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US Out of Afghanistan, US Bases Out of Everywhere

Some hawkish pundits are asking why must America leave Afghanistan when it has a permanent military presence at over 700 military bases around the world. They’re accidentally suggesting a good point: America should leave Afghanistan, and those 700 bases should go, too.

American soldiers in Afghanistan, 2006. (John Moore / Getty Images)

Now that the long and monstrous war in Afghanistan is finally coming to an end, supporters of the occupation have a problem. Do they claim that if the United States had only stayed in the country for a little while longer, the Taliban could have been decisively defeated, and the troops could have left without the US-installed regime immediately crumbling? Or do they admit that the anti-war movement was right all along, and a “forever war” is exactly what the hawks wanted?

A long series of pundits have settled on the same response to this dilemma: keeping some American troops in Afghanistan long-term would be fine and nothing like a “forever war,” since the United States has permanent military bases all over the world.

Here’s Eli Lake — a columnist for Bloomberg and a “National Security Journalism Fellow” at the Clements Center:

GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini hit a similar note. Bret Stephens said pretty much the same thing in the New York Times, focusing on America’s seventy-one-year presence in Korea. Andrew McCarthy worked a version of the same sneer into the National Review, joking that if we were to keep troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, we might as well rebrand World War II as “World Forever War II,” since the United States still has bases in Germany and Japan.

None of these pundits seems to feel any need to explicitly spell out the argument they’re gesturing at with these sneers: that America’s supposedly peaceful long-term military presence in these other countries discredits what the antiwar left says about “forever wars” in the Middle East.

As far as I can tell, their implied line of reasoning goes something like this:

  1. The antiwar left claims that indefinitely extending the presence of American troops in Afghanistan would amount to waging a “forever war” in Afghanistan, but this can only be true if maintaining long-term American military presence in any country counts as waging a “forever war” in that country.
  2. America has maintained long-term bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and other countries without waging a “forever war” in those countries.
  3. We can conclude from number two that maintaining long-term American military presence in any country would not count as waging a “forever war” in that country, and thus is no big deal.
  4. We can conclude from one and three that the antiwar left is wrong to say that indefinitely extending the presence of American troops in Afghanistan would amount to waging a “forever war” in Afghanistan — and we should keep some troops in Afghanistan.

Number two is true enough if war means an ongoing “hot war” like the one that’s ending in Afghanistan. US troops aren’t in Germany to help Angela Merkel stave off insurgents already in control of large parts of Bavaria and Saxony. No one is getting into any firefights in Okinawa. Korea comes the closest, but even there, none of the occasional flareups of violence between North and South Korea have involved American soldiers shooting or being shot by anyone in decades. Like Germany and Japan, Korea is a stable society where the government enjoys as much internal legitimacy as the American government does within the borders of the United States.

But these disanalogies between the role American troops were playing in Afghanistan and the role they play in countries like Germany also show that number one is absurd. American soldiers might be able to walk around Berlin or Seoul without anyone shooting at them, but that doesn’t mean that if the war had dragged on for another year or another decade, the same kind of tranquility would have reigned in Kabul.

That said, they aren’t entirely wrong to suggest that there’s an analogy between the issue of whether the United States should be waging a “forever war” in Afghanistan and the issue of whether there should be “forever bases” scattered around the world.

For one thing, maintaining this kind of globe-spanning imperial military presence across over seven hundred bases worldwide is incredibly expensive. A report earlier this year found that the United States had spent $34 billion on its bases in two of these countries (Japan and South Korea) between 2016 and 2019. That money can and should be redirected to domestic social programs.

For another, even where local power structures approve of the bases and want them to stay, local populations often have good reasons for bitterly resenting American presence. Crimes committed by Americans stationed in Okinawa, for example, have sparked massive street protests against US presence there in the relatively recent past.

Finally, the bases in these countries aren’t just a potent symbol of America’s military might or an implicit threat to rival powers. They play a practical role in facilitating imperial wars.

Germany was diplomatically opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but when it started, planes regularly departed from US bases there, loaded with troops and weapons, and came back with wounded soldiers treated at base hospitals. Making it logistically easier for the US forces to quickly intervene all around the world in turn makes disastrous future interventions more likely.

The globe-spanning network of American military bases can’t be separated from America’s role as the world’s dominant imperial hegemon. That’s exactly why they need to go.