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opinion | David Vine

US military’s ‘lily pad’ expansion may prove costly

Peter Hermann for the Boston Globe

For an institution that too often revolves around hyper-macho masculinity, the military’s use of the flowery term “lily pad” is striking. Lily pad entered common parlance recently when Army General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the Pentagon is considering the creation of new lily pads in Iraq. This followed the announcement that the military would be sending an additional 450 military “advisers” to a sixth base occupied by US forces, al-Taqaddum in Anbar Province. Military planners are now “actively” considering at least four new lily pads and possibly dozens more, according to reports. This could mean adding hundreds of US troops in Iraq to a deployment of what will soon be about 3,500.

“Lily pad” is nothing new for a military notorious for its use of Orwellian euphemisms, from “collateral damage” (killing civilians) to “area denial munitions” (landmines) to “kinetic strikes” and “kinetic military action” (lethal attacks and outright war). In the military’s lexicon of obfuscation, a lily pad is a kind of military base. The elegant-sounding name provides a convenient cover for what would be a significant escalation in the US involvement in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Formally called “cooperative security locations,” lily pads allude to the aquatic flora allowing a frog to jump across a pond and suggest small installations allowing troops in isolated locations to deploy quickly into battle. They are nothing like the massive bases that characterized the US occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011, with their fast food, car dealerships, and swimming pools. Nor are they the “Little Americas” where tens of thousands of troops and family members have lived with all the comforts of suburbia while occupying countries like Germany and Japan since World War II.

Lily pads have spartan amenities, no families, and relatively small numbers of military personnel. Often, they house pre-positioned weaponry and supplies at the ready for larger troop deployments.


US Army trainers set up targets at a base in Taji, Iraq, in April.
US Army trainers set up targets at a base in Taji, Iraq, in April.John Moore/Getty Images

Although the terminology has been obscure until now, there is little new about the lily pad strategy. The military has been building a collection of these bases around the world since about the turn of the century. Their secretive nature makes a full count difficult, but the Pentagon has probably built upwards of 50 lily pads and other small bases during this period.

With lily pads in places as diverse as Colombia, Kenya, and Thailand, a principal aim of the new strategy is to steer clear of local populations, publicity, and potential opposition to the creation of “new bases.” As the Pentagon explained in a 2009 presentation, the aim is to “lighten US foreign footprints to reduce friction with host nations” and avoid offending “host nation and regional sensitivities.”


In Iraq, US officials want to avoid inflaming local opposition to a renewed occupation in the Middle East. After all, the Iraqi parliament turned down the Pentagon’s request to maintain about 58 “enduring” bases after the 2011 withdrawal. While new lily pads would pale in comparison to the billions of dollars worth of bases once in the country, they would represent an escalation of a US presence.

Many military planners like the lily pad strategy because the low costs of the small installations would allow them to build lots of bases in many locations. Dempsey acknowledged that this would be the aim in Iraq. He foresaw new lily pads multiplying as if on a pond, theoretically allowing Iraqi troops to deploy further into Islamic State-controlled territory. “As they go forward, they may exceed the reach of the particular lily pad,” Dempsey said, necessitating the creation of yet more lily pads.

Relying on large numbers of smaller bases may sound smart and cost effective. But the “lily pad” language is dangerously misleading. By design and otherwise, small bases can quickly grow much larger, and more costly. According to the Pentagon, a lily pad is “rapidly scalable and . . . expandable to become a [larger forward operating site].”

In the Philippines, for example, US forces have created at least seven lily pads since 2002 — just a decade after Filipinos evicted the US military from the giant Clark and Subic Bay air and naval bases. By 2006, journalist Robert D. Kaplan found a lily pad there that had been transformed from a “grim, spartan camp . . . with an air of impermanence” into a base “with proper walkways and creature comforts that befit a more hardened, permanent arrangement.”


Indeed, bases of all sizes prove notoriously difficult to close — whether there’s a strategic need for a base or not. This helps explain why the military still has hundreds of Cold War bases in Europe and East Asia despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union and any rival to US military power. In Afghanistan, despite the official end of US combat operations, the military has rights to occupy nine or more major bases through at least 2024. In Iraq, lily pads could provide the Pentagon with a second chance at creating a de facto permanent presence.

New lily pads would make attractive targets for attacks (as Islamic State leaders quickly recognized), further endangering US and Iraqi troops. Some fear ISIS could overrun the installations and seize weaponry.

At its core, the lily pad proposal represents the continuation of a larger failed strategy in Iraq. The purpose of the bases, General Dempsey explained, is to better train Iraqi forces and to “encourage [them] forward.” This sounds like wishful thinking. US forces have been training and encouraging Iraqi troops for more than a decade, with little to show for the energy and billions of dollars expended. Iraqi forces have been consistently unwilling or unable to challenge Islamic State fighters. Conducting training at vulnerable, isolated lily pads is unlikely to improve outcomes. It only avoids recognizing that there is no technical fix, no military solution, to solve the struggle for political and economic power in the region set off by the 2003 US invasion. Just as the introduction of growing numbers of military “advisers” in Vietnam led to a half million US troops and full-fledged war, the lily pad strategy runs the risk of helping push the United States toward a third major conflict in Iraq.


Don’t be fooled by the flowery terminology: Lily pads are actually aquatic weeds. Like them, the installations they’re named for tend to expand uncontrollably, deepening US military involvement in the process.

David Vine is associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Base Nation: How US Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World,” to be published in August.


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