In a world of statistics and precision, in which "accountability" is now a Washington buzzword, there's one number no American—not even the president or the Pentagon—knows: the number of U.S. military bases currently dotting the globe. In a new piece for Tomdispatch.com, Nick Turse, author of The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan, weighs in:
Last January, Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told me that there were nearly 400 U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan, including camps, forward operating bases, and combat outposts. He expected that number to increase by 12 or more, he added, over the course of 2010.
In September, I contacted ISAF's Joint Command Public Affairs Office to follow up. To my surprise, I was told that "there are approximately 350 forward operating bases with two major military installations, Bagram and Kandahar airfields." Perplexed by the loss of 50 bases instead of a gain of 12, I contacted Gary Younger, a Public Affairs Officer with the International Security Assistance Force. "There are less than 10 NATO bases in Afghanistan," he wrote in an October 2010 email. "There are over 250 U.S. bases in Afghanistan."
By then, it seemed, the U.S. had lost up to 150 bases and I was thoroughly confused. When I contacted the military to sort out the discrepancies and listed the numbers I had been given—from Shanks' 400 base tally to the count of around 250 by Younger—I was handed off again and again until I landed with Sergeant First Class Eric Brown at ISAF Joint Command's Public Affairs. "The number of bases in Afghanistan is roughly 411," Brown wrote in a November email, "which is a figure comprised of large base[s], all the way down to the Combat Out Post-level." Even this, he cautioned, wasn't actually a full list, because "temporary positions occupied by platoon-sized elements or less" were not counted.
Along the way to this "final" tally, I was offered a number of explanation—from different methods of accounting to the failure of units in the field to provide accurate information—for the conflicting numbers I had been given. After months of exchanging emails and seeing the numbers swing wildly, ending up with roughly the same count in November as I began with in January suggests that the U.S. command isn't keeping careful track of the number of bases in Afghanistan. Apparently, the military simply does not know how many bases it has in its primary theater of operations.
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