Despite an isolationist president and a plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, the U.S. has some 200,000 troops scattered around the world.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama waves to U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, 28 March 2010 (White House photo/Pete Souza)
The United States is keen to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end its longest war ever, but the number of American soldiers in the South Asian country is dwarfed by many thousands stationed elsewhere across the globe.
The 200,000 U.S. troops overseas are testimony to Washington’s persistent international commitment despite deep-seated isolationist impulses reflected in President Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign.
The costly U.S. military footprint is a legacy of its status as Western leader that America inherited, at times reluctantly, after the two world wars in the last century.
If Washington ever significantly reduced its network of military bases around the world, it would reflect a major turning point in history and possibly a destabilizing shift in the balance of power.
U.S. troops are stationed around the world.
The United States, Afghanistan and Taliban insurgents hit a roadblock recently as they tried to implement a face-saving pact leading to the partial withdrawal of American troops in the Asian nation after nearly two decades of hostilities.
The anticipated pullout of about 3,400 of the remaining 12,000 U.S. troops was threatened by continuing violence, a squabble over a prisoner swap and the spread of COVID-19.
But the American troops in Afghanistan are just the tip of an iceberg. Some 200,000 U.S. troops are stationed in overseas bases across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America.
Current lists of U.S. troops overseas by the Defense Manpower Data Center include: 38,000 in Japan, 34,000 in Germany, 24,000 in South Korea, 12,000 in Afghanistan, 12,000 in Italy, 8,000 in Britain, 6,000 in Kuwait, 5,000 in Bahrain, 5,000 in Iraq and 3,000 in Spain.
Smaller deployments are in Qatar, Turkey, Djibouti, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Australia, Belgium, Cuba, Romania and El Salvador.
U.S. overseas involvement started with a fight against pirates.
The overseas deployments are a legacy of global military engagement dating back to the first years of the U.S. republic in the early 19th century.
U.S. founding fathers were no strangers to warfare. With significant French support, they defeated Britain to win control of the 13 original colonies, but they were soon challenged by pirates.
“We can trace the roots of overseas conflict back to the skirmishes with the Barbary Pirates in the Jefferson years,” Michael O’Hanlon, a military historian at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, sent warships to free U.S. merchant seamen held hostage by North African Barbary Coast pirates.
Between 1812 and 1814, U.S. troops and warships again sent British forces packing, although the White House was burned.
“But those skirmishes were not really indicative of any major overseas ambition – just yet,” said O’Hanlon.
Events in 20th century forced U.S. to assume leadership role.
The next military challenge with standing armies was the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. Then, a strongly isolationist American public was dragged into two world wars in the 20th century, first in 1917 when the German navy began targeting neutral ships, and then in 1941 when the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
After the world wars, U.S. isolationists sought to keep America out of foreign conflicts and shrink the size of its standing army. “That stopped,” said O’Hanlon, “with the descent of the Iron Curtain in Europe, the communist takeover in China, the Soviet testing of a nuclear bomb and of course the North Korean attack on South Korea, all in the late 1940s or 1950s.”
Soon the United States joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and signed military treaties with Japan, the Philippines, Germany and South Korea, leaving U.S. troops in some cases as a “trip wire” to warn off aggressors that an attack on U.S. or NATO bases would mean war.
U.S. still aims to cut troops in Afghanistan.
The latest expansion of U.S. military forces overseas is the Pentagon’s Africa Command. It is working with French troops to patrol the Sahara region, where Islamist militants have launched attacks in several former French colonies including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Tunisia.
But a proposal to reduce the U.S. military’s involvement in Africa has stoked fears that militants could end up destabilizing or controlling large parts of the sub-Saharan Sahel.
The spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Col. Sonny Leggett, recently tweeted that despite the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States will pursue its plan to withdraw troops until 8,600 are left.
Under the deal signed at the end of February, the U.S. is to cut its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 service members within 135 days of the deal, and the international coalition backing the United States is to draw down by a commensurate amount, the Hill newspaper reported last month.
Protecting the force is our top priority. USFOR-A is working with DoD, CENTCOM, and military services to reduce the risks of COVID-19 to those deployed to Afg, including screening and testing protocols IAW CDC guidelines. We continue to execute the ordered drawdown to 8600.
— USFOR-A Spokesman Col Sonny Leggett (@USFOR_A) March 18, 2020
Ben Barber has reported since 1980 from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Christian Science Monitor, USA TODAY, Baltimore Sun, Toronto Globe and Mail, American Legion Magazine, Huffington Post and others. He was State Department Bureau Chief for the Washington Times and editor of the newsletter of USAID for seven years.