Most people know that the U.S. military has removed its forces from Iraq and is winding down its presence in Afghanistan. Yet U.S. troops are stationed across the world — and sometimes, in places that are a bit off the beaten path.
With the 10th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom (the War in Iraq) approaching, it is a good time to reflect on the lesser-known and ongoing U.S. military deployments overseas. According to the Department of Defense, the U.S. deployed 172,966 active duty military personnel to over 150 countries in 2012. And that’s excluding those deployed in Afghanistan for direct combat operations.
Numerous contractors and other support personnel increase the size of this footprint. And deployment of special operations forces — often on classified missions — further expands the U.S. military’s presence around the globe. After all, the War on Terror catalyzed the rapid expansion of the U.S. Special Operations Command, which is now roughly the same size as Canada’s entire active duty military.
Below is an overview of five countries where the U.S. armed forces are active that you may have forgotten — or not know about:
Roughly 1,000 military personnel are based at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is the U.S.’s oldest naval base and the only one located in a country with which the U.S does not have diplomatic relations. Since the end of the Cold War, the base was used primarily for its port facilities, refueling, and naval operations in the Caribbean (e.g. humanitarian and natural disaster response). And except for its depiction in the 1992 hit film A Few Good Men, Guantanamo Bay did not receive much public attention until 2002, when it began being used to hold suspected enemy combatants and terrorists. Today, the headlines may be fewer and farther between, but the controversy still burns. In late 2010, Congress stymied the Obama Administration’s efforts to close the facilities and transfer the custody of detainees to U.S. civilian courts. As a result, the military detention facilities remain in use and trials have commenced.
In Honduras, the U.S. has roughly 500 personnel at Soto Cano Airbase as part of Joint Task Force-Bravo. These forces focus on joint training with Central American militaries, counter-drug operations, and humanitarian response and disaster relief. Honduras suffers one of the highest homicide rates anywhere in the world (roughly 92 per 100,000 inhabitants) and its government is struggling to address the serious threat posed by transnational organized crime. A contingent of U.S. Navy Seals recently completed a deployment to Honduras to help the country create its own elite maritime special forces unit to combat drug traffickers. U.S. military forces apparently play a more pure training role than their law enforcement counterparts from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), whom have accompanied Honduran forces on raids and killed suspected traffickers during those operations.
3. The Philippines
The U.S. has maintained a military presence in the Philippines since the end of the Spanish American War. Today, there are about 700 U.S. personnel stationed in the island nation. Washington handed back its two largest military facilities in the country — Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station — to the Philippines government in the early 1990’s, but recently reached an agreement that will allow their limited use by U.S. forces. The current U.S. deployment focuses on counter-terrorism training and operations against Philippines-based militants, such as Abu Sayyaf and other Al-Qaeda affiliated groups. An expansion of that relationship was announced in late 2012, and will increase the numbers of U.S. ships, aircraft, and troops transiting through the Philippines in an apparent attempt to check China’s influence in the South China Sea. However, an emboldened — and increasingly public — U.S. presence is not always welcomed by the Philippine public. In January 2013, U.S. minesweeper ran aground on a protected reef in the Southern Philippines, igniting a strong backlash against the U.S.
Camp Lemonnier — a former French Foreign Legion outpost on the outskirts of Djibouti City — is now home to roughly 3,200 U.S. military personnel and contractors, including 300 special operations staff. With a growing presence of militants in places like Somalia and Yemen, experts predict that Camp Lemonnier will remain in the headlines. It is the largest American base in Africa and a major drone hub for missions in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, several of the drones that participated in the strike that killed Anwar Al-Awlaki — the senior Al-Qaeda operative (and U.S. citizen) — reportedly launched from Camp Lemonnier. The entire facility is reportedly dedicated to special operations missions, including training foreign militaries and intelligence gathering, which is quite rare among U.S. foreign outposts. The Pentagon is planning to significantly increase the base’s size, with $1.3 billion in construction projects over the next two decades. This signals Washington’s interest in building up the U.S.’s military presence in Djibouti in years to come.
Last month, President Obama notified Congress that he is in the process of dispatching 100 service members –— principally Air Force specialists, intelligence analysts, and security personnel — to Niger, to gather intelligence on Al-Qaeda affiliated militants in Mali and neighboring countries. This deployment focuses on the use of reconnaissance drones to support French forces, which deployed to Mali in late 2012 after militants overran the Northern half of the country. The U.S. has limited assets in Africa, especially in the Sahara. In addition, Camp Lemonnier is over 3,000 miles East, too far to make drone operations effective. Niger figures to be an increasingly important country of focus in combating Al-Qaeda in Africa.
The upcoming 10th anniversary of the War in Iraq will call attention to U.S. military forces overseas. Washington deploys forces to the majority of all countries worldwide, including Cuba, Honduras, the Philippines, Djibouti, and Niger. As the War on Terror continues, the creation of new special operations-focused bases near regional hot-spots (e.g. Camp Lemonnier) and the deployment of “small footprint,” specialized teams to gather intelligence (e.g. Niger) are likely to increase. The sequester and looming budget battle, however, may dampen the Pentagon’s ability to continue its robust foreign deployment and force decision-makers to choose which foreign missions are most critical to protecting U.S. national security.