As U.S. intelligence agencies grapple with the expansion of the Islamic State beyond its headquarters in Syria, the Pentagon has proposed a new plan to the White House to build up a string of military bases in Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
The bases could be used for collecting intelligence and carrying out strikes against the terrorist group’s far-flung affiliates.
The growth of the Islamic State’s franchises — at least eight militant groups have pledged loyalty to the network’s leaders so far — has forced a debate within the Obama administration about how to distinguish between the affiliates that pose the most immediate threat to the United States and Europe and others that are more regionally focused.
The regional groups, some officials say, may have opportunistically adopted the Islamic State’s brand to bolster their local clout and global stature.
In the midst of that debate, senior military officials have told the White House that the network of bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions for the foreseeable future. The plan would all but ensure what Pentagon officials call an “enduring” U.S. military presence in some of the world’s most volatile regions.
Administration officials said that the proposal for the new basing system, presented to the White House this fall by Gen. Martin Dempsey during his final days as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not intended to be a specific Pentagon proposal to combat the affiliates of the Islamic State.
The officials said that it was meant primarily as a re-examination of how the military positions itself for future counterterrorism missions, but that the growing concern about a metastasizing Islamic State threat has lent new urgency to the discussions.
The White House declined to comment about continuing internal deliberations. The plan has met with some resistance from State Department officials concerned about a more permanent military presence across Africa and the Middle East, according to U.S. officials familiar with the discussion. Career diplomats have long warned about the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy.
Officials said the proposal has been under discussion for some time, including this week during a White House meeting of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
Shortly after Dempsey retired in September, Defense Secretary Ash Carter referred to the plan in a little-noticed speech in Washington.
“Because we cannot predict the future, these regional nodes — from Morón, Spain, to Jalalabad, Afghanistan — will provide forward presence to respond to a range of crises, terrorist and other kinds,” Carter said. “These will enable unilateral crisis response, counterterror operations, or strikes on high-value targets.”
For the approach to have any chance of success, analysts said, regional U.S. commanders, diplomats and spies will have to work closely together and with Washington — something that does not always happen now — to combat threats that honor no borders.
Officials said that the Pentagon’s proposed new architecture of bases would include four “hubs” — including expanding existing bases in Djibouti and Afghanistan— and smaller “spokes,” or more basic installations, in countries that could include Niger and Cameroon, where the United States now carries out unarmed surveillance drone missions, or will soon.
The hubs would range in size from about 500 U.S. troops to 5,000 personnel, Pentagon officials said. They would also require the approval of the host nation.
The military already has much of the basing in place to carry out an expansion. Over the past dozen years, the Pentagon has turned what was once a decrepit French Foreign Legion base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, into a sprawling headquarters housing 2,000 U.S. troops for military operations in East Africa and Yemen.
Similarly, the U.S. military has been using a constellation of airstrips in Africa, including Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft, to collect intelligence about militant groups across the northern part of the continent.
The Pentagon plan also calls for a hub in the Middle East, possibly Erbil, in northern Iraq, where many of the 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq are based.
The new approach would try to bring an ad hoc series of existing bases into one coherent system that would be able to confront regional threats from the Islamic State, al-Qaida or other terrorist groups — including possible attacks against U.S. embassies, like the assault on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
One senior Pentagon official said the proposal was still very much in its early stages, with some officials advocating a larger string of new bases in West Africa, and others, mindful of African fears about a large U.S. military footprint on the continent, saying the main hub for West Africa would actually be located in southern Europe.