Stuck in the Hot Zone
Don't dream about full exits. The Military is in Iraq for the Long Haul.
By Michael Hirsh
May 1, 2006 issue - Maj. Micah Morgan fondly pats the nose of his Predator drone, much as a cavalry officer of old might have stroked the muzzle of his prized horse. "This is the future of the Air Force," says Morgan, a former B-1 bomber pilot. It is a glorious day in the Sunni Triangle. Outside the "wire" of Balad Air Base the insurgency still rages and sectarian war looms, but the sky above is a deep azure and, no small thing, wholly American-owned. A relaxed Morgan watches from the shade of Saddam Hussein's old hardened hangars as another Predator—an unmanned craft about the size of a Cessna—approaches for a remote-control landing at the vast airfield after a recon mission. Stepping into one of his modular "ground-control stations," which are encased in steel and shipped to Balad as single units, Morgan flicks on a screen that shows his flock of drones (the exact number is classified, but it's the largest fleet in the world) hovering over Baghdad, each carrying two Hellfire missiles and searching with uncanny clarity for insurgents and other signs of trouble.
The American airman who is piloting these drones, however, is not in Iraq. He is 7,000 miles away, in Las Vegas. Once Morgan's small crew at Balad gets the Predators aloft—a tricky business that still requires on-site piloting, as does landing—they are switched by satellite to the control of an operator at Nellis Air Force Base outside Sin City. Then, using new "Rover" technology, whatever the Predators spot on their cameras and infrared heat detectors can be beamed to the onboard screen of any ground commander in a Humvee, Bradley or tank. In the future, that commander will likely be a U.S. officer embedded in an Iraqi Army or police unit, feeding intel to his Iraqi protégés. Morgan, who still marvels at the idea, says: "Some guy in Vegas gets to knock off at 7, go out to the casino or lay out by the pool, and he's just flown a combat mission in Iraq." And the new Predators to be deployed at Balad over the next couple of years are going to be bigger and better, carrying more Hellfires, and some larger JDAM bombs as well. Huge new ramps and runway aprons are also under construction. These are designed, in part, to accommodate a C-130 cargo squadron that moved here from Kuwait in January to relieve vulnerable Army supply convoys in Iraq.
With 27,500 aircraft passing through each month, Balad is second only to London's Heathrow airport in traffic worldwide, according to Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the base commander and leader of 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Gorenc said he's "normalizing" the giant Balad airfield, or gradually rebuilding it to U.S. military specs. The Saddam-era concrete is considered too substandard for the F-16s, C-130s and other aircraft that fly in and out so regularly, they crack the tarmac. At this point, virtually none of the traffic is Iraqi: the national Air Force has only three crews of transport airmen. "It's safe to say Balad will be here for a long time," says Gorenc, who feels at home in Iraqi skies, where the Air Force has been having its way since the first gulf war. "One of the issues of sovereignty for any country is the ability to control their own airspace. We will probably be helping the Iraqis with that problem for a very long time."
If you want an image of what America's long-term plans for Iraq look like, it's right here at Balad. Tucked away in a rural no man's land 43 miles north of Baghdad, this 15-square-mile mini-city of thousands of trailers and vehicle depots is one of four "superbases" where the Pentagon plans to consolidate U.S. forces, taking them gradually from the front lines of the Iraq war. (Two other bases are slated for the British and Iraqi military.) The shift is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plan to draw down U.S. ground forces in Iraq significantly by the end of 2006. Pentagon planners hope that this partial withdrawal will, in turn, help take the edge off rising opposition to the war at home—long enough to secure Iraq's nascent democracy.
But the vast base being built up at Balad is also hard evidence that, despite all the political debate in Washington about a quick U.S. pullout, the Pentagon is planning to stay in Iraq for a long time—at least a decade or so, according to military strategists. Sovereignty issues still need to be worked out by mutual, legal agreement. But even as Iraqi politicians settle on a new government after four months of stalemate—on Saturday, they agreed on a new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki—they also are welcoming the long-term U.S. presence. Sectarian conflict here has worsened in recent months, outstripping the anti-American insurgency in significance, and many Iraqis know there is no alternative to U.S. troops for the foreseeable future. "I think the presence of the American forces can be seen as an insurance policy for the unity of Iraq," says national-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.
There is ample evidence elsewhere of America's long-term plans. The new $592 million U.S. Embassy being built at the heart of Baghdad's "international zone" is "massive ... the largest embassy to date," says Maj. Gen. Chuck Williams, head of the State Department's Overseas Building Operations office. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Williams called it the "most ambitious project" his office has undertaken in its history (see photo and caption above). Officials in both the executive branch and Congress say they are unaware of any serious planning, or even talk inside the national-security bureaucracy, about a full withdrawal. The Pentagon has one intel officer assigned to produce and update analyses regarding the consequences of a U.S. pullout. But the job is only a part-time assignment, according to a Pentagon source who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive subject matter. As President George W. Bush himself said in March, the final number of U.S. troops "will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."
Life on the emerging Iraqi superbases is safer and easier than elsewhere in the country. Though soldiers and airmen at Balad jokingly call it "Mortaritaville," no one's been hit since January. And compared to the muddy, Porta Potti unpleasantness U.S. servicemen endure out at approximately 75 small "forward operating bases," Balad is shaping up to resemble a warrior's country club. A new rec hall is being built, and there is a 24/7 cybercafé, a premium coffee shop (Green Beans, known as the soldier's Starbucks worldwide), an indoor mini-golf course and a movie theater. There is an outdoor and an indoor pool left over from Uday Hussein's days training Iraqi Olympians here, but few remaining signs of the Hussein family, or indeed of anything Iraqi at all: to get to the big pool you head down Texas Avenue, around Victory Loop past David Letterman Boulevard and then down Balad's main drag, called Pennsylvania Avenue.
True, most Iraqis don't like the U.S. occupation today any better than they did a year ago, or two, or three. But with the exception of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, no major politician is calling for U.S. withdrawal. "Even guys who want Americans to leave, they know it will be civil war if they do," says Ahmed al-Jobory, an unemployed chemical engineer working at Balad. What is emerging is a sense of psychological dependency. Even the new Iraqi Army, on which Washington is spending billions, is designed to be weak. The Army just received its first armor from the United States: light-skinned Humvees. But the Pentagon won't be giving up any tanks. "The goal is to have them equipped to fight a counterinsurgency, not to defend against external threats," says Lt. Col. Michael Negard, public-affairs officer for the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq. (The military says it needs to help the Iraqi Army win the fight it's in now, not the battles of the future.)
U.S. officials routinely deny that America intends to put down permanent bases. "A key planning factor in our basing strategy is that there will be no bases in Iraq following Operation Iraqi Freedom," says Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for CENTCOM in Baghdad. "What we have in Iraq are 'contingency bases,' intended to support our operations in Iraq on a temporary basis until OIF is complete." But according to the Congressional Research Service, the Bush administration has asked for more than $1.1 billion for new military construction in Iraq, roughly double what it plans to spend in Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates combined. Of that, the single biggest share is intended for Balad ($231 million).
Technically, Colonel Johnson may be telling the truth about the Pentagon's long-term plans. But it is also true that the U.S. government has never drawn up plans for "permanent" military bases, even when it ended up staying for half a century. In Korea, where tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers have been deployed for 55 years, since the end of the Korean War, "they're only just now moving American troops out of temporary facilities like huts to real buildings," says John Pike, a Washington security expert. A White House official, asked last week about long-term U.S. plans, himself made the analogy to Asia and to Germany. In every conflict the United States has recently been involved in, except Vietnam, U.S. forces have remained in the country, said the official, who asked for anonymity because the matter is considered sensitive.
In fact, the plans for Balad fit in with Rumsfeld's larger designs for a dramatic reconfiguring of U.S. forces overseas. Big cold-war bases, with tens of thousands of permanently garrisoned troops, are on the way out. On the way in: giant "lily pads" for expeditionary U.S. forces to use only when needed, with ready equipment warehoused there. Balad, with its huge offramps and aprons, is a testing ground for that concept, according to several Pentagon officials. Major Morgan, for one, describes the deployment of Predators that are piloted from the United States as a "perfect example of being expeditionary."
One big question is whether a reduced but long-term U.S. presence in Iraq can be effective. Counterinsurgency experts say that sectarian conflict and insurgencies simply can't be fought from the air. And the Air Force officers at Balad say that, at long last, they're getting that message. The result is that, rather than dropping bombs, F-16s in Iraq today are doing police work from 15,000 feet, using brand-new advanced targeting pods, which can pick up activity on the ground day or night. Since January, says F-16 squadron commander Pete (Guns) Gersten, he has been feeding the info to his Army "brothers" rather than bombing the targets. "The Army said, 'Every time you blow stuff up, we get it back five times [in reprisals]'," he says. "So now we just do a lot of surveillance for the Army. They say it's time to start building. It's time to quit blowing things up."
But Gersten adds that, when it comes to preventing all-out civil war, control of the skies is crucial. "When I show up at a firefight, it stops," he says. "We're the big brother." Bristle-headed and lean in his tan flight suit, Gersten looks very much like a character out of "Top Gun." Is he a tad overconfident? Perhaps. But he fairly well sums up how Washington sees its role in Iraq today—and for a long time to come.
With John Barry and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Michael Hastings in New York and Scott Johnson in Baghdad
© 2006 MSNBC.com