Time to Rethink US Bases in Asia

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Time to Rethink US Bases in Asia

US bases are becoming a magnet for terrorist attacks in places like Afghanistan. It’s time for a more flexible approach.

Could US bases overseas, usually thought of as ‘stabilizers’ in tough neighbourhoods, really be the primary cause of radical terrorism against the United States and its allies?  That’s what Robert Pape and James K. Feldman compellingly argue in their new book Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.

Most war planners and geo-strategists look at US military bases abroad as if they’re anchors of stability in unstable regions.  Over the past six decades, while there have been occasional protests—sometimes violent—targeting these foreign bases by rebellious students or groups affiliated with socialist or communist parties, most of the political systems in these countries have strongly supported the bases (usually as a cheap way to deter aggression from neighbours).

But what once worked in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Germany doesn't seem to be working so well in Central Asia or the Middle East these days (and frankly, may even be of diminishing value even in these traditional base-hosting countries, where jihadist terrorism hasn't been a factor).  

When terrorist tracker and New America Foundation Counter-Terrorism Initiative Director Peter Bergen was invited to interview Osama bin Laden in 1997, bin Laden told Bergen that the United States had become arrogant in the wake of its victory in the Cold War and that the basing of US troops in Saudi Arabia—the home of the two Holy Mosques—had made the United States a target for al-Qaeda.  Of course, it’s true that the Saudi government invited in and agreed to host on a temporary basis US forces in order to help deter Saddam Hussein.  But after ten years, the phrase ‘temporary bases’ actually shifted in then Defence Secretary William Cohen's remarks to ‘semi-permanent.’

The shift was noted by the media, government officials and incensed Islamists throughout the region—though hardly noticed at all by US strategists who only saw one side of the cost-benefit ledger.

The trouble is, war planners have tended only to consider the upside opportunities in projecting force through foreign-deployed military bases rather than calculating downsides as well. During the Cold War, the seven hundred-plus US military installations abroad helped give the United States unparalleled capacity in intelligence and power projection that only the Soviet Union could match.  And with the collapse of the USSR, the United States stood unrivalled, reifying a core belief that this global network of foreign bases had in part been vital to US success and strength.

While Bergen was tracking down bin Laden and taking the pulse of an increasingly restless Middle East, I was watching growing protests and anti-American anger take hold in another part of the world where US bases had long been situated—Japan and South Korea.  

Believing that the United States was impeding normalization efforts between North and South Korea, and that it had been a supporter of military crackdowns against pro-democracy efforts, students directed violent, flame-throwing protests at US military installations in South Korea.

In Japan, meanwhile, the situation was less violent but politically more severe. In September 1995, three US military servicemen brutally raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. The senior US Commander in the region remarked that the soldiers should have just procured a prostitute, triggering the largest anti-American protests in Japan since 1960. Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture, nonetheless hosts the majority of the US military capacity in Japan, with 39 distinct US military facilities on the island.  

During the Cold War, the sacrifice made by Okinawa in ‘carrying the burden’ of hosting these bases and US personnel was more easily justified. Since then, the rationale has shifted from everything from deterring North Korea to them being a bulwark against growing Chinese power—anything to keep the huge land assets of the Pentagon in the Pacific in place.

When I spoke to South Koreans and Okinawans at the time, I regularly heard comments along the lines that they felt ‘occupied.’  Indeed, before a revision in security guidelines between the United States and Japan after the rape incident, the US controlled more than 80 percent of Okinawa's air space. One senior activist told me that while the protests of the Okinawans would be peaceful for the most part, in the long run the United States should worry about groups self-organizing and possibly beginning to throw Molotov cocktails at US trucks and installations—and threatening personnel and their dependents. This didn't happen (or at least hasn't happened yet), but counting on docility ‘permanently’ may be a major blind spot of Pentagon planners. While suicide terrorism wasn’t brewing in Okinawa, the impulse to reject the logic of large-scale, long term basing of US troops on Japanese soil was.

But in parts of the world less accustomed to US military personnel, the reaction has been more virulent.  

Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago and the director of the new website mega-data base on suicide terrorism the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST), is now being sought out by the highest levels of the US military and intelligence bureaucracies to share his research.

The Pentagon's leadership prides itself on hearing not just material that supports its current course, but being open to alternative scenarios to consider military threats—and it’s most easily convinced by solid empirical data.

So Pape and his co-author Feldman have broken down every recorded suicide terrorist incident since 1980, and noted an eruption of such incidents since 2004. From 1980-2003, there were 350 suicide attacks in the world, only 15 percent of which were anti-American. But in the five-year period since, from 2004-2009, there have been 1,833 suicide attacks, 92 percent of which were anti-American.  

Pape argues that the key factor in determining spikes in suicide terrorism isn’t the prevalence or profile of radical Islamic clerics or mental sickness, but rather the garrisoning of foreign troops, most often US troops or its allies, in these respective countries.

Pape and Feldman show, for example, that even in war-torn, beleaguered Afghanistan, suicide attacks surged from just a handful a year to more than 100 per year in early 2006 when US and military deployments began to extend to the Pashtun southern and eastern regions of the country beginning in late 2005. Pakistan also deployed forces against Pashtun sections of western Pakistan, which Pape and Feldman note also saw large spikes in suicide attacks.

Pape isn’t a pacifist and isn’t calling on the US government and Pentagon to appease dictators and terror masters. But he is making an argument that a new, better strategy is needed. He and his co-author make a compelling case—much like Donald Rumsfeld once pondered in his famous memo on terrorism —that the United States is creating many of its own problems and feeding its enemies.

I once asked US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott whether he thought that the United States would have problems managing its empire of bases and whether those nations hosting them would feel the burden too heavy in a post-Soviet world. Talbott responded that he believed—as did most of the national security community—that ‘US bases are anchors of instability in unstable regions.’

But this may not be the case any longer—or at least not as much as it used to be.

In Cutting the Fuse, Pape and Feldman suggest that the US military would be better off securing its key foreign policy interests through ‘offshore balancing’—relying on military alliances and ‘offshore air, naval and rapidly deployable ground forces rather than heavy onshore combat power.’

No doubt the first calls he received about this would have been from the US Air Force and Navy. But their interests aside, Pape believes the military needs to be more nimble and have a smaller footprint—less toxic than the large-scale, clunky, unsuccessful force deployments that characterize US deployments to Afghanistan today.

The key here is working from the data upward in formulating a smart strategy for military organization, rather than working from the top down and repeating mistakes made by those whose thinking is conventional, incremental and who tie what they do tomorrow largely to what they did yesterday.

Pape sees a chance to neutralize the forces that could otherwise yield another generation of hardened terrorists, many of whom are willing to engage in suicide attacks. I know the Pentagon is listening, and this impresses me.  Others should be too.

Steve Clemons directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note.  Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons