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."
For years, the Bush administration has refused to discuss how long the United States will stay in Iraq. More recently, the administration speaks of both a "long war" and just-over-the-horizon troop reductions simultaneously -- although last month General John Abizaid, the U.S. commander for Middle East and Southeast Asia, ruled out a draw down until next year -- with the emphasis shifting depending on the president's audience and the political moment. On the rare occasions when officials have been pressed, usually in congressional hearings that garner little attention, Bush aides insist there are "no plans" to build permanent bases, a nondenial-denial that focuses attention on unprovable administration intent. But beyond intent is actual construction. That is, the U.S. military has awarded contracts to erect enduring bases at Baghdad, the capital; Balad, in the Sunni center-west; Tallil, in the Shiite center-south; and near Rawah, on the western border with Syria. All this construction is being done not because of any master plan, but in the absence of it. To put it another way, the military has to take steps for a permanent presence in Iraq in order to be responsible -- since no one has instructed commanders about when they will leave.
There is a strategic fog surrounding every aspect of the Iraq War. No one knows, in late 2006, whether the mission is to establish democracy, prevent civil war, or forestall or facilitate Iraq's disintegration. The duration of an unclear mission is necessarily unclear, which forces commanders to prepare for all contingencies. While the Bush administration publicly denies any plan to occupy Iraq forever, its own strategic confusion is increasingly forcing the military to prepare for precisely such an indefinite, open-ended occupation in very concrete ways. The press, for its part, has treated such development as a paranoid left-wing conspiracy theory rather than documented fact, thereby preventing the public from gaining a fuller understanding of what the United States is actually doing in Iraq. And many in the Army are starting to fear the consequences of what the Pentagon is doing: entrenching a quagmire and facilitating a powerful incentive for Defense Department hawks to launch further wars around the Middle East.
The Bush administration and the military obstructed my ability to report this story at every turn. In early July, I sought to embed with U.S. forces stationed at the long-term bases. It took until late August for word to come back to me: While a story on enduring U.S. military bases in Iraq "is interesting, it does not lend itself to the purpose of the embed program," according to the embedding coordinator of U.S. Central Command. Not only could I not see the bases, I could not learn how far along they are in their development, nor how much that development is costing U.S. taxpayers. For weeks, public-affairs officers at the Pentagon told me they did not even know where I should direct such requests for information. When I finally was directed to an official in Baghdad, Donn Booker of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he did not return an e-mail seeking comment. Responsible officials at the National Security Council declined interview requests. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's interview coordinator at the State Department did not return my repeated calls. Contractors refused to comment. And an elaborate chain of referral calls, starting with Fort Monmouth's public-affairs officer, led me right back to the person from whom I initially requested comment. As a result, the reporting that follows largely comes from senior active-duty U.S. military commanders and former Bush administration officials concerned about what is being done in Iraq with absolutely no public scrutiny or even basic acknowledgment.
Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration's responses have been self-serving, incomplete, and deceitful. Early this year, the well-regarded U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, assured Congress, "We have no goal of establishing permanent bases [in Iraq]." But how does "permanent" differ from "long-term"? If such bases aren't an administration "goal," why is the administration dispensing contracts to build and reinforce them? But the ambassador's answer, however unsatisfying, represented the most forthright acknowledgment by a senior-level official that the question of bases is a real one.
Representatives have had even less luck with Rice. When New Jersey Democrat Jim Sexton asked her the difference between an enduring base and a permanent base at an April hearing, she replied, "The presence in Iraq is for a very clear purpose, and that's to enable Iraqis to be able to govern themselves and to create security forces that can help them do that. I don't think that anybody believes that we really want to be there longer than we have to." A frustrated Sexton asked whether the bases were "permanent or not." She parried, "I would think the people will tell you, we're not seeking permanent bases, really, pretty much anywhere in the world these days." (Except, of course, in Qatar, and in the countries neighboring Afghanistan.) General Abizaid proved more honest during a March House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, when Congressman David Price of North Carolina asked whether he could "make an unequivocal commitment" repudiating permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. "No, sir, I can't," said Abizaid, "primarily because I don't formulate U.S. policy. I advise on U.S. policy. The policy on long-term presence in Iraq hasn't been formulated and I don't imagine that it will emerge until the government of national unity emerges."
For Larry Diamond, the silence is maddening. Diamond, a democracy-promotion expert at the Hoover Institution, arrived in Iraq in early 2004 as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the first U.S. governing agency in Iraq. He accepted the job at the personal request of Rice, his former provost. But Diamond quickly learned that he would have no real input in shaping policy, even to prevent easily foreseeable mistakes. In the very first policy memo Diamond sent to Rice, then the national security adviser, he implored the administration to renounce any long-term presence in Iraq. She never gave him an answer.
"I certainly said it to Condi more than once," Diamond says. With palpable frustration, he says the question of permanent bases "is like this pillow -- you punch it, and the Pentagon won't confirm, deny or reply. 'No response.' In that sense, they're very clever. They don't defend it, don't deny it, don't confirm it. They just ignore it."
That deliberate silence has had a substantial impact on the U.S. military. According to U.S. commanders who have served in Iraq, there is no piece of paper directing them to construct permanent U.S. bases. Indeed, "if this were planned from the start," says one senior Army officer, "we wouldn't have screwed [Iraq] up as badly as we did." In the absence of top-level administration planning, the Army had to come up with a plan of its own.
Army officers sometimes talk about "BRAC for Iraq." The acronym refers to the government's Base Realignment and Closure review process -- undertaken every 10 years to weed out unnecessary military bases in the United States. BRAC for Iraq is designed to get the U.S. military out of the places it doesn't need to be or where Iraqis won't tolerate it -- "to get out of their faces," in the words of an Army general -- with the long-term intent of consolidating forces in places where senior U.S. commanders believe they must remain in order to keep Iraq from imploding completely.
Speaking not for attribution, one well-respected officer explained to me how BRAC for Iraq works. Drawing troop levels down is a challenging logistical process, in large part because once U.S. troops move into an area they begin heavy construction and bring in a lot of materiel: military vans, large containers, satellite dishes, environmental-control units. Much of what gets built or imported can't be left to the Iraqis -- electricity on U.S. bases, for instance, operates on the American system of voltage, which is totally foreign to the Iraqi system.
The military command in Iraq (known as Multi-National Force-Iraq, or MNF-I) has been planning how this works and will work since early 2005. Last year, the United States ceded control of Saddam Hussein's old palace in Tikrit, which had been the headquarters of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Army Division, to the Iraqis in an elaborate and well-publicized ceremony. But what happened after that handover illustrates the danger with which planners must contend: Tikrit exploded in sectarian violence as soon as the U.S. withdrew. So not only does the military have to decide what materiel it can take with it out of an occupied area, but it also has to figure out where U.S. troops, whatever their future numbers, can consolidate: Go too far outside the hotspots and MNF-I loses the ability to mass when a conflagration ignites. Stay too close in the Iraqis' faces and spark the kind of nationalist fury that endangers the lives of American forces and their Iraqi allies.
As a result, planners have more or less settled on pulling U.S. troops inside four massive bases that will garrison them indefinitely. Those bases are located at strategic positions around Iraq, and each serves a particular political objective.
Camp Victory, in Baghdad, provides a jumping-off point to project power into the capital city and to ensure that the Iraqi government, in whatever fashion, stays alive. Fifty miles north and slightly west of Baghdad is a base near the city of Balad, which allows U.S. forces to remain in Anbar province, the inflamed Sunni heartland. Another 150 miles west of Balad is a tiny town called Rawah, near the Syrian border, where U.S. forces began constructing a base last July. The Rawah base is positioned to cut off a major smuggling artery for both foreign jihadists and cash and weaponry coming to the insurgency. (John Hendren of the Los Angeles Times described the scene in a July 31, 2005, dispatch: "In the last two weeks, the military has been building structures at the new base and American troops have begun arriving at the facility. The base has been set up far enough from the town so that insurgents seeking to launch mortar and rocket attacks would have to do so from the open desert, where they are more likely to be seen.")
But perhaps the most important long-term facility, even more significant than Camp Victory, is the massive air base at Tallil, 50 miles south of Baghdad. With runways 10,000 feet long, Tallil achieves two American objectives for the price of a single installation. First, it permits access for U.S. troops to the southern Shiite heartland. The second objective is slightly more complicated -- and reveals how long, at a minimum, the United States will remain in Iraq, despite Bush administration assurances of troop reductions.
"The Iraqi Air Force doesn't exist," notes a senior Army officer. "Yet [airpower] maintains the government in power. It's a good thing that the enemy can't mass in the open. Why is that? Because we can kill them with airpower. We'll need that capacity for a long time. The nascent Iraqi Air Force isn't going to be ready for a decade. The American Air Force will have to be in Iraq for a long time. That's where Tallil is coming from."
And that's also where BRAC for Iraq is coming from. It represents what military planners, in the absence of guidance from civilian leadership, require in order to support an open-ended mission. For the military, the motivation isn't to maintain an imperial presence. It's simply to do what's prudent.
"The big issue for the services always comes down to dollars and people," says one Army general. "The services are concerned with projections for gradual force reductions that are made and that then don't always come to pass." The painful difference between projections and realities has long been a fact of life for the military services. But it's far from clear whether key decision makers in the Bush White House and Rumsfeld's Pentagon see the ongoing base construction in Iraq as a prudential, if drift-driven, process -- or an imperial opportunity in a vital part of the world.
The case against keeping U.S. bases in Iraq is probably best made by Osama bin Laden. "For over seven years, the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples," bin Laden said in his 1998 declaration of jihad. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq."
In other words, the longer the United States remains in Iraq, the greater the opportunity, on a number of levels, for al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement. In the most direct sense, the inevitable nationalist backlash to a western invasion provides an excellent opportunity to radicalize outraged Muslims, as well as what the U.S. National Intelligence Council last year called a "training ground" for new jihadis to develop expertise in killing Americans. (This was confirmed by the intelligence community in a National Intelligence Estimate leaked to The New York Times in September, which judged that the occupation of Iraq is a blessing for al-Qaeda.) But in a broader sense, during every moment the United States spends in Iraq, bin Laden's portrait of a rapacious, crusading America comes true before the eyes of the Muslim world. Consider too the enormous drain that the war represents in American blood, treasure, and on the body politic, and turning an open-ended, futile war into a permanent, futile war looks more and more like a terrible idea.
But don't tell that to the Bush administration. "Given that there's no compelling military value to [a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq], and given that we're bleeding because of the stubborn refusal to explain this, then the only reason I can summon for why the president has refused to renounce the bases when the option has been placed and forwarded up there for two years is the obvious one: We are seeking military bases, and I think it's a scandal," says Diamond. "The whole thing is just jaw-dropping. Nothing else explains this tenacious refusal, and the reactions I've gotten to my objections, except that people in the administration are clinging to this illusion, that at this late date, this goal is still possible, that we can turn this around and convert Iraq to host substantial American military power in the region, and to increase our military power in the region."
Of course, no Bush official consented to discuss the issue for this article, so it's impossible for me to determine whether such illusions persist. Questions continue to be raised within the military about why the administration remains mum when base construction is under way. "You can go from the economic argument, that we're guaranteeing the free flow of oil, but presumably you put gas in your SUV, and you think that's a good thing, too," says a perplexed Army officer. As with most things the United States has done in Iraq, however, such an attempt would likely prove counterproductive, given the overwhelming resentment of America by Iraqis. "In refusing to renounce these permanent military bases, we're promoting precisely the instability that prompts the disruption of the Iraqi oil flow," contends Diamond. "Holding on to this chimera disrupts the security goals that U.S. officials, and particularly civilian officials, think they're pursuing. It's absurd, and it's profoundly tragic."
That leaves another troubling possibility: to put it bluntly, that the war in Iraq is not the only war in the Middle East envisioned by the Bush administration. That's not to assert there are any imminent plans to launch further invasions -- only that among the assumptions of defense planners is the belief that further conflicts necessitating U.S. intervention may quickly emerge, and, therefore, it's better to have a platform in Iraq from which to respond than to have to mass forces from across the globe. This prospect leaves the Army as confused as any ordinary citizen. While we were discussing permanent military bases in Iraq, a senior Army officer asked me, with apparent sincerity, if I knew whether we would invade Iran. Another officer points out, simply, "the long-term mission envisioned in Iraq -- to say nothing of the broader Middle East -- is understandably less than clearly defined, as it will depend on the course of events in Iraq. Will, e.g., the mission be strategic overwatch? To provide airpower as Iraqis need it? A variety of mission sets are possible." Indeed, when Abizaid addressed the question of permanent bases in his March exchange with Congressman Price, he pointed out the assumptions that guided him: "Clearly, our long-term vision for military presence in the region requires a robust counterterrorist capability. I think all of us need to understand that groups like al-Qaeda and the associated movements are with us for a long time. ... We need to be able to deter the ambitions of an expansionistic Iran."
There is a degree of irony to Abizaid's answer. According to a knowledgeable source, the U.S. regional commander in the Middle East has become a convinced opponent of building permanent bases in Iraq. During a recent interview with a congressionally requested commission chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton to offer advice on Iraq, Abizaid urged the panel to come out firmly and loudly against the drift toward permanent bases in its final report. His plea to Baker and Hamilton suggests that Abizaid is seeking a bureaucratic back channel because he faces difficulty in making the case against the bases in his conversations with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush.
True to form, U.S. Central Command would not respond to my request for an interview with Abizaid, nor would a spokesman for the secretive Baker-Hamilton Commission return my calls. But an officer who has worked closely with Abizaid considers the above account to be credible. "Having studied in Jordan and having spent a lot of time in the Mideast, General Abizaid clearly appreciates the culture in the region and has always been a leading proponent of the view that we need to get out of their faces and to avoid the dependency syndrome," says the officer. "He has always been a thoughtful proponent of a light footprint, drawing down wherever possible and not antagonizing the locals because of our presence. And there's a lot to that, especially if you have challenges developing cultural sensitivity in some soldiers and thus create new enemies driving through Baghdad like we own the streets and so on."
Abizaid's advocacy reveals a basic aspect of Army thinking about Iraq. He may not want to remain in Iraq indefinitely, but neither does he want to leave Iraq anytime soon. Measuring how long the U.S. should stay in Iraq is an agonizing question for the Army, more so than for any other U.S. military service. "To the extent the Army thinks about it, it doesn't want to lose a war," says a senior Army officer. "It's got a lot of skin in this game, and it doesn't want to be defeated. I think the deeper strategic thinkers understand that the second- and third-order effects of defeat in Iraq will be really catastrophic for the Army and the nation. The Army wants to win this thing. It's just getting tired. It's getting tired." The officer continues, "We surged for what we thought was the finish line, and it doesn't look like the finish line anymore. They moved it in front of us, and we don't know how far we can sprint." While Bush hints to the public and the press that the finish line is in the near distance, the Army is preparing for a marathon.
In early September, John Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, frightened the Bush administration by musing that Congress might need to pass another resolution authorizing the expanding mission in Iraq. The Washington press corps regarded his message as a trial balloon. Yet practically no news organization raised the question of permanent bases. This is as curious as it is inexcusable: In a presidential debate, John Kerry explicitly challenged Bush to renounce permanent bases. But Bush has never faced any pressure to do so, either during the campaign or after the election.
"It baffles me," says Diamond. "Why is the White House press corps not confronting the president, saying, 'Mr. President, are we seeking permanent military bases in Iraq or not, and if not, why not take the issue off the table?' It's appalling. It's no less a scandal that the press has failed to pin the administration down on this, and the administration has failed to come clean to the American people as we bleed and die there." Other news organizations have rejected stories about permanent American bases in Iraq -- including this one -- apparently out of fear of seeming conspiratorial.
The Bush administration has exploited that fear masterfully. Not a single senator or representative who voted for the war ever voted to authorize a decades-long U.S. presence in Iraq. The public, which has decisively turned against the war, wants to end the occupation, not expand it. The military wonders how long it can sustain itself in Iraq. The Iraqi people obviously want all foreign troops to leave, either immediately or as soon as possible. The only people who desire an extended stay in Iraq are those who are safely insulated from its consequences. And, for all the talk about a weakened Bush administration, they have proven time and again that they can deceive their way into getting what they want, and that few will stand in their way.