Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, is an odd place to discover the possible fate of Iraq. But the fort, a 90-year-old Army base in the midst of suburbia, plays host to the Army's communications command, which has quite a lot invested in that country's future. For the moment, the United States has 140,000 troops stationed in Iraq, where they shall remain, according to the Bush administration, until the Iraqi government can defend itself against internal subversion and mounting sectarian conflict. Having invested the lives of 2,700 troops, the health of another 20,000, and about half a trillion dollars in that effort, nobody in the United States government is willing to predict when that day will arrive.
But unbeknownst to the press, the public, and most of the Army itself, the clues to an American military occupation of Iraq -- that could last for years and even decades to come -- can be found inside Fort Monmouth. What is happening within that facility suggests that the White House continues to mislead the world about its ultimate intentions.
In late 2004, U.S. military commanders had a problem to solve. The first Iraqi elections were fast approaching, with nearly all the powerful contenders furiously denouncing the foreign occupation. Yet whoever emerged victorious would inherit an Iraqi security apparatus unable to protect the government against a dangerous insurgency and increasing ethnic and religious violence. So despite all the rhetorical denunciations of America, the victors were unlikely to demand an immediate U.S. withdrawal. Facing total uncertainty about the duration of their stay in Iraq, the U.S. Army did what the U.S. Army does best: It started planning.
According to interviews with senior U.S. commanders with extensive Iraq experience, the Pentagon had never drawn up any plans for a long-term military presence in Iraq. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld actually threatened to fire any officer who took steps to prepare for the aftermath of the invasion, according to a recent statement from a former deputy to General Tommy Franks. Nearly two years after the war began, however, with the insurgency mounting, the Army could no longer afford such dereliction. It started dispensing contracts to defense firms that could build and maintain an infrastructure sufficient to support an indefinite U.S. military presence. At Fort Monmouth, 6,000 miles from Iraq, a communications project was born, called the Central Iraq Microwave System, or CIMS.
The CIMS project has a simple objective: to connect the sprawling U.S. base outside of Baghdad, known as Camp Victory, with the rest of the U.S. bases in Iraq. Three aspects of CIMS are especially noteworthy: First, it's a land-based network of huge communications towers and underground fiber-optic cables, rather than a comparatively costly but temporary system reliant on satellite signals. Second, it won't connect every base in Iraq to Baghdad -- just the bases that the United States plans on keeping far into the future. Finally, its completion will connect Baghdad to the other U.S. military installations in the Middle East, from Qatar to Afghanistan.
When a company called Galaxy Scientific Corp., which has a branch near Fort Monmouth and is now part of the defense conglomerate SRA International, received a $10 million contract to build CIMS in late 2004, savvy defense observers knew exactly what the deal represented. "This is the kind of investment that is reflective of the strategic commitment and intention to continue a military presence in Iraq," Thomas Donnelly, an Iraq hawk at the American Enterprise Institute, told Eli Lake of The New York Sun. "This is one of the indicators of an intention to stay, these kinds of communications networks."
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