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Pentagon repositioning troops for decades-long war on terror
WASHINGTON -- Given the chance to talk to the defense secretary, one soldier from the 101st Airborne Division asked what was on the minds of many: When will the worldwide fight against terrorism be over?
"I mean, should I get my 3-year-old ready for air assault school?" the soldier asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during an Iraq tour last month.
"I wish I could give you a date, but I can't," Rumsfeld said. That would be like estimating when a town will no longer need firefighters or police, he told the soldier.
Privately, administration officials have said for months that they see the anti-terrorism fight as a decades-long struggle. A private memo from Rumsfeld to his top aides brought the issue once again to the public's eye last week.
"It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog," Rumsfeld wrote in the memo, which was leaked to the press.
Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon clearly is digging in for that long slog. In one of the most striking signs, the military is repositioning its forces to encircle areas of the world seen as possible hotbeds of terrorism.
Many of the changes were envisioned before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But the terrorism fight has added momentum and urgency.
Focus on Middle East
Some of the most visible changes involve where American troops will be based overseas.
Pentagon planners are considering moving some of the 116,000 troops under the U.S. European Command away from their Cold War bases in Western Europe and into former Warsaw Pact countries closer to the Middle East.
"We think we have a fairly good, rough sense about how we should be arranged in the world," Rumsfeld told soldiers at Fort Carson, Colo., this month.
Last month, the Army announced it will close two logistics bases in the Netherlands that had handled prepositioned military gear.
Officials in Romania and Bulgaria have said the United States is considering using huge training bases in those countries that could be used as staging points for counterterrorist military action.
"This is probably the closest point in Europe to the sort of threat which is centered in the areas of Central Asia" or the Persian Gulf, Romanian Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu told The Associated Press.
Repositioning American forces is part of what Pentagon officials call forward defense. The idea is to have troops on hand to go after terrorists where they congregate and strike them before they can attack the United States.
Putting American troops on the front lines exposes them to attack, however, and Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders have told their followers to attack Americans in Iraq. U.S. forces now face about 25 attacks a day there, from supporters of deposed President Saddam Hussein and Islamic extremists.
"We believe they see this as the Super Bowl," said Col. Jackson Flake, chief of staff for the Army's 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. "Here's a place they can come and fight Americans."
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have joined NATO. Romania, Bulgaria and five other former communist nations are in the process of joining the alliance. Eastern European countries -- which Rumsfeld famously termed "New Europe" this year -- are eager to help the United States and generally supported the war in Iraq.
Poland, for example, commands a division of troops in Iraq, which also includes troops from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and other former communist countries. The United States used a base in Hungary to train Iraqi exiles who accompanied American troops into Iraq and reportedly plans to train Iraqi police there.
Germany, host to about 80,000 American troops and the headquarters of the U.S. European Command, opposed the Iraq invasion. On the other hand, Germany sent troops to Afghanistan and once led the peacekeeping force in Kabul.
American forces are using bases in the former Soviet states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia to help fight the war in Afghanistan. Those bases could be used even after fighting is over in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military also has stationed a task force of Marines and other troops in the tiny African nation of Djibouti to have a presence in the Horn of Africa, another possible terrorist site across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia.
In Southeast Asia, U.S. forces also have trained the Philippine military to fight al-Qaida-linked guerrillas and sought to bolster the U.S. military position in the region.