Yesterday, Islamist militants seized a foreign-owned gas field in Algeria and took dozens of Western hostages, including several Americans. This attack was allegedly in response to Algeria allowing French warplanes to transit Algerian airspace to strike militants in neighboring Mali.
Even though U.S. citizens are being held at gunpoint in Algeria, there has been nothing but radio silence coming from President Obama on the hostage situation. But where there is silence from the White House, you can bet that U.S. military leaders are drawing up contingency plans. This crisis in Algeria once again demonstrates why having forward-deployed military bases in Europe is vital to promoting America’s interest in the region.
Some believe that basing U.S. troops in Europe is a throwback to the old days of the Cold War, but the hostage situation demonstrates why U.S. forces in forward-based locations are so important.
The garrisons of American service personnel in Europe are no longer the fortresses of the Cold War, but the forward operating bases of the 21st century. For example, when the U.S. finally decided to send a Marine Corp Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) to Tripoli to enhance security at the U.S. embassy, they didn’t send the Marines from the East Coast but from the U.S. Navy base in Rota, Spain—a mere two-hour flight away.
As a Heritage Foundation report on U.S. military bases in Europe states:
One of the most obvious benefits of having U.S. troops in Europe is its geographical proximity to some of the most dangerous and contested regions of the world. This proximity of U.S. forces gives policymakers the ability to respond quickly to a crisis.
To the south of Europe, from the eastern Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East and up to the Caucasus, is an arc of instability. This region is experiencing increasing instability from demographic pressures, increased commodity prices, interstate and intrastate conflict, tribal politics, competition over water and other natural resources, religious tension, revolutionary tendencies, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and frozen conflicts. This region also has some of the world’s most vital shipping lanes, energy resources, and trade choke points. This is a recipe for instability.
It is not only overseas U.S. military bases that play an important role with regional security but British bases, too. For example, the U.K. naval base and airfield at the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar would likely play a key role in any hostage rescue operation involving British or U.S. Special Operations Forces.
U.S. military bases in Europe provide American leaders with increased flexibility, resilience, and options in a dangerous world. As part of a policy that is shrinking America’s military presence in the world, the Obama Administration’s defense cuts heavily impact the U.S. military footprint in Europe. Ultimately, these cuts will reduce the ability and flexibility of the U.S. to react to the unexpected in places on Europe’s periphery like North Africa.
The situation in Algeria is changing by the minute. The latest news coming out of the country suggests that the Algerian military, in a botched rescue raid, killed at least 14 hostage takers along with dozens of hostages. However, if the U.S. does choose to act, having forward-deployed and capable forces in Europe will allow it to do so.