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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

The Pursuit of True Security

August 13, 2009 ·

For all of the money we spend on defense, are we really all that safer?

For years the United States has used military force as a Band-Aid for a wide-range of global problems ranging from the removal of dictators to ensuring access to global trade partners. Yet it's clear that this has not been successful. For all of the money, time, and lives we have spent to maintain a colossal international force, we are no safer. It's time to reexamine our military involvements and change our force distributions to reflect our goal: true security.

The United States had troops deployed in 149 countries and six U.S. territories as of December 2008. While the media reports frequently about shifts of 4,000 Marines here or two brigades there in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's seldom noted that the United States has an extensive military presence on every continent — unarmed troops even fly regularly to Antarctica. There are currently 283,589 active-duty troops serving abroad, yet even this number vastly understates our true military presence.

Another 242,657 security personnel are contracted to fight in the group of Middle Eastern nations designated as Central Command countries, according to a May 2009 Department of Defense report. In other words, the United States now commands more than half a million troops on foreign territories.

The military personnel fighting this war on terrorism have not been confined by national borders. "Terrorist" has become a fluid term, defining individuals in every country, including our own. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan get the most media coverage, but under President George W. Bush's broad mandate to "root out terror wherever it may exist," the United States has pursued military operations in at least 40 countries and continues to send Special Operations forces to train and fight with local militaries, and has shown no signs of scaling back these missions.

The war in Afghanistan, called Operation Enduring Freedom, employs 59,000 U.S. troops and has expanded to 22 countries, including Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. Operations in most of these areas are seldom reported, yet biweekly casualty statistics issued from the Department of Defense incorporate deaths in all of these countries. There have been additional reports of covert military raids on suspected terrorist camps in Syria and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Operation Iraqi Freedom is no longer just about Iraq. Approximately 130,000 troops are in combat zones that extend to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, according to the Department of Defense.

Other Operations

In addition to operations widely publicized, the United States is also heavily involved in actions to stabilize the African continent. A Combined Joint Task Force focused on the Horn of Africa is pursuing military missions in 11 countries: Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. The creation of the U.S. Africa Command in October 2008 indicates that the military is now a predominant force in all U.S.-Africa relations.

Additionally, since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the U.S. has maintained a strong military presence in South Korea to protect this ally and trading partner from North Korea. North Korea's threats have grown more dangerous in the past decade as they have acquired a variety of missiles and what is suspected to be a small nuclear arsenal.

Over 1,100 U.S. forces remain in Serbia and Kosovo, and in Latin America even more U.S. troops are scheduled to join the failing "war on drugs." U.S. officials are currently negotiating with those in Columbia to expand its military support of anti-drug measures.

Special Operations Forces, comprised of over 50,000 military personnel have also conducted missions in 106 countries so far this year and are present in 75 to 80 countries on any given day, according to Admiral Eric T. Olson. About 85% of those deployed are in U.S. Central Command countries, mostly Iraq and Afghanistan. Their work ranges from "identifying and seeking out high value targets" and "training local populations" to "humanitarian assistance."

Beneath open military theaters and secret Special Operations missions lies the CIA. In addition to administering secret overseas prisons for terrorist suspects and contracting out interrogations the CIA coordinates with the FBI on counterterrorism operations and collects intelligence information. The number of CIA officials and their missions are kept classified, however, so there is no available data on the extent of CIA actions abroad. As a result, the CIA is often overlooked when discussing the U.S. presence overseas.

True Security

The results of our global military presence give no cause for celebration. The United States has lost thousands of men and women to international conflicts in the last eight years. We have also undermined our role in the international community by sending forces into unreceptive countries, threatening the use of force against others, and undertaking missions outside of UN mandates.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of American forces has been undermined by their thin presence in many areas. We have also overextended the commanders and soldiers who are asked to continually return to — or required to stay in — dangerous war zones. At home, we are more vulnerable with an understaffed National Guard tasked to handle local disasters.

In addition to these intangible costs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have inflated the national debt by nearly $1 trillion while pressing humanitarian and environmental needs in the U.S. and abroad escalate daily.

Paradoxically, our massive overseas presence has the unintended consequence of making the United States weaker — politically, economically, and morally — instead of stronger. In order to provide real security for the United States, we break free of the idea that the U.S. is a global warrior state. This will require the United States to remove troops from many bases abroad, hold back on an extensive program of covert operations, and extricate the military from unilateral expeditions. If we do not do so, we will only exacerbate our own insecurity.


Jennifer Doak
Outreach & Production Coordinator