portal - has been launched by the Pentagon's Defense Logistics
Agency (DLA). The Maintenance, Repair and Operations Uzbekistan Virtual
Storefront website and a defense contractor-owned and operated brick-and-mortar
warehouse facility that supports it aim to provide regionally-produced
construction materials to speed surge-accelerated building efforts.
From a facility located in Termez, Uzbekistan, cement, concrete, fencing,
roofing, rope, sand, steel, gutters, pipe and other construction material
manufactured in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan can be rushed to nearby Afghanistan to
accelerate base-building efforts. "Having the products closer to the fight will
make it easier for warfighters by reducing logistics response and delivery
time," says Chet Evanitsky, the DLA's construction and equipment supply chain
America's shadowy base world
The Pentagon's most recent inventory of bases lists a total of 716 overseas
sites. These include facilities owned and leased all across the Middle East as
well as a significant presence in Europe and Asia, especially Japan and South
Korea. Perhaps even more notable than the Pentagon's impressive public foreign
property portfolio are the many sites left off the official inventory. While
bases in the Persian Gulf countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United
Arab Emirates are all listed, one conspicuously absent site is al-Udeid air
base, a billion-dollar facility in nearby Qatar, where the US Air Force
secretly oversees its ongoing unmanned drone wars.
The count also does not include any sites in Iraq where, as of August 2009,
there were still nearly 300 American bases and outposts. Similarly, US bases in
Afghanistan - a significant percentage of the 400 foreign sites scattered
across the country - are noticeably absent from the Pentagon inventory.
Counting the remaining bases in Iraq - as many as 50 are slated to be operating
after President Barack Obama's August 31, 2010, deadline to remove all US
"combat troops" from the country - and those in Afghanistan, as well as black
sites like Al-Udeid, the total number of US bases overseas now must
significantly exceed 1,000. Just exactly how many US military bases (and allied
facilities used by US forces) are scattered across the globe may never be
publicly known. What we do know - from the experience of bases in Germany,
Italy, Japan and South Korea - is that, once built, they have a tendency toward
permanency that a cessation of hostilities, or even outright peace, has a way
of not altering.
After nearly a decade of war, close to 700 US, allied, and Afghan military
bases dot Afghanistan. Until now, however, they have existed as black sites
known to few Americans outside the Pentagon. It remains to be seen, a decade
into the future, how many of these sites will still be occupied by US and
allied troops and whose flag will be planted on the ever-shifting
British-Soviet-US/Afghan site at Shinwar.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the winner of a
2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson
Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles
Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is
currently a fellow at New York University's Center for the United States and
the Cold War. He is the author of
The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives(Metropolitan
Books). His website is NickTurse.com.