Friday, May 26, 2006

The Great Game Goes On


The British called it "The Great Game."The Russian name for it was "The Tournament of Shadows." Both terms referred to the intense rivalry between Great Britain and Tsarist Russia ignited by Russian expansion into Central Asia. It was a game that combined elements of daring exploration, covert espionage and blatant imperialism.

In Britain's view, Russia's southward reach threatened its so-called "jewel in the crown"--the subcontinent of India. Russia's ultimate objective, of course, was to reach a warm-water port.

The Great Game had a dramatic beginning on the bright sunny morning of June 17, 1842. On that date, two bearded figures were forced to kneel in the central square the Central Asian town of Bokhara, in what is Uzbekistan today. Ragged, half-starved and filthy, they awaited their fate with their arms tied behind their backs. They had been kept imprisoned for months in a deep pit infested with rats beneath Emir Nasrullah's mud-brick citadel. Nearby were two graves, freshly dug by the prisoners. A small group of townsfolk watched impassively. Under the Emir's harsh rule, executions were commonplace in this remote caravan town.

What made this public execution unusual was the identity of the two men about to be beheaded. Facing death thousands of miles away from home were two British Army officers. First to die was 36-year old Lt. Col. Charles Stoddart, who had been dispatched to Bokhara to offer British aid to the despotic Emir if Bokhara was attacked by the Russians penetrating Central Asia.

Despite the advice of others, he insisted in riding into Bokhara in full military regalia. Moreover, as protocol required, he refused to dismount when the Emir showed up to greet him. To make matters worse, Queen Victoria had neglected to sign the letter that Stoddart carried addressed to the Emir.

The Emir's response was to seize Stoddart and shackle him, then to cast him into the notorious pit, a filthy hole filled with rotting human remains and vermin. Occasionally, at the Emir's frivolous whim, Stoddart was released from the pit only to be thrust back again. Learning of Stoddart's fate, Capt. Arthur Conolly volunteered to travel to Bokhara to obtain his fellow officer's freedom. For his pains, he too ended up in the Emir's clutches.

Conolly was beheaded shortly after Stoddart. The two bodies joined the Emir's many other victims in the now-forgotten graveyard in the town square. Both men were players in the Great Game, the term Conolly had indirectly coined. In an early letter to a fellow political officer in Kandahar facing a Persian army with Russian military advisers, he had written, "You've a great game before you."

After Conolly's death, British military historian Sir John Kaye acquired Conolly's letters. Quoting from them later, he introduced the term "Great Game" into usage in imperial and military circles. The typically Victorian sporting expression described the titanic clandestine struggle played in Central Asia by the secret services of Great Britain and Russia. It was later popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his classic 1901 novel Kim, in which Kimball O'Hara, the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, foils a Russian plot to seize British India.

The Great Game is still being played, now on a wider stage. It has always been a dirty and bloody game, only now it is being played for even higher stakes. This time the prize is access to oil.

Exhausted by the sacrifices of the Second World War and facing the beginning of the Cold War, the British faced the reality that they could no longer continue to play the Great Game. As a result, the U.S. displaced Britain as the major global power and asserted its influence in the Middle East. The playing field for the new Great Game has since widened expansively. It still includes Afghanistan, but has added within its compass Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. To complicate matters, a new ingredient has been added: unbridled terrorism.

Despite assurances from the Bush administration that every effort is being made to withdraw troops from Iraq, disquieting evidence is surfacing about plans for a possible long-term presence there. A year ago, the United States maintained 108 military bases scattered around Iraq, many at facilities previously established by Saddam Hussein. Some 34 have apparently been handed over to the Iraqis. Stories circulated that the U.S. would ultimately retain 14 bases scattered around the country, called "enduring bases." Although the military will not identify specific sites, of these 14 bases, four "supersize" base locations have had the most money spent on them.

The four bases are Balad, 43 miles north of Baghdad; Tallil, between Baghdad and Basra; al-Qayyarah in the north, near Mosul; al-Asad, 180 miles west of Baghdad and only ten miles from the Syrian border. They are all in comparatively remote locations and are thus able to repel attacks by insurgents. All are capable of handling large transport aircraft, making their maintenance independent of vulnerable road convoys, and are able to deploy attack helicopters and F-16 strike aircraft.

The enormous expenditures for their construction or expansion exemplify your tax dollars at work, and we're talking big bucks here. At Balad, $228.7 million was spent in 2005 and $17.8 million is budgeted for 2006. Two bases are getting extensive upgrades in 2006: At al-Asad, a Marine Corps base, 2005 spending is unknown, but $46.3 million will be spent in 2006. At Tallil, $10.8 million was spent in 2005 and $110.3 million will be spent in 2006.

Add to these lavish base expenditures the fantastic sums spent on the new U.S. embassy in the heart of Baghdad's international zone--the largest embassy building anywhere. Built largely by non-Iraqi contractors (the lead contractor is from Kuwait) and one-third completed, the $592 million self-contained complex is scheduled for opening in mid-2007. It will have a staff of a thousand employees in two office towers and a number of apartment buildings, and will have its own recreation facilities, electric plant and water supply. An extra-large Marine Corps guard unit will handle embassy security.

Life on the superbases is little different from the communities soldiers and marines left in the States. Air conditioning is everywhere. Instead of taking a meal at a mess hall, troops can eat at a coffee shop or a Burger King, Popeye's, Subway or Pizza Hut concession. There are rec halls that feature dances on weekend evenings, swimming pools, movie theaters, and even red octagonal stop signs at intersections to remind them of home.

Among the largest, Balad Airbase and the adjacent Camp Anaconda (dubbed by GIs "Mortaritaville") house 25,000 military and civilian personnel. The base controls all air traffic over Iraq and handles some 27,500 flights a month, making it the second busiest airport in the world, after London's Heathrow airport.

The four bases are all far enough away from major urban centers to be secure from attacks by insurgents. Oil fields and their fabulously rich reserves in the north are covered by the al-Qayyarah base and those in the south by the Tallil base. Geologists have expectations that exploration in unruly Anbar province in the west will reveal additional reserves. That area is conveniently covered by the base at al-Asad, called by GIs "Camp Cupcake" because its facilities are sumptuous compared with spartan conditions at the 74 FOBs (Forward Operating Bases).

Should friction with Iran increase, the bases are all within heavily protected airspace well away from the Iranian border. At the same time, their locations stretching from north to south parallel to Iran's western border make them ideal for air operations against Iran. With their enormous size and superior capabilities, they are tantamount to stationary aircraft carriers.

The four superbases in Iraq represent the new look in what the military calls "expeditionary warfare." Giant Cold War bases garrisoned by tens of thousands of troops are a thing of the past. In their place will be giant "lily pads"--as the military calls them--to be used only when needed. With huge runways, off ramps and aprons that can handle the heaviest transport planes and with warehouses bulging with equipment at the ready, these bases represent the testing ground for the conduct of future wars.

Not counting the bases in Iraq, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has created 35 new bases in a giant sweeping arc running from Poland to Pakistan. One base in Uzbekistan was closed and another in Kyrgyzstan may have to be given up. Should this base also be lost, there would be a break in the chain of bases containing Russia and China. Although Iraq is not in the arc, it would partially serve as the missing link.

According to President Bush, as Iraqi forces become ready to "stand up," American forces will stand down and turn over additional bases to them. What troubles experts is the knowledge that the Iraqi Air Force consists of C-130 cargo aircraft, training planes and a few unarmed helicopters. By any standard the extent of U.S. base construction far exceeds any possible requirements of any future defense-oriented Iraqi Air Force. The fear is that the superbases will become permanent.

President Bush finally admitted recently that U.S. troops will still be in Iraq when his successor takes the oath of office early in 2009. But there is one question to which his administration has proved itself artful in dodging an answer. The $64 billion question is: "Will we maintain a permanent presence in Iraq?"

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