Permanent Bases in Iraq: Where Politics and Law Hit a Brick Wall
Over the last few months, the media have reported that the Pentagon is busy constructing what appear to be “enduring” (i.e., permanent) bases in Iraq. A recent Associated Press story noted that in 2005-2006, one billion dollars had been requested or approved for building or improving bases in Iraq. The Supplemental Appropriations act itself includes a request for $348 million for further base and other construction.
Earlier stories spoke of the U.S. retaining possibly 14 bases of the 108 set up around the country. (Thirty-four of these 108 have been “returned” to Iraqi control to date.) Of these 14, four locations as enduring bases have been specifically cited:
Balad Air Base, some 40 miles north of Baghdad, where two million cubic feet of concrete has been laid for runways and parking aprons for C-5 and C-130 airplanes and for as many as 120 helicopters. Facilities will accommodate 25,000 troops in its 15 square miles;
Al Assad Air Base, 180 miles west of Baghdad and ten miles from the Syrian border. Covering 19 square miles, it is home to 17,000 U.S. military and civilians;
Ali Air Base at Tallil, between Baghdad and Basra, home to a new mess hall able to seat 6,000.
Al Qayyarah Air Base in the north near Mosul
These four airbases would provide quick response capability for U.S. or U.S.-Iraqi operations. Make no mistake: as long as U.S. ground troops are in Iraq, whether as units or as embedded trainers/advisors, U.S. warplanes will be close by. And the converse is true: as long as U.S. warplanes are needed to support Iraqi counterinsurgency operations, even after all U.S. units have left the country, U.S. soldiers will have to be on the ground to direct bombing and strafing runs
FACTS ON THE GROUND
The Iraqi Air Force consists of C-130 cargo aircraft and training aircraft. They also have some unarmed helicopters. The extent of U.S. construction far exceeds any conceivable requirements of a future defense-oriented Iraqi Air Force.
Not counting any bases in Iraq, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has created 35 new bases in the arc running between Poland and Pakistan. (Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 2006) However, the Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) base in Uzbekistan was closed the end of July 2005. Kyrgyzstan still permits U.S. basing at Manas, but that government wants more money from the U.S. for basing rights. Should the latter base also be lost, there would be a break in the chain of bases containing Russia and China. Iraq is not quite in the arc, but would partially fill the missing link.
As part of its version of the FY2006 Supplemental Appropriations bill, the House of Representatives on March 16 passed an amendment that states: “None of the funds in this Act may be used by the U.S. government to enter into a basing rights agreement between the United States and Iraq” (Title III, Section 3014, H.R. 4939).
For its part, on April 5 the Senate Appropriations Committee cut $177 million of the $348 million request in the Supplemental for base construction in Iraq. The panel told the White House that it will reject administration attempts to designate as “emergencies” requests that clearly “propose a longer-term presence” in Iraq.
POLITICAL implications of prohibiting any funding of “basing rights” agreements or significant construction that points to “a more permanent presence than is the policy of the United States.”
- Does not force the White House to stop ongoing construction work which can always be declared “force protection” measures.
-Can unmask White House intentions for the long term in Iraq.
-Pentagon master plan for construction at Balad reportedly runs 10 years
-All but $10 million of the Senate’s $177 million cut in construction funding involved a plan to build roads to by-pass major Iraqi urban areas where convoys are more susceptible to ambush and improvised explosive devices. Ironically, in the 1980s in Central America, National Guard engineer construction units were dispatched to build roads connecting rural areas to urban centers.
-Senate cuts can be restored in whole or in part in conference.
LEGAL Implications of prohibiting any funding of “basing rights” agreements or long-term construction projects
- No effect until bill passes Congress and signed by president. Veto always possible though unlikely for Supplemental Appropriations bill for war fighting and hurricane relief.
- Basing rights prohibition applies to the monies being appropriated in H.R. 4939 only.
- Even with this prohibition, the real impact on appropriations might be zero to -$14 per annum as each base could be leased from the Iraqi government for $1 per annum yet nominally still be commanded by an Iraqi – meaning that Iraq assumes all risks and liabilities.
- Once a bill includes such a prohibition, the barn door is opened and the same language is easier to include in the future, with extended parameters.
- Should or when the Iraqi government requests that a status-of-forces or similar understanding be formally concluded, this should trigger the prohibition in H.R. 4939 as status-of-forces agreements implies the presence of foreign troops in another sovereign country and therefore real-estate for a base.
On April 4, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asked by Representative Steven Rothman (NJ) during her appearance before the House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee if the bases in Iraq were permanent, dodged the question by replying; “I would think that people would tell you, we’re not seeking permanent bases really pretty much anywhere in the world these days.”
It was definitely indefinite. But at least now the questions are being asked, and sooner or later someone in the administration will actually answer.