March issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Since September 11, Washington seems to have embarked upon a single-minded mission to strengthen its presence around the world in order to protect its perceived strategic interests.  The US believes national security and economic imperatives provide sufficient justification for a US force presence around the world, or for its expansion. In fact, both interests are intertwined.  In the words of an American security expert, Manwaring, “McDonald’s cannot flourish without Macdonnel Douglas.”  Hence, over 200, 000 US troops and about 350 military installations around the world.

One can find a US military presence in almost all the major continents.  There are bases in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, in countries that include Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Panama, Guam, Cuba, the UK, Italy, Germany, Bosnia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.  This list does not mention the American naval presence around the world. Its fifth fleet operates in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with headquarters in Bahrain. The second and the third fleet also join the fifth when the need arises.  The sixth fleet operates out of the UK and is for the security of American interests in the Mediterranean Sea.  The seventh fleet is for the security of the Asia-Pacific region and has its headquarters in Japan and Guam.

The US provides justification for the existence of US bases in each sub-region.  A US presence in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines or South Korea formed part of US strategic objectives during the Cold War.  This area was too critical to be left to the Soviets or the Chinese.  Currently, it is to deal with the perceived threat from China and what it refers to as a ‘rogue’ state like North Korea that possess a nuclear capability which, it is thought, might be used against American strategic interests.  Moreover, it helps in curbing Japanese ambitions to re-build its military strength.

The US presence in the Middle East is a comparatively more recent phenomenon, ostensibly designed to curb Iranian or Iraqi designs at a military build-up or a power projection detrimental to US interests.  After September 11, the bases are considered even more important to curb “terrorism” or any violent protest against American interests.  The bases in Europe and Latin America are aimed at providing for the security of the US mainland and its allies.  The new addition to this list — a military presence in South Asia and Central Asia — meanwhile, is purportedly to bolster America’s ‘war against terror’ but more likely to fortify its military position in relation to Russia and China.

Secretary Powell’s statements during the early days of the Bush administration suggested that the US forces abroad would be reduced.  Ironically, one of the problems the Bush administration highlighted in former President Clinton’s approach was that he had overstretched the role of America’s armed forces through foreign deployments.  That notwithstanding, this administration decided to capitalise on the first opportunity available to increase its presence abroad through proposed bases or a presence force in Central and South Asia.  Undeniably the US military operation in foreign territories has added to America’s military strength, allowing it to emerge as a military power in the world second to none.

The politics of the US bases dates back to the Cold War years when troop deployment in other regions was considered necessary to counter the threat of a Soviet military offensive or to reduce the political influence of the Communist power.

The US base in Pakistan established during General Ayub’s regime was part of America’s battle against the USSR.  It was one of more than 1,000 military facilities and some 370 major installations established by the United States around the world during the Cold War.  The idea was to have military presence in all such areas that had a long-term impact on American economic and military interests. While there was American interest in exploring the potential of establishing economic and political links with, or basing facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Indonesia, Egypt, Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and Argentina in 1987, it was not until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that the creation of US bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait became possible.

Understandably, the presence of US forces in these countries is not without problems. In fact, the bases have created ecological, social, political and environmental threats in most of the countries. Stories of an increase in social crimes like prostitution and addiction in the Philippines caused due to the influx of American GIs in the country have proliferated.  In addition, there are the reliable reports of the environmental damage caused by the use of all kinds of toxic chemicals for chemical weapons and for other military purposes at the Clarke Air Base, a facility bigger than Singapore.   In the Philippines, Panama and Okinawa, environmental damage and resultant health hazards were reportedly caused due to the use of dangerous herbicides and pesticides — materials that were banned in the United States.  The use of these materials led to the contamination of air, water and soil around the military facilities. Organisations like the World Health Organisation and the US General Accounting office termed this as an ‘environmental nightmare for surrounding communities.’  Studies proved that there was an increase in terminal diseases like cancer.  However, the host countries did not lend an ear to the protests of its citizens in regard to the negative fallout of US installations in their countries.  The excuse for not attending to such problems was a lack of resources.  But in going along with a situation whereby only American interests were being served, host governments did not take into account the long-term impact this would have on the politics, environment or external relations of their respective countries.  For instance, the problem of religious extremists in the Philippines can be directly linked to the  anger among certain groups in the country against the policies of the government vis-a-vis supporting a US presence in the country.  Recently, however, there are suggestions that opinion is changing in the Philippines regarding the presence of American forces, with some parts of the population now viewing the US forces as their saviour.  Interestingly, the US forces are now trying to wipe out a problem — that of Islamic extremism — that was partially created by their presence and the Filipino’s resentment to it, in the first place.

In a different situation, Washington let down its ally Pakistan to deal with the consequences of its actions when, in a secret operation an American U-2 spy plane that encroached on USSR air space  invoked the wrath of the Soviet government and was shot down by Moscow.

The plane had flown out from Badaber air base near Peshawar, which had been secretly provided to the US by the Ayub regime for its use.

The US military presence has had negative political ramifications in other parts as well.  An outstanding example of this is Saudi Arabia, that has recently asked Washington to remove its troops and bases from the country.  Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, America has maintained about 25,000 troops in the Middle East, most of which are stationed in Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi request for withdrawal of US bases has been attributed by its authorities to the resentment expressed by nomadic tribal Arabs against the American presence in Arabia.  Of course, Riyadh’s request has not been welcomed by Washington which claims to be protecting Saudi interests in the region.  Moreover, such a reaction was not expected from the Saudi Royal family, which has long been seen as an upholder of American interests in the region.  In a quid pro quo, Washington has had no problems with human rights violations by Riyadh.

However, the domestic political opposition is a serious issue that cannot be lightly brushed aside even by the royal family, since the Saudi social system is dependent upon tribal links.  Presently, the royal family has been dissuaded from persisting with its  demand, but if Washington is unable to make some political adjustments to mollify public opinion in the Kingdom, it could become highly problematic for the Saudi government.

The creation of temporary or permanent bases in South and Central Asia would inevitably also prove a complex affair.  This is not merely because of the possible reaction of religious extremists in these countries, but because of the pressure it is likely to put on their bilateral relations with other countries in the region.  Russia, for one, has started to express disgruntlement about an America forces build-up in Central Asia, a region considered of great importance to Moscow.  More significant and closer home, a long-term American presence may not have pleasant implications for Pakistan-China relations.  Beijing is likely to be uncomfortable about the American military presence in South Asia, which would disturb the strategic military balance in favour of the US and against China.  Therefore, there is a need for Pakistan to assess the viability of straining ties with an old and trusted friend.  It must also be mentioned that in the present circumstances, with the US troops presence in Balochistan, the proposed development of Gwadar with Chinese help would be completely undermined.

There are, of course, those in Pakistan who argue that as long as it brings economic prosperity to the country and protects Pakistan from India’s hegemonic designs, an American military presence in the country is not a bad idea.  The prospect of the US pouring funds into Afghanistan and Pakistan for ‘development purposes’ in return for ridding themselves of religious extremism, is also offered as an argument to bolster support for US involvement in the area.

According to this line of reasoning, notwithstanding the fact that most of the funds provided for Afghanistan’s development will benefit American and European companies, there will be a trickle down effect of the development activity into states neighbouring Afghanistan.  And resources committed to Pakistan directly or indirectly will brighten the prospects of socio-economic development.   Furthermore, supporters of this view contend that, from a military standpoint, an American presence would reduce pressure on Pakistan emanating from India.

The polarity of views on the issue aside, what is most advisable for Islamabad is to make some strategic calculations of its own, based on its long-term interests rather than those of Washington.  At this juncture, one is not even sure how long the Americans are committed to Pakistan.  Are they in for the long haul this time, or will it prove to be a short honeymoon followed by yet another traumatic divorce as in the past.  Washington’s reputation for leaving its allies in the lurch and with greater problems than their resources can handle, has increasingly gained currency.

Thus for Pakistan while political compulsions may dictate granting certain concessions to the US at this time, it must not be at the expense of the country’s interests, or its sovereign.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter