Germans wary of US troop withdrawal
German officials voiced concern Monday that their country has the most to lose with U.S. President Bush's announcement that tens of thousands of troops will return to the United States over the next decade.
With some 70,000 U.S. soldiers based in Germany, thousands of local jobs ¡ª from bakers to maintenance workers and office personnel ¡ª depend on the Americans, who first came as occupying forces after World War II.
European and Asian countries with U.S. troops have braced for the changes for several years, but Bush's announcement Monday that up to 70,000 uniformed personnel and 100,000 dependents will gradually be moved back to the United States brought home the full impact.
"Base closures would hit us very hard," said city spokesman Ole Kruse in the Bavarian city of Wuerzburg, home of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division.
That unit and the 1st Armored Division, based in Wiesbaden near Frankfurt, will return to the United States as part of the global restructuring, Pentagon officials said Monday.
They will be replaced by a brigade, a much smaller unit equipped with Stryker light armored vehicles, though they probably won't start leaving until 2006 at the earliest, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. troops were based in large numbers in Germany during the Cold War to deter a then-feared Soviet invasion, and most of the 100,000 U.S. troops based in Europe are still in Germany.
The United States will close nearly half of its hundreds of installations in Europe as part of the massive restructuring plan, defense officials said. It also has plans to reduce troop numbers in South Korea, where they have held static positions for 50 years.
"The world has changed a great deal and our posture must change with it," Bush told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Cincinnati. The United States needs "a more agile and more flexible force" to help fight "wars of the 21st century," he said.
But for places like Baumholder, a town in rural western Germany with a U.S. military training area, that spells problems.
Some 11,500 residents are matched by a U.S. military community of the same size, and the local economy would lose $150 million a year if the Americans left, Mayor Volkmar Pees told The Associated Press.
"The Americans are part of us," Baumholder resident Iris Schoen said. "You build up great friendships."
In host countries such as Germany and Japan, local governments have paid much of the cost of stationing U.S. troops.
German officials have traveled to Washington in recent months to lobby against troop withdrawals and propose alternatives.
For instance, Rhineland-Palatinate state officials say they have suggested that lighter units replace the heavy armor now stationed at Baumholder. Mayor Pees called on the German military to move into facilities vacated by the Americans.
In Bamberg, officials said the local utility company could lose a major customer and that real estate prices would decline if the U.S. military leaves.
"We view this with great concern," city spokesman Steffen Schuetzewohl said.
In addition, a wing of F-16 fighters based at Spangdahlem near the Belgian border could be moved to the Incirlik base in Turkey, closer to the Middle East.
"The Americans' announced troop withdrawal is understandable," said Alexander Bonde, a lawmaker from Germany's Greens party, which is part of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government.
"Since most of the European-based American troops are in Germany, it's clear that the bulk of the withdrawal has to happen in Germany," he said.
Officials have indicated Ramstein Air Base and the Landstuhl military hospital in southwestern Germany, as well as the Grafenwoehr training grounds in Bavaria, are not on the table.
For U.S. military personnel and their families, the immediate impact will likely be limited. Many soldiers are expected to return home when their tour of duty would have been up anyway.