By Walter Pincus
Monday, July 30, 2007
The House passed a bill on Wednesday barring the Defense Department from building any military installation or base that could serve as a permanent station for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Similar prohibitions are already on the books, and their practical effect has been to "limit the use of concrete structures and emphasize building of relocatable units" as a way to show that U.S. facilities in Iraq are not "permanent," according to a recent study by the Congressional Research Service.
So, what exactly is the Defense Department building in Iraq with the billions in military construction dollars it has received over the past five years? Congress approved $1.7 billion for military construction in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007, according to CRS, but offered no breakdown of how the money was spent.
The House and Senate appropriations committees have finished work on the fiscal 2008 military construction bills and have put out their relevant reports. In congressional testimony in April, Keith E. Eastin, Army assistant secretary for installations and environment, said that the $738.8 million budget request was "for 33 critical construction projects for Iraq and Afghanistan," including airfield and operational support facilities, along with roads and fuel handling and storage units.
The House report says the Pentagon "intends to continue the buildup of infrastructure in Persian Gulf nations, while establishing 'enduring' locations for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Djibouti" -- whatever "enduring" means. But no Iraq construction is detailed. And a CRS report this month lists a total of $2 billion approved for Iraq and Afghanistan military construction in the fiscal 2004, 2005 and 2006 budgets -- but again no details.
Piecemeal hints on Iraq construction projects abound, however.
Balad Air Base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, houses not just the major U.S. Air Force operations in Iraq but also the biggest logistical support center in the country. To carry out its functions, there are at least 25,000 U.S. troops stationed there. A recent Associated Press story from the base quoted an officer describing the facility as "the busiest aerial port" in the Defense Department. Almost 16 square miles in size and surrounded by another 12 square miles of security perimeter, it has two hardened cement runways over 11,000 feet in length. "The weaker of Balad's two 11,000-foot runways was reinforced -- for five to seven years' more hard use," the AP reported last week.
Camp Anaconda, the residential part of the Balad complex, was described by The Washington Post's Thomas E. Ricks last year as "a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq." It has neighborhoods for servicemen and others for thousands of civilian workers along with movie theaters, fast-food courts and an Olympic-size swimming pool.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, then commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee in March 2004 that "we are making Balad Airfield our primary hub in the region, and the idea of doing that is because we need to have the Baghdad International Airport revert to civilian control." Balad Airfield is one of five operating U.S. air bases inside Iraq.
How much has been spent on Balad and Anaconda? Two years ago, CRS identified $200 million -- but more has gone in since, including a new air traffic control center.
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who closely follows the Arab press, noted last week that the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat carried a story reporting that Iraqis don't take seriously the legislation barring permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. "Members of [the Iraqi] parliament say that they see these enormous hardened bases being built," the newspaper reported, "which is practical proof to the contrary."
National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them firstname.lastname@example.org.