Forward Deployment of US Forces, 1989-2001

Statistical Abstract of the United States intermittently reports the number of US military personnel deployed in selected countries overseas. The selection of countries for which data is released changes every time, creating a major headache for anyone analyzing the data. I compiled all the data available. The general pattern is that Defense was more forthcoming until 2002 when it released data on the number of military personnel posted in 163 countries. Since then, they have been more tight-lipped. In this year’s report, data on only 50 countries has been released. We begin by mapping the forward deployment of US forces in 1989-2001, according to the 2002 edition of Statistical Abstract. These numbers should be thought of as lower bounds. And it must be kept in mind that the problem of missing data is acute: Defense does not reveal numbers for classified and sensitive locations.

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This is the quiet period of US foreign policy. Between the fall of the Berlin wall and the attacks of 2001, US forces were deployed for combat operations in only a small number of places, such as Bosnia and Somalia. But force deployment is much more than combat. The redeployment of forces into a region can be manipulated to reassure allies, to signal resolve, to deter, and to intimidate. US forces may also be deployed in support of covert operations. The rebalancing of forces deployed overseas thus provides a very strong signal of US politico-military engagement in different regions of the world.

The main engagements are easily documented with this data. In the graphs that follow, we have also included the data from the 2019 edition, where available. Absence of data does not mean no US forces were present. Nor is there any guarantee of comprehensive coverage. Defense is not allowed by law to release data on armed services personnel deployed in classified locations.

In Somalia, the 1993 intervention was large — the US sent in a brigade or two. But the effort was abandoned immediately.


In the Balkans, we can similarly trace the temporal pattern. US forces are deployed to Bosnia, Hungary, and Croatia in 1996.



And they entered Serbia in 1999. We are given no numbers from 2001 onward.


But there is much more action going on. The most striking pattern is the escalation in the Middle East in 1999-2000. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States had deployed two divisions in Saudi Arabia under Operation Desert Shield, for which we don’t have data. After the war, US forces were drawn down. By 1993, if Defense is to be believed, there were fewer than 1000 armed forces personnel in the Kingdom. There is a slight increase after the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. From 1,722 in 1998, the number jumps to 5,552 in 1999 and 7,053 in 2000. When the series picks up again in the late-2000s, only a few hundred servicemen are left in the Kingdom. These numbers presumably do not include those at the secret CIA facility in the desert; most are likely attached to the embassy.


We see the jump in 1999 in Oman and the UAE numbers as well; although the numbers are much smaller. The UAE began to host many more US armed forces personnel in this decade.


The 1999 escalation is not reflected in Kuwait, suggesting that the purpose was not simply to deter Saddam. Kuwait hosted vast forces during the Iraq war. The numbers have since come down dramatically. But Kuwait still hosts about ten thousand US military personnel.


What we seem to have uncovered is a signature of the secret air war of 1999. ‘In the last eight months,’ New York Times reported on August 13, 1999, ‘American and British pilots have fired more than 1,100 missiles against 359 targets in Iraq’. Throughout the 1990s, the United States and its Western allies were economically strangulating Iraq and conducting covert operations and airstrikes to degrade Iraqi military capabilities. There was wall-to-wall bipartisan support for containing Saddam in Washington. This crucial part of the story is often missed in the accounts of the Iraq war. The war did not emerge from the Bush White House ex nihilo; it was already being prosecuted. Bush was following the path of least resistance when he resolved to depose Saddam.

There is a lot more going on still. In 1994, there is a massive intervention in Haiti. The US sends a whole division to put Aristide back in power.

Haiti.pngIn order to get a handle on ‘the Clinton cycle’, we look at the number of US military personnel overseas, excluding Korea, Japan, and Europe. It is meant to capture the ‘discretionary component’ of forward deployed forces. By the time Clinton steps into office, forward deployed forces outside the core areas had been cut down to fewer than 23,000. In 1993, 6,345 soldiers are ordered to Somalia, but this escalation is drowned out by the draw down elsewhere. In 1994, 17,485 troops are sent to Haiti. That’s more than the jump in the overall number, meaning that the US was still disengaging elsewhere by our measure. No major deployments are evident in 1995, giving us a baseline residual of some 17,000 troops outside the core. That’s the basic force posture of Pax Americana.


What follows in 1996 is a massive jump in forward-deployed forces. The discretionary component deployed overseas jumps by 28,067. An additional 4,351 troops are sent to Japan and Korea to intimidate China during the Taiwan Strait Crisis. Some 25,506 troops are sent to the Balkans to deter Milošević from further ethnic cleansing. At the same time, 4,760 armed forces personnel are sent over to Kuwait, presumably to intimidate Saddam and reassure the Kuwaitis. Most of these forces are withdrawn the next year. But 4,780 additional troops are rotated within Centcom to Egypt, presumably largely from Kuwait, where 3,891 troops are withdrawn.

Defense credulously reports that there was zero change in personnel between 1997 and 1998. That’s virtually impossible. It may be a clerical error. But who knows? The year after, in 1999, 6,397 US troops enter Serbia from neighboring countries. And 6,858 troops are sent to Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia, presumably to intimidate Saddam.

In 2001, Bush steps into Clinton’s shoes and immediately escalates. Eleven thousand troops are sent off to Uruguay, six thousand to Seychelles, five thousand to Senegal, and two thousand each to Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.

The table allows us to identify 23 instances during the Clinton administration, and a further 6 in the first year of the Bush administration, when there was a significant increase in the number of US military personnel in a given country. It serves as a sort of crisis or intervention indicator. But we must be careful to analyze it and not simply presume a US intervention. Most of these redeployments were at the invitation of the host government, although, to be sure, many of these hosts are US dependents.

US Military Deployments in Selected Countries. Major additional commitments in bold.
Country 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Uruguay 16 0 13 12 13 14 9 9 9 11 12 11,318
Seychelles 4 0 5 3 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 5,679
Senegal 12 0 10 11 11 13 11 16 16 7 10 4,805
Turkmenistan 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 6 2,153
Sri Lanka 10 0 11 11 11 8 7 8 8 9 8 1,990
Bahrain 682 255 305 379 444 618 598 748 748 1,511 949 2,065
Oman 28 0 25 26 26 27 30 28 28 101 251 673
Japan 46,593 44,566 45,946 46,131 45,398 39,134 42,962 41,257 41,257 40,338 40,159 40,217
Honduras 894 1,005 858 696 248 193 865 427 427 513 351 394
Somalia 14 0 21 6,345 933 419 0 0 0 1 1 11
Macedonia 0 0 0 0 535 591 501 518 518 1,100 347 351
Belize 4 1,178 4 4 2 2 2 3 3 2 2 3
Egypt 1,163 1,135 1,120 605 1,146 1,123 1,066 5,846 5,846 892 499 500
Haiti 14 0 14 12 17,495 1,616 277 239 239 59 21 13
Cuba (Guantanamo) 2,412 2,323 2,392 2,189 3,760 5,129 1,886 1,527 1,527 1,030 688 557
Croatia 0 0 0 10 6 10 4,007 866 866 145 138 1
Hungary 18 0 14 18 16 16 6,523 4,220 4,220 87 375 29
Peru 77 31 29 20 21 26 26 29 29 50 425 43
United Arab Emirates 37 39 38 25 20 30 23 22 22 679 402 10
Kuwait 14 0 1,980 233 269 771 5,531 1,640 1,640 4,011 4,602 4,208
Singapore 50 68 145 162 165 166 158 168 168 167 411 3
Thailand 213 111 105 106 102 99 242 126 126 120 526 9
Bosnia and Herzegovina 0 0 0 9 0 1 15,003 8,170 8,170 5,800 5,708 3,116
Serbia 0 0 0 0 0 13 8 13 13 6,410 5,427 10
Saudi Arabia 30,831 14,617 1,801 950 710 1,077 1,587 1,722 1,722 5,552 7,053 1
Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States. 

It may look like hyperactivity but this was a period in which the United States had to be dragged kicking and screaming to intervene in the Balkans, when US forces exited at the first sign of trouble in Somalia, and when the US had absolute discretion to choose whether to engage or not in any given crisis. This extraordinary wiggle room in foreign policy vanished in 2001, when the confrontation with Salafi jihadism ensued. The catastrophic mistake to invade Iraq would call into question the politico-ethical foundations of US foreign and military policy. It would play no small part in the breakdown in elite-mass relations.

Even now, calls to end endless war play extraordinarily well, at least in Democratic circles. Just today, Stephen Wertheim, a personal friend, wrote in New York Times, that ‘American war-making will persist so long as the United States continues to seek military dominance across the globe’.

While I agree that the United States should follow a considerably more restrained foreign policy, that question is distinct from what sort of military instrument the United States should field. A military policy of ‘armed supremacy’ (ie the de facto 2-power standard) does not imply a hegemonic foreign policy—ie the US taking it upon itself to police any and every region without any regard to US interests. This is of great significance to the Quincy project, for while they can certainly get very far by criticizing US interventionism at the present conjuncture, they will be dismissed as credulous and ignored if they demand gutting the military without spelling out the logic of an alternate military policy.

I do not buy the argument that America’s endless wars result from the desire to sustain armed supremacy. Cramer and Thrall are wrong. The decision to attack Iraq had nothing to do with maintaining military primacy. Indeed, endless war has eroded and distorted the military instrument. If you want to prolong U.S. military primacy, you should want to avoid stability operations in places of little interest altogether. And you should want the military instrument to be geared towards great power rivals, not “rogue states”.


16 thoughts on “Forward Deployment of US Forces, 1989-2001

  1. Israel has nothing to do with U.S. motives to invade Iraq. That is the flaw in this article.

    There is no profound logic or reason on why U.S. attack Iraq in 2003.

    The reason is far more simpler than that:

    “….the Bush administration invaded Iraq for its demonstration effect.

    A quick and decisive victory in the heart of the Arab world would send a message to all countries, especially to recalcitrant regimes such as Syria, Libya, Iran, or North Korea, that American hegemony was here to stay. Put simply, the Iraq war was motivated by a desire to (re)establish American standing as the world’s leading power….”

    The above reason is the most accurate and most truthful reason for U.S. war on Iraq.

    There are no other main reasons.

  2. “Cramer and Thrall are wrong. The decision to attack Iraq had nothing to do with maintaining military primacy”

    Cramer and Thrall are correct. Your thesis is incorrect.

    The reason why U.S. invaded Iraq is so simple that I am surprised that so many people got it wrong.

      1. “Tell me how attacking Iraq could be thought to help prolong US military primacy.”


        This is quite basic here.

        Ever heard of the chinese saying “Kill chicken, scare monkey?”

        Iraq was the chicken. The rest of the world was the monkey.

        You must kill the chicken in front of the monkey to see, so that the monkey will obey you and won’t misbehave.

        If you have a brother and I want you to obey me and follow my dictates, I will put a bullet through the head of your brother in front of you so that you will obey me.

        This is basic to the extreme.


        I shake my head in disbelief.

        I don’t even need to explain such stuff to a chinese. It is immediately understood. They don’t even need to ask such questions.

        But you are not chinese. You work in a university right? Find a chinese to explain the phrase to you. Ridiculous.

        1. I understand the logic of “kill chicken, scare monkey”. But that is not an answer to my question. That’s an answer to: “Tell me how attacking Iraq could help intimidate other confrontation states or geopolitical rivals.” US military primacy depends on the health of its military instrument relative to those of Russia and China. The Iraq war damaged America’s war-making capability, distorted the military instrument, poisoned elite-mass relations, and constrained the freedom of maneuver of the policy elites. In particular, neither Obama nor Trump was in any position to threaten to occupy Iran. But in terms of military primacy, the loss was very real. At least for a few years, the United States military did not enjoy a two-war capability—a sort of war-plan version of the two power standard that has been an invariant of US grand-strategy since the Korean war.

          1. “The Iraq war damaged America’s war-making capability, distorted the military instrument, poisoned elite-mass relations, and constrained the freedom of maneuver of the policy elites. ”

            That is completely correct. The war was a disaster for the U.S. hegemonists.

            They expected the war to be over quickly, with U.S. building a few bases in Iraq for power projection purposes and that’s it. They wanted to move on to attack Syria, attack Iran, destroy all those countries that won’t kowtow to U.S. global hegemony. But the Iraqi sunnis rebelled against U.S. occupation and the whole strategy collapsed into fiasco.

            Iraq War started out as a war to lock in Pax Americana but ended up burying Pax Americana.

            1. Did they random choose Iraq out of the rogue states that were to be intimidated into submission or eliminated altogether? No. The Anglo-Saxon powers had been waging low-intensity war against Iraq through the 1990s. And recall the escalation I documented in 1999-2000. When the room for maneuver dramatically opens up for the Bush Administration in 2001, the attention moves immediately to Saddam because a bipartisan consensus had already been in existence for a decade. But if the longer run movement is the discourse of the rogue states doctrine, what precisely did the Administration think it would accomplish by attacking Iraq?

              We are arguing between two alternatives: (a) The Administration thought deposing Saddam and occupying Iraq would intimidate confrontation states, including Iran and China. (b) The Administration thought that removing Iraq from the ranks of the confrontation states in the Middle East would enhance the security and influence of the permanent US ally in the region.

              Note that, in either case, the Administration took its eye off the ball — Iraq had nothing to do in the long war against Salafi jihadism. The problem with interpretation (a) is that it is not clear why destroying a regional pole would intimidate a great power rival like China. And if the real audience was Iran, then why wasn’t Iran the targeted state? If the answer is that the Administration thought it would be easier to reconstitute Iraq than Iran, then that calls into question the confidence invested in the strategy of forcible regime change; they could not have seriously been thinking of conquering Syria, Iraq and Iran. In the event, the only winner from the catastrophe was Iran.

              Interpretation (b) is more compelling. Removing an independent regional pole that acted as a confrontation state could be expected to enhance Israeli military primacy in the region, in particular, by making a return to the 1948-1973 pattern even more remote. The Administration reckoned that Israel was guaranteed to be a permanent ally in a difficult region, so that Israeli and American interests were virtually identical. They were not. It was in the US interest to minimize commitment of its forces to the region so that it could concentrate on its great power rivals. This meant that a balance of power in the region, and not Israeli primacy, was in the American interest. That is even truer now than it was then. That’s why Trump is so reluctant to get into a fire-fight with Iran.

              1. You are overthinking things.

                U.S. was a hegemonic empire in 2003.

                Empire does what an empire does.

                Just destroy and annihilate off all those that won’t obey the empire.

                Kill. Destroy. Exterminate. It matter not for an empire.

                All these so called geopolitical “theories” is just mental masturbation. In real world politics – they are completely meaningless.

  3. “…In May 1991, according to Clark, he dropped in for a conversation with Wolfowitz, then the third-ranking civilian in the Pentagon, to congratulate him on the success of the Gulf War.

    “We screwed up and left Saddam Hussein in power. The president [then George H.W. Bush] believes he’ll be overthrown by his own people, but I rather doubt it,” he quotes Wolfowitz lamenting.

    “But we did learn one thing that’s very important. With the end of the Cold War, we can now use our military with impunity. The Soviets won’t come in to block us. And we’ve got five, maybe 10, years to clean up these old Soviet surrogate regimes like Iraq and Syria before the next superpower emerges to challenge us … We could have a little more time, but no one really knows.” …

  4. “…A few months after the invasion of Iraq, during an interview overseas with a general who was director of a foreign intelligence service, I was provided with a copy of a Republican neocon plan for American dominance in the Middle East. The general was an American ally, but one who was very rattled by the Bush/Cheney aggression. I was told that the document leaked to me initially had been obtained by someone in the local CIA station. There was reason to be rattled: The document declared that the war to reshape the Middle East had to begin “with the assault on Iraq.

    The fundamental reason for this… is that the war will start making the U.S. the hegemon of the Middle East. The correlative reason is to make the region feel in its bones, as it were, the seriousness of American intent and determination.” Victory in Iraq would lead to an ultimatum to Damascus, the “defanging” of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and other anti-Israeli groups.

    America’s enemies must understand that “they are fighting for their life: Pax Americana is on its way, which implies their annihilation.” I and the foreign general agreed that America’s neocons were a menace to civilization….”

    1. This is closer to what I am suggesting:

      «Victory in Iraq would lead to an ultimatum to Damascus, the “defanging” of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and other anti-Israeli groups.» They wanted to intimidate into submission confrontation states in the Middle East that challenged Israeli primacy in the region.

  5. U.S. Gaining World’s Respect From Wars, Rumsfeld Asserts

    Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld upheld the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan yesterday as powerful demonstrations of U.S. military prowess that will make other countries think twice about making “mischief” around the world….

    There is no mystery to the reason why U.S. invaded Iraq.

    No profound logic.

    No big geopolitical game at work.

    No Israeli lobby or zionist interest.

    Not even a direct interest in controlling oil.

    There is no puzzle here waiting for a detective to come and solve.

    There is nothing here.

    U.S. invaded Iraq because Iraq was weak and was a good opportunity for U.S. to display U.S. military power as a warning to those who won’t kowtow to U.S. global hegemony – that they will suffer the same fate as Iraq if they dared to oppose U.S. hegemony.

    That’s it. End of story.

    If you go beyond this elementary logic , you are entering la la land.

      1. “Why Iraq?”

        Because it was the weakest.

        And U.S. did it once before and won. There was no risk of defeat. It would be easy.

        “Again, your argument is too general.”

        Too simple isn’t it?

        I think that is the problem why so many people couldn’t accept it and just HAVE to go and look for more complicated reasons.

        I once too looked for the “bigger” reasons. I combed through everything there is to comb through.

        Like the conspiracy theorists who couldn’t accept that a lone loser like Oswald could have killed JFK, they had to invent more complicated drivel to explain the assassination.

        The same is true of Iraq.

        Kill millions of people, spend trillions of dollars, throw the middle east into chaos for this ridiculous drivel of “kill chicken, scare monkey”?

        No way. There HAD to be a BIGGER agenda at work.

        But this is the hubris of empire at the height of its hegemony and imperial power.

        1. Not a bigger agenda but a different diagnosis. Maybe if you stop being so dead certain that you have discovered the Word of God, you’d notice that your logic applies to every rogue state. Compared to the United States, they are all weak states and easily conquerable. Although, as it turns out, not so easy to pacify. In any case, Syria was weaker in purely military terms than Iraq.

          Sorry, “kill chicken, scare monkey” is not a persuasive story of the origins of the Iraq War.

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