US Bases Abroad Trigger Suicide Terrorism: Are There Other Options?

Can it be that American military bases abroad, usually thought of as "stabilizers" in tough neighborhoods, are really the primary cause of radical terrorism against the US and its allies?
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Can it be that American military bases abroad, usually thought of as "stabilizers" in tough neighborhoods, are really the primary cause of radical terrorism against the US and its allies? That is what Robert Pape and James K. Feldman compellingly argue in their new book released this week titled Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It.

Most war planners and geo-strategists conceive of US military bases abroad as if they are anchors of stability in unstable regions. Over the last six decades, while there have been occasional protests, sometimes violent, targeting these foreign bases by rebellious students or groups affiliated with socialist or communist parties in governments hosting these US troops, most of the political system in these respective governments strongly support the American bases, usually as a cheap way to deter aggression from neighbors.

But what once worked in Germany, Japan, Turkey, the Philippines, South Korea, the UK doesn't seem to be working so well in the Middle East or South Asia today and frankly may be eroding even in these traditional base-hosting countries where jihadist terrorism hasn't been a factor.

When terrorist tracker and New America Foundation Counter-Terrorism Initiative director Peter Bergen was invited to interview Osama bin Laden in 1997, bin Laden told Bergen point blank that America had become an arrogant nation in the wake of its victory in the Cold War and that the basing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the home of the two Holy Mosques, had made the US a target for al Qaeda. It is also true that the Saudi government invited in and agreed to host on a temporary basis US forces in order to help deter Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But after ten years, the phrase "temporary bases" actually shifted in then Defense Secretary William Cohen's remarks to "semi-permanent."

The shift was noticed by media, government officials, and incensed Islamists throughout the region - though hardly noted at all by American strategists that only saw one side of the cost-benefit ledger.

War planners have tended only to consider the upside opportunities in projecting force through foreign-deployed military bases rather than calculating downsides as well. During the Cold War, the seven hundred plus US military installations abroad helped give the United States unparalleled capacity in intelligence and power projection that no other nation in the world other than the Soviet Union could match. And with the collapse of the USSR, America stood unrivaled, reifying a core belief that this global network of foreign bases had in part been vital to American success and strength.

While Bergen was tracking down bin Laden and taking the pulse of an increasingly restless Middle East, I was watching growing protests and anti-American anger take hold in another part of the world where American bases had long been situated - Japan and South Korea. Believing that the US was impeding normalization efforts between North and South Korea and had been a supporter of military crackdowns against pro-democracy efforts, students directed violent, flame-throwing protests at American military installations in South Korea.

In Japan, the situation was less violent but politically more severe. In September 1995, three American military servicemen brutally raped a 12-year old Okinawan girl. The senior US Commander in the region remarked that the soldiers should have just procured a prostitute triggering the largest anti-American protests in Japan since 1960. Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture, nonetheless hosts the majority of America's military capacity in Japan - with 39 distinct U.S. military facilities on the island. During the Cold War, the sacrifice made by Okinawa in "carrying the burden" of hosting these bases and US personnel was more easily justified. Since then, the rationale has shifted from everything from deterring North Korea to being a bulwark against growing Chinese power - anything to keep the huge land assets of the Pentagon in the Pacific in place.

When I spoke to South Koreans and Okinawans at the time, I regularly heard comments that they felt "occupied". Indeed, before a revision in security guidelines between the US and Japan after the rape incident, the US controlled more than 80% of Okinawa's air space. One senior activist told me that while the protests of the Okinawans would be peaceful for the most part, the US had to worry in the long run about groups self-organizing and possibly beginning to throw Molotov cocktails at US trucks and installations - and threatening personnel and their dependents. This didn't happen, or hasn't happened yet, but counting on docility 'permanently' may be a major blind spot of Pentagon planners.

What was brewing in Okinawa was not suicide terrorism - but the impulse to reject the logic of large-scale, long term basing of US troops on Japanese soil was growing.

In parts of the world less accustomed to US military personnel, the reaction has been more virulent.

Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago and the director of the new website mega-data base on suicide terrorism titled the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST) and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has been putting on a lot of United Airlines miles between DC and Chicago not because progressives and liberals who might have a thing against America's global network of foreign military bases want to hear him - but the highest levels of America's military and intelligence bureaucracies are seeking him out.

The Pentagon's leadership prides itself on hearing not just material that supports its current course but is open to alternative scenarios to consider military threats - and the Pentagon is most easily convinced by solid empirical data.

Pape and his co-author Feldman have broken down every recorded suicide terrorist incident since 1980 and noted an eruption of such incidents since 2004. From 1980-2003, there were 350 suicide attacks in the world, only 15% of which were anti-American.

In the short five-year period since, from 2004-2009, there have been 1,833 suicide attacks, 92% of which were anti-American.

Pape argues that the key factor in determining spikes of suicide terrorism is not the prevalence or profile of radical Islamic clerics or mental sickness but rather the garrisoning of foreign troops, most often US troops or its allies, in these respective countries.

Pape and Feldman show for example that even in war-torn, beleaguered Afghanistan, suicide attacks surged from just a handful a year to more than 100 per year in early 2006 when US and military deployments began to extend to the Pashtun southern and eastern regions of the country beginning in late 2005. Pakistan also deployed forces against Pashtun sections of western Pakistan, which Pape and Feldman note also saw large spikes in suicide attacks.

Pape is not a pacifist and is not calling on the US government and Pentagon to appease dictators and terror masters, but he is making an argument that a new, better strategy is needed. He and his co-author make a compelling case - much like Donald Rumsfeld once pondered in his famous memo on terrorism - that we are creating much of our own problem and animating and feeding fuel to the enemy of America's and its allies' interests.

I once asked Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott whether he thought that America would have problems managing its empire of bases and whether those nations hosting them would feel the burden too heavy in a post-Soviet world. Talbott responded that he believed - as did most of the national security community - that "US bases are anchors of instability in unstable regions."

This may not be the case any longer -- or at least not to the same degree as used to be the case.

Pape and Feldman, in their new book Cutting the Fuse, suggest that the US military would better secure its key foreign policy interests with a posture of "offshore balancing" - relying on military alliances and "offshore air, naval, and rapidly deployable ground forces rather than heavy onshore combat power."

I bet Pape's first calls were from the Air Force and Navy -- but their interests aside, Pape sees that the future needs to be more high flex, smaller footprint, more nimble -- and less toxic and anti-body generating than the large-scale, clunky, unsuccessful force deployments that characterize America's deployments to Afghanistan today.

Robert Pape is working from the data upward in formulating a smart strategy for military organization - rather than working from the top down and repeating mistakes made by those whose thinking is conventional, incremental, and who tie what they do tomorrow much by what they did yesterday.

Pape sees a chance to neutralize the forces that could otherwise yield another generation of hardened terrorists, many of whom are willing to engage in suicide attacks.

I know the Pentagon is listening -- and this impresses me. Others should be too.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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