2017 was a year of investigations for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).  There was the investigation of the two-star commander of U.S. Army Africa who allegedly sent racy texts to an enlisted man’s wife.  There was the investigation into the alleged killing of a Special Forces soldier by Navy SEALs in Mali. There was the inquiry into reports of torture and killings on a remote base in Cameroon that was also used by American forces.  There was the investigation of an alleged massacre of civilians by American special operators in Somalia.  And don’t forget the inquiry into the killing of four Special Forces soldiers by Islamic State militants in Niger.

And then there was the investigation that hardly anyone heard about, that didn’t spark a single headline.  And still, the question remains: Whatever became of that $500 million?

To be fair, this particular scandal isn’t AFRICOM’s alone, nor did that sizeable sum belong only to that one command.  And unlike the possibly tens of thousands of dollars in cash that reportedly went missing in connection with the strangulation of the Green Beret in Mali, that $500 million didn’t simply vanish.  Still, a report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General (IG), released into the news wasteland of the day after Christmas 2017, does raise questions about a combatant command with a history of scandals, including significant failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting projects across the African continent, as well as the effectiveness of U.S. assistance efforts there.

From fiscal years 2014 through 2016, AFRICOM and Central Command (CENTCOM), the umbrella organization for U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East, received a combined $496 million to conduct counternarcotics (CN) activities.  That substantial sum was used by the respective commands to fund myriad projects from the construction of border outposts in allied nations to training personnel in policing skills like evidence collection.  Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be used.  According to the IG, neither AFRICOM nor CENTCOM “maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of training, equipping, and construction activities.”  That means no one — not the IG investigators, not AFRICOM, not CENTCOM personnel — seems to have any idea how much of that money was spent, what it was spent on, whether the funded projects were ever completed, or whether any of it made a difference in the fight against illegal drugs in Africa and the Middle East.

“U.S. Central and U.S. Africa Commands did not provide effective oversight of [fiscal years] 2014 through 2016 counternarcotics activities,” wrote Michael Roark, an assistant inspector general, in a memorandum sent to the chiefs of both commands as well as to Pentagon officials in December 2017. “Specifically, neither U.S. Central nor U.S. Africa Command maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of counternarcotics training, equipping, and construction activities.”  What is clear is that large sums of taxpayer dollars allotted to such training activities were inconsistently tracked or accounted for, including — according to Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General — $73 million in AFRICOM counternarcotics funding. 

TomDispatch repeatedly contacted Africa Command for comment about the IG’s report.  According to digital receipts, AFRICOM read the emailed questions but failed to respond prior to the publication of this piece.

The War on Drugs

Since 9/11, U.S. military activity on the African continent has grown at an exponential rate.  U.S. troops are now conducting about 3,500 exercises, programs, and activities per year, an average of nearly 10 missions a day.  Meanwhile, America’s most elite troops — including Navy SEALs and Green Berets — deployed to no fewer than 33 of the 54 African countries last year. 

Many of the command’s missions focus on training local allies and proxies.  “AFRICOM’s Theater Security Cooperation programs remain the cornerstone of our sustained security engagement with African partners,” reads its “What We Do” credo.  “Conditions for success of our security cooperation programs and activities on the continent are established through hundreds of engagements supporting a wide range of activities.”  These include not only foreign military aid and training, but also counternarcotics assistance.

By 2012, U.S. Africa Command’s Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch was already providing about $20 million in aid per year to various partner nations.  In doing so, it relied on special legislation that allows the military to work not only with other armed forces but with interagency partners like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, as well as local law enforcement agencies and the justice, customs, and interior ministries of various African countries.

The command’s African partners often suffer, however, from their own drug problems.  “On the governance front, the proceeds of drug trafficking and other forms of illicit trafficking are fueling a dramatic increase in corruption among the very institutions responsible for fighting crime,” observed David Luna of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs last year in a speech on combating organized crime in Africa.  “The collusion and complicity of some government officials with criminal networks have helped carve out an illicit trafficking corridor that stretches from the West African coast to the Horn of Africa, from North Africa south to the Gulf of Guinea.”

But corrupt allies, as the Pentagon’s Inspector General points out, are only one of the problems facing U.S. counternarcotics efforts there.  AFRICOM itself is another.

The Wisdom of the Crowd vs. a Simple Spreadsheet    

In 2014, Coast Guard captain Ted St. Pierre, the division chief of AFRICOM’s Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch, turned to the consulting firm Wikistrat to design and conduct a “scenario-driven simulation” to aid the command in developing strategies to combat drug trafficking in northwest Africa.  That simulation was sold as a crowd-sourced, futuristic approach to a twenty-first-century problem. “The idea is that this technology leverages the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ just as averaging the guesses of the crowd at the county fair will come very close to the amount of jelly beans in a jar,” said Tim Haffner, a program analyst for AFRICOM’s Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch and its point man for the simulation project.  As it turned out, AFRICOM’s counternarcotics officials could have benefited from far lower-tech assistance — like help in maintaining accurate spreadsheets.

Take the radio equipment that the command procured to help Senegal battle narcotics trafficking.  According to a spreadsheet provided to the Inspector General by AFRICOM, $1.1 million was budgeted for that in 2014.  Leaving aside whether such equipment is helpful in curtailing drug trafficking, it was at least clear how much money was spent on those radios.  Until, that is, IG investigators consulted another spreadsheet also provided by AFRICOM.  Its data indicated that nearly triple that sum — $3.1 million — had been budgeted for and spent on those radios.  The question was: Did Senegalese forces receive $1 million worth of radios or three times that figure?  No one at AFRICOM knew. 

In fact, those two spreadsheets told radically different stories about the larger U.S. counternarcotics campaign on the continent in 2014.  One indicated that taxpayers had funded 55 different projects budgeted at $15 million; the other, 134 activities to the tune of $24 million.  Investigators were especially troubled by the second spreadsheet in which the “budgeted, obligated, and expended amounts… were identical for each activity causing the team to question the reliability of the data.”  So which spreadsheet was right?  How many projects were really carried out?  How many millions of dollars were actually spent?  The IG’s office concluded that AFRICOM counternarcotics officials didn’t know and so “could not verify which set of data was complete and accurate.” 

Or take Cameroon in 2016.  That year, according to AFRICOM officials, the United States budgeted $143,493 for training that country’s forces in “evidence collection.”  (This was at a moment when AFRICOM officials seemed oblivious to copious evidence that civilian detainees were being tortured, sometimes even killed, on a Cameroonian base used by American forces.)  Yet a 2016 spreadsheet examined by the Inspector General’s investigators indicated that only $94,620 had actually been budgeted for such training, while $165,078 had been “obligated” — that is, an agreement was made to pay that sum for services rendered — for the same activities.  In the end, according to the IG’s December 2017 report, AFRICOM counternarcotics personnel couldn’t say how much money had actually been spent on training Cameroonians in evidence collection because of “a law enforcement agency error in tracking funding.”      

Records of construction activities were in a similar state of disarray.  While counternarcotics officials provided IG personnel with a spreadsheet specifically devoted to such projects, its information proved inconsistent with other AFRICOM documents.  In reading the IG’s account of this, I was reminded of an interview I conducted several years ago with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers Africa about construction projects for Special Operations Command Africa.  “I’ll be totally frank with you,” he told me, “as far as the scopes of these projects go, I don’t have good insights.”  I then asked if some projects had been funded with counter-narco-terrorism funds.  “No, actually there was not,” he assured me, which led me to ask him about Niger.  I knew that the U.S. was devoting significant resources to such projects there, specifically in the towns of Arlit and Tahoua.  When I explained that I had already uncovered that information, he promptly located the right paperwork, adding, “Oh, okay, I’m sorry. You’re right, we have two of them… Both were actually awarded to construction.”


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That construction began — at least on paper — in 2013.  It seems that, in the time since, little has changed when it comes to record-keeping.  When IG investigators looked into more recent construction efforts in Niger for their report, they found, for example, a phantom counternarcotics project — a classroom somehow integral to the fight against drugs in that West African country.  When they requested documentation for the 2015 construction of this classroom, the investigators were told by AFRICOM officials that the project had been terminated.  The classroom was actually never built.  Yet none of the data in any of the spreadsheets previously provided by the command indicated that the construction had been canceled.

Both AFRICOM and CENTCOM also left substantial funds on the table, monies that were apparently never spent and might have been used for other counternarcotics activities, had they not been lost, according to the IG report.  For example, a “law enforcement agency” conducted 20 counternarcotics training classes over two years in an unspecified African nation (or nations), leaving an estimated excess of $805,000 in funding untouched, at least based on the officially budgeted costs for such instruction.  As it turned out, however, AFRICOM officials had no idea that all of the funds hadn’t been spent.  The report, in its typical bureaucratic prose, summed up the situation this way: “[T]he amount unused could be higher or lower because USAFRICOM does not know how much was actually expended for the trainings executed.” 

In all, faulty accounting seems to have resulted in at least $128 million worth of CENTCOM and AFRICOM counternarcotics funding for 2014-2016 going unspent.

Prior Bad Acts

This is hardly the first time that Africa Command has run into trouble accounting for work performed and dollars spent.  In 2014, TomDispatch revealed the results of an Inspector General’s report (“Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Needed Better Guidance and Systems to Adequately Manage Civil-Military Operations”) that was never publicly released.  It uncovered failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting humanitarian projects by AFRICOM’s subordinate Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

At the time, the IG found record-keeping so faulty that CJTF-HOA officials “did not have an effective system to manage or report community relations and low-cost activities.”  A spreadsheet tracking such projects was so incomplete that 43% of those efforts went unmentioned.  Nonetheless, the IG did manage to review 49 of CJTF-HOA’s 137 identified humanitarian assistance and civic assistance projects, which cost U.S. taxpayers about $9 million, and found that the military officials overseeing the projects “did not adequately plan or execute” them in accordance with AFRICOM’s objectives.  Examining 66 community relations and low-cost activities (like the distribution of sports equipment and seminars on solar panel maintenance), investigators discovered that its officials had failed to accurately identify their strategic objectives for, or maintained limited documentation on, 62% of them.

In some cases, they failed to explain how their efforts supported AFRICOM’s objectives on the continent; in others, financial documentation was missing; in yet more, personnel failed to ensure that local populations were equipped to keep the projects running once U.S. forces moved on.  The risk, the report suggested, was that projects like American-built wells, water fountains, and cisterns would quickly fall into disrepair and become what one official called “monuments to U.S. failure.”

Drug Problems

After years of failing to maintain reliable data about and effective oversight of its counternarcotics activities, Africa Command has, according to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, finally taken corrective measures.  “USAFRICOM officials developed standard operating procedures that fully addressed the recommendation” of the December 2017 IG report, Bruce Anderson of the Office of the Inspector General told TomDispatch.  “They also provided their [fiscal year] 2018 Spend Plan as evidence of some of the processes being implemented.”  Whether these new measures will be effective and other types of assistance will also be comprehensively tracked remains to be seen.

While AFRICOM may be cleaning up its act, the same cannot be said of CENTCOM, which, according to Anderson, apparently wasted or didn’t adequately track almost $423 million in counternarcotics funds between 2014 and 2016.  Like AFRICOM, Central Command failed to provide answers to TomDispatch’s questions prior to publication, although the command did respond to email messages.  More than a month after the December 2017 report was issued, CENTCOM would not say if it had implemented the IG’s recommendations.   “As you know, this is a complex issue, and it needs to be coordinated within the chain of command,” spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown wrote in an email.  Bruce Anderson of the IG’s office was, however, able to shed further light on the matter.  “The two recommendations to USCENTCOM remain unresolved,” he told TomDispatch. “USCENTCOM implemented some corrective actions, but the actions only partially addressed the recommendations.”

More troubling than the findings in the IG’s report or CENTCOM’s apparent refusal to heed its recommendations may be the actual trajectory of the drug trade in the two commands’ areas of responsibility: Africa and the Greater Middle East.  Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted that while West Africa “has long been a transit zone for cocaine and heroin trafficking, it has now turned into a production zone for illicit substances such as amphetamines and precursors” and that drug use “is also a growing issue at the local level.”  Meanwhile, heroin trafficking has been on the rise in East Africa, along with personal use of the drug.

Even the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies is sounding an alarm.  “Drug trafficking is a major transnational threat in Africa that converges with other illicit activities ranging from money laundering to human trafficking and terrorism,” it warned last November. “According to the 2017 U.N. World Drug Report, two-thirds of the cocaine smuggled between South America and Europe passes through West Africa, specifically Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo. Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania are among the countries that have seen the highest traffic in opiates passing from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Western destinations.”  As badly as this may reflect on AFRICOM’s efforts to bolster the counter-drug-trafficking prowess of key allies like Kenya, Mali, and Nigeria, it reflects even more dismally on CENTCOM, which oversees Washington’s long-running war in Afghanistan and its seemingly ceaseless counternarcotics mission there. 

In the spring of 2001, American experts concluded that a ban on opium-poppy cultivation by Afghanistan’s Taliban government had wiped out the world’s largest heroin-producing crop.  Later that year, the U.S. military invaded and, since 2002, America has pumped $8.7 billion in counternarcotics funding into that country.  A report issued late last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction detailed the results of anti-drug efforts during CENTCOM’s 16-year-old war: “Afghanistan’s total area under opium cultivation and opium production reached an all-time high in 2017,” it reads in part. “Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer and exporter, producing an estimated 80% of the world’s opium.” 

In many ways, these outcomes mirror those of the larger counterterror efforts of which these anti-drug campaigns are just a part.  In 2001, for example, U.S. forces were fighting just two enemy forces in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  Now, according to a recent Pentagon report, they’re battling more than 10 times that number.  In Africa, an official count of five prime terror groups in 2012 has expanded, depending on the Pentagon source, to more than 20 or even closer to 50

Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but given the outcomes of significant counternarcotics assistance from Africa Command and Central Command — including some $500 million over just three recent years — there’s little evidence to suggest that better record-keeping can solve the problems plaguing the military’s anti-drug efforts in the greater Middle East or Africa.  While AFRICOM and, to a lesser extent, CENTCOM have made changes in how they track counternarcotics aid, both seemingly remain hooked on pouring money into efforts that have produced few successes.  More effective use of spreadsheets won’t solve the underlying problems of America’s wars or cure an addiction to policies that continue to fail.

Drug Wars, Missing Money, and a Phantom $500 Million

At around 11 o’clock that night, four Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talons, turboprop Special Operations aircraft, were flying through a moonless sky from Pakistani into Afghan airspace. On board were 199 Army Rangers with orders to seize an airstrip.  One hundred miles to the northeast, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters cruised through the darkness toward Kandahar, carrying Army Delta Force operators and yet more Rangers, heading for a second site.  It was October 19, 2001.  The war in Afghanistan had just begun and U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were the tip of the American spear. 

Those Rangers parachuted into and then swarmed the airfield, engaging the enemy — a single armed fighter, as it turned out — and killing him.  At that second site, the residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the special operators apparently encountered no resistance at all, even though several Americans were wounded due to friendly fire and a helicopter crash.

In 2001, U.S. special operators were targeting just two enemy forces: al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  In 2010, his first full year in office, President Barack Obama informed Congress that U.S. forces were still “actively pursuing and engaging remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.”  According to a recent Pentagon report to Congress, American troops are battling more than 10 times that number of militant groups, including the still-undefeated Taliban, the Haqqani network, an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, and various “other insurgent networks.”

After more than 16 years of combat, U.S. Special Operations forces remain the tip of the spear in Afghanistan, where they continue to carry out counterterrorism missions.  In fact, from June 1st to November 24th last year, according to that Pentagon report, members of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan conducted 2,175 ground operations “in which they enabled or advised” Afghan commandos.

“During the Obama administration the use of Special Operations forces increased dramatically, as if their use was a sort of magical, all-purpose solution for fighting terrorism,” William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, pointed out.  “The ensuing years have proven this assumption to be false.  There are many impressive, highly skilled personnel involved in special operations on behalf of the United States, but the problems they are being asked to solve often do not have military solutions.  Despite this fact, the Trump administration is doubling down on this approach in Afghanistan, even though the strategy has not prevented the spread of terrorist organizations and may in fact be counterproductive.” 

Global Commandos

Since U.S. commandos went to war in 2001, the size of Special Operations Command has doubled from about 33,000 personnel to 70,000 today.  As their numbers have grown, so has their global reach.  As TomDispatch revealed last month, they were deployed to 149 nations in 2017, or about 75% of the countries on the planet, a record-setting year.  It topped 2016’s 138 nations under the Obama administration and dwarfed the numbers from the final years of the Bush administration.  As the scope of deployments has expanded, special operators also came to be spread ever more equally across the planet.

In October 2001, Afghanistan was the sole focus of commando combat missions.  On March 19, 2003, special operators fired the first shots in the invasion of Iraq as their helicopter teams attacked Iraqi border posts near Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  By 2006, as the war in Afghanistan ground on and the conflict in Iraq continued to morph into a raging set of insurgencies, 85% of U.S. commandos were being deployed to the Greater Middle East. 

As this decade dawned in 2010, the numbers hadn’t changed appreciably: 81% of all special operators abroad were still in that region.

Eight years later, however, the situation is markedly different, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command.  Despite claims that the Islamic State has been defeated, the U.S. remains embroiled in wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Afghanistan and Yemen, yet only 54% of special operators deployed overseas were sent to the Greater Middle East in 2017.  In fact, since 2006, deployments have been on the rise across the rest of the world.  In Latin America, the figure crept up from 3% to 4.39%.  In the Pacific region, from 7% to 7.99%.  But the striking increases have been in Europe and Africa. 

In 2006, just 3% of all commandos deployed overseas were operating in Europe.  Last year, that number was just north of 16%.  “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, told TomDispatch.  “The persistent presence of U.S. SOF alongside our allies sends a clear message of U.S. commitment to our allies and the defense of our NATO alliance.”  For the past two years, in fact, the U.S. has maintained a Special Operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border.  As Special Operations Command chief General Raymond Thomas put it last year, “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country — every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats.”

Africa, however, has seen the most significant increase in special ops deployments.  In 2006, the figure for that continent was just 1%; as 2017 ended, it stood at 16.61%.  In other words, more commandos are operating there than in any region except the Middle East. As I recently reported at Vice News, Special Operations forces were active in at least 33 nations across that continent last year.

The situation in one of those nations, Somalia, in many ways mirrors in microcosm the 16-plus years of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  Not long after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official suggested that the Afghan invasion might drive militants out of that country and into African nations.  “Terrorists associated with al-Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” he said. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities.” 

When pressed about actual transnational dangers, that official pointed to Somali militants, only to eventually admit that even the most extreme Islamists there “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.”  Similarly, when questioned about connections between Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda group and African extremists, he offered only the most tenuous links, like bin Laden’s “salute” to Somali militants who killed U.S. troops during the infamous 1993 Black Hawk Down incident.


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Nonetheless, U.S. commandos reportedly began operating in Somalia in 2001, air attacks by AC-130 gunships followed in 2007, and 2011 saw the beginning of U.S. drone strikes aimed at militants from al-Shabaab, a terror group that didn’t even exist until 2006According to figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. carried out between 32 and 36 drone strikes and at least 9 to 13 ground attacks in Somalia between 2001 and 2016. 

Last spring, President Donald Trump loosened Obama-era restrictions on offensive operations in that country.  Allowing U.S. forces more discretion in conducting missions there, he opened up the possibility of more frequent airstrikes and commando raids.  The 2017 numbers reflect just that.  The U.S. carried out 34 drone strikes, at least equaling if not exceeding the cumulative number of attacks over the previous 15 years.  (And it took the United States only a day to resume such strikes this year.)

“President Trump’s decision to make parts of southern Somalia an ‘area of active hostilities’ gave [U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM] the leeway to carry out strikes at an increased rate because it no longer had to run their proposed operations through the White House national security bureaucratic process,” said Jack Serle, an expert on U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia.  He was quick to point out that AFRICOM claims the uptick in operations is due to more targets presenting themselves, but he suspects that AFRICOM may be attempting to cripple al-Shabaab before an African Union peacekeeping force is withdrawn and Somalia’s untested military is left to fight the militants without thousands of additional African troops.

In addition to the 30-plus airstrikes in 2017, there were at least three U.S. ground attacks.  In one of the latter, described by AFRICOM as “an advise-and-assist operation alongside members of the Somali National Army,” Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two U.S. personnel were injured during a firefight with al-Shabaab militants.  In another ground operation in August, according to an investigation by the Daily Beast, Special Operations forces took part in a massacre of 10 Somali civilians.  (The U.S. military is now investigating.)

As in Afghanistan, the U.S. has been militarily engaged in Somalia since 2001 and, as in Afghanistan, despite more than a decade and a half of operations, the number of militant groups being targeted has only increased.  U.S. commandos are now battling at least two terror groups — al-Shabaab and a local Islamic State affiliate — as drone strikes spiked in the last year and Somalia became an ever-hotter war zone.  Today, according to AFRICOM, militants operate “training camps” and possess “safe havens throughout Somalia [and] the region.”   

“The under-reported, 16-year U.S. intervention in Somalia has followed a similar pattern to the larger U.S. war in Afghanistan: an influx of special forces and a steady increase in air strikes has not only failed to stop terrorism, but both al-Shabaab and a local affiliate of ISIS have grown during this time period,” said William Hartung of the Center for International Policy.  “It’s another case of failing to learn the lessons of the United States’ policy of endless war: that military action is as likely or more likely to spark terrorist action as to reduce or prevent it.”

Somalia is no anomaly.  Across the continent, despite escalating operations by commandos as well as conventional American forces and their local allies and proxies, Washington’s enemies continue to proliferate.  As Vice News reported, a 2012 Special Operations Command strategic planning document listed five prime terror groups on the continent. An October 2016 update counted seven by name — the Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and al-Shabaab — in addition to “other violent extremist organizations.”  The Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies now offers a tally of 21 “active militant Islamist groups” on the continent.  In fact, as reported at The Intercept, the full number of terrorist organizations and other “illicit groups” may already have been closer to 50 by 2015.

Saving SOF through Proxy War?

As wars and interventions have multiplied, as U.S. commandos have spread across the planet, and as terror groups have proliferated, the tempo of operations has jumped dramatically.  This, in turn, has raised fears among think-tank experts, special ops supporters, and members of Congress about the effects on those elite troops of such constant deployments and growing pressure for more of them.  “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” General Thomas told members of Congress last spring. “Despite growing demand for SOF, we must prioritize the sourcing of these demands as we face a rapidly changing security environment.”  Yet the number of countries with special ops deployments hit a new record last year.

At a November 2017 conference on special operations held in Washington, influential members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees acknowledged growing strains on the force. For Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the solution is, as he put it, “to increase numbers and resources.” 

While Republican Senator Joni Ernst did not foreclose the possibility of adding to already war-swollen levels of commandos, she much prefers to farm out some operations to other forces: “A lot of the missions we see, especially if you… look at Afghanistan, where we have the train, advise, and assist missions, if we can move some of those into conventional forces and away from SOF, I think that’s what we need to do.”  Secretary of Defense James Mattis has already indicated that such moves are planned.  Leigh Claffey, Ernst’s press secretary, told TomDispatch that the senator also favors “turning over operations to capable indigenous forces.”  

Ernst’s proxies approach has, in fact, already been applied across the planet, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in Syria in 2017.  There, SOCOM’s Thomas noted, U.S. proxies, including both Syrian Arabs and Kurds, “a surrogate force of 50,000 people… are working for us and doing our bidding.” They were indeed the ones who carried out the bulk of the fighting and dying during the campaign against the Islamic State and the capture of its capital, Raqqa. 

However, that campaign, which took back almost all the territory ISIS held in Syria, was exceptional.  U.S. proxies elsewhere have fared far worse in recent years.  That 50,000-strong Syrian surrogate army had to be raised, in fact, after the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, built during the 2003-2011 American occupation of that country, collapsed in the face of relatively small numbers of Islamic State militants in 2014.  In Mali, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Honduras, and elsewhere, U.S.-trained officers have carried out coups, overthrowing their respective governments.  Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where special ops forces have been working with local allies for more than 15 years, even elite security forces are still largely incapable of operating on their own.  According to the Pentagon’s 2017 semi-annual report to Congress, Afghan commandos needed U.S. support for an overwhelming number of their missions, independently carrying out only 17% of their 2,628 operations between June 1, 2017, and November 24, 2017.

Indeed, with Special Operations forces acting, in the words of SOCOM’s Thomas, as “the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. [violent extremist organization]-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America,” it’s unlikely that foreign proxies or conventional American forces will shoulder enough of the load to relieve the strain on the commandos. 

Bulking up Special Operations Command is not, however, a solution, according to the Center for International Policy’s Hartung.  “There is no persuasive security rationale for having U.S. Special Operations forces involved in an astonishing 149 countries, given that the results of these missions are just as likely to provoke greater conflict as they are to reduce it, in large part because a U.S. military presence is too often used as a recruiting tool by local terrorist organizations,” he told TomDispatch.  “The solution to the problem of the high operational tempo of U.S. Special Operations forces is not to recruit and train more Special Operations forces. It is to rethink why they are being used so intensively in the first place.” 

Special Ops at War

“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in October. That was in the wake of the combat deaths of four members of the Special Operations forces in the West African nation of Niger. Graham and other senators expressed shock about the deployment, but the global sweep of America’s most elite forces is, at best, an open secret.

Earlier this year before that same Senate committee — though Graham was not in attendance — General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), offered some clues about the planetwide reach of America’s most elite troops. “We operate and fight in every corner of the world,” he boasted.  “Rather than a mere ‘break-glass-in-case-of-war’ force, we are now proactively engaged across the ‘battle space’ of the Geographic Combatant Commands… providing key integrating and enabling capabilities to support their campaigns and operations.” 

In 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, deployed to 149 countries around the world, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command.  That’s about 75% of the nations on the planet and represents a jump from the 138 countries that saw such deployments in 2016 under the Obama administration.  It’s also a jump of nearly 150% from the last days of George W. Bush’s White House.  This record-setting number of deployments comes as American commandos are battling a plethora of terror groups in quasi-wars that stretch from Africa and the Middle East to Asia. 

“Most Americans would be amazed to learn that U.S. Special Operations Forces have been deployed to three quarters of the nations on the planet,” observes William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.  “There is little or no transparency as to what they are doing in these countries and whether their efforts are promoting security or provoking further tension and conflict.” 

Growth Opportunity


America’s elite troops were deployed to 149 nations in 2017, according to U.S. Special Operations Command.  The map above displays the locations of 132 of those countries; 129 locations (in blue) were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command; 3 locations (in red) — Syria, Yemen and Somalia — were derived from open-source information. (Nick Turse)

“Since 9/11, we expanded the size of our force by almost 75% in order to take on mission-sets that are likely to endure,” SOCOM’s Thomas told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May.  Since 2001, from the pace of operations to their geographic sweep, the activities of U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) have, in fact, grown in every conceivable way.  On any given day, about 8,000 special operators — from a command numbering roughly 70,000 — are deployed in approximately 80 countries.   

“The increase in the use of Special Forces since 9/11 was part of what was then referred to as the Global War on Terror as a way to keep the United States active militarily in areas beyond its two main wars, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hartung told TomDispatch.  “The even heavier reliance on Special Forces during the Obama years was part of a strategy of what I think of as ‘politically sustainable warfare,’ in which the deployment of tens of thousands of troops to a few key theaters of war was replaced by a ‘lighter footprint’ in more places, using drones, arms sales and training, and Special Forces.”

The Trump White House has attacked Barack Obama’s legacy on nearly all fronts.  It has undercut, renounced, or reversed actions of his ranging from trade pacts to financial and environmental regulations to rules that shielded transgender employees from workplace discrimination.  When it comes to Special Operations forces, however, the Trump administration has embraced their use in the style of the former president, while upping the ante even further.  President Trump has also provided military commanders greater authority to launch attacks in quasi-war zones like Yemen and Somalia.  According to Micah Zenko, a national security expert and Whitehead Senior Fellow at the think tank Chatham House, those forces conducted five times as many lethal counterterrorism missions in such non-battlefield countries in the Trump administration’s first six months in office as they did during Obama’s final six months.

A Wide World of War

U.S. commandos specialize in 12 core skills, from “unconventional warfare” (helping to stoke insurgencies and regime change) to “foreign internal defense” (supporting allies’ efforts to guard themselves against terrorism, insurgencies, and coups). Counterterrorism — fighting what SOCOM calls violent extremist organizations or VEOs — is, however, the specialty America’s commandos have become best known for in the post-9/11 era. 

In the spring of 2002, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, SOCOM chief General Charles Holland touted efforts to “improve SOF capabilities to prosecute unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense programs to better support friends and allies. The value of these programs, demonstrated in the Afghanistan campaign,” he said, “can be particularly useful in stabilizing countries and regions vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.” 

Over the last decade and a half, however, there’s been little evidence America’s commandos have excelled at “stabilizing countries and regions vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.”  This was reflected in General Thomas’s May testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The threat posed by VEOs remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort,” he explained. 

However, unlike Holland who highlighted only one country — Afghanistan — where special operators were battling militants in 2002, Thomas listed a panoply of terrorist hot spots bedeviling America’s commandos a decade and a half later.  “Special Operations Forces,” he said, “are the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America — essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found.”

Officially, there are about 5,300 U.S. troops in Iraq.  (The real figure is thought to be higher.)  Significant numbers of them are special operators training and advising Iraqi government forces and Kurdish troops.  Elite U.S. forces have also played a crucial role in Iraq’s recent offensive against the militants of the Islamic State, providing artillery and airpower, including SOCOM’s AC-130W Stinger II gunships with 105mm cannons that allow them to serve as flying howitzers.  In that campaign, Special Operations forces were “thrust into a new role of coordinating fire support,” wrote Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who spent seven weeks in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries earlier this year. “This fire support is even more important to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a far more lightly armed irregular force which constitutes the major ground force fighting ISIS in Syria.”

Special Operations forces have, in fact, played a key role in the war effort in Syria, too.  While American commandos have been killed in battle there, Kurdish and Arab proxies — known as the Syrian Democratic Forces — have done the lion’s share of the fighting and dying to take back much of the territory once held by the Islamic State.  SOCOM’s Thomas spoke about this in surprisingly frank terms at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, this summer.  “We’re right now inside the capital of [ISIS’s] caliphate at Raqqa [Syria].  We’ll have that back soon with our proxies, a surrogate force of 50,000 people that are working for us and doing our bidding,” he said.  “So two and a half years of fighting this fight with our surrogates, they’ve lost thousands, we’ve only lost two service members. Two is too many, but it’s, you know, a relief that we haven’t had the kind of losses that we’ve had elsewhere.”

This year, U.S. special operators were killed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahelian nations of Niger and Mali (although reports indicate that a Green Beret who died in that country was likely strangled by U.S. Navy SEALs).  In Libya, SEALs recently kidnapped a suspect in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.  In the Philippines, U.S. Special Forces joined the months-long battle to recapture Marawi City after it was taken by Islamist militants earlier this year. 


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And even this growing list of counterterror hotspots is only a fraction of the story.  In Africa, the countries singled out by Thomas — Somalia, Libya, and those in the Sahel — are just a handful of the nations to which American commandos were deployed in 2017. As recently reported at Vice News, U.S. Special Operations forces were active in at least 33 nations across the continent, with troops heavily concentrated in and around countries now home to a growing number of what the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies calls “active militant Islamist groups.”  While Defense Department spokeswoman Major Audricia Harris would not provide details on the range of operations being carried out by the elite forces, it’s known that they run the gamut from conducting security assessments at U.S. embassies to combat operations.  

Data provided by SOCOM also reveals a special ops presence in 33 European countries this year.  “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, told TomDispatch.

For the past two years, in fact, the U.S. has maintained a Special Operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border.  “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country — every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats,” said SOCOM’s Thomas, mentioning the Baltic states as well as Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia by name.  These activities represent, in the words of General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now the senior mentor to the Army War College, “undeclared campaigns” by commandos. Weisman, however, balked at that particular language.  “U.S. Special Operations forces have been deployed persistently and at the invitation of our allies in the Baltic States and Poland since 2014 as part of the broader U.S. European Command and Department of Defense European Deterrence Initiative,” he told TomDispatch.  “The persistent presence of U.S. SOF alongside our Allies sends a clear message of U.S. commitment to our allies and the defense of our NATO Alliance.”

Asia is also a crucial region for America’s elite forces.  In addition to Iran and Russia, SOCOM’s Thomas singled out China and North Korea as nations that are “becoming more aggressive in challenging U.S. interests and partners through the use of asymmetric means that often fall below the threshold of conventional conflict.”  He went on to say that the “ability of our special operators to conduct low-visibility special warfare operations in politically sensitive environments make them uniquely suited to counter the malign activities of our adversaries in this domain.”

U.S.-North Korean saber rattling has brought increased attention to Special Forces Detachment Korea (SFDK), the longest serving U.S. Special Forces unit in the world.  It would, of course, be called into action should a war ever break out on the peninsula.  In such a conflict, U.S. and South Korean elite forces would unite under the umbrella of the Combined Unconventional Warfare Task Force.  In March, commandos — including, according to some reports, members of the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 — took part in Foal Eagle, a training exercise, alongside conventional U.S. forces and their South Korean counterparts. 

U.S. special operators also were involved in training exercises and operations elsewhere across Asia and the Pacific.  In June, in Okinawa, Japan, for example, airmen from the 17th Special Operations Squadron (17th SOS) carried out their annual (and oddly spelled) “Day of the Jakal,” the launch of five Air Force Special Operations MC-130J Commando II aircraft to practice, according to a military news release, “airdrops, aircraft landings, and rapid infiltration and exfiltration of equipment.”  According to Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Dube of the 17th SOS, “It shows how we can meet the emerging mission sets for both SOCKOR [Special Operations Command Korea] and SOCPAC [Special Operations Command Pacific] out here in the Pacific theater.” 

At about the same time, members of the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group carried out Teak Jet, a joint combined exchange training, or JCET, mission meant to improve military coordination between U.S. and Japanese forces.  In June and July, intelligence analysts from the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group took part in Talisman Saber, a biennial military training exercise conducted in various locations across Australia.

More for War

The steady rise in the number of elite operators, missions, and foreign deployments since 9/11 appears in no danger of ending, despite years of worries by think-tank experts and special ops supporters about the effects of such a high operations tempo on these troops.  “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” General Thomas said earlier this year. “Despite growing demand for SOF, we must prioritize the sourcing of these demands as we face a rapidly changing security environment.”  Yet the number of deployments still grew to a record 149 nations in 2017.  (During the Obama years, deployments reached 147 in 2015.)

At a recent conference on special operations held in Washington, D.C., influential members of the Senate and House armed services committees acknowledged that there were growing strains on the force. “I do worry about overuse of SOF,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Republican.  One solution offered by both Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a combat veteran who served in Iraq, was to bulk up Special Operations Command yet more.  “We have to increase numbers and resources,” Reed insisted

This desire to expand Special Operations further comes at a moment when senators like Lindsey Graham continue to acknowledge how remarkably clueless they are about where those elite forces are deployed and what exactly they are doing in far-flung corners of the globe.  Experts point out just how dangerous further expansion could be, given the proliferation of terror groups and battle zones since 9/11 and the dangers of unforeseen blowback as a result of low-profile special ops missions.

“Almost by definition, the dizzying number of deployments undertaken by U.S. Special Operations forces in recent years would be hard to track.  But few in Congress seem to be even making the effort,” said William Hartung. “This is a colossal mistake if one is concerned about reining in the globe-spanning U.S. military strategy of the post-9/11 era, which has caused more harm than good and done little to curb terrorism.” 

However, with special ops deployments rising above Bush and Obama administration levels to record-setting heights and the Trump administration embracing the use of commandos in quasi-wars in places like Somalia and Yemen, there appears to be little interest in the White House or on Capitol Hill in reining in the geographic scope and sweep of America’s most secretive troops.  And the results, say experts, may be dire.  “While the retreat from large ‘boots on the ground’ wars like the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq is welcome,” said Hartung, “the proliferation of Special Operations forces is a dangerous alternative, given the prospects of getting the United States further embroiled in complex overseas conflicts.”

Donald Trump’s First Year Sets Record for U.S. Special Ops

“They are very concerned about their adversary next door,” said General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, in July.  “They make no bones about it.”

The “they” in question were various Eastern European and Baltic nations.  “Their adversary”?  Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Thomas, the commander of America’s most elite troops — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — went on to raise fears about an upcoming Russian military training event, a wargame, known as “Zapad” or “West,” involving 10 Russian Navy ships, 70 jets and helicopters, and 250 tanks.  “The point of concern for most of these eastern Europeans right now is they’re about to do an exercise in Belarus… that’s going to entail up to 100,000 Russian troops moving into that country.” And he added, “The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and… that’s not paranoia…”

Over the last two decades, relations between the United States and Russia have increasingly soured, with Moscow casting blame on the United States for encouraging the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine a year later.  Washington has, in turn, expressed its anger over the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Russo-Georgian War of 2008; the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine after pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was chased from power; and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  There have been recriminations on both sides over the other nation’s military adventurism in Syria, the sanctions Washington imposed on Moscow in reaction to Crimea, Ukraine, and human rights issues, and tit-for-tat diplomatic penalties that have repeatedly ramped up tensions.

While Zapad, which took place last month, is an annual strategic exercise that rotates among four regions, American officials nonetheless viewed this year’s event as provocative.  “People are worried this is a Trojan horse,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who commands U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Reuters. “[The Russians] say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere.”

Russia is not, however, the only military power with “people and capabilities” in the region. In passing, SOCOM’s Thomas also mentioned the presence of other forces; troops that he readily admitted the public might not be aware of.  Those soldiers were — just as he feared of the Russian troops involved in Zapad — not going anywhere.  And it wasn’t just a matter of speculation.  After all, they wear the same uniform he does.

For the past two years, the U.S. has maintained a special operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border.  “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country — every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats,” said Thomas, mentioning the Baltics as well as Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia by name.

Commandos and Their Comrades

Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) have grown in every conceivable way from funding to manpower, the pace of operations to geographic sweep.  On any given day, about 8,000 special operators — from a command numbering roughly 70,000 in total — are deployed in around 80 countries.  Over the course of a year, they operate in about 70% of the world’s nations.

According to Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, elite U.S. forces have deployed to 21 European countries in 2017 and conducted exercises with an even larger number of nations. “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” he told TomDispatch.

The number of commandos in Europe has also expanded exponentially in recent years.  In 2006, 3% of special operators deployed overseas were sent to the continent.  Last year, the number topped 12% — a jump of more than 300%.  Only Africa has seen a larger increase in deployments over the same time span.

This special-ops surge is also reflected in the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, overseas missions designed to prepare American commandos in a variety of warfighting skills while also strengthening relations with foreign forces.  In 2012, special operators conducted 29 JCETs on that continent.  Last year, the number reached 37, including six in Bulgaria, three in Estonia, three in Latvia, three in Poland, and three in Moldova.

The United States has devoted significant resources to building and bolstering allied special ops forces across the region.  “Our current focus consists of assuring our allies through building partner capacity efforts to counter and resist various types of Russian aggression, as well as enhance their resilience,” SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.  “We are working relentlessly with our partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”

This year, U.S. commandos could be found in nations all along Russia’s borders.  In March, for example, Green Berets took to snowmobiles for a cold-weather JCET alongside local troops in Lapland, Finland.  In May, Navy SEALs teamed up with Lithuanian forces as part of Flaming Sword 17, a training exercise in that country.  In June, members of the U.S. 10th Special Forces Group and Polish commandos carried out air assault and casualty evacuation training near Lubliniec, Poland. In July, Naval Special Warfare operators took part in Sea Breeze, a two decade-old annual military exercise in Ukraine. In August, airmen from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron transformed a rural highway in Jägala, Estonia, into an airstrip for tank-killing A-10 Thunderbolts as part of a military drill.  That same month, U.S. special operators advised host-nation commandos taking part in Exercise Noble Partner in the Republic of Georgia

“Working with the GSOF [Republic of Georgia’s Special Operations forces] was awesome,” said Captain Christopher Pulliam, the commander of the Georgia Army National Guard’s Company H (Long-Range Surveillance), 121st Infantry Regiment.  (That, of course, is a unit from the American state of Georgia.) “Our mission set requires that we work in small teams that gather specific intel in the area of operations. The GSOF understand this and can use our intel to create a better understanding of the situation on the ground and react accordingly.”

Special Warriors and Special Warfare

The United States isn’t alone in fielding a large contingent of special operations forces.  The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that Russia’s Spetsnaz (“special purpose”) troops number around 30,000, a sizeable force, although less than half the size of America’s contingent of commandos.  Russia, SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, is “particularly adept at leveraging unconventional approaches to advancing their interests and it is clear they are pursuing a wide range of audacious approaches to competition — SOF [special operations forces] often present a very natural unconventional response.”

Indeed, just like the United States and myriad militaries around the world, Russia has devoted significant resources to developing its doctrine and capabilities in covert, clandestine, and unconventional forms of warfare.  In a seminal 2013 article in the Russian Academy of Military Science’s journal Military-Industrial Courier, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov explained the nature of modern hybrid warfare, including the use of elite troops, this way:

“In the twenty-first century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template… The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness… [t]he broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures… is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.”

Spetsnaz troops have indeed played a role in all of Russia’s armed interventions since 2001, including in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria.  During that same span, U.S. Special Operations forces have been employed in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  They have also had a presence in Jordan, Kenya, Djibouti, and Cameroon, among other countries to which, according to President Trump, U.S. combat-equipped forces are currently deployed.


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In an interview late last year, retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now the Senior Mentor to the Army War College, discussed the shortcomings of the senior military leadership in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “bad national policy decisions… that shaped U.S. campaigns in those theaters,” and a reliance on a brand of conventional war-fighting with limited effectiveness in achieving political goals.  “[I]t is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort,” he added, “because its use also highlights why the U.S. continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns — Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ [al-Qaeda] and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine — none of which fits the U.S. model for traditional war.”

U.S. Special Operations Command Europe‎ failed to answer TomDispatch’s questions about those “undeclared campaigns” on Russia’s doorstep, but more public and conventional efforts have been in wide evidence.  In January, for example, tanks, trucks, and other equipment began arriving in Germany, before being sent on to Poland, to support Operation Atlantic Resolve.  That effort, “designed to reassure NATO allies and partners… in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine,” according to the Congressional Research Service, began with a nine-month rotation of about 3,500 soldiers from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, who were replaced in September by 3,300 personnel and 1,500 vehicles from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which would be deployed to five countries.  Earlier this month, Russia’s Defense Ministry complained that the size of the U.S. contingent in the Baltics violates a Russian-NATO agreement.

Red Dawn in the Gray Zone

Late last year, a group of active-duty and retired senior military officers, former ambassadors, academics, and researchers gathered for a symposium at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C., titled “Russian Engagement in the Gray Zone.”  Conducted via Chatham House rules — that is, in accounts of the meeting, statements could not be attributed to any specific speaker — the Americans proceeded to vilify Russia both for its bellicosity and its underhanded methods.  Among the assessments: “Russia is always at a natural state of war and it prioritizes contactless war”; “Russia de-emphasizes kinetic activities and emphasizes the indirect/non-lethal approach”; and “Russia places a priority on subversion.” 

The experts at NDU called for a comprehensive campaign to undermine Russia through sanctions, by courting “disenfranchised personnel” and “alienated persons” within that country, by developing enhanced cyber-capabilities, by utilizing psychological operations and “strategic messaging” to enhance “tactical actions,” and by conducting a special ops shadow war — which General Charles Cleveland seems to suggest might be already underway. “[T]he United States should learn from the Chechnya rebels’ reaction.  The rebels used decentralized operations and started building pockets of resistance (to include solo jihadists),” reads a synopsis of the symposium. 

“SOCOM actions will need,” the NDU experts asserted, “to be unconventional and irregular in order to compete with Russian modern warfare tactics.”  In other words, they were advocating an anti-Russian campaign that seemed to emphasize the very approach they were excoriating Russia for — the “indirect/non-lethal approach” with a “priority on subversion.” 

In the end, Russia’s much-feared “West” war game, in which Spetsnaz troops did participate, concluded with a whimper, not a bang.  “After all the anxiety, Russia’s Zapad exercise ends without provocation,” read the headline in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes on September 20th.

For months, while Russia insisted its war game would involve fewer than 13,000 soldiers, the U.S. and its allies had warned that, in reality, up to 100,000 troops would flood into Belarus.  Of those Russian troop levels, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Möller, a Swedish military observer who attended Zapad, said, “We reported about 12,400.”  Of such exercises, he added, “This is normal military business as we do in all countries with armed forces. This is not training for attacking anyone. You meet the enemy, you stop the enemy, you defeat the enemy with a counterattack. We are doing the same thing in Sweden.” 

Indeed, just as Möller suggested, more than 20,000 troops — including U.S. Special Operations forces and soldiers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden — had gathered in his country during the Zapad exercise for Aurora 2017.  And Sweden was hardly unique.  At the same time, troops from the U.S., Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom were carrying out Rapid Trident, an annual military exercise, in neighboring Ukraine. 

What message was the U.S. sending to Russia by conducting training exercises on its borders, Catherine Herridge of Fox News asked General Raymond Thomas in Aspen?  “That’s a fascinating question because I am — I try to appreciate the adversary’s optic to — I realize that a way to gauge a metric if you will for how well we’re doing,” the SOCOM chief replied somewhat incoherently. 

Herridge was, of course, asking Thomas to view the world through the eyes of his adversary, to imagine something akin to Russia and its ally Syria conducting war games in Mexico or Canada or in both countries; to contemplate Spetsnaz troops spread throughout the Western hemisphere on an enduring basis just as America’s elite troops are now a fixture in the Baltics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. 

In the end, Thomas’s take was understated in a way that undoubtedly wouldn’t have been the case had the roles been reversed.  “I am curious what Putin and his leadership are thinking,” the special ops chief mused. “I think it was a little unnerving.”

From America With Love

We were already roaring down the road when the young man called to me over his shoulder. There was a woman seated between us on the motorbike and with the distance, his accent, the rushing air, and the engine noise, it took a moment for me to decipher what he had just said: We might have enough gas to get to Bamurye and back.

I had spent the previous hour attempting to convince someone to take me on this ride while simultaneously weighing the ethics of the expedition, putting together a makeshift security plan, and negotiating a price.  Other motorbike drivers warned that it would be a one-way trip. “If you go, you don’t come back,” more than one of them told me. I insisted we turn around immediately.

Once, I believed journalists roamed the world reporting stories on their own.  Presumably, somebody edited the articles, but a lone byline meant that the foreign correspondent was the sole author of the reporting.  Then I became a journalist and quickly learned the truth.  Foreign correspondents are almost never alone in our work.  We’re almost always dependent on locals, often many of them, if we want to have any hope of getting the story.  It was never truer for me than on that day when I was attempting to cover an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign in South Sudan.

As the motorbike driver was topping off the tank with gasoline from a plastic water bottle, I had a final chance to think things over.  We were going to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan so I could gather evidence of a murder by government troops in a village garrisoned by those same soldiers.  The driver hailed from one of the ethnic groups being targeted by South Sudan’s army.  If we were found by soldiers, he would likely be the first of us killed.  The woman, Salina Sunday, was my guide.  She was confident that she would be safe and didn’t show an ounce of fear, even though women were being raped and killed as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign churning through the southlands of South Sudan, including her home village, Bamurye. 

Within minutes we were off again to find, if we were fortunate, the mutilated body of the murder victim; if we were unfortunate, his killers as well.  I had met Sunday barely more than an hour earlier.  I had laid eyes on the driver for the first time only minutes before we left.  They were strangers and I was risking their lives for my work, for “my” story.

The Fix is In   

When it comes to overseas newsgathering, it’s the “fixers,” those resourceful, wired-in locals who know all the right people, who often make it possible.  Then there are the generous local reporters, translators, guides, drivers, sources, informants of every sort, local friends, friends of friends, and sometimes — as in that trip of mine to Bamurye (recently recounted in full in the Columbia Journalism Review) — courageous strangers, too.  Those women and men are the true, if unsung, heroes behind the bylines of so many foreign correspondents.  They’re the ones who ensure that, however imperfectly, we at least have a glimpse of what’s happening in far-off, sometimes perilous places about which we would otherwise be clueless.   

So when the great Iona Craig dons a black abaya and niqab, inserts her “brown tinted contact lenses to cover [her] green foreigner eyes,” and blows the lid off a botched U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that killed at least six women and 10 children, she does it with the aid of fixer-friends.  They are the ones who make the arrangements; who drive and translate; who, in short, risk their lives for her, for the story — and for you.  When Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Daniel Berehulak produces an instantly iconic New York Times exposé of the brutal war on drugs launched by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, veteran journalist and uber-fixer Rica Concepcion is also behind it.

If you read the reporting of the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, Leila Fadel (then of the Washington Post), or Nancy Youssef (then of McClatchy) on Libya, you likely benefited from the work of fixer Suliman Ali Zway.  Eyder Peralta’s powerful report on a doctor’s strike at Kenya’s Kiambu County Hospital that you heard earlier this year?  The late Jacque Ooko, a veteran journalist who worked as National Public Radio’s bureau assistant in Nairobi, got Peralta in the door.  And that August 19, 2017, front-page tour de force by Ellen Barry of the New York Times about a murder in a village in India?  You can thank her colleague Suhasini for it, too.

Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell is no different.  Like so many foreign correspondents, she’s also leaned on fixers.  Unlike most of us in the trade, however, she’s written a beautiful book-length love letter to one of them — her vivid, captivating A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.  Campbell’s award-winning memoir-and-more offers a unique window into the life and work of foreign correspondents and the relationships they forge with those they rely on to help them do their jobs. 


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Kill Anything That Moves

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Unlike the New York Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, whose recent Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival oddly fixates on both his ardor for his girlfriend-turned-wife and his infidelity — “As we tumbled into bed, a firefight erupted… We didn’t stop” — the love in Campbell’s book has nothing to do with eros.  Nor is it an obsession with place, though Campbell’s affection for the beauty she finds in Syria is evident.  Instead, what drives A Disappearance in Damascus is the story of the deep bonds of friendship that formed between Campbell and her fixer in Syria, a remarkable Iraqi refugee named Ahlam.  While Gettleman’s book is sold as “a tale of passion,” the burning desire in Campbell’s pages is most felt when, in the second half of the book, she launches a relentless search for her fixer and friend after Ahlam disappears without a trace.

Campbell, a self-described “immersive journalist,” traveled to Damascus in 2007 to cover the deluge of Iraqis flooding into Syria as a result of the American invasion of their country and the carnage that followed.  There, she found the resilient Ahlam, elevated to a position of leadership in the Iraqi refugee community by popular acclaim.  She was a charismatic figure who exuded confidence, knew all the right people, and got the job done — the very qualities that make for a top-flight fixer.  While supporting her husband and two children, fixing for Campbell and other journalists, and solving the problems of beleaguered refugees, Ahlam even managed to set up a school for displaced girls.  It’s little wonder that Campbell took to her and that those two strong, driven women became close friends.

The power of their personal bond, the blessing of their friendship, however, turned out to be a curse as well.  When Ahlam was suddenly disappeared by the Syrian regime, Campbell became convinced that she had been targeted because of their work together.  Ahlam had, in fact, aided journalists from al Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and other media outlets, worked for multiple foreign aid groups, and even the U.S. military (in Iraq), which meant that there were myriad reasons why the Syrian government might have arrested her.  Still, Campbell couldn’t shake a deep-seated feeling that she was at fault.

In a profession typified by countless anxieties, fear for your fixer (or driver or source) is a special one that may manifest itself in an acidic churn deep in your gut or racing thoughts that you can’t slow down as you stare up through your mosquito net at a wobbling ceiling fan.  Have you endangered the people who devoted themselves to helping you do your job?  Have you potentially sacrificed their welfare, perhaps their lives, for a story?  As Campbell puts it:

“I could accept the knowledge that nothing I wrote or would ever write would change a thing and that the world would continue to create and destroy and create and destroy as it always did. I could accept living without a relationship.  I would still be okay.  What I could not accept was Ahlam being gone. It was unthinkable that she had been missing for almost seven weeks. Unthinkable that she could be lost and never heard from again.  Unthinkable that I could do nothing.

It called to my mind a time when a driver-turned-friend of mine was smacked around and taken away by angry government officials.  I’ve never forgotten my fear for him and the abject sense of powerlessness that went with it.  It’s a special type of anxiety that, I suspect, many foreign correspondents have experienced.  (My driver was luckily released a short time later, a far different outcome than Ahlam’s arrest.)

Campbell responds to her friend’s disappearance by utilizing the very skills that make her a great journalist and begins to investigate just what happened.  At times, it turns her book into a first-class detective story and, for that very reason, provides a useful primer on how reporters practice their craft. 

For those who know anything about the sparse literature on the subject, A Disappearance in Damascus calls to mind perhaps the most iconic tale of this type — another story rooted in platonic love, deep affection, and the sense of responsibility that grows between a journalist and a fixer (even if that fixer was officially a “stringer”).  

“I began the search for my friend Dith Pran in April of 1975.  Unable to protect him when the Khmer Rouge troops ordered Cambodians to evacuate their cities, I had watched him disappear into the interior of Cambodia, which would become a death camp for millions,” wrote New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg.  “Pran had saved my life the day of the occupation, and the shadow of my failure to keep him safe — to do what he had done for me — was to follow me for four and a half years.” 

That magazine-article-turned-book — both titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” — and the movie adaptation, The Killing Fields, chronicled Pran’s long journey as he navigated and survived the unthinkable horror of the Cambodian autogenocide and also stands as a testament to his enduring friendship with Schanberg.  A Disappearance in Damascus brings to mind some of the same themes of friendship and responsibility, raises some of the same questions about duty and loyalty, and evokes some of the same emotions, though I won’t give away whether Ahlam, like Pran, makes it out alive.  In war — or even its shadow — nothing is certain.  (At least until you read the book.)

Someone Has to Open the Door

When they meet again in 1979, after Pran has survived the unimaginable and trekked through Cambodia’s killing fields to safety beyond the Thai border, Schanberg asks his friend if he can ever forgive him.  “Nothing to forgive,” Pran replies, offering him something like complete absolution. 

Not all relationships with fixers, of course, blossom into Schanberg-Pran, Campbell-Ahlam love stories.  And not all fixers are fantastic and fearless.  There are the incompetent ones and the lazy ones and those allergic to schedules.  Others come to see you as a bottomless wallet — and who can blame them, given our privilege and relative riches?  But this can lead to unrealistic expectations, as it once did for me, when I received an email from a fixer I’d worked with many times asking for a stipend of $500 per month in (more or less) perpetuity.  And that, in turn, can result in hurt feelings when you explain that you simply can’t do it.  These are, thankfully, the exceptions.

While largely unknown to the public, fixers might finally be getting some much-deserved recognition — albeit in small ways.  A Disappearance in Damascus is a shining example.  These days, foreign correspondents seem to be acknowledging those who helped them more openly, offering warm tributes to and remembrances of their fixers.  Perhaps this is evidence, as reporter Aaron Schachter put it, of a greater willingness to admit the “dirty little secret of foreign correspondents: We don’t do our own stunts.”  Late last year, Roads & Kingdoms, a digital magazine “publishing longform dispatches, interviews, and global ephemera,” began a series called “Unbylined” in which fixers from Mexico to Haiti, Afghanistan to Libya, get their say through thoughtful interviews focused on their craft.

Still, even fixers are just part of the story.  Where would foreign correspondents be without great drivers?  Probably stranded on some wretched stretch of road.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve stayed too long doing interviews, leaving my driver to try to make up the time to the river before the last ferry departs for the day or get off a dangerous road before dark.  These are the guys who know all the shortcuts, the complex language of car horns, and how to make good time on bad roads.  Along with them, depending on where you travel, there are the motorbike drivers and the men and women who pilot boats, as well as those who fly the puddle jumpers and helicopters that get you where you’re going.  And that’s just to begin a list. 

There are precious few Africans (or Afghans or Iraqis, for that matter) of much depth in Jeffrey Gettleman’s Love, Africaanother in a list of reasons the book has been panned by many and excoriated in his own newspaper’s book review.  But in his discussion of “Commander Peacock” (the man’s own nom de guerre), an Ethiopian who is treated as a person and not simply a prop, Gettleman offers up important insights into what he calls “the transitive property of trust.”  He observes:

“Reporters deposit their lives in it all the time.  People I’d trusted had hooked me up with people they’d trusted who hooked me up with people they’d trusted.  Peacock and I were simply two terminal points on a long line drawn by trust.”

This form of faith — based on a sequence of relationships — is often key to overseas reporting, but it isn’t the only type of journalistic trust to be found out there.  There’s trust of another sort, trust that’s earned, like that between Schanberg and Pran or Campbell and Ahlam.  And then there’s the trust that’s freely given, a faith that you can only hope someday to be worthy of. 

That’s the trust of the Salina Sundays of this world, of those ordinary people who exhibit extraordinary courage, place their confidence in you, and even risk their lives because they believe in what you’re doing, in the stories you hope to tell.

When I met Sunday — a gimlet-eyed, middle-aged woman with a strong bearing — on what she reckoned was a somewhat safer road, she was setting off into South Sudan on a difficult journey to try to salvage a few of her belongings for what she expected would be a long exile in Uganda.  She was in desperate circumstances, homeless, a woman without a country.  Still, she took the time to stop and speak with a stranger. And she told me about a friend who had been murdered by rampaging South Sudanese troops, a man whose corpse she had only recently seen by the side of the road. 

I asked if she would guide me to him and she readily agreed.  In the midst of an unfolding tragedy, that is, she upended her plans and decided without hesitation to lead a foreigner she had just met down a more dangerous path, literally and figuratively.  She didn’t know a thing about me — not whether I could get a story published or had any hope of doing justice to this particular horror or would even bother to write about it.  But she made a leap of faith and put her life on the line for the sake of my story — and so for me as well. 

I tried to live up to her confidence, to make the risk she took worthwhile.  I think this is a common experience for many journalists.  You feel a deep responsibility to the people you interview and to your fixers, drivers, and translators — to everyone, that is, who sacrifices and takes chances to make your work possible. 

I don’t know what Salina Sunday would think about the stories I’ve written, but I hope she would approve.  She wanted the world to know just what had happened in Bamurye, what South Sudan’s soldiers had done to her friend.  She wanted people overseas to grasp the grim nature of the war in her homeland.  It’s exactly what drove Ahlam in her work for Deborah Campbell, the reason she took risks to tell stories that could turn her into a target.  “Someone,” the Iraqi-refugee-turned-fixer said, “has to open the door and show the world what is happening.”  

The Journalist and the Fixer

Winning! It’s the White House watchword when it comes to the U.S. armed forces. “We will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing — you know what that is? Win! Win!” President Donald Trump exclaimed earlier this year while standing aboard the new aircraft carrier U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford.

Since World War II, however, neither preventing nor winning wars have been among America’s strong suits.  The nation has instead been embroiled in serial conflicts and interventions in which victories have been remarkably scarce, a trend that has only accelerated in the post-9/11 era. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Somalia to the Philippines, Libya to Yemen, military investments — in lives and tax dollars — have been costly and enduring victories essentially nonexistent. 

But Amadou Sanogo is something of a rare all-American military success story, even if he isn’t American and his success was fleeting.  Sanogo learned English in Texas, received instruction from U.S. Marines in Virginia, took his intelligence training in Arizona, and underwent Army infantry officer basic training in Georgia.  Back home in his native Mali, the young army officer was reportedly much admired for his sojourn, studies, and training in the United States.

In March 2012, Sanogo put his popularity and skills to use when he led a coup that overthrew Mali’s elected government. “America is [a] great country with a fantastic army. I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here,” he told Der Spiegel during his tenure as Mali’s military strongman. (He eventually lost his grip on power, was arrested, and in 2016 went on trial for “complicity in kidnapping and assassination.”)

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $250 billion training foreign military and police personnel like Sanogo.  Year after year, a sprawling network of U.S. programs provides 200,000 of these soldiers and security officers with assistance and support.  In 2015, almost 80,000 of them, hailing from 154 countries, received what’s formally known as Foreign Military Training (FMT). 

The stated goals of two key FMT programs — International Military Education and Training (IMET) and the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) — include promoting “international peace and security” and increasing the awareness among foreign military personnel of “internationally recognized human rights.”  In reality, these programs focus on strengthening U.S. partner and proxy forces globally, though there’s scant evidence that they actually succeed in that goal. A study published in July, analyzing data from 1970 to 2009, finds that FMT programs are, however, effective at imparting skills integral to at least one specific type of armed undertaking. “We find a robust relationship between U.S. training of foreign militaries and military-backed coup attempts,” wrote Jonathan Caverley of the U.S. Naval War College and Jesse Savage of Trinity College Dublin in the Journal of Peace Research.  

Bad Actors

Through nearly 200 separate programs, the State Department and the Department of Defense (DoD) engage in what’s called “security cooperation,” “building partner capacity,” and other assistance to foreign forces.  In 2001, the DoD administered about 17% of security assistance funding. By 2015, that figure had jumped to approximately 60%. The Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, a post-9/11 creation indicative of this growth, is mostly run through the DoD and focuses on training mid- and senior-level defense officials from allied militaries in the tenets of counterterrorism. The State Department, by contrast, is the driving force behind the older and larger IMET program, though the Defense Department implements the training.

Under IMET, foreign personnel — like Sanogo — travel to the U.S. to take classes and undergo instruction at military schools and bases. “IMET is designed to help foreign militaries bolster their relationships with the United States, learn about U.S. military equipment, improve military professionalism, and instill democratic values in their members,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick in a 2016 Council on Foreign Relations memorandum aimed at reforming the program.

However, in an investigation published earlier this year, Lauren Chadwick of the Center for Public Integrity found that, according to official U.S. government documents, at least 17 high-ranking foreigners — including five generals — trained through IMET between 1985 and 2010 were later accused and in some cases convicted of criminal and human rights abuses. An open-source study by the non-profit Center for International Policy found another 33 U.S.-trained foreign military officers who later committed human rights abuses. And experts suggest that the total number of criminal U.S. trainees is likely to be far higher, since IMET is the only one of a sprawling collection of security assistance programs that requires official reports on human rights abusers.

In their Journal of Peace Research study, Caverley and Savage kept the spotlight on IMET because the program “explicitly focuses on promoting norms of civilian control” of the military.  Indeed, it’s a truism of U.S. military assistance programs that they instill democratic values and respect for international norms. Yet the list of U.S.-trained coup-makers — from Isaac Zida of Burkina Faso, Haiti’s Philippe Biamby, and Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia to Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, and the IMET-educated leaders of the 2009 coup in Honduras, not to mention Mali’s Amadou Sanogo — suggests an embrace of something other than democratic values and good governance. “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics, and military ethos,” then chief of U.S. Africa Command, Carter Ham, said of Sanogo following his coup. “I believe that we focused exclusively on tactical and technical [training].”

Winning! It’s the White House watchword when it comes to the U.S. armed forces. “We will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing — you know what that is? Win! Win!” President Donald Trump exclaimed earlier this year while standing aboard the new aircraft carrier U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford.

Since World War II, however, neither preventing nor winning wars have been among America’s strong suits.  The nation has instead been embroiled in serial conflicts and interventions in which victories have been remarkably scarce, a trend that has only accelerated in the post-9/11 era. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Somalia to the Philippines, Libya to Yemen, military investments — in lives and tax dollars — have been costly and enduring victories essentially nonexistent. 

But Amadou Sanogo is something of a rare all-American military success story, even if he isn’t American and his success was fleeting.  Sanogo learned English in Texas, received instruction from U.S. Marines in Virginia, took his intelligence training in Arizona, and underwent Army infantry officer basic training in Georgia.  Back home in his native Mali, the young army officer was reportedly much admired for his sojourn, studies, and training in the United States.

In March 2012, Sanogo put his popularity and skills to use when he led a coup that overthrew Mali’s elected government. “America is [a] great country with a fantastic army. I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here,” he told Der Spiegel during his tenure as Mali’s military strongman. (He eventually lost his grip on power, was arrested, and in 2016 went on trial for “complicity in kidnapping and assassination.”)

Since 9/11, the United States has spent more than $250 billion training foreign military and police personnel like Sanogo.  Year after year, a sprawling network of U.S. programs provides 200,000 of these soldiers and security officers with assistance and support.  In 2015, almost 80,000 of them, hailing from 154 countries, received what’s formally known as Foreign Military Training (FMT). 

The stated goals of two key FMT programs — International Military Education and Training (IMET) and the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP) — include promoting “international peace and security” and increasing the awareness among foreign military personnel of “internationally recognized human rights.”  In reality, these programs focus on strengthening U.S. partner and proxy forces globally, though there’s scant evidence that they actually succeed in that goal. A study published in July, analyzing data from 1970 to 2009, finds that FMT programs are, however, effective at imparting skills integral to at least one specific type of armed undertaking. “We find a robust relationship between U.S. training of foreign militaries and military-backed coup attempts,” wrote Jonathan Caverley of the U.S. Naval War College and Jesse Savage of Trinity College Dublin in the Journal of Peace Research.  

Bad Actors

Through nearly 200 separate programs, the State Department and the Department of Defense (DoD) engage in what’s called “security cooperation,” “building partner capacity,” and other assistance to foreign forces.  In 2001, the DoD administered about 17% of security assistance funding. By 2015, that figure had jumped to approximately 60%. The Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, a post-9/11 creation indicative of this growth, is mostly run through the DoD and focuses on training mid- and senior-level defense officials from allied militaries in the tenets of counterterrorism. The State Department, by contrast, is the driving force behind the older and larger IMET program, though the Defense Department implements the training.

Under IMET, foreign personnel — like Sanogo — travel to the U.S. to take classes and undergo instruction at military schools and bases. “IMET is designed to help foreign militaries bolster their relationships with the United States, learn about U.S. military equipment, improve military professionalism, and instill democratic values in their members,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick in a 2016 Council on Foreign Relations memorandum aimed at reforming the program.

However, in an investigation published earlier this year, Lauren Chadwick of the Center for Public Integrity found that, according to official U.S. government documents, at least 17 high-ranking foreigners — including five generals — trained through IMET between 1985 and 2010 were later accused and in some cases convicted of criminal and human rights abuses. An open-source study by the non-profit Center for International Policy found another 33 U.S.-trained foreign military officers who later committed human rights abuses. And experts suggest that the total number of criminal U.S. trainees is likely to be far higher, since IMET is the only one of a sprawling collection of security assistance programs that requires official reports on human rights abusers.

In their Journal of Peace Research study, Caverley and Savage kept the spotlight on IMET because the program “explicitly focuses on promoting norms of civilian control” of the military.  Indeed, it’s a truism of U.S. military assistance programs that they instill democratic values and respect for international norms. Yet the list of U.S.-trained coup-makers — from Isaac Zida of Burkina Faso, Haiti’s Philippe Biamby, and Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia to Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, and the IMET-educated leaders of the 2009 coup in Honduras, not to mention Mali’s Amadou Sanogo — suggests an embrace of something other than democratic values and good governance. “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics, and military ethos,” then chief of U.S. Africa Command, Carter Ham, said of Sanogo following his coup. “I believe that we focused exclusively on tactical and technical [training].”


Featured Title from this Author

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

In 2014, two generations of U.S.-educated officers faced off in The Gambia as a group of American-trained would-be coup-makers attempted (but failed) to overthrow the U.S.-trained coup-maker Yahya Jammeh who had seized power back in 1994. The unsuccessful rebellion claimed the life of Lamin Sanneh, the purported ringleader, who had earned a master’s degree at National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C. (Two other coup plotters had apparently even served in the U.S. military.) “I can’t shake the feeling that his education in the United States somehow influenced his actions,” wrote Sanneh’s former NDU mentor Jeffrey Meiser. “I can’t help but wonder if simply imprinting our foreign students with the ‘American program’ is counterproductive and unethical.”

Caverly warns that Washington should also be cautious about exporting its own foreign and domestic policy imperatives, given that recent administrations have left the Defense Department flush with funding and the State Department’s coffers so bare that generals are forced to beg on its behalf.   “Put more succinctly,” he explained, “you need to build up multiple groups within civil society to complement and sometimes counterbalance an empowered military.” 

Caverley and Savage identified 275 military-backed coups that occurred worldwide between 1970 and 2009.  In 165 of them, members of that country’s armed forces had received some IMET or CTFP training the year before the coup. If you add up all the years of such instruction for all those countries, it tops out at 3,274 “country years.”  In 165 instances, a takeover attempt was carried out the next year. “That’s 5%, which is very high, since coups happen rarely,” Caverley told TomDispatch. “The ratio for country-years with no U.S. training is 110 out of 4101, or 2.7%.”

While U.S. training didn’t carry the day in The Gambia in 2014 (as it had in 1994 when U.S. military-police-training alumnus Yahya Jammeh seized power), it is nonetheless linked with victorious juntas. “Successful coups are strongly associated with IMET training and spending,” Caverley and Savage noted.  According to their findings, American trainees succeeded in overthrowing their governments in 72 of the 165 coup attempts.

Train Wreck

There is significant evidence that the sprawling patchwork of America’s military training programs for foreign forces is hopelessly broken.  In 2013, a State Department advisory board found that American security aid had no coherent means of evaluation and no cohesive strategy. It compared the “baffling” array of programs to “a philanthropic grant-making process by an assemblage of different foundations with different agendas.” 

A 2014 RAND analysis of U.S. security cooperation (SC) found “no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.” A 2015 report from U.S. Special Operations Command’s Joint Special Operations University noted that efforts at building partner capacity have “in the past consumed vast resources for little return.” That same year, an analysis by the Congressional Research Service concluded that “despite the increasing emphasis on, and centrality of, [building partner capacity] in national security strategy and military operations, the assumption that building foreign security forces will have tangible U.S. national security benefits remains a relatively untested proposition.” 

“There are no standard guidelines for determining the goals of [counter-terrorism] security assistance programs, particularly partner capacity-building training programs, or for assessing how these programs fit into broader U.S. foreign policy objectives,” reads a 2016 Center for a New American Security report. “And there are few metrics for measuring the effectiveness of these programs once they are being implemented.” And in his 2016 report on IMET for the Council on Foreign Relations, Kurlantzick noted that the effort is deeply in need of reform. “The program,” he wrote, “contains no system for tracking which foreign military officers attended IMET… [a]dditionally, the program is not effectively promoting democracy and respect for civilian command of armed forces.”

Studies aside, the failures of U.S. training efforts across the Greater Middle East have been obvious for years. From the collapse of the U.S.-built Iraqi army in the face of small numbers of Islamic State militants to a stillborn effort to create a new armed force for Libya, a $500 million failed effort to train and equip Syrian rebels, and an often incompetent, ghost-soldier-filled, desertion-prone army in Afghanistan, large-scale American initiatives to build and bolster foreign forces have crashed and burned repeatedly. 

One thing stateside U.S. training does seem to do, according to Caverley and Savage, is increase “human capital” — that is, foreign trainees’ professional skills like small unit tactics and strategic planning as well as intangibles like increased prestige in their home countries. And unlike other forms of American aid that allow regimes to shuttle state resources toward insulating the government from coups by doing anything from bribing potential rivals to fostering parallel security forces (like presidential guards), FMT affords no such outlet. “If you give assets to a group with guns and a strong corporate identity within a country lacking well-developed institutions and norms, you create the potential for political imbalance,” Caverley told TomDispatch. “An extreme example of that imbalance is an attempt to take over the entire government.”

Strength and Numbers

The United States has a troubled past when it comes to working with foreign militaries. From Latin America to Southeast Asia, Washington has a long history of protecting, backing, and fostering forces implicated in atrocities. Within the last several months alone, reports have surfaced about U.S.-trained or -aided forces from the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Cameroon, and Iraq torturing or executing prisoners. 

Some U.S.-trained figures like Isaac Zida in Burkina Faso and Amadou Sanogo in Mali have experienced only short-term successes in overthrowing their country’s governments.  Others like The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh (who went into exile in January after 22 years in power) and Egypt’s president — and former U.S. Army War College student — Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have had far more lasting tenures as strongmen in their homelands.

Any foreign military training provided by the U.S., write Caverley and Savage, “corresponds to a doubling of the probability of a military-backed coup attempt in the recipient country.” And the more money the U.S. spends or the more soldiers it trains via IMET, the higher the risk of a coup d’état.

In 2014, the U.S. resumed IMET support for Mali — it had been suspended for a year following the insurrection — and even increased that funding by a modest $30,000.  That West African nation has, however, never recovered from the coup crisis of 2012 and, half a decade later, remains wracked by an insurgency that Sanogo, his successors, and a French- and U.S.-backed military campaign have been unable to defeat. As the militant groups in Mali have grown and metastasized, the U.S. has continued to pour money into training local military personnel. In 2012, the year Amadou Sanogo seized power, the U.S. spent $69,000 in IMET funds on training Malian officers in the United States.  Last year, the figure reached $738,000.

For the better part of two decades from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to Pakistan, Somalia to Syria, U.S. drone strikes, commando raids, large-scale occupations and other military interventions have led to small-scale tactical triumphs and long-term stalemates (not to mention death and destruction). Training efforts in and military aid to those and other nations — from Mali to South Sudan, Libya to the Philippines — have been plagued by setbacks, fiascos, and failures.

President Trump has promised the military “tools” necessary to “prevent” and “win” wars.  By that he means “resources, personnel training and equipment… the finest equipment in the world.”  Caverley and Savage’s research suggests that the Pentagon could benefit far more from analytical tools to shed light on programs that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and deliver counterproductive results — programs, that is, where the only “wins” are achieved by the likes of Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia and Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. 

“Warfighters focus on training other warfighters. Full stop. Any second order effects, like coups, are not the primary consideration for the training,” Caverley explains. “That’s why security cooperation work by the U.S. military, like its more violent operations, needs to be put in a strategic context that is largely lacking in this current administration, but was not much in evidence in other administrations either.”

In 2014, two generations of U.S.-educated officers faced off in The Gambia as a group of American-trained would-be coup-makers attempted (but failed) to overthrow the U.S.-trained coup-maker Yahya Jammeh who had seized power back in 1994. The unsuccessful rebellion claimed the life of Lamin Sanneh, the purported ringleader, who had earned a master’s degree at National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C. (Two other coup plotters had apparently even served in the U.S. military.) “I can’t shake the feeling that his education in the United States somehow influenced his actions,” wrote Sanneh’s former NDU mentor Jeffrey Meiser. “I can’t help but wonder if simply imprinting our foreign students with the ‘American program’ is counterproductive and unethical.”

Caverly warns that Washington should also be cautious about exporting its own foreign and domestic policy imperatives, given that recent administrations have left the Defense Department flush with funding and the State Department’s coffers so bare that generals are forced to beg on its behalf.   “Put more succinctly,” he explained, “you need to build up multiple groups within civil society to complement and sometimes counterbalance an empowered military.” 

Caverley and Savage identified 275 military-backed coups that occurred worldwide between 1970 and 2009.  In 165 of them, members of that country’s armed forces had received some IMET or CTFP training the year before the coup. If you add up all the years of such instruction for all those countries, it tops out at 3,274 “country years.”  In 165 instances, a takeover attempt was carried out the next year. “That’s 5%, which is very high, since coups happen rarely,” Caverley told TomDispatch. “The ratio for country-years with no U.S. training is 110 out of 4101, or 2.7%.”

While U.S. training didn’t carry the day in The Gambia in 2014 (as it had in 1994 when U.S. military-police-training alumnus Yahya Jammeh seized power), it is nonetheless linked with victorious juntas. “Successful coups are strongly associated with IMET training and spending,” Caverley and Savage noted.  According to their findings, American trainees succeeded in overthrowing their governments in 72 of the 165 coup attempts.

Train Wreck

There is significant evidence that the sprawling patchwork of America’s military training programs for foreign forces is hopelessly broken.  In 2013, a State Department advisory board found that American security aid had no coherent means of evaluation and no cohesive strategy. It compared the “baffling” array of programs to “a philanthropic grant-making process by an assemblage of different foundations with different agendas.” 

A 2014 RAND analysis of U.S. security cooperation (SC) found “no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.” A 2015 report from U.S. Special Operations Command’s Joint Special Operations University noted that efforts at building partner capacity have “in the past consumed vast resources for little return.” That same year, an analysis by the Congressional Research Service concluded that “despite the increasing emphasis on, and centrality of, [building partner capacity] in national security strategy and military operations, the assumption that building foreign security forces will have tangible U.S. national security benefits remains a relatively untested proposition.” 

“There are no standard guidelines for determining the goals of [counter-terrorism] security assistance programs, particularly partner capacity-building training programs, or for assessing how these programs fit into broader U.S. foreign policy objectives,” reads a 2016 Center for a New American Security report. “And there are few metrics for measuring the effectiveness of these programs once they are being implemented.” And in his 2016 report on IMET for the Council on Foreign Relations, Kurlantzick noted that the effort is deeply in need of reform. “The program,” he wrote, “contains no system for tracking which foreign military officers attended IMET… [a]dditionally, the program is not effectively promoting democracy and respect for civilian command of armed forces.”

Studies aside, the failures of U.S. training efforts across the Greater Middle East have been obvious for years. From the collapse of the U.S.-built Iraqi army in the face of small numbers of Islamic State militants to a stillborn effort to create a new armed force for Libya, a $500 million failed effort to train and equip Syrian rebels, and an often incompetent, ghost-soldier-filled, desertion-prone army in Afghanistan, large-scale American initiatives to build and bolster foreign forces have crashed and burned repeatedly. 

One thing stateside U.S. training does seem to do, according to Caverley and Savage, is increase “human capital” — that is, foreign trainees’ professional skills like small unit tactics and strategic planning as well as intangibles like increased prestige in their home countries. And unlike other forms of American aid that allow regimes to shuttle state resources toward insulating the government from coups by doing anything from bribing potential rivals to fostering parallel security forces (like presidential guards), FMT affords no such outlet. “If you give assets to a group with guns and a strong corporate identity within a country lacking well-developed institutions and norms, you create the potential for political imbalance,” Caverley told TomDispatch. “An extreme example of that imbalance is an attempt to take over the entire government.”

Strength and Numbers

The United States has a troubled past when it comes to working with foreign militaries. From Latin America to Southeast Asia, Washington has a long history of protecting, backing, and fostering forces implicated in atrocities. Within the last several months alone, reports have surfaced about U.S.-trained or -aided forces from the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Cameroon, and Iraq torturing or executing prisoners. 

Some U.S.-trained figures like Isaac Zida in Burkina Faso and Amadou Sanogo in Mali have experienced only short-term successes in overthrowing their country’s governments.  Others like The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh (who went into exile in January after 22 years in power) and Egypt’s president — and former U.S. Army War College student — Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have had far more lasting tenures as strongmen in their homelands.

Any foreign military training provided by the U.S., write Caverley and Savage, “corresponds to a doubling of the probability of a military-backed coup attempt in the recipient country.” And the more money the U.S. spends or the more soldiers it trains via IMET, the higher the risk of a coup d’état.

In 2014, the U.S. resumed IMET support for Mali — it had been suspended for a year following the insurrection — and even increased that funding by a modest $30,000.  That West African nation has, however, never recovered from the coup crisis of 2012 and, half a decade later, remains wracked by an insurgency that Sanogo, his successors, and a French- and U.S.-backed military campaign have been unable to defeat. As the militant groups in Mali have grown and metastasized, the U.S. has continued to pour money into training local military personnel. In 2012, the year Amadou Sanogo seized power, the U.S. spent $69,000 in IMET funds on training Malian officers in the United States.  Last year, the figure reached $738,000.

For the better part of two decades from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to Pakistan, Somalia to Syria, U.S. drone strikes, commando raids, large-scale occupations and other military interventions have led to small-scale tactical triumphs and long-term stalemates (not to mention death and destruction). Training efforts in and military aid to those and other nations — from Mali to South Sudan, Libya to the Philippines — have been plagued by setbacks, fiascos, and failures.

President Trump has promised the military “tools” necessary to “prevent” and “win” wars.  By that he means “resources, personnel training and equipment… the finest equipment in the world.”  Caverley and Savage’s research suggests that the Pentagon could benefit far more from analytical tools to shed light on programs that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and deliver counterproductive results — programs, that is, where the only “wins” are achieved by the likes of Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia and Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. 

“Warfighters focus on training other warfighters. Full stop. Any second order effects, like coups, are not the primary consideration for the training,” Caverley explains. “That’s why security cooperation work by the U.S. military, like its more violent operations, needs to be put in a strategic context that is largely lacking in this current administration, but was not much in evidence in other administrations either.”

Can the Pentagon Win When Putsch Comes to Shove?

The tabs on their shoulders read “Special Forces,” “Ranger,” “Airborne.” And soon their guidon — the “colors” of Company B, 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group — would be adorned with the “Bandera de Guerra,” a Colombian combat decoration.

“Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade’s hard work against drug trafficking,” said Army Colonel Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military’s Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December.  America’s most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000.  Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade.  Now, they were being honored for it.

Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special ops efforts in Colombia are a much ballyhooed American success story.  A 2015 RAND Corporation study found that the program “represents an enduring SOF partnership effort that managed to help foster a relatively professional and capable special operations force.”  And for a time, coca production in that country plummeted.  Indeed, this was the ultimate promise of America’s “Plan Colombia” and efforts that followed from it.  “Over the longer haul, we can expect to see more effective drug eradication and increased interdiction of illicit drug shipments,” President Bill Clinton predicted in January 2000.

Today, however, more than 460,000 acres of the Colombian countryside are blanketed with coca plants, more than during the 1980s heyday of the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  U.S. cocaine overdose deaths are also at a 10-year high and first-time cocaine use among young adults has spiked 61% since 2013.  “Recent findings suggest that cocaine use may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States,” wrote researchers from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a study published in December 2016 — just after the Green Berets attended that ceremony in Colombia.  Cocaine, the study’s authors write, “may be making a comeback.”

Colombia is hardly an anomaly when it comes to U.S. special ops deployments — or the results that flow from them.  For all their abilities, tactical skills, training prowess, and battlefield accomplishments, the capacity of U.S. Special Operations forces to achieve decisive and enduring successes — strategic victories that serve U.S. national interests — have proved to be exceptionally limited, a reality laid bare from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to the Philippines. 

The fault for this lies not with the troops themselves, but with a political and military establishment that often appears bereft of strategic vision and hasn’t won a major war since the 1940s.  Into this breach, elite U.S. forces are deployed again and again. While special ops commanders may raise concerns about the tempo of operations and strains on the force, they have failed to grapple with larger questions about the raison d’être of SOF, while Washington’s oversight establishment, notably the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, have consistently failed to so much as ask hard questions about the strategic utility of America’s Special Operations forces.

Special Ops at War

“We operate and fight in every corner of the world,” boasts General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM).  “On a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80-plus countries.  They are conducting the entire range of SOF missions in both combat and non-combat situations.”  Those numbers, however, only hint at the true size and scope of this global special ops effort.  Last year, America’s most elite forces conducted missions in 138 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command.  Halfway through 2017, U.S. commandos have already been deployed to an astonishing 137 countries, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. 

Special Operations Command is tasked with carrying out 12 core missions, ranging from counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare to hostage rescue and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Counterterrorism — fighting what the command calls violent extremist organizations (VEOs) — may, however, be what America’s elite forces have become best known for in the post-9/11 era.  “The threat posed by VEOs remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort,” says Thomas.

“Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America — essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found…”

More special operators are deployed to the Middle East than to any other region.  Significant numbers of them are advising Iraqi government forces and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers as well as Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Unit) fighters and various ethnic Arab forces in Syria, according to Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who spent seven weeks in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries earlier this year. 

During a visit to Qayyarah, Iraq — a staging area for the campaign to free Mosul, formerly Iraq’s second largest city, from the control of Islamic State fighters — Robinson “saw a recently installed U.S. military medical unit and its ICU set up in tents on the base.”  In a type of mission seldom reported on, special ops surgeons, nurses, and other specialists put their skills to work on far-flung battlefields not only to save American lives, but to prop up allied proxy forces that have limited medical capabilities.  For example, an Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team recently spent eight weeks deployed at an undisclosed location in the Iraq-Syria theater, treating 750 war-injured patients.  Operating out of an abandoned one-story home within earshot of a battlefield, the specially trained airmen worked through a total of 19 mass casualty incidents and more than 400 individual gunshot or blast injuries.

When not saving lives in Iraq and Syria, elite U.S. forces are frequently involved in efforts to take them.  “U.S. SOF are… being thrust into a new role of coordinating fire support,” wrote Robinson. “This fire support is even more important to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a far more lightly armed irregular force which constitutes the major ground force fighting ISIS in Syria.”  In fact, a video shot earlier this year, analyzed by the Washington Post, shows special operators “acting as an observation element for what appears to be U.S. airstrikes carried out by A-10 ground attack aircraft” to support Syrian Democratic Forces fighting for the town of Shadadi.

Africa now ranks second when it comes to the deployment of special operators thanks to the exponential growth in missions there in recent years.  Just 3% of U.S. commandos deployed overseas were sent to Africa in 2010.  Now that number stands at more than 17%, according to SOCOM data.  Last year, U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed to 32 African nations, about 60% of the countries on the continent.  As I recently reported at VICE News, at any given time, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other special operators are now conducting nearly 100 missions across 20 African countries.

In May, for instance, Navy SEALs were engaged in an “advise and assist operation” alongside members of Somalia’s army and came under attack.  SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other U.S. personnel were injured during a firefight that also, according to AFRICOM spokesperson Robyn Mack, left three al-Shabaab militants dead.  U.S. forces are also deployed in Libya to gather intelligence in order to carry out strikes of opportunity against Islamic State forces there.  While operations in Central Africa against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal militia that has terrorized the region for decades, wound down recently, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of the LRA as recently as April. 

Spring Training

What General Thomas calls “building partner nations’ capacity” forms the backbone of the global activities of his command.  Day in, day out, America’s most elite troops carry out such training missions to sharpen their skills and those of their allies and of proxy forces across the planet. 


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This January, for example, Green Berets and Japanese paratroopers carried out airborne training near Chiba, Japan.  February saw Green Berets at Sanaa Training Center in northwest Syria advising recruits for the Manbij Military Council, a female fighting force of Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis.  In March, snowmobiling Green Berets joined local forces for cold-weather military drills in Lapland, Finland.  That same month, special operators and more than 3,000 troops from Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom took part in tactical training in Germany.

In the waters off Kuwait, special operators joined elite forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council nations in conducting drills simulating a rapid response to the hijacking of an oil tanker.  In April, special ops troops traveled to Serbia to train alongside a local special anti-terrorist unit.  In May, members of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq carried out training exercises with Iraqi special operations forces near Baghdad. That same month, 7,200 military personnel, including U.S. Air Force Special Tactics airmen, Italian special operations forces, members of host nation Jordan’s Special Task Force, and troops from more than a dozen other nations took part in Exercise Eager Lion, practicing everything from assaulting compounds to cyber-defense.  For their part, a group of SEALs conducted dive training alongside Greek special operations forces in Souda Bay, Greece, while others joined NATO troops in Germany as part of Exercise Saber Junction 17 for training in land operations, including mock “behind enemy lines missions” in a “simulated European village.” 

#Winning

“We have been at the forefront of national security operations for the past three decades, to include continuous combat over the past 15-and-a-half years,” SOCOM’s Thomas told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities last month.  “This historic period has been the backdrop for some of our greatest successes, as well as the source of our greatest challenge, which is the sustained readiness of this magnificent force.”  Yet, for all their magnificence and all those successes, for all the celebratory ceremonies they’ve attended, the wars, interventions, and other actions for which they’ve served as the tip of the American spear have largely foundered, floundered, or failed. 

After their initial tactical successes in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, America’s elite operators became victims of Washington’s failure to declare victory and go home.  As a result, for the last 15 years, U.S. commandos have been raiding homes, calling in air strikes, training local forces, and waging a relentless battle against a growing list of terror groups in that country.  For all their efforts, as well as those of their conventional military brethren and local Afghan allies, the war is now, according to the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, a “stalemate.”  That’s a polite way of saying what a recent report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found: districts that are contested or under “insurgent control or influence” have risen from an already remarkable 28% in 2015 to 40%.

The war in Afghanistan began with efforts to capture or kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.  Having failed in this post-9/11 mission, America’s elite forces spun their wheels for the next decade when it came to his fate.  Finally, in 2011, Navy SEALs cornered him in his long-time home in Pakistan and gunned him down.  Ever since, special operators who carried out the mission and Washington power-players (not to mention Hollywood) have been touting this single tactical success.

In an Esquire interview, Robert O’Neill, the SEAL who put two bullets in bin Laden’s head, confessed that he joined the Navy due to frustration over an early crush, a puppy-love pique.  “That’s the reason al-Qaeda has been decimated,” he joked, “because she broke my fucking heart.”  But al-Qaeda was not decimated — far from it according to Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. special agent and the author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State.  As he recently observed, “Whereas on 9/11 al-Qaeda had a few hundred members, almost all of them based in a single country, today it enjoys multiple safe havens across the world.”  In fact, he points out, the terror group has gained strength since bin Laden’s death.

Year after year, U.S. special operators find themselves fighting new waves of militants across multiple continents, including entire terror groups that didn’t exist on 9/11.  All U.S. forces killed in Afghanistan in 2017 have reportedly died battling an Islamic State franchise, which began operations there just two years ago. 

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, to take another example, led to the meteoric rise of an al-Qaeda affiliate which, in turn, led the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — the elite of America’s special ops elite — to create a veritable manhunting machine designed to kill its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and take down the organization.  As with bin Laden, special operators finally did find and eliminate Zarqawi, battering his organization in the process, but it was never wiped out.  Left behind were battle-hardened elements that later formed the Islamic State and did what al-Qaeda never could: take and hold huge swaths of territory in two nations.  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch grew into a separate force of more than 20,000. 

In Yemen, after more than a decade of low-profile special ops engagement, that country teeters on the brink of collapse in the face of a U.S.-backed Saudi war there.  Continued U.S. special ops missions in that country, recently on the rise, have seemingly done nothing to alter the situation.  Similarly, in Somalia in the Horn of Africa, America’s elite forces remain embroiled in an endless war against militants. 

In 2011, President Obama launched Operation Observant Compass, sending Special Operations forces to aid Central African proxies in an effort to capture or kill Joseph Kony and decimate his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), then estimated to number 150 to 300 armed fighters.  After the better part of a decade and nearly $800 million spent, 150 U.S. commandos were withdrawn this spring and U.S. officials attended a ceremony to commemorate the end of the mission.  Kony was, however, never captured or killed and the LRA is now estimated to number about 150 to 250 fighters, essentially the same size as when the operation began.

This string of futility extends to Asia as well.  “U.S. Special Forces have been providing support and assistance in the southern Philippines for many years, at the request of several different Filipino administrations,” Emma Nagy, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Manilla, pointed out earlier this month.  Indeed, a decade-plus-long special ops effort there has been hailed as a major success.  Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, wrote RAND analyst Linda Robinson late last year in the Pentagon journal Prism, “was aimed at enabling the Philippine security forces to combat transnational terrorist groups in the restive southern region of Mindanao.” 

A 2016 RAND report co-authored by Robinson concluded that “the activities of the U.S. SOF enabled the Philippine government to substantially reduce the transnational terrorist threat in the southern Philippines.” This May, however, Islamist militants overran Marawi City, a major urban center on Mindanao.  They have been holding on to parts of it for weeks despite a determined assault by Filipino troops backed by U.S. Special Operations forces.  In the process, large swaths of the city have been reduced to rubble.

Running on Empty

America’s elite forces, General Thomas told members of Congress last month, “are fully committed to winning the current and future fights.”  In reality, though, from war to war, intervention to intervention, from the Anti-Drug Brigade ceremony in Florencia, Colombia, to the end-of-the-Kony-hunt observance in Obo in the Central African Republic, there is remarkably little evidence that even enduring efforts by Special Operations forces result in strategic victories or improved national security outcomes.  And yet, despite such boots-on-the-ground realities, America’s special ops forces and their missions only grow.

“We are… grateful for the support of Congress for the required resourcing that, in turn, has produced a SOCOM which is relevant to all the current and enduring threats facing the nation,” Thomas told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May.  Resourcing has, indeed, been readily available.  SOCOM’s annual budget has jumped from $3 billion in 2001 to more than $10 billion today.  Oversight, however, has been seriously lacking.  Not a single member of the House or Senate Armed Services Committees has questioned why, after more than 15 years of constant warfare, winning the “current fight” has proven so elusive.  None of them has suggested that “support” from Congress ought to be reconsidered in the face of setbacks from Afghanistan to Iraq, Colombia to Central Africa, Yemen to the southern Philippines.  

In the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to about 60 nations around the world.  By 2011, under President Barack Obama, that number had swelled to 120.  During this first half-year of the Trump administration, U.S. commandos have already been sent to 137 countries, with elite troops now enmeshed in conflicts from Africa to Asia.  “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee last month.  In fact, current and former members of the command have, for some time, been sounding the alarm about the level of strain on the force. 

These deployment levels and a lack of meaningful strategic results from them have not, however, led Washington to raise fundamental questions about the ways the U.S. employs its elite forces, much less about SOCOM’s raison d’être.  “We are a command at war and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” SOCOM’s Thomas explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Not one member asked why or to what end. 

A Wide World of Winless War

General Thomas Waldhauser sounded a little uneasy.  “I would just say, they are on the ground.  They are trying to influence the action,” commented the chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) at a Pentagon press briefing in March, when asked about Russian military personnel operating in North Africa.  “We watch what they do with great concern.”

And Russians aren’t the only foreigners on Waldhauser’s mind.  He’s also wary of a Chinese “military base” being built not far from Camp Lemonnier, a large U.S. facility in the tiny, sun-blasted nation of Djibouti.  “They’ve never had an overseas base, and we’ve never had a base of… a peer competitor as close as this one happens to be,” he said.  “There are some very significant… operational security concerns.”

At that press conference, Waldhauser mentioned still another base, an American one exposed by the Washington Post last October in an article titled, “U.S. has secretly expanded its global network of drone bases to North Africa.”  Five months later, the AFRICOM commander still sounded aggrieved.  “The Washington Post story that said ‘flying from a secret base in Tunisia.’  It’s not a secret base and it’s not our base… We have no intention of establishing a base there.”

Waldhauser’s insistence that the U.S. had no base in Tunisia relied on a technicality, since that foreign airfield clearly functions as an American outpost. For years, AFRICOM has peddled the fiction that Djibouti is the site of its only “base” in Africa. “We continue to maintain one forward operating site on the continent, Camp Lemonnier,” reads the command’s 2017 posture statement.  Spokespeople for the command regularly maintain that any other U.S. outposts are few and transitory — “expeditionary” in military parlance. 

While the U.S. maintains a vast empire of military installations around the world, with huge — and hard to miss — complexes throughout Europe and Asia, bases in Africa have been far better hidden.  And if you listened only to AFRICOM officials, you might even assume that the U.S. military’s footprint in Africa will soon be eclipsed by that of the Chinese or the Russians. 

Highly classified internal AFRICOM files offer a radically different picture.  A set of previously secret documents, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, offers clear evidence of a remarkable, far-ranging, and expanding network of outposts strung across the continent.  In official plans for operations in 2015 that were drafted and issued the year before, Africa Command lists 36 U.S. outposts scattered across 24 African countries.  These include low-profile locations — from Kenya to South Sudan to a shadowy Libyan airfield — that have never previously been mentioned in published reports.  Today, according to an AFRICOM spokesperson, the number of these sites has actually swelled to 46, including “15 enduring locations.”  The newly disclosed numbers and redacted documents contradict more than a decade’s worth of dissembling by U.S. Africa Command and shed new light on a constellation of bases integral to expanding U.S. military operations on the African continent and in the Middle East.


A map of U.S. military bases — forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations — across the African continent in 2014 from declassified AFRICOM planning documents (Nick Turse/TomDispatch).

A Constellation of Bases

AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated requests for further information about the 46 bases, outposts, and staging areas currently dotting the continent.  Nonetheless, the newly disclosed 2015 plans offer unique insights into the wide-ranging network of outposts, a constellation of bases that already provided the U.S. military with unprecedented continental reach.

Those documents divide U.S. bases into three categories: forward operating sites (FOSes), cooperative security locations (CSLs), and contingency locations (CLs).  “In total, [the fiscal year 20]15 proposed posture will be 2 FOSes, 10 CSLs, and 22 CLs” state the documents.  By spring 2015, the number of CSLs had already increased to 11, according to then-AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez, in order to allow U.S. crisis-response forces to reach potential hot spots in West Africa.  An appendix to the plan, also obtained by TomDispatch, actually lists 23 CLs, not 22.  Another appendix mentions one additional contingency location.

These outposts — of which forward operating sites are the most permanent and contingency locations the least so — form the backbone of U.S. military operations on the continent and have been expanding at a rapid rate, particularly since the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.  The plans also indicate that the U.S. military regularly juggles locations, shuttering sites and opening others, while upgrading contingency locations to cooperative security locations in response to changing conditions like, according to the documents, “increased threats emanating from the East, North-West, and Central regions” of the continent.

AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement notes, for example, a recent round of changes to the command’s inventory of posts.  The document explains that the U.S. military “closed five contingency locations and designated seven new contingency locations on the continent due to shifting requirements and identified gaps in our ability to counter threats and support ongoing operations.”  Today, according to AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, the total number of sites has jumped from the 36 cited in the 2015 plans to 46 — a network now consisting of two forward operating sites, 13 cooperative security locations, and 31 contingency locations.

Location, Location, Location

AFRICOM’s sprawling network of bases is crucial to its continent-wide strategy of training the militaries of African proxies and allies and conducting a multi-front campaign aimed at combating a disparate and spreading collection of terror groups.  The command’s major areas of effort involve: a shadow war against the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia (a long-term campaign, ratcheting up in the Trump era, with no end in sight); attempts to contain the endless fallout from the 2011 U.S. and allied military intervention that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the neutralizing of “violent extremist organizations” across northwest Africa, the lands of the Sahel and Maghreb (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the degradation of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin nations of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad (a long-term effort — to the tune of $156 million last year alone in support of regional proxies there — with no end in sight); countering piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (a long-term effort with no end in sight), and winding down the wildly expensive effort to eliminate Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa (both live on, despite a long-term U.S. effort). 

The U.S. military’s multiplying outposts are also likely to prove vital to the Trump administration’s expanding wars in the Middle East.  African bases have long been essential, for instance, to Washington’s ongoing shadow war in Yemen, which has seen a significant increase in drone strikes under the Trump administration.  They have also been integral to operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where a substantial (and deadly) uptick in U.S. airpower (and civilian casualties) has been evident in recent months.

In 2015, AFRICOM spokesman Anthony Falvo noted that the command’s “strategic posture and presence are premised on the concept of a tailored, flexible, light footprint that leverages and supports the posture and presence of partners and is supported by expeditionary infrastructure.” The declassified secret documents explicitly state that America’s network of African bases is neither insignificant nor provisional.  “USAFRICOM’s posture requires a network of enduring and non-enduring locations across the continent,” say the 2015 plans.  “A developed network of FOSes, CSLs, and non-enduring CLs in key countries… is necessary to support the command’s operations and engagements.”

According to the files, AFRICOM’s two forward operating sites are Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier and a base on the United Kingdom’s Ascension Island off the west coast of Africa.  Described as “enduring locations” with a sustained troop presence and “U.S.-owned real property,” they serve as hubs for staging missions across the continent and for supplying the growing network of outposts there. 

Lemonnier, the crown jewel of America’s African bases, has expanded from 88 acres to about 600 acres since 2002, and in those years, the number of personnel there has increased exponentially as well. “Camp Lemonnier serves as a hub for multiple operations and security cooperation activities,” reads AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement.  “This base is essential to U.S. efforts in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.”  Indeed, the formerly secret documents note that the base supports “U.S operations in Somalia CT [counterterrorism], Yemen CT, Gulf of Aden (counter-piracy), and a wide range of Security Assistance activities and programs throughout the region.”


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In 2015, when he announced the increase in cooperative security locations, then-AFRICOM chief David Rodriguez mentioned Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon as staging areas for the command’s rapid reaction forces.  Last June, outgoing U.S. Army Africa commander Major General Darryl Williams drew attention to a CSL in Uganda and one being set up in Botswana, adding, “We have very austere, lean, lily pads, if you will, all over Africa now.” 

CSL Entebbe in Uganda has, for example, long been an important air base for American forces in Africa, serving as a hub for surveillance aircraft.  It also proved integral to Operation Oaken Steel, the July 2016 rapid deployment of troops to the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as that failed state (and failed U.S. nation-building effort) sank into yet more violence. 

Libreville, Gabon, is listed in the documents as a “proposed CSL,” but was actually used in 2014 and 2015 as a key base for Operation Echo Casemate, the joint U.S.-French-African military response to unrest in the Central African Republic.

AFRICOM’s 2015 plan also lists cooperative security locations in Accra, Ghana; Gaborone, Botswana; Dakar, Senegal; Douala, Cameroon; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Mombasa, Kenya.  While officially defined by the military as temporary locales capable of being scaled up for larger operations, any of these CSLs in Africa “may also function as a major logistics hub,” according to the documents.

Contingency Plans 

The formerly secret AFRICOM files note that the command has designated five contingency locations as “semi-permanent,” 13 as “temporary,” and four as “initial.”  These include a number of sites that have never previously been disclosed, including outposts in several countries that were actually at war when the documents were created.  Listed among the CLs, for instance, is one in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, already in the midst of an ongoing civil war in 2014; one in Bangui, the capital of the periodically unstable Central African Republic; and another in Al-Wigh, a Saharan airfield in southern Libya located near that country’s borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria.

Officially classified as “non-enduring” locations, CLs are nonetheless among the most integral sites for U.S. operations on the continent.  Today, according to AFRICOM’s Prichard, the 31 contingency locations provide “access to support partners, counter threats, and protect U.S. interests in East, North, and West Africa.”

AFRICOM did not provide the specific locations of the current crop of CLs, stating only that they “strive to increase access in crucial areas.” The 2015 plans, however, provide ample detail on the areas that were most important to the command at that time.  One such site is Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, also mentioned in a 2013 internal Pentagon study on secret drone operations in Somalia and Yemen.  At least two manned surveillance aircraft were based there at the time. 

Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti is also mentioned in AFRICOM’s 2015 plan.  Once a spartan French Foreign Legion post, it has undergone substantial expansion in recent years as U.S. drone operations in that country were moved from Camp Lemonnier to this more remote location.  It soon became a regional hub for unmanned aircraft not just for Africa but also for the Middle East.  By the beginning of October 2015, for example, drones flown from Chabelley had already logged more than 24,000 hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions and were also, according to the Air Force, “responsible for the neutralization of 69 enemy fighters, including five high-valued individuals” in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

AFRICOM’s inventory of CLs also includes sites in Nzara, South Sudan; Arlit, Niger; both Bamako and Gao, Mali; Kasenyi, Uganda; Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles; Monrovia, Liberia; Ouassa and Nema, Mauritania; Faya Largeau, Chad; Bujumbura, Burundi; Lakipia, the site of a Kenyan Air Force base; and another Kenyan airfield at Wajir that was upgraded and expanded by the U.S. Navy earlier in this decade, as well as an outpost in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, that was reportedly shuttered in 2015 after nearly five years of operation.

A longtime contingency location in Niamey, the capital of Niger, has seen marked growth in recent years as has a more remote location, a Nigerien military base at Agadez, listed among the “proposed” CSLs in the AFRICOM documents.  The U.S. is, in fact, pouring $100 million into building up the base, according to a 2016 investigation by the Intercept.  N’Djamena, Chad, the site of yet another “proposed CSL,” has actually been used by the U.S. military for years.  Troops and a drone were dispatched there in 2014 to aid in operations against Boko Haram and “base camp facilities” were constructed there, too. 

The list of proposed CLs also includes sites in Berbera, a town in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, and in Mogadishu, the capital of neighboring Somalia (another locale used by American troops for years), as well as the towns of Baidoa and Bosaso.  These or other outposts are likely to play increasingly important roles as the Trump administration ramps up its military activities in Somalia, the long-failed state that saw 18 U.S. personnel killed in the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” mission of 1993.   Last month, for instance, President Trump relaxed rules aimed at preventing civilian casualties when the U.S. conducts drone strikes and commando raids in that country and so laid the foundation for a future escalation of the war against al-Shabaab there.  This month, AFRICOM confirmed that dozens of soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, a storied light infantry unit, would be deployed to that same country in order to train local forces to, as a spokesperson put it, “better fight” al-Shabaab.

Many other sites previously identified as U.S. outposts or staging areas are not listed in AFRICOM’s 2015 plans, such as bases in Djema, Sam Ouandja, and Obo in the Central African Republic that were revealed, in recent years, by the Washington Post.  Also missing is a newer drone base in Garoua, Cameroon, not to mention that Tunisian air base where the U.S. has been flying drones, according to AFRICOM’s Waldhauser, for quite some time.”  

Some bases may have been shuttered, while others may not yet have been put in service when the documents were produced.  Ultimately, the reasons that these and many other previously identified bases are not included in the redacted secret files are unclear due to AFRICOM’s refusal to offer comment, clarification, or additional information on the locations of its bases.    

Base Desires

“Just as the U.S. pursues strategic interests in Africa, international competitors, including China and Russia, are doing the same,” laments AFRICOM in its 2017 posture statement. “We continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency.” 

Since it was established as an independent command in 2008, however, AFRICOM itself has been anything but transparent about its activities on the continent.  The command’s physical footprint may, in fact, have been its most jealously guarded secret.  Today, thanks to AFRICOM’s own internal documents, that secret is out and with AFRICOM’s admission that it currently maintains “15 enduring locations,” the long-peddled fiction of a combatant command with just one base in its area of operations has been laid to rest.

“Because of the size of Africa, because of the time and space and the distances, when it comes to special crisis-response-type activities, we need access in various places on the continent,” said AFRICOM chief Waldhauser during his March press conference.  These “various places” have also been integral to escalating American shadow wars, including a full-scale air campaign against the Islamic State in Libya, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, which ended late last year, and ongoing intelligence-gathering missions and a continued U.S. troop presence in that country; drone assassinations and increased troop deployments in Somalia to counter al-Shabaab; and increasing engagement in a proxy war against Boko Haram militants in the Lake Chad region of Central Africa.  For these and many more barely noticed U.S. military missions, America’s sprawling, ever-expanding network of bases provides the crucial infrastructure for cross-continental combat by U.S. and allied forces, a low-profile support system for war-making in Africa and beyond.

Without its wide-ranging constellation of bases, it would be nearly impossible for the U.S. to carry out ceaseless low-profile military activities across the continent.  As a result, AFRICOM continues to prefer shadows to sunlight.  While the command provided figures on the total number of U.S. military bases, outposts, and staging areas in Africa, its spokespeople failed to respond to repeated requests to provide locations for any of the 46 current sites.  While the whereabouts of the new outposts may still be secret, there’s little doubt as to the trajectory of America’s African footprint, which has increased by 10 locations — a 28% jump — in just over two years. 

America’s “enduring” African bases “give the United States options in the event of crisis and enable partner capacity building,” according to AFRICOM’s Chuck Prichard.  They have also played a vital role in conflicts from Yemen to Iraq, Nigeria to Somalia.  With the Trump administration escalating its wars in Africa and the Middle East, and the potential for more crises — from catastrophic famines to spreading wars — on the horizon, there’s every reason to believe the U.S. military’s footprint on the continent will continue to evolve, expand, and enlarge in the years ahead, outpost by outpost and base by base.

America’s War-Fighting Footprint in Africa

They could be found on the outskirts of Sirte, Libya, supporting local militia fighters, and in Mukalla, Yemen, backing troops from the United Arab Emirates.  At Saakow, a remote outpost in southern Somalia, they assisted local commandos in killing several members of the terror group al-Shabab.  Around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai in northern Syria, they partnered with both Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias, while also embedding with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces.  Across the border in Iraq, still others joined the fight to liberate the city of Mosul.  And in Afghanistan, they assisted indigenous forces in various missions, just as they have every year since 2001.

For America, 2016 may have been the year of the commando.  In one conflict zone after another across the northern tier of Africa and the Greater Middle East, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) waged their particular brand of low-profile warfare.  “Winning the current fight, including against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other areas where SOF is engaged in conflict and instability, is an immediate challenge,” the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General Raymond Thomas, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.

SOCOM’s shadow wars against terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) may, ironically, be its most visible operations.  Shrouded in even more secrecy are its activities — from counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts to seemingly endless training and advising missions — outside acknowledged conflict zones across the globe.  These are conducted with little fanfare, press coverage, or oversight in scores of nations every single day.  From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America’s most elite forces — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — were deployed to 138 countries in 2016, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command.  This total, one of the highest of Barack Obama’s presidency, typifies what has become the golden age of, in SOF-speak, the “gray zone” — a phrase used to describe the murky twilight between war and peace.  The coming year is likely to signal whether this era ends with Obama or continues under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.


America’s most elite troops deployed to 138 nations in 2016, according to U.S. Special Operations Command.  The map above displays the locations of 132 of those countries; 129 locations (blue) were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command; 3 locations (red) — Syria, Yemen and Somalia — were derived from open-source information. (Nick Turse)

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“In just the past few years, we have witnessed a varied and evolving threat environment consisting of: the emergence of a militarily expansionist China; an increasingly unpredictable North Korea; a revanchist Russia threatening our interests in both Europe and Asia; and an Iran which continues to expand its influence across the Middle East, fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict,” General Thomas wrote last month in PRISM, the official journal of the Pentagon’s Center for Complex Operations.  “Nonstate actors further confuse this landscape by employing terrorist, criminal, and insurgent networks that erode governance in all but the strongest states… Special operations forces provide asymmetric capability and responses to these challenges.”

In 2016, according to data provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, the U.S. deployed special operators to China (specifically Hong Kong), in addition to eleven countries surrounding it — Taiwan (which China considers a breakaway province), Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Laos, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan.  Special Operations Command does not acknowledge sending commandos into Iran, North Korea, or Russia, but it does deploy troops to many nations that ring them. 


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SOCOM is willing to name only 129 of the 138 countries its forces deployed to in 2016. “Almost all Special Operations forces deployments are classified,” spokesman Ken McGraw told TomDispatch.  “If a deployment to a specific country has not been declassified, we do not release information about the deployment.”    

SOCOM does not, for instance, acknowledge sending troops to the war zones of Somalia, Syria, or Yemen, despite overwhelming evidence of a U.S. special ops presence in all three countries, as well as a White House report, issued last month, that notes “the United States is currently using military force in” Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, and specifically states that “U.S. special operations forces have deployed to Syria.”

According to Special Operations Command, 55.29% of special operators deployed overseas in 2016 were sent to the Greater Middle East, a drop of 35% since 2006.  Over the same span, deployments to Africa skyrocketed by more than 1600% — from just 1% of special operators dispatched outside the U.S. in 2006 to 17.26% last year.  Those two regions were followed by areas served by European Command (12.67%), Pacific Command (9.19%), Southern Command (4.89%), and Northern Command (0.69%), which is in charge of “homeland defense.”  On any given day, around 8,000 of Thomas’s commandos can be found in more than 90 countries worldwide.


U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 138 nations in 2016.  Locations in blue were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command.  Those in red were derived from open-source information.  Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia are not among those nations named or identified, but all are at least partially surrounded by nations visited by America’s most elite troops last year. (Nick Turse)

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The Manhunters

“Special Operations forces are playing a critical role in gathering intelligence — intelligence that’s supporting operations against ISIL and helping to combat the flow of foreign fighters to and from Syria and Iraq,” said Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, in remarks at the International Special Operations Forces Convention last year.  Such intelligence operations are “conducted in direct support of special operations missions,” SOCOM’s Thomas explained in 2016.  “The preponderance of special operations intelligence assets are dedicated to locating individuals, illuminating enemy networks, understanding environments, and supporting partners.” 

Signals intelligence from computers and cellphones supplied by foreign allies or intercepted by surveillance drones and manned aircraft, as well as human intelligence provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has been integral to targeting individuals for kill/capture missions by SOCOM’s most elite forces.  The highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), for example, carries out such counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes, raids, and assassinations in places like Iraq and Libya.  Last year, before he exchanged command of JSOC for that of its parent, SOCOM, General Thomas noted that members of Joint Special Operations Command were operating in “all the countries where ISIL currently resides.”  (This may indicate a special ops deployment to Pakistan, another country absent from SOCOM’s 2016 list.)   

“[W]e have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering ISIL’s external operations.  And we have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing ISIL leaders from the battlefield,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted in a relatively rare official mention of JSOC’s operations at an October press conference. 

A month earlier, he offered even more detail in a statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

”We’re systematically eliminating ISIL’s leadership: the coalition has taken out seven members of the ISIL Senior Shura… We also removed key ISIL leaders in both Libya and Afghanistan… And we’ve removed from the battlefield more than 20 of ISIL’s external operators and plotters… We have entrusted this aspect of our campaign to one of [the Department of Defense’s] most lethal, capable, and experienced commands, our Joint Special Operations Command, which helped deliver justice not only to Osama Bin Laden, but also to the man who founded the organization that became ISIL, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi.”

Asked for details on exactly how many ISIL “external operators” were targeted and how many were “removed” from the battlefield by JSOC in 2016, SOCOM’s Ken McGraw replied: “We do not and will not have anything for you.” 

When he was commander of JSOC in 2015, General Thomas spoke of his and his unit’s “frustrations” with limitations placed on them.  “I’m told ‘no’ more than ‘go’ on a magnitude of about ten to one on almost a daily basis,” he said.  Last November, however, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was granting a JSOC task force “expanded power to track, plan and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe.”  That Counter-External Operations Task Force (also known as “Ex-Ops”) has been “designed to take JSOC’s targeting model… and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West.” 

SOCOM disputes portions of the Post story.  “Neither SOCOM nor any of its subordinate elements have… been given any expanded powers (authorities),” SOCOM’s Ken McGraw told TomDispatch by email.  “Any potential operation must still be approved by the GCC [Geographic Combatant Command] commander [and], if required, approved by the Secretary of Defense or [the president].”

“U.S. officials” (who spoke only on the condition that they be identified in that vague way) explained that SOCOM’s response was a matter of perspective.  Its powers weren’t recently expanded as much as institutionalized and put “in writing,” TomDispatch was told.  “Frankly, the decision made months ago was to codify current practice, not create something new.”  Special Operations Command refused to confirm this but Colonel Thomas Davis, another SOCOM spokesman, noted: “Nowhere did we say that there was no codification.”

With Ex-Ops, General Thomas is a “decision-maker when it comes to going after threats under the task force’s purview,” according to the Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe.  “The task force would essentially turn Thomas into the leading authority when it comes to sending Special Operations units after threats.”  Others claim Thomas has only expanded influence, allowing him to directly recommend a plan of action, such as striking a target, to the Secretary of Defense, allowing for shortened approval time.  (SOCOM’s McGraw says that Thomas “will not be commanding forces or be the decision maker for SOF operating in any GCC’s [area of operations].”)

Last November, Defense Secretary Carter offered an indication of the frequency of offensive operations following a visit to Florida’s Hurlburt Field, the headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command.  He noted that “today we were looking at a number of the Special Operations forces’ assault capabilities.  This is a kind of capability that we use nearly every day somewhere in the world… And it’s particularly relevant to the counter-ISIL campaign that we’re conducting today.” 

In Afghanistan, alone, Special Operations forces conducted 350 raids targeting al-Qaeda and Islamic State operatives last year, averaging about one per day, and capturing or killing nearly 50 “leaders” as well as 200 “members” of the terror groups, according to General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in that country.  Some sources also suggest that while JSOC and CIA drones flew roughly the same number of missions in 2016, the military launched more than 20,000 strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, compared to less than a dozen by the Agency. This may reflect an Obama administration decision to implement a long-considered plan to put JSOC in charge of lethal operations and shift the CIA back to its traditional intelligence duties. 

World of Warcraft

“[I]t is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort, because its use also highlights why the U.S. continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns — Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine — none of which fits the U.S. model for traditional war,” said retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now a senior mentor to the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group.  Asserting that, amid the larger problems of these conflicts, the ability of America’s elite forces to conduct kill/capture missions and train local allies has proven especially useful, he added, “SOF is at its best when its indigenous and direct-action capabilities work in support of each other. Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing CT [counterterrrorism] efforts elsewhere, SOF continues to work with partner nations in counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.” 

SOCOM acknowledges deployments to approximately 70% of the world’s nations, including all but three Central and South American countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela being the exceptions). Its operatives also blanket Asia, while conducting missions in about 60% of the countries in Africa.   

A SOF overseas deployment can be as small as one special operator participating in a language immersion program or a three-person team conducting a “survey” for the U.S. embassy.  It may also have nothing to do with a host nation’s government or military.  Most Special Operations forces, however, work with local partners, conducting training exercises and engaging in what the military calls “building partner capacity” (BPC) and “security cooperation” (SC).  Often, this means America’s most elite troops are sent to countries with security forces that are regularly cited for human rights abuses by the U.S. State Department.  Last year in Africa, where Special Operations forces utilize nearly 20 different programs and activities — from training exercises to security cooperation engagements — these included Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, among others.

In 2014, for example, more than 4,800 elite troops took part in just one type of such activities — Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions — around the world.  At a cost of more than $56 million, Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and other special operators carried out 176 individual JCETs in 87 countries.  A 2013 RAND Corporation study of the areas covered by Africa Command, Pacific Command, and Southern Command found “moderately low” effectiveness for JCETs in all three regions.  A 2014 RAND analysis of U.S. security cooperation, which also examined the implications of “low-footprint Special Operations forces efforts,” found that there “was no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.”  And in a 2015 report for Joint Special Operations University, Harry Yarger, a senior fellow at the school, noted that “BPC has in the past consumed vast resources for little return.”

Despite these results and larger strategic failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the Obama years have been the golden age of the gray zone.  The 138 nations visited by U.S. special operators in 2016, for example, represent a jump of 130% since the waning days of the Bush administration.  Although they also represent a 6% drop compared to last year’s total, 2016 remains in the upper range of the Obama years, which saw deployments to 75 nations in 2010, 120 in 2011, 134 in 2013, and 133 in 2014, before peaking at 147 countries in 2015.  Asked about the reason for the modest decline, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw replied, “We provide SOF to meet the geographic combatant commands’ requirements for support to their theater security cooperation plans.  Apparently, there were nine fewer countries [where] the GCCs had a requirement for SOF to deploy to in [Fiscal Year 20]16.”

The increase in deployments between 2009 and 2016 — from about 60 countries to more than double that — mirrors a similar rise in SOCOM’s total personnel (from approximately 56,000 to about 70,000) and in its baseline budget (from $9 billion to $11 billion).  It’s no secret that the tempo of operations has also increased dramatically, although the command refused to address questions from TomDispatch on the subject. 

“SOF have shouldered a heavy burden in carrying out these missions, suffering a high number of casualties over the last eight years and maintaining a high operational tempo (OPTEMPO) that has increasingly strained special operators and their families,” reads an October 2016 report released by the Virginia-based think tank CNA.  (That report emerged from a conference attended by six former special operations commanders, a former assistant secretary of defense, and dozens of active-duty special operators.)


A closer look at the areas of the “undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine” mentioned by retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland. Locations in blue were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command.  The one in red was derived from open-source information. (Nick Turse)

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The American Age of the Commando

Last month, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shawn Brimley, former director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and now an executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security, echoed the worried conclusions of the CNA report.   At a hearing on “emerging U.S. defense challenges and worldwide threats,” Brimley said “SOF have been deployed at unprecedented rates, placing immense strain on the force” and called on the Trump administration to “craft a more sustainable long-term counterterrorism strategy.”  In a paper published in December, Kristen Hajduk, a former adviser for Special Operations and Irregular Warfare in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called for a decrease in the deployment rates for Special Operations forces.

While Donald Trump has claimed that the U.S. military as a whole is “depleted” and has called for increasing the size of the Army and Marines, he has offered no indication about whether he plans to support a further increase in the size of special ops forces.  And while he did recently nominate a former Navy SEAL to serve as his secretary of the interior, Trump has offered few indications of how he might employ special operators who are currently serving. 

“Drone strikes,” he announced in one of his rare detailed references to special ops missions, “will remain part of our strategy, but we will also seek to capture high-value targets to gain needed information to dismantle their organizations.”  More recently, at a North Carolina victory rally, Trump made specific references to the elite troops soon to be under his command.  “Our Special Forces at Fort Bragg have been the tip of the spear in fighting terrorism. The motto of our Army Special Forces is ‘to free the oppressed,’ and that is exactly what they have been doing and will continue to do. At this very moment, soldiers from Fort Bragg are deployed in 90 countries around the world,” he told the crowd. 

After seeming to signal his support for continued wide-ranging, free-the-oppressed special ops missions, Trump appeared to change course, adding, “We don’t want to have a depleted military because we’re all over the place fighting in areas that just we shouldn’t be fighting in… This destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally, folks, come to an end.”  At the same time, however, he pledged that the U.S. would soon “defeat the forces of terrorism.”  To that end, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a former director of intelligence for JSOC whom the president-elect tapped to serve as his national security adviser, has promised that the new administration would reassess the military’s powers to battle the Islamic State — potentially providing more latitude in battlefield decision-making.  To this end, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon is crafting proposals to reduce “White House oversight of operational decisions” while “moving some tactical authority back to the Pentagon.”   

Last month, President Obama traveled to Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base, the home of Special Operations Command, to deliver his capstone counterterrorism speech.  “For eight years that I’ve been in office, there has not been a day when a terrorist organization or some radicalized individual was not plotting to kill Americans,” he told a crowd packed with troops.  At the same time, there likely wasn’t a day when the most elite forces under his command were not deployed in 60 or more countries around the world. 

“I will become the first president of the United States to serve two full terms during a time of war,” Obama added.  “Democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war.  That’s not good for our military, it’s not good for our democracy.”  The results of his permanent-war presidency have, in fact, been dismal, according to Special Operations Command.  Of eight conflicts waged during the Obama years, according to a 2015 briefing slide from the command’s intelligence directorate, America’s record stands at zero wins, two losses, and six ties.

The Obama era has indeed proven to be the “age of the commando.”  However, as Special Operations forces have kept up a frenetic operational tempo, waging war in and out of acknowledged conflict zones, training local allies, advising indigenous proxies, kicking down doors, and carrying out assassinations, terror movements have spread across the Greater Middle East and Africa

President-elect Donald Trump appears poised to obliterate much of the Obama legacy, from the president’s signature healthcare law to his environmental regulations, not to mention changing course when it comes to foreign policy, including in relations with China, Iran, Israel, and Russia.  Whether he will heed advice to decrease Obama-level SOF deployment rates remains to be seen.  The year ahead will, however, offer clues as to whether Obama’s long war in the shadows, the golden age of the gray zone, survives.

The Year of the Commando

Al-Qaeda doesn’t care about borders. Neither does the Islamic State or Boko Haram. Brigadier General Donald Bolduc thinks the same way.

“[T]errorists, criminals, and non-state actors aren’t bound by arbitrary borders,” the commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) told an interviewer early this fall.  “That said, everything we do is not organized around recognizing traditional borders. In fact, our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multi-national, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach.”

A SOCAFRICA planning document obtained by TomDispatch offers a window onto the scope of these “multi-national, collective actions” carried out by America’s most elite troops in Africa. The declassified but heavily redacted secret report, covering the years 2012-2017 and acquired via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), details nearly 20 programs and activities — from training exercises to security cooperation engagements — utilized by SOCAFRICA across the continent. This wide array of low-profile missions, in addition to named operations and quasi-wars, attests to the growing influence and sprawling nature of U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) in Africa.

How U.S. military engagement will proceed under the Trump administration remains to be seen.  The president-elect has said or tweeted little about Africa in recent years (aside from long trading in baseless claims that the current president was born there).  Given his choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn — a former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command who believes that the United States is in a “world war” with Islamic militants — there is good reason to believe that Special Operations Command Africa will continue its border-busting missions across that continent.  That, in turn, means that Africa is likely to remain crucial to America’s nameless global war on terror.

Publicly, the command claims that it conducts its operations to “promote regional stability and prosperity,” while Bolduc emphasizes that its missions are geared toward serving the needs of African allies.  The FOIA files make clear, however, that U.S. interests are the command’s principal and primary concern — a policy in keeping with the America First mindset and mandate of incoming commander-in-chief Donald J. Trump — and that support to “partner nations” is prioritized to suit American, not African, needs and policy goals.

Shades of Gray

Bolduc is fond of saying that his troops — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, among others — operate in the “gray zone,” or what he calls “the spectrum of conflict between war and peace.”  Another of his favored stock phrases is: “In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution” — that is, not pulling triggers and dropping bombs.  He also regularly takes pains to say that “we are not at war in Africa — but our African partners certainly are.”

That is not entirely true.

Earlier this month, in fact, a White House report made it clear, for instance, that “the United States is currently using military force” in Somalia.  At about the same moment, the New York Times revealed an imminent Obama administration plan to deem al-Shabab “to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials,” strengthening President-elect Donald Trump’s authority to carry out missions there in 2017 and beyond.

As part of its long-fought shadow war against al-Shabab militants, the U.S. has carried out commando raids and drone assassinations there (with the latter markedly increasing in 2015-2016). On December 5th, President Obama issued his latest biannual “war powers” letter to Congress which noted that the military had not only “conducted strikes in defense of U.S. forces” there, but also in defense of local allied troops.  The president also acknowledged that U.S. personnel “occasionally accompany regional forces, including Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, during counterterrorism operations.”

Obama’s war powers letter also mentioned American deployments in Cameroon, Djibouti, and Niger, efforts aimed at countering Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa, a long-running mission by military observers in Egypt, and a continuing deployment of forces supporting “the security of U.S. citizens and property” in rapidly deteriorating South Sudan.

The president offered only two sentences on U.S. military activities in Libya, although a long-running special ops and drone campaign there has been joined by a full-scale American air war, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, against Islamic State militants, especially those in the city of Sirte.  Since August 1st, in fact, the United States has carried out nearly 500 air strikes in Libya, according to figures supplied by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).


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Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

Odyssey Lightning is, in fact, no outlier.  While the “primary named operations” involving America’s elite forces in Africa have been redacted from the declassified secret files in TomDispatch’s possession, a November 2015 briefing by Bolduc, obtained via a separate FOIA request, reveals that his command was then involved in seven such operations on the continent.  These likely included at least some of the following: Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa, Octave Shield, and/or Juniper Garret, all aimed at East Africa; New Normal, an effort to secure U.S. embassies and assets around the continent; Juniper Micron, a U.S.-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali (following a 2012 coup there by a U.S.-trained officer and the chaos that followed); Observant Compass, the long-running effort to decimate the Lord’s Resistance Army (which recently retired AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez derided as expensive and strategically unimportant); and Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging effort (formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara) aimed at Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.  A 2015 briefing document by SOCAFRICA’s parent unit, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), also lists an ongoing “gray zone” conflict in Uganda.

On any given day, between 1,500 and 1,700 American special operators and support personnel are deployed somewhere on the continent.  Over the course of a year they conduct missions in more than 20 countries.  According to Bolduc’s November 2015 briefing, Special Operations Command Africa carries out 78 separate “mission sets.”  These include activities that range from enhancing “partner capability and capacity” to the sharing of intelligence.

Mission Creep

Most of what Bolduc’s troops do involves working alongside and mentoring local allies.  SOCAFRICA’s showcase effort, for instance, is Flintlock, an annual training exercise in Northwest Africa involving elite American, European, and African forces, which provides the command with a plethora of publicity.  More than 1,700 military personnel from 30-plus nations took part in Flintlock 2016.  Next year, according to Bolduc, the exercise is expected “to grow to include SOF from more countries, [as well as] more interagency partners.”

While the information has been redacted, the SOCAFRICA strategic planning document — produced in 2012 and scheduled to be fully declassified in 2037 — indicates the existence of one or more other training exercises.  Bolduc recently mentioned two: Silent Warrior and Epic Guardian.  In the past, the command has also taken part in exercises like Silver Eagle 10 and Eastern Piper 12.  (U.S. Africa Command did not respond to requests for comment on these exercises or other questions related to this article.)

Such exercises are, however, just a small part of the SOCAFRICA story.  Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions are a larger one.  Officially authorized to enable U.S. special operators to “practice skills needed to conduct a variety of missions, including foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism,” JCETs actually serve as a backdoor method of expanding U.S. military influence and contacts in Africa, since they allow for “incidental-training benefits” to “accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost.”  As a result, JCETs play an important role in forging and sustaining military relationships across the continent.  Just how many of these missions the U.S. conducts in Africa is apparently unknown — even to the military commands involved.  As TomDispatch reported earlier this year, according to SOCOM, the U.S. conducted 19 JCETs in 2012, 20 in 2013, and 20, again, in 2014.  AFRICOM, however, claims that there were nine JCETs in 2012, 18 in 2013, and 26 in 2014.

Whatever the true number, JCETs are a crucial cog in the SOCAFRICA machine.  “During a JCET, exercise or training event, a special forces unit might train a partner force in a particular tactical skill and can quickly ascertain if the training audience has adopted the capability,” explained Brigadier General Bolduc. “Trainers can objectively measure competency, then exercise… that particular skill until it becomes a routine.”

In addition, SOCAFRICA also utilizes a confusing tangle of State Department and Pentagon programs and activities, aimed at local allies that operate under a crazy quilt of funding schemes, monikers, and acronyms.  These include deployments of Mobile Training Teams, Joint Planning Advisory Teams, Joint Military Education Teams, Civil Military Support Elements, as well as Military Information Support Teams that engage in what once was called psychological operations, or psyops — that is, programs designed to “inform and influence foreign target audiences as appropriately authorized.”

Special Operations Command Africa also utilizes an almost mind-numbing  panoply of “security cooperation programs” and other training activities including Section 1207(n) (also known as the Transitional Authorities for East Africa and Yemen, which provides equipment, training, and other aid to the militaries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen “to conduct counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda affiliates, and al-Shabab” and “enhance the capacity of national military forces participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia”); the Global Security Contingency Fund (designed to enhance the “capabilities of a country’s national military forces, and other national security forces that conduct border and maritime security, internal defense, and counterterrorism operations”); the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (or PREACT, designed to build counterterror capacities and foster military and law enforcement efforts in East African countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda); and, among others, the Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Partnership, the Global Peace Operations Initiative, the Special Operations to Combat Terrorism, the Combatting Terrorism Fellowship, and another known as Counter-Narcotic Terrorism.

Like Africa’s terror groups and Bolduc’s special ops troops, the almost 20 initiatives utilized by SOCAFRICA — a sprawling mass of programs that overlie and intersect with each other — have a border-busting quality to them.  What they don’t have is clear records of success.  A 2013 RAND Corporation analysis called such capacity-building programs “a tangled web, with holes, overlaps, and confusions.” A 2014 RAND study analyzing U.S. security cooperation (SC) found that there “was no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.”  A 2016 RAND report on “defense institution building” in Africa noted a “poor understanding of partner interests” by the U.S. military.

“We’re supporting African military professionalization and capability-building efforts, we’re supporting development and governance via civil affairs and military information support operations teams,” Bolduc insisted publicly. “[A]ll programs must be useful to the partner nation (not the foreign agenda) and necessary to advance the partner nations’ capabilities. If they don’t pass this simple test… we need to focus on programs that do meet the African partner nation’s needs.”

The 2012 SOCAFRICA strategic planning document obtained by TomDispatch reveals, however, that Special Operations Command Africa’s primary aim is not fostering African development, governance, or military professionalization.  “SOCAFRICA’s foremost objective is the prevention of an attack against America or American interests,” according to the declassified secret report.  In other words, a “foreign agenda,” not the needs of African partner nations, is what’s driving the elite force’s border-busting missions.

American Aims vs. African Needs

Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw cautioned that because SOCAFRICA and AFRICOM have both changed commanders since the 2012 document was issued, it was likely out of date.  “I recommend you contact SOCAFRICA,” he advised.  That command failed to respond to multiple requests for information or comment.  There are, however, no indications that it has actually altered its “foremost objective,” while Bolduc’s public comments suggest that the U.S. military’s engagement in the region is going strong. 

“Our partners and [forward deployed U.S. personnel] recognize the arbitrary nature of borders and understand the only way to combat modern-day threats like ISIS, AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Boko Haram, and myriad others is to leverage the capabilities of SOF professionals working in concert,” said Bolduc.  “Borders may be notional and don’t protect a country from the spread of violent extremism… but neither do oceans, mountains… or distance.”

In reality, however, oceans and distance have kept most Americans safe from terrorist organizations like AQIM and Boko Haram.  The same cannot be said for those who live in the nations menaced by these groups.  In Africa, terrorist organizations and attacks have spiked alongside the increase in U.S. Special Operations missions there.  In 2006, the percentage of forward-stationed special operators on the continent hovered at 1% of total globally deployed SOF forces.  By 2014, that number had hit 10% — a jump of 900% in less than a decade.  During that same span, according to information from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, terror incidents in Africa increased precipitously — from just over 100 per year to nearly 2,400 annually.  During the same period, the number of transnational terrorist organizations and illicit groups operating on the continent jumped from one to, according to Bolduc’s reckoning, nearly 50.

Correlation may not equal causation, but SOCAFRICA’s efforts have coincided with significantly worsening terrorist violence and the growth and spread of terror groups.  And it shouldn’t be a surprise.  While Bolduc publicly talks up the needs of African nations, his border-busting commandos operate under a distinctive America-first mandate and a mindset firmly in keeping with that of the incoming commander-in-chief.  “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first,” Donald Trump said earlier this year in a major foreign policy speech.  Kicking off his victory tour earlier this month, the president-elect echoed this theme.  “From now on, it’s going to be America first. Okay? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first,” he told a crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In Africa, the most elite troops soon to be under his command have, in fact, been operating this way for years.  “[W]e will prioritize and focus our operational efforts in those areas where the threat[s] to United States interests are most grave,” says the formerly secret SOCAFRICA document.  “Protecting America, Americans, and American interests is our overarching objective and must be reflected in everything we do.”

Commandos Without Borders

High above, somewhere behind the black glass façade, President-elect Donald J. Trump was huddled with his inner circle, plotting just how they would “drain the swamp” and remake Washington, perhaps the world. On the street far below, inside a warren of metal fencing surrounded by hefty concrete barriers with “NYPD” emblazoned on them, two middle-aged women were engaged in a signage skirmish.  One held aloft a battered poster that read “Love Trumps Hate”; just a few feet away, the other brandished a smaller slice of cardboard that said “Get Over It.” 

I was somewhere in between… and the Secret Service seemed a little unnerved.

Trump Tower is many things — the crown jewel skyscraper in Donald Trump’s real-estate empire, the site of the Trump Organization’s corporate offices, a long-time setting for his reality television show, The Apprentice, and now, as the New York Times describes it, “a 58-story White House in Midtown Manhattan.”  It is also, as noted above its front entrance: “OPEN TO THE PUBLIC 8 AM to 10 PM.”

When planning for the tower began in the late 1970s, Trump — like other developers of the era — struck a deal with the city of New York.  In order to add extra floors to the building, he agreed to provide amenities for the public, including access to restrooms, an atrium, and two upper-level gardens.    

When I arrived at Trump Tower, less than a week after Election Day, the fourth floor garden was roped off, so I proceeded up the glass escalator, made a right, and headed through a door into an outdoor pocket park on the fifth floor terrace.  Just as I entered, a group of Japanese tourists was leaving and, suddenly, I was alone, a solitary figure in a secluded urban oasis.

But not for long. 

Taking a seat on a silver aluminum chair at a matching table, I listened closely.  It had been a zoo down on Fifth Avenue just minutes before: demonstrators chanting “love trumps hate,” Trump supporters shouting back, traffic noise echoing in the urban canyon, the “whooooop” of police sirens, and a bikini-clad woman in body paint singing in front of the main entrance.  And yet in this rectangular roof garden, so near to America’s new White House-in-waiting, all was placid and peaceful.  There was no hint of the tourist-powered tumult below or of the potentially world-altering political machinations above, just the unrelenting white noise-hum of the HVAC system.     

On His Majesty’s Secret Service

The Stars and Stripes flies above the actual White House in Washington, D.C.  Inside the Oval Office, it’s joined by another flag — the seal of the president of the United States emblazoned on a dark blue field.  Here, however, Old Glory flies side by side with slightly tattered black-and-silver Nike swoosh flags waving lazily above the tony storefronts — Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent, Burberry and Chanel — of Manhattan’s 57th Street, and, of course, Trump Tower-tenant Niketown. 

That I was standing beneath those flags gazing down at luxe retailers evidently proved too much to bear for those who had been not-so-subtly surveilling me.  Soon a fit, heavily armed man clad in black tactical gear — what looked to my eye like a Kevlar assault suit and ballistic vest — joined me in the garden.  “How’s it going?” I asked, but he only nodded, muttered something incomprehensible, and proceeded to eyeball me hard for several minutes as I sat down at a table and scrawled away in my black Moleskine notepad.

My new paramilitary pal fit in perfectly with the armed-camp aesthetic that’s blossomed around Trump Tower.  The addition of fences and concrete barriers to already clogged holiday season sidewalks has brought all the joys of the airport security line to Fifth Avenue.  The scores of police officers now stationed around the skyscraper give it the air of a military outpost in a hostile land.  (All at a bargain basement price of $1 million-plus per day for the city of New York.)  Police Commissioner James O’Neill recently reeled off the forces which — in addition to traffic cops, beat cops, and bomb-sniffing dogs — now occupy this posh portion of the city: “specialized units, the critical response command, and the strategic response group, as well as plainclothes officers and counter-surveillance teams working hand-in-hand with our intelligence bureau and our partners in the federal government, specifically the Secret Service.”  The armed man in tactical gear who had joined me belonged to the latter agency. 

“You one of the reporters from downstairs?” he finally asked. 

“Yeah, I’m a reporter,” I replied and then filled the silence that followed by saying, “This has got to be a new one, huh, having a second White House to contend with?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” he answered, and then assured me that most visitors seemed disappointed by this park.  “I think everyone comes up thinking there’ll be a little more, but it’s like ‘yeah, okay.’” 


Featured Title from this Author

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

Small talk, however, wasn’t the agent’s forte, nor did he seem particularly skilled at intimidation, though it was clear enough that he wasn’t thrilled to have this member of the public in this public space.  Luckily for me (and the lost art of conversation), we were soon joined by “Joe.”  An aging bald man of not insignificant girth, Joe appeared to have made it onto the Secret Service’s managerial track.  He didn’t do commando-chic.  He wasn’t decked out in ridiculous SWAT-style regalia, nor did he have myriad accessories affixed to his clothing or a submachine gun strapped to his body.  He wore a nondescript blue suit with a silver and blue pin on his left lapel. 

I introduced myself as he took a seat across from me and, in response, though working for a federal agency, he promptly began a very NYPD-style interrogation with a very NYPD-style accent. 

“What’s going on, Nick?” he inquired.

“Not too much.”

“What are you doing? You’re all by yourself here…”

“Yeah, I’m all by my lonesome.”

“Kinda strange,” he replied in a voice vaguely reminiscent of Robert De Niro eating a salami sandwich.

“How so?”

“I don’t know. What are you doing? Taking notes?” he asked. 

I had reflexively flipped my notepad to a fresh page as I laid it between us on the table and Joe was doing his best to get a glimpse of what I’d written.      

I explained that I was a reporter. Joe wanted to know for whom I worked, so I reeled off a list of outlets where I’d been published. He followed up by asking where I was from. I told him and asked him the same. Joe said he was from Queens.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked. 

“Secret Service.”

“I was just saying to your friend here that it must be a real experience having a second White House to contend with.”

“Yeah, you could call it that,” he replied, sounding vaguely annoyed. Joe brushed aside my further attempts at small talk in favor of his own ideas about where our conversation should go. 

“You got some ID on you?” he asked. 

“I do,” I replied, offering nothing more than a long silence.

“Can I see it?”

“Do you need to?”

“If you don’t mind,” he said politely. Since I didn’t, I handed him my driver’s license and a business card. Looking at the former, with a photo of a younger man with a much thicker head of hair, Joe asked his most important question yet: “What did you do to your hair?”

“Ah yes,” I replied with a sigh, rubbing my hand over my thinned-out locks. “It’s actually what my hair did to me.” 

He gestured to his own follically challenged head and said, “I remember those days.”

Trump Tower’s Public Private Parts

Joe asked if there was anything he could do for me, so I wasn’t bashful. I told him that I wanted to know what his job was like — what it takes to protect President-elect Donald Trump and his soon-to-be second White House. “You do different things. Long hours.  Nothing out of the ordinary. Probably the same as you,” he said. I told him I really doubted that and kept up my reverse interrogation. “Other than talking to me, what did you do today?” I asked. 

“I dunno,” he responded. “Look around. Security. We’re Secret Service.” It was, he assured me, a boring job. 

“Come on,” I said. “There’s got to be a lot of challenges to securing a place like this. You’ve got open public spaces just like this one.”

There are, in fact, more than 500 privately owned public spaces, or POPS, similar to this landscaped terrace, all over the city.  By adding the gardens, atrium, and other amenities way back when, Trump was able to add about 20 extra floors to this building, a deal worth at least $500 million today, according to the New York Times.  And in the post-election era, Trump Tower now boasts a new, one-of-a-kind amenity.  The skies above it have been declared “national defense airspace” by the Federal Aviation Administration.  “The United States government may use deadly force against the airborne aircraft, if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat,” the agency warned in a recent notice to pilots. 

Back on the fifth floor, a metal plaque mounted on an exterior wall lays out the stipulations of the POPs agreement, namely that this “public garden” is to have nine large trees, four small trees, 148 seats, including 84 moveable chairs, and 21 tables.  None of the trees looked particularly large.  By my count the terrace was also missing three tables — a type available online starting at $42.99 — and about 20 chairs, though some were stacked out of view and, of course, just two were needed at the moment since Mr. Tactical Gear remained standing, a short distance away, the whole time.

This tiny secluded park seemed a world away from the circus below, the snarl of barricades outside the building, the tourists taking selfies with the big brassy “Trump Tower” sign in the background, and the heavily armed counterterror cops standing guard near the revolving door entrance.

I remarked on this massive NYPD presence on the streets. “It’s their city,” Joe replied and quickly changed topics, asking, “So business is good?”

“No, business is not too good. I should have picked a different profession,” I responded and asked if the Secret Service was hiring. Joe told me they were and explained what they looked for in an agent: a clean record, college degree, “law experience.” It made me reflect upon the not-so-clean record of that agency in the Obama years, a period during which its agents were repeatedly cited for gaffes, as when a fence-jumper made it all the way to the East Room of the White House, and outrageous behavior, including a prostitution scandal involving agents preparing the way for a presidential visit to Colombia. 

“What did you do before the Secret Service?” I inquired. Joe told me that he’d been a cop. At that point, he gave his black-clad compatriot the high sign and the younger man left the garden. 

“See, I’m no threat,” I assured him. Joe nodded and said he now understood the allure of the tiny park. Sensing that he was eager to end the interrogation I had turned on its head, I began peppering him with another round of questions. 

Instead of answering, he said, “Yeah, so anyway, Nick, I’ll leave you here,” and then offered me a piece of parting advice — perhaps one that no Secret Service agent protecting a past president-elect has ever had occasion to utter, perhaps one that suggests he’s on the same wavelength as the incoming commander-in-chief, a man with a penchant for ogling women (to say nothing of bragging about sexually assaulting them). “You should come downstairs,” Joe advised, his eyes widening, a large grin spreading across his face as his voice grew animated for the first time. “There was a lady in a bikini with a painted body!”

Joe walked off and, just like that, I was alone again, listening to the dull hum of the HVAC, seated in the dying light of the late afternoon.  A short time later, on my way out of the park, I passed the Secret Service agent in tactical gear. “I think you’re the one that found the most entertainment out here all day,” he said, clearly trying to make sense of why anyone would spend his time sitting in an empty park, scribbling in a notebook. I mentioned something about sketching out the scene, but more than that, I was attempting to soak in the atmosphere, capture a feeling, grapple with the uncertain future taking shape on the chaotic avenue below and high above our heads in Manhattan’s very own gilt White House.  I was seeking a preview, you might say, of Donald Trump’s America.    

Descending the switchback escalators, I found myself gazing at the lobby where a scrum of reporters stood waiting for golden elevator doors to open, potentially disgorging a Trump family member or some other person hoping to serve at the pleasure of the next president. Behind me water cascaded several stories down a pink marble wall, an overblown monument to a bygone age of excess.  Ahead of me, glass cases filled with Trump/Pence 2016 T-shirts, colognes with the monikers “Empire” and “Success,” the iconic red “Make America Great Again” one-size-fits-all baseball cap, stuffed animals, and other tchotchkes stood next to an overflowing gilded garbage can.  Heading for the door, I thought about all of this and Joe and his commando-chic colleague and Trump’s deserted private-public park, and the army of cops, the metal barricades, and the circus that awaited me on the street.  I felt I’d truly been given some hint of the future, a whisper of what awaits. I also felt certain I’d be returning to Trump Tower — and soon.

The Manhattan White House, the Secret Service, and the Painted Bikini Lady

“So is he going to win?”

The question washed over me as I slumped in my hard plastic chair.  I had passed the day walking through a town where most homes lay in ruins and human remains were strewn across a field, a day spent looking over my shoulder for soldiers and melting in the 110-degree heat.  My mind was as spent as my body.

Under an inky sky ablaze with stars, the type of night you see only in the rural world, I looked toward the man who asked the question and half-shrugged.  Everyone including me, I said, thought Donald Trump was going to flame out long ago.  And he hadn’t.  So what did I know? 

At that point, I couldn’t bear to talk about it anymore, so the two of us sat speechless for a time.  Finally, my companion looked back at me and broke his silence.  “It can’t happen, can it?” he asked.

I had no answer then — March of this year — sitting in that ruined town in South Sudan. 

I do now.

I thought about that March night as the election results rolled in, as the New York Times forecast showed Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency plummet from about 80% to less than 5%, while Trump’s fortunes skyrocketed by the minute.

As Clinton’s future in the Oval Office evaporated, leaving only a whiff of her stale dreams, I saw all the foreign-policy certainties, all the hawkish policies and military interventions, all the would-be bin Laden raids and drone strikes she’d preside over as commander-in-chief similarly vanish into the ether.

With her failed candidacy went the no-fly escalation in Syria that she was sure to pursue as president with the vigor she had applied to the disastrous Libyan intervention of 2011 while secretary of state.  So, too, went her continued pursuit of the now-nameless war on terror, the attendant “gray-zone” conflicts — marked by small contingents of U.S. troops, drone strikes, and bombing campaigns — and all those munitions she would ship to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen.  

As the life drained from Clinton’s candidacy, I saw her rabid pursuit of a new Cold War start to wither and Russo-phobic comparisons of Putin’s rickety Russian petro-state to Stalin’s Soviet Union begin to die.  I saw the end, too, of her Iron Curtain-clouded vision of NATO, of her blind faith in an alliance more in line with 1957 than 2017.    

As Clinton’s political fortunes collapsed, so did her Israel-Palestine policy — rooted in the fiction that American and Israeli security interests overlap — and her commitment to what was clearly an unworkable “peace process.”  Just as, for domestic considerations, she would blindly support that Middle Eastern nuclear power, so was she likely to follow President Obama’s trillion-dollar path to modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal.  All that, along with her sure-to-be-gargantuan military budget requests, were scattered to the winds by her ringing defeat.

The Dismal Tide

As I watched CNN, Twitter, and the Times website, what came to mind was that March night in South Sudan, after that exchange about Donald Trump, when the camp went quiet and I dragged my reeking body from my tent to the “shower” — water in a plastic bucket that I had earlier pumped from a borehole.  I picked my way across the camp with a flashlight so tiny it barely illuminated one step at a time.  It was like driving at night without headlights, a sojourn into the unknown, a journey into an airless, enveloping darkness.   

All that seemed certain suddenly wasn’t.  What would come next was a mystery.  That March night, I was trying to avoid falling into an open pit that was to serve as a shelter if shooting started near the camp.  As election night proceeded, a potentially more dangerous abyss seemed to be opening in the darkness before me. 

Clinton’s foreign policy future had been a certainty.  Trump’s was another story entirely.  He had, for instance, called for a raft of military spending: growing the Army and Marines to a ridiculous size, building a Navy to reach a seemingly arbitrary and budget-busting number of ships, creating a mammoth air armada of fighter jets, pouring money into a missile defense boondoggle, and recruiting a legion of (presumably overweight) hackers to wage cyber war.  All of it to be paid for by cutting unnamed waste, ending unspecified “federal programs,” or somehow conjuring up dollars from hither and yon.  But was any of it serious?  Was any of it true?  Would President Trump actually make good on the promises of candidate Trump?  Or would he simply bark “Wrong!” when somebody accused him of pledging to field an army of 540,000 active duty soldiers or build a Navy of 350 ships.   


Featured Title from this Author

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

Would Trump actually attempt to implement his plan to defeat ISIS — that is, “bomb the shit out of them” and then “take the oil” of Iraq?  Or was that just the bellicose bluster of the campaign trail?  Would he be the reckless hawk Clinton promised to be, waging wars like the Libyan intervention?  Or would he follow the dictum of candidate Trump who said, “The current strategy of toppling regimes, with no plan for what to do the day after, only produces power vacuums that are filled by terrorists.”

Outgoing representative Randy Forbes of Virginia, a contender to be secretary of the Navy in the new administration, recently said that the president elect would employ “an international defense strategy that is driven by the Pentagon and not by the political National Security Council… Because if you look around the globe, over the last eight years, the National Security Council has been writing that. And find one country anywhere that we are better off than we were eight years [ago], you cannot find it.”

Such a plan might actually blunt armed adventurism, since it was war-weary military officials who reportedly pushed back against President Obama’s plans to escalate Iraq War 3.0.  According to some Pentagon-watchers, a potentially hostile bureaucracy might also put the brakes on even fielding a national security team in a timely fashion.

While Wall Street investors seemed convinced that the president elect would be good for defense industry giants like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, whose stocks surged in the wake of Trump’s win, it’s unclear whether that indicates a belief in more armed conflicts or simply more bloated military spending. 

Under President Obama, the U.S. has waged war in or carried out attacks on at least eight nations — Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria.  A Clinton presidency promised more, perhaps markedly more, of the same — an attitude summed up in her infamous comment about the late Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.”  Trump advisor Senator Jeff Sessions said, “Trump does not believe in war. He sees war as bad, destructive, death and a wealth destruction.”  Of course, Trump himself said he favors committing war crimes like torture and murder.  He’s also suggested that he would risk war over the sort of naval provocations — like Iranian ships sailing close to U.S. vessels — that are currently met with nothing graver than warning shots.   

So there’s good reason to assume Trump will be a Clintonesque hawk or even worse, but some reason to believe — due to his propensity for liesbluster, and backing down — that he could also turn out to be less bellicose. 

Given his penchant for running businesses into the ground and for economic proposals expected to rack up trillions of dollars in debt, it’s possible that, in the end, Trump will inadvertently cripple the U.S. military.  And given that the government is, in many ways, a national security state bonded with a mass of money and orbited by satellite departments and agencies of far lesser import, Trump could even kneecap the entire government.  If so, what could be catastrophic for Americans — a battered, bankrupt United States — might, ironically, bode well for the wider world.     

In his victory speech, Trump struck a conciliatory note.  “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans,” he intoned.  “Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.”  This stood at odds with a year and a half of rancid rhetoric that was denounced far and wide as racist, sexist and xenophobic.  That said, racism, sexism and xenophobia have long been embraced by American presidents — anti-immigrant presidents, presidents who oppressedforcibly displacedimprisoned, or killed their fellow men on the basis of race or ethnicity, presidents who were dismissive when it came to a woman’s right to vote, or even owned women outright. 

Such behavior is wired into the DNA of the United States.  Indeed, these traits form the bedrock of a land born of the twin evils of settler colonialism and slavery.  Progress since — rights movements, strides toward equal protections under the law, even the notion of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice — may not ultimately be linear or even lasting. The high-water mark of the American experiment may well have already been reached.  Looking out from this city on a hill, it may soon be possible to glimpse the spot where the wave crested, before it ebbed and headed back out to sea.  So much that was fought for with such bravery may be swept away in the dismal tide and drowned in the depths. 

Or perhaps not. 

What was dragged under may struggle to the surface.  Castaways clinging to a lifeboat in the tempest may, one day, find themselves aboard a sea-splitting ship — its sails full, its many-hued flags flying, its decks teeming; its crew poised to thunder ashore, securing a new American beachhead.

We simply cannot know. 

It Can Happen Here

That dark, sultry night in South Sudan, I thought a great deal about rights and oppression, about what happens when the worst impulses of men are stoked and sharpened, about what it means when a government turns on its own people.  There, in that ruined town, young girls and women had been kidnapped and gang-raped with regularity; men and boys had been locked in a shipping container to wither and die; homes had been razed; corpses abandoned to snarling, scavenging hyenas; and skeletal remains left unburied.  It was a horrorscape, a place of suffering almost beyond imagining, one that puts the problems of America’s “forgotten men and women” and their “economic disenfranchisement,” as well as the “rage many white working-class people feel” into perspective.

At the time, I told my questioner just what I thought a Hillary Clinton presidency might mean for America and the world: more saber-rattling, more drone strikes, more military interventions, among other things.  Our just-ended election aborted those would-be wars, though Clinton’s legacy can still be seen, among other places, in the rubble of Iraq, the battered remains of Libya, and the faces of South Sudan’s child soldiers.  Donald Trump has the opportunity to forge a new path, one that could be marked by bombast instead of bombs.  If ever there was a politician with the ability to simply declare victory and go home — regardless of the facts on the ground — it’s him.  Why go to war when you can simply say that you did, big league, and you won?   

The odds, of course, are against this.  The United States has been embroiled in foreign military actions, almost continuously, since its birth and in 64 conflicts, large and small, according to the military, in the last century alone.  It’s a country that, since 9/11, has been remarkably content to wage winless, endless wars with little debate or popular outcry.  It’s a country in which Barack Obama won election, in large measure, due to dissatisfaction with the prior commander-in-chief’s signature war and then, after winning a Nobel Peace Prize and overseeing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, reengaged in an updated version of that very same war — bequeathing it now to Donald J. Trump.

“This Trump.  He’s a crazy man!” the African aid worker insisted to me that March night.  “He says some things and you wonder: Are you going to be president?  Really?”  It turns out the answer is yes.

“It can’t happen, can it?” That question still echoes in my mind.

I know all the things that now can’t happen, Clinton’s wars among them. The Trump era looms ahead like a dark mystery, cold and hard.  We may well be witnessing the rebirth of a bitter nation, the fruit of a land poisoned at its root by evils too fundamental to overcome; a country exceptional for its squandered gifts and forsaken providence, its shattered promises and moral squalor.

“It can’t happen, can it?” 

Indeed, my friend, it just did.

It Did Happen Here

LEER, South Sudan — There it is again. That sickening smell. I’m standing on the threshold of a ghost of a home. Its footprint is all that’s left. In the ruins sits a bulbous little silver teakettle — metal, softly rounded, charred but otherwise perfect, save for two punctures. Something tore through it and ruined it, just as something tore through this home and ruined it, just as something tore through this town and left it a dusty, wasted ruin.

This, truth be told, is no longer a town, not even a razed one. It’s a killing field, a place where human remains lie unburied, whose residents have long since fled, while its few remaining inhabitants are mostly refugees from similarly ravaged villages.

The world is awash in killing fields, sites of slaughter where armed men have laid waste to the innocent, the defenseless, the unlucky; locales where women and children, old and young men have been suffocated, had their skulls shattered, been left gut-shot and gasping.  Or sometimes they’re just the unhallowed grounds where the battered and broken bodies of such unfortunates are dumped without ceremony or prayer or even a moment of solemn reflection.  Over the last century, these blood-soaked sites have sprouted across the globe: Cambodia, the Philippines, the Koreas, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — on and on, year after year, country after country.

Chances are, you once heard something about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw up to one million men, women, and children murdered in just 100 days.  You may remember the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai.  And maybe you recall the images of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurds in Halabja.  For years, Sudan contributed to this terrible tally.  You might, for instance, remember the attention paid to the slaughter of civilians in Darfur during the 2000s.  The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did.  In the 1980s and 1990s, there were also massacres farther south in or around towns you’ve probably never heard of like Malakal, Bor, and Leer.

A 2005 peace deal between U.S.-supported rebels in the south of Sudan and the government in the north was supposed to put a stop to such slaughter, but it never quite did.  And in some quarters, worse was predicted for the future.  “Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing,” said U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in 2010.  “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”

In late 2013 and 2014, Malakal, Bor, Leer, and other towns in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, were indeed littered with bodies.  And the killing in this country — the result of the third civil war since the 1950s — has only continued.

In 2014, I traveled to Malakal to learn what I could about the destruction of that town and the civilians who perished there.  In 2015, I walked among the mass graves of Bor where, a year earlier, a bulldozer had dug huge trenches for hundreds of bodies, some so badly decomposed or mutilated that it was impossible to identify whether they had been men, women, or children.  This spring, I find myself in Leer, another battered enclave, as aid groups struggled to reestablish their presence, as armed men still stalked the night, as human skulls gleamed beneath the blazing midday sun.

The nose-curling odor here told me that somewhere, something was burning.  The scent had been in my nostrils all day.  Sometimes, it was just a faint, if harsh, note carried on the hot breeze, but when the wind shifted it became an acrid, all-encompassing stench — not the comforting smell of a cooking fire, but something far more malign.  I looked to the sky, searching for a plume of smoke, but there was only the same opaque glare, blinding and ashen.  Wiping my eyes, I muttered a quick curse for this place and moved on to the next ruined shell of a home, and the next, and the next.  The devastated wattle-and-daub tukuls and wrecked animal pens stretched on as far as I could see.

This is Leer — or at least what’s left of it.


The ruins of Leer, South Sudan. The town was repeatedly attacked by militias allied to the national government during 2015.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

The Fire Last Time

If you want to learn more about this town, about what happened to it, Leer isn’t the best place to start.  You’d be better served by traveling down the road several miles to Thonyor, another town in southern Unity State where so much of Leer’s population fled. It was there that I found Mary Nyalony, a 31-year-old mother of five who, only days before, had given birth to a son.

Leer was her hometown and life there had never been easy.  War arrived shortly after fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in December 2013, a rupture that most here call “the crisis.”  With civil war came men with guns and, in early 2014, Nyalony was forced to run for her life.  For three months, she and her family lived in the bush, before eventually returning to Leer.  The International Committee of the Red Cross was airdropping food there, she tells me.  In her mind, those were the halcyon days.  “There was enough to eat,” she explains.  “Now, we have nothing.”

The road to nothing, like the road to Thonyor, began for her in the early morning hours of a day in May 2015.  Single gunshots and staccato bursts of gunfire began echoing across Leer, followed by screams and panic.  This has been the story of South Sudan’s civil war: few pitched battles between armies, many attacks on civilians by armed men.  Often, it’s unclear just who is attacking.  Civilians hear gunfire and they begin to run.  If they’re lucky they get away with their lives, and often little else.

The war here has regularly been portrayed as a contest between the president, Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, and Riek Machar, a member of the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer.  Kiir and Machar do indeed have a long history as both allies and enemies and as president and vice president of their new nation.  Kiir went on to sack Machar.  Months later, the country plunged into civil war.  Kiir claimed the violence stemmed from an abortive coup by Machar, but an investigation by an African Union commission found no evidence of that. It did, however, find that “Dinka soldiers, members of Presidential Guard, and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes” and that it was carried out “in furtherance of a State policy.”  The civil war that ensued “ended” with an August 2015 peace agreement that saw Machar rejoin the government.  But the violence never actually stopped and after a fresh round of killings in the capital in July, he fled the country and has since issued a new call for rebellion.

In truth, though, the war in South Sudan is far more than a battle between two men, two tribes, two armies — Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO).  It’s a conflict of shifting alliances involving a plethora of armed actors and ad hoc militias led by a corrupt cast of characters fighting wars within wars.  The complexities are mind-boggling: longstanding bad blood, grievances, and feuds intertwined with ethnic enmities tangled, in turn, with internecine tribal and clan animosities, all aided and abetted by the power of modern weaponry and the way the ancient cultural practice of cattle-raiding has morphed into paramilitary raiding.  Add in a nation in financial free-fall; the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny, riven elite; the mass availability of weaponry; and so many actors pursuing so many aims that it’s impossible to keep them all straight.

Whatever the complexities of this war, however, the playbooks of its actors remain remarkably uniform. Men armed with AK-47s fall upon undefended communities.  They kill, pillage, loot.  Younger women and girls are singled-out for exceptional forms of violence: gang rapes and sexual slavery.  Some have been forced into so-called rape camps, where they become the “wives” of soldiers; others are sexually assaulted and killed in especially sadistic ways.  Along with women, the soldiers often take cattle — the traditional rural currency, source of wealth, and means of sustenance in the region.

In Leer and the surrounding villages of Unity State, last year’s government offensive to take back rebel territory followed exactly this pattern, but with a ferocity that was striking even for this war.  More than one expert told me that, at least for a time in 2015, Leer and its surroundings were one of the worst places in the entire world.


Little remains of the town of Leer, South Sudan, after repeated raids by armed men who burned homes, raped women, and drove the population into exile.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Armed youth from Nuer clans allied to the government offered no mercy.  Fighting alongside troops from the SPLA and forces loyal to local officials, they carried out a scorched-earth campaign against other ethnic Nuers from spring 2015 though the late fall.  Their pay was whatever they could steal and whomever they could rape.

“People in southern Unity State have suffered through some of the most harrowing violence that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen in South Sudan — or in almost any other context where we work,” says Pete Buth, Deputy Director of Operations for the aid group.  “Over the course of the last two years, and particularly from May to November of 2015, women, men and children have been indiscriminately targeted with extreme and brutal violence. We’ve received reports and testimonies of rape, killings, abductions of women and children and the wholesale destruction of villages. The levels of violence have been absolutely staggering.”

By late last year, almost 600,000 people like Nyalony had been displaced in Unity State alone.

“They came to raid the cattle.  They seemed to be allied to the government,” she tells me.  Given all she’s been through, given the newborn she’s gently palpitating, her eyes are surprisingly bright, her voice strong.  Her recollections, however, are exceptionally grim. Two younger male relatives of hers were shot but survived.  Her father-in-law wasn’t so fortunate.  He was killed in the attack, she tells me, his body consumed in the same flames that destroyed his home.

The Fire This Time

On the road from Leer to Thonyor I discovered the source of the harsh odor that had been assaulting my senses all day.  A large agricultural fire was raging along the winding dirt road between the two towns, the former now in the hands of Kiir’s SPLA, the latter still controlled by Machar’s rebels.  A plume of smoke poured skyward from orange flames that leapt maybe 15 feet high as they consumed palm trees, brush, and swampland.

I watched the same inferno on my way back to Leer, thinking about the charred corpse of Nyalony’s father-in-law, about all the others who never made it out of homes that were now nothing but ankle-high rectangles of mud and wood or piles of shattered concrete.  On another day, in Leer’s triple digit heat, I walk through some of the charred remains with a young woman from the area.  Tall, with close-cropped hair and a relaxed, easy demeanor, she guides me through the ruins.  “This one was a very good building,” she says of one of the largest piles of rubble, a home whose exterior walls were a striking and atypical mint green.  “They killed the father at this house.  He had two wives.  One wife had, maybe, six babies.”  (I find out later that when she says “babies” she means children.)  Pointing to the wrecked shell next to it, what’s left of a more traditional decorated mud wall, she says, “The other wife had five babies.”


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We thread our way through the ravaged tukuls, past support beams for thatched roofs that easily went up in flames.  In her honeyed voice, my guide narrates the contents of the wreckage.  “It’s a bed,” she explains of a scorched metal frame.  “Now, it’s no bed,” she adds with a laugh.

She points out another tukul, its mud walls mostly still standing, though its roof is gone and the interior walls scorched.  “I know the man who lived here,” she tells me.  His large family is gone now.  She doesn’t know where.  “Maybe Juba.  Maybe wherever.”

“They were shooting.  They destroyed the house.  If the people were inside the house, they shoot them.  Then they burn it,” she says.  Pointing toward another heavy metal bed frame, she explains the obvious just in case I don’t understand why the ruins are awash in these orphaned pieces of furniture.  “If they’re shooting, you don’t care about beds.  You run.”  She pauses and I watch as her face slackens and her demeanor goes dark. “You might even leave a baby.  You don’t want to, but there’s shooting.  They’ll shoot you.  You’re afraid and you run away.”  Then she falls silent.

The Survivors

“What civilians experienced in Leer County was terrible.  When the population was forced to flee from their homes, they had to flee with nothing into these swamps in the middle of the night,” says Jonathan Loeb, a human rights investigator who served as a consultant with Amnesty International’s crisis response team in Leer.  “And so you had these nightmarish scenarios where parents are abandoning their children, husbands are abandoning their wives, babies are drowning in swamps in the middle of the night.  And this is happening repeatedly.”

Nataba, whom I meet in Leer, faces away from me, her legs folded beneath her on the concrete porch.  She carefully removes the straps of her dark blue dress from her left shoulder and then her right, letting it fall from the top half of her body so that she can work unimpeded.  “I came to Leer some weeks ago.  There was lots of shooting in Juong,” she says of her home village.  From there she fled with her children to Mayendit, then on to Leer, to this very compound, once evidently a church or religious center.  Nataba leans forward, using a rock to grind maize into meal.  I watch her back muscles shudder and ripple as she folds her body toward the ground like a supplicant, then pulls back, repeating the motion endlessly.  Though hard at work, her voice betrays no hint of exertion.  She just faces forward, nude to the waist, her voice clear and matter-of-fact.  Five people from her village, including her 15-year-old daughter, she tells me, were shot and killed by armed men from nearby Koch County.  “A lot of women were raped,” she adds.

Deborah sits close by with Nataba’s four surviving children draped all over her.  I mistake her for a grandmother to the brood, but she’s no relation. She was driven out of Dok village last December, also by militia from Koch who — by her count — killed eight men and two women.  She fled into the forest where she had neither food nor protection from the elements.  At least here in Leer she’s sharing what meager provisions Nataba has, hoping that aid organizations will soon begin bringing in rations.

Her face is a sun-weathered web of lines etched by adversity, hardship, and want.  Her wiry frame is all muscle and bone.  In the West, you’d have to live at the gym and be 30 years younger to have arms as defined as hers.  She hopes for peace, she tells me, and mentions that she’s a Catholic.  “There’s nothing here to eat” is, however, the line that she keeps repeating.  As I get up to leave, she grasps my hand.  “Shukran.  Thank you,” I tell her, not for the first time, and at that she melts to the ground, kneeling at my feet.  Taken aback, I freeze, then watch — and feel — as she takes her thumb and makes a sign of the cross on the toe of each of my shoes.  “God bless you,” she says.

It’s still early morning, but when I meet Theresa Nyayang Machok she already looks exhausted.  It could be that this widow is responsible for 10 children, six girls and four boys; or that she has no other family here; or that her home in the village of Loam was destroyed; or that, as she says, “there’s no work, there’s no food”; or all of it combined.  She turns away from time to time to try to persuade several of her children to stop tormenting a tiny puppy with an open wound on one ear.

The youngest child, a boy with a distended belly, won’t leave the puppy alone and breaks into a wail when it snaps at him.  To quiet the toddler, an older brother hands him a torn foil package of Plumpy’Sup, a peanut-based nutrition supplement given out by international aid agencies.  The toddler licks up the last daubs of the high-protein, high-fat paste.

Men from Koch attacked her village late last year, Machok tells me, taking all the cattle and killing six civilians.  When they came to her home, they demanded money that she didn’t have.  She gave them clothes instead, then ran with her children in tow.  Stranded here in Leer on the outskirts of the government camp, she brews up alcohol when she can get the ingredients and sells it to SPLA soldiers. If peace comes, she wants to go home.  Until then, she’ll be here.  “There’s nobody in my village.  It’s empty,” she explains.

Sarah, a withered woman, lives in Giel, a devastated little hamlet on Leer’s outskirts. To call her home a “wattle hovel” would be generous, since it looks like it might collapse on her family at any moment. “There was fighting here,” she says.  “Whenever there’s fighting we run to the river.”  For months last year, she lived with her children in a nearby waterlogged swamp, hiding in the tall grass, hoping the armed men she refers to as SPLM — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Kiir’s party — wouldn’t find them.  At least five people in Giel were killed, she says, including her sister’s adult son.

She returned home only to be confronted by more armed men who took most of what little she had left.  “They said ‘give us clothes or we’ll shoot you,’” she tells me.  Sarah’s children, mostly naked, crowd around.  A few wear scraps that are little more than rags.  Her own black dress is so threadbare that it leaves little to the imagination.  Worse yet are her stores of food.  She hid some sorghum, but that’s all gone.

I ask what they’re eating.  She gets up, walks over to a spot where a battered sheet of metal leans against an empty animal pen, and comes back with two small handfuls of dried water lily bulbs, which she places at my feet.  It’s far too little to feed this family.  I ask if food is their greatest need.  No, she says, gesturing toward her roof — more gaps than thatch.  She needs plastic tarps to provide some protection for her children.  “The rainy season,” she says, “is coming.”

Nyanet is an elderly man, though he has no idea just how old.  His eyes are cloudy and haunted, his hearing poor, so my interpreter shouts my questions at him.  “The soldiers come at night,” he responds.  ”They have guns.  They take clothes; they take food; they take cows,” he says.  All the young men of the village are gone.  “They killed them.”  The armed men, he tells me, also took girls and young women away.

Not far from Nyanet’s tiny home, I meet Nyango.  She’s also unsure of her age.  “If the SPLM comes, they take cattle.  They kill people,” she explains.  She also ran to the river and lived there for months.  Like the others in this tumbledown village, her family wears rags.  Her children fell ill living in the mud and muck and water for so long, and still haven’t recovered.

“People have been hiding in the bush and swamps, terrified for their lives with little or no access to humanitarian assistance for months at a time. That’s been the status quo for much of the last year,” explains MSF’s Pete Buth.  “Now, as people gradually leave from their hiding places, we are seeing the aftermath. Children are suffering from fungal infections on their hands and feet, their skin painful and broken as they leave the swamps and then the dirt and heat dry out the wounds.”

I look down at the nude toddler clinging to Nyango’s leg.  The child’s eyes are covered in milky white mucus and flies are lining up to dine on it.  I’ve seen plenty of children, eyes crawling with flies — the ultimate “African” cliché, the sight that launched a thousand funding appeals, but never have I seen so many tiny flies arranged in such an orderly fashion to sup at a child’s eyes.  Nyango keeps talking, my interpreter keeps translating, but I’m fixated on this tiny boy.  A pathetic mewing sound escapes his lips and Nyango reaches down, pulls him up, and settles him on her hip.

I force my attention back to her as she explains that the men who devastated this place killed six people she knows of.  Another woman in Giel suggests that 50 people died in this small village.  The truth is that no one may ever know how many men, women, and children from Giel, Leer, and surrounding areas were slaughtered in the endless rounds of fighting since this war began.

Where the Bodies Are Buried

Nobody seems to want to talk about where all the bodies went either.  It’s an awkward question to ask and all I get are noncommittal answers or sometimes blank stares.  People are much more willing to talk about killing than to comment on corpses.  But there is plenty of tangible proof of atrocities in Leer if you’re willing to look.

In the midday heat, I set out toward the edge of town following simple directions that turn out to be anything but.  I walk down a dirt path that quickly fades into an open expanse, while two new paths begin on either side.  No one said anything about this.  Up ahead, a group of boys are clustered near a broken-down structure.  I don’t want to attract attention so I take the path on the right, putting the building between them and me.

I’m in Leer with only quasi-approval from the representative of a government that openly threatens reporters with death, in a nation where the term “press freedom” is often a cruel joke, where journalists are arrested, disappeared, tortured, or even killed, and no one is held accountable.  As a white American, I’m probably immune to the treatment meted out to South Sudanese reporters, but I’m not eager to test the proposition.  At the very least, I can be detained, my reporting cut short.

I try to maintain a low profile, but as a Caucasian in foreign clothes and a ridiculous boonie hat, it’s impossible for me to blend in here.  “Khawaja! [White man!],” the boys yell.  It’s what children often say on seeing me.  I offer up an embarrassed half wave and keep moving.  If they follow, I know this expedition’s over.  But they stay put.

I’m worried now that I’ve gone too far, that I should have taken the other path.  I’m in an open expanse under the relentless midday sun.  In the distance, I see a group of women and decide to move toward a nearby stand of trees.  Suddenly, I think I see it, the area I’ve been looking for, the area that some around here have taken to calling “the killing field.”

Killing Fields: Then

The world is awash in “killing fields” and I’ve visited my fair share of them.  The term originally comes from the terrible autogenocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and was coined by Dith Pran, whose story was chronicled by his New York Times colleague Sydney Schanberg in a magazine article, a book, and finally an Academy-Award-winning film aptly titled The Killing Fields.

“I saw with my eyes that there are many, many killing fields… there’s all the skulls and the bones piled up, some in the wells,” Pran explained after traveling from town to town across Cambodia during his escape to Thailand in 1979.  Near Siem Reap, now a popular tourist haunt, Pran visited two sites littered with remains — each holding around four to five thousand bodies covered with a thin layer of dirt.  Fertilized by death, the grass grew far taller and greener where the bodies were buried.

There’s a monument to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, a site of mass graves just outside of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital.  Although the Cambodian slaughter ended with the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, when I visited decades later, there were still bones jutting up from the bottom of a pit and shards of a long bone, maybe a femur, embedded in a path I took.

Then there are the skulls.  A Buddhist stupa on the site is filled with thousands of them, piled high, attesting to the sheer scale of the slaughter.  Millions of Cambodians — two million, three million, no one knows how many — died at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge.  Similarly, no one knows how many South Sudanese have been slaughtered in the current round of fighting, let alone in the civil wars that preceded it.  The war between southern rebels and the Sudanese government, which raged from 1955 to 1972, reportedly cost more than 500,000 lives.  Reignited in 1983, it churned on for another 20-plus years, leaving around two million dead from violence, starvation, and disease.

A rigorous survey by the U.N.’s Office of the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, released earlier this year, estimated that last year in just one area of Unity State — 24 communities, including Leer — 7,165 persons were killed in violence and another 829 drowned while fleeing.  Add to those nearly 8,000 deaths another 1,243 people “lost” — generally thought to have been killed but without confirmation — while fleeing and 890 persons who were abducted, and you have a toll of suffering that exceeds 10,000.

To put the figures in perspective, those 8,000 dead in and around Leer are more than double the number of civilians — men, women, children — killed in the war in Afghanistan in 2015, and more than double the number of all civilians killed in the conflict in Yemen last year.  Even a low-end estimate — 50,000 South Sudanese civilian deaths in roughly two years of civil war from December 2013 through December 2015 — exceeds the numbers of civilians estimated killed in Syria over the same span.  Some experts say the number of South Sudanese dead is closer to 300,000.

Killing Fields: Now

Leer’s “killing field” is an expanse of sun-desiccated dirt covered in a carpet of crunchy golden leaves and dried grasses.  Even the weeds have been scorched and strangled by the sun, though the area is also dotted with sturdy neem trees casting welcome shade.  From the branches above me, bird calls ring out, filling the air with chaotic, incongruous melodies.

Riek Machar was born and bred in Leer.  This very spot was his family compound.  The big trees once cast shade on tukuls and fences.  It was a garden spot.  People used to picnic here.  But that was a long, long time ago.

Today, a stripped and battered white four-wheel-drive SUV sits in the field.  Not so far away, without tires, seats, or a windshield is one of those three-wheeled vehicles known around the world as a Lambretta or a tuck-tuck.  And then there’s the clothes.  I find a desert camouflage shirt, its pattern typically called “chocolate chip.”  A short way off, there’s a rumpled pair of gray pants, beyond it a soiled blue tee-shirt sporting the words “Bird Game” and graphics resembling those of the video game “Angry Birds.”

And then there’s a spinal column.

A human one.

And a pelvis.  And a rib cage.  A femur and another piece of a spinal column.  To my left, a gleaming white skull.  I turn slightly and glimpse another one.  A few paces on and there’s another.  And then another.

Human remains are scattered across this area.


A skull lies in the “killing field” in Leer, South Sudan.  This area at the edge of town is littered with unburied human remains.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Leer is, in fact, littered with bones.  I see them everywhere.  Most of the time, they’re the sun-bleached skeletal remains of animals.  A few times I stop to scrutinize an orphaned bone lying amid the wreckage.  But I’m no expert, so I chalk up those I can’t identify to cattle or goats.  But here, in this killing field, there’s no question.  The skulls, undoubtedly picked clean by vultures and hyenas, tell the story.  Or rather, these white orbs, staring blankly in the midday glare, tell part of it.

There’s a folk tale from South Sudan’s Murle tribe about a young man, tending cattle in a pasture, who comes across a strikingly handsome skull.  “Oh my god, but why are you killing such beautiful people?” he asks.  The next day he asks again and this time the skull responds. “Oh my dear,” it says, “I died because of lies!”  Frightened, he returns to his village and later tells the chief and his soldiers about what happened.  None of them believes him.  He implores them to witness it firsthand.  If you’re lying, the chief asks, what shall we do with you?  And the young man promptly replies, “You have to kill me.”

He then leads the soldiers to the skull and poses his question.  This time, the skull stays silent.  For his lies, the soldiers insist, they must kill him and they do just that.  As they are about to return to the village, a voice calls out, “This is what I told you, young man, and now you have also died as I died.”  The soldiers agree not to tell the king about the exchange.  Returning to the village, they say only that the man had lied and so they killed him as ordered.

In South Sudan, soldiers murder and they get away with it, while skulls tell truths that the living are afraid to utter.

“There Might Be Some Mistakes”

No one knows for certain whose mortal remains litter Leer’s killing field.  The best guess: some of the more than 60 men and boys suspected of rebel sympathies who were locked in an unventilated shipping container by government forces last October and left to wither in Leer’s relentless heat.  According to a March report by Amnesty International, when the door was opened the next day, only one survivor, a 12-year-old boy, staggered out alive.  At least some of the crumpled corpses were dumped on the edge of town in two pits where animals began devouring them.  Government forces may eventually have burned some of the bodies to conceal evidence of the crime.

After visiting Leer, I took the findings of the report and my own observations to President Salva Kiir’s press secretary, Ateny Wek Ateny.  “They always copy and paste,” he said, implying that human rights organizations often just reproduced each other’s generally erroneous allegations.  It was, I respond, an exceptionally rigorous investigation, relying on more than 40 interviews, including 23 eyewitnesses, that left no doubt an atrocity had taken place.

Those witness statements, he assures me, are the fatal flaw of the Amnesty report.  South Sudanese can’t be trusted, since they will invariably lie to cast a pall over rival tribes.  In the case of Leer, the witnesses offered up a “concocted sequence of events” to disparage Kiir and his government.  “Americans and Europeans,” he protests, “don’t understand this.”

It’s impossible, he adds, that the government could be responsible for violence in Leer blamed in part on militias, because, as he put it, “We have no militia.  Militias are not part of the government.”  What about alleged involvement by uniformed SPLA?  Lots of armed men, he claims, wear SPLA uniforms without being part of the army.  “It is not a government policy to kill civilians,” he insists, then concedes: “There might be some mistakes.”


No one knows for certain whose remains lie strewn across the “killing field” of Leer, South Sudan.  Some may belong to men and boys suffocated to death in a shipping container in October 2015.

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 “Bullets Aren’t Enough.  We’ll Use Rape” 

“They come at any time… They even take children and throw them into the burning homes,” says Sarah Nyanang.  Her house in Leer was destroyed last year and, more recently, armed men came in the night and took what little her family had left.  “We have no blanket, no mosquito net, no fishing hook, and even now they steal from us.”

Michael lives close by.  His neighbors push him forward.  His eyes seem to swim with fear.  His voice is like wet gravel.  The armed men came one night earlier this year and beat him.  He shows me a nasty looking wound fast becoming a scar on his scalp, then turns his head to reveal another extending down his jaw line.  They took almost all his possessions and something far more precious, his wife.  Sarah Nyanang interjects that women abducted here may be raped by as many as 10 men.  She saw a neighbor being raped in the midst of an attack.  The implication is that this is what happened to Michael’s wife.

She’s still alive, he says, and is living in Thonyor, but he hasn’t seen her since the night she was taken away.  He doesn’t tell me why.

When a team from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigated late last year, they found that rape and sexual slavery were one way members of youth militias who carried out attacks alongside the SPLA were paid.  Among others, they interviewed a mother of four who encountered a group of soldiers and armed civilians.  “The men,” the report recounts, “proceeded to strip her naked and five soldiers raped her at the roadside in front of her children. She was then dragged into the bush by two other soldiers who raped her and left her there.  When she eventually returned to the roadside, her children, aged between two and seven, were missing.

A woman from a nearby village in Koch County told the investigators that, in October 2015, “after killing her husband, the SPLA soldiers tied her to a tree and forced her to watch as her fifteen year old daughter was raped by at least ten soldiers. The soldiers told her, ‘You are a rebel wife so we can kill you.’”  Another mother reported “that she witnessed her 11-year old daughter and the daughter’s 9-year old friend being gang-raped by three soldiers during an attack in Koch in May 2015.”

“The magnitude of the sexual violence was pretty startling even given the extraordinarily high level throughout the conflict in South Sudan,” Jonathan Loeb of Amnesty International’s crisis response team tells me.  “Many women were raped repeatedly often by multiple men, many of them were used as sex slaves, and in some cases are still missing.”

According to Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization that promotes human rights in South Sudan, “rape has gone beyond a weapon of war.”  He tells me that it’s become part of military culture.  “Sexual violence has been used as a strategy to wipe out populations from areas where they may have given support to their opponents.  I think it’s the first time in the history of Africa that high-level directives have been put forth to use rape as a way to wipe out populations, the first time leaders said ‘bullets aren’t enough, we’ll use rape.’”

Apocalypse Then, Now, Always

In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission that takes him deep into the heart of darkness, a compound in Cambodia from which a rogue American general is waging a private war.  “I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet,” says Willard who finds his own killing field there.


The remains of one of the many victims of violence in Leer, South Sudan.  The town has been repeatedly razed over the years and civilians have been mercilessly attacked.  No one has ever been held accountable for the atrocities.

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I thought about that line as I flew into Leer, looking down on the marshes and malarial swamps where so many hid from killers and rapists.  Multiple people told me that Leer was one of the worst places in the world — and that’s nothing new.

In 1990, during the Sudanese civil war, Leer was bombed by the northern government’s Soviet-made Antonov aircraft.  Nobody may know exactly how many died.  Eight years later, Nuer militias opposed to Riek Machar raided Leer three times, looting and burning homes, destroying crops, slaughtering and stealing tens of thousands of cattle.  “Over the past months thousands of people have fled without food or belongings. They’ve been forced to hide for days in the surrounding swamps and outlying villages, living in constant fear and surviving on just water lilies and fish. Their own villages have been burned down and their grain stores have been looted,” said a representative of the World Food Program at the time.  Leer was completely razed.

In 2003, attacks on civilians by Sudanese forces and allied militia emptied Leer again.  In January 2014, during the opening weeks of the current civil war, the SPLA and partner militias attacked Leer and surrounding towns. Civilians were killed, survivors ran for the swamps, and the attackers burned to the ground some 1,556 residential structures according to satellite imagery.  And then, of course, came last year’s raids.

Since American soldiers departed Vietnam in the 1970s, there have been no further massacres at My Lai.  Nor have there been mass killings near Oradour-sur-Glane, France, where the Nazis slaughtered 642 civilians in June 1944.  Both ruined villages have, in fact, been preserved as memorials to the dead.  And although Iraq was turned into a charnel house following the 2003 U.S. invasion and neighboring Syria has seen chemical weapons attacks in recent years, there have been no new victims of poison gas in Halabja since Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attack.

Cambodia, too, has seen none of the wholesale bloodletting of the 1970s since the Khmer Rouge was driven from power.  And while periodic fears of impending genocide have lurked in the neighborhood, and Rwanda has experienced arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings of government opponents and critics, it has had nothing like a repeat of 1994.

In Leer, however, those killed in the bombing of 1990, in the razing of the town of 1998, in the attacks of 2003, in the sack of the town in 2014, and in the waves of attacks of 2015, have been joined by still others unfortunate enough to call this town home.  Those in the area have been trapped by geography and circumstances beyond their control in what can only be called an inter-generational killing field.

The violence of 2015 never actually ended.  It’s just continued at a somewhat reduced level.  A couple of weeks before I arrived in Leer, an attack by armed men led locals to shelter at the Médecins Sans Frontières compound.  On the day I arrived in town, armed youths from the rebel-held territory surrounding Leer carried out a series of attacks on government forces, killing nine.

In July, violence again flared in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.  With it came reports of renewed attacks around Leer.  In late August, an SPLA-IO spokesman reported a raid by government forces on a town 25 kilometers from Leer that ended with two killed, 15 women raped, and 50 cows stolen.  In September, around 700 families from Leer County fled to a U.N. camp due to fighting between the SPLA and the IO.  Earlier this October, civilians were killed and families again fled to the swamps around Leer due to gun battles and artillery fire between the two forces.

No one has ever been held accountable for any of this violence, any of the atrocities, any of the deaths.  And there’s little reason to believe they ever will — or even that the violence will end.  Unlike My Lai or Oradour-sur-Glane, Leer seems destined to be a perpetually active killing field, a place where bodies pile up, massacre after massacre, generation after generation — a town trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Almost a year after fleeing Leer, Mary Nyalony is still living out in the open on water lilies and in a state of limbo.  “I’m worried because the government is still there,” she says of her ravaged hometown.  When I ask about the future, she tells me that she fears “the same thing is going to happen again.”

Peace pacts and the optimism they generate come and go, but decades of history suggest that Mary Nyalony will eventually be proved right.  Peace deals aren’t the same as peace.  Southern Sudan has seen plenty of the former, but little of the latter.  “We need peace,” she says more than once.  “If there’s no peace, all of this is just going to continue.”

The Worst Place on Earth

Winning: it’s written into the DNA of the U.S.A.  After all, what’s more American than football legend Vince Lombardi’s famous (if purloinedmaxim: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”?

Americans expect to be number one.  First Lady Michelle Obama recently called the United States the “greatest country on Earth.” (Take that, world public opinion, and your choice of Germany!) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went even further, touting America as “the greatest country that has ever been created.”  Her rival, Donald Trump, who for political gain badmouths the country that made him rich and famous, does so in the hope of returning America to supposedly halcyon days of unparalleled greatness.  He’s predicted that his presidency might lead to an actual winning overload.  “We’re going to win so much,” he told supporters.  “You’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please, Mr. President… don’t win so much’… And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again… We’re gonna keep winning.’”

As Trump well knows, Americans take winning very seriously.  Look no further than the U.S. gold medal count at the recent Rio Olympics: 46. The next highest total?  Great Britain’s 27, almost 20 fewer than those of the country whose upstart rebels bested them in the eighteenth century, the nation’s ur-victory.  The young United States then beat back the Brits in the early 1800s, and twice bailed them out in victorious world wars during the twentieth century.

In the intervening years, the U.S. built up a gaudy military record — slaughtering native tribes, punishing Mexico, pummeling Spain — but the best was yet to come.  “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” boasted President Barack Obama in this year’s State of the Union address.  In this he echoed his predecessor, George W. Bush, who, in May 2001, declared that “America today has the finest [military] the world has ever seen.”

In the years between those two moments of high-flown rhetoric, the United States military fought in nine conflicts, according to a 2015 briefing produced by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the umbrella organization for America’s most elite forces including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets.  The record of the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, according to SOCOM: zero wins, two losses, and seven ties.

This dismal record is catalogued in a briefing slide produced by SOCOM’s Intelligence Directorate last September and obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act.  “A Century of War and Gray Zone Challenges” — a timeline of conflicts ranked as wins, losses, and ties — examines the last 100 years of America’s wars and interventions.

“Gray zone” is an increasingly popular term of the trade for operations conducted somewhere on the continuum between war and peace.  “Traditional war is the paradigm,” the briefing slide asserts.  “Gray zone conflict is the norm.”

While he finds a great deal to fault in SOCOM’s analysis, retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, believes its assessment of post-9/11 conflicts “is quite accurate.”  Although American politicians like Hillary Clinton regularly insist that the U.S. possesses “the greatest military” on the planet, they avoid addressing the question of what the country’s armed interventions have actually accomplished when it comes to policy goals — the true measure of success in war.  “We have not shown an ability to achieve our stated political aims in a conclusive way at an acceptable cost,” Bacevich says.  “That’s simply a fact.”


“A Century of War and Gray Zone Challenges” — A September 2015 briefing slide produced by the Intelligence Directorate of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

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The Greatest Journeyman Military in History?

Twelve wins and nine losses.  In baseball, it’s the annual record of a journeyman pitcher like Bill Caudill of the Seattle Mariners in 1982, Dave LaPoint of the Saint Louis Cardinals in 1983, or Norm Charlton of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, to mention just three examples.  It’s certainly not the record of an ace.

Likewise, 12 victories and nine losses is a far-from-dazzling stat when it comes to warfare, especially for a nation that prides itself on its martial prowess.   But that was the SOCOM Intelligence Directorate’s assessment of the last century of American war: 12 and 9 with a mind-boggling 43 “ties.”

Among those 64 conflicts, the command counts just five full-fledged wars in which the U.S. has come up with three wins (World War I, World War II, and Desert Storm), one loss (Vietnam), and one tie (Korea).  In the gray zone — what SOCOM calls “the norm” when it comes to conflict — the record is far bleaker, the barest of winning percentages at 9 victories, 8 losses, and 42 draws.

“If you accept the terms of analysis, that things can be reduced to win, loss, and tie, then this record is not very good,” Bacevich says.  “While there aren’t many losses — according to how they code — there’s a hell of a lot of ties, which would beg the question of why, based on these criteria, U.S. policy has seemingly been so ineffective.”

The assessments of, and in some instances the very inclusion of, numerous operations, missions, and interventions by SOCOM are dubious.  Bacevich, for example, questions its decision to include pre-World War II U.S. military missions in China (a draw according to the command).  “I don’t know on what basis one would say ‘China, 1912 to 1941’ qualifies as a tie,” he adds, noting on the other hand that a good case could be made for classifying two of SOCOM’S gray zone “ties” — in Haiti and Nicaragua — during the same era as wins instead of draws based on the achievement of policy aims alone.

It’s even harder to imagine why, for example, limited assistance to Chad in its conflict with Libya and indigenous rebels in 1983 or military assistance in evacuating U.S. personnel from Albania in 1997 should make the list.  Meanwhile, America’s so-called longest war, in Afghanistan, inexplicably ends in 2014 on SOCOM’S timeline.  (That was, of course, the year that the Obama administration formally ended the “combat mission” in that country, but it would assuredly be news to the 8,400 troops, including special operators, still conducting missions there today.)  Beyond that, for reasons unexplained, SOCOM doesn’t even classify Afghanistan as a “war.”  Instead, it’s considered one of 59 gray-zone challenges, on a par with the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift or small-scale deployments to the restive Congo in the 1960s.  No less bizarre, the command categorizes America’s 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq in a similar fashion.  “It deserves to be in the same category as Korea and Vietnam,” says Bacevich, the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.

Killing People and Breaking Things

Can the post-9/11 U.S. military simultaneously be the finest fighting force in history and unable to win wars or quasi-wars?  It may depend on our understanding of what exactly the Department of Defense and its military services are meant to do.

While the 1789 act that established its precursor, the Department of War, is sparse on details about its raison d’être, the very name suggests its purpose — presumably preparing for, fighting, and winning wars.  The 1947 legislation creating its successor, the “National Military Establishment” was similarly light on specifics concerning the ultimate aims of the organization, as were the amendments of 1949 that recast it as the Department of Defense (DoD).

During a Republican primary debate earlier this year, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee offered his own definition.  He asserted that the “purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.”  Some in the armed forces took umbrage at that, though the military has, in fact, done both to great effect in a great many places for a very long time.  For its part, the DoD sees its purpose quite differently: “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.”

If, in SOCOM’s accounting, the U.S. has engaged in relatively few actual wars, don’t credit “deterrence.” Instead, the command has done its best to simply redefine war out of existence, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, in favor of those “gray zone challenges.”  If one accepts that quasi-wars are actually war, then the Defense Department has done little to deter conflict.  The United States has, in fact, been involved in some kind of military action — by SOCOM’s definition — in every year since 1980.

Beyond its single sentence mission statement, a DoD directive delineating the “functions of the Department of Defense and its major components” provides slightly more details.  The DoD, it states, “shall maintain and use armed forces to:

a. Support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
b. Ensure, by timely and effective military action, the security of the United States, its possessions, and areas vital to its interest.
c. Uphold and advance the national policies and interests of the United States.”

Since the Department of Defense came into existence, the U.S. has — as the SOCOM briefing slide notes  — carried out deployments, interventions, and other undertakings in Lebanon (1958), Congo (1964 and 1967), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1975), Iran (1980), El Salvador (1980-1992), Grenada (1983), Chad (1983), Libya (1986), the Persian Gulf (1987-1988), Honduras (1988), Panama (1989), Somalia (1992-1995), Haiti (1994-1995), and Albania (1997), among other countries.

You may have no memory of some (perhaps many) of these interventions, no less a sense of why they occurred or their results — and that might be the most salient take-away from SOCOM’s list.  So many of these conflicts have, by now, disappeared into the gray zone of American memory.

Were these operations targeting enemies which actually posed a threat to the U.S. Constitution?  Did ceaseless operations across the globe actually ensure the safety and security of the United States?  Did they truly advance U.S. policy interests and if so, how?

From the above list, according to SOCOM, only El Salvador, Grenada, Libya, and Panama were “wins,” but what, exactly, did America win?  Did any of these quasi-wars fully meet the Defense Department’s own criteria?  What about the Korean War (tie), the Bay of Pigs (loss), the Vietnam War (loss), or the not-so-secret “secret war” in Laos (loss)?  And have any of SOCOM’s eight losses or ties in the post-9/11 era accomplished the Defense Department’s stated mission?

“I have killed people and broken things in war, but, as a military officer, that was never the end. There was a purpose, a reason, a goal,” wrote Major Matt Cavanaugh, a U.S. Army strategist, in response to Huckabee’s comment.  He then drew attention to the fact that “Joint Publication 1: Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States” asserts that “military power is integrated with other instruments of national power to advance and defend U.S. values, interests, and objectives.”

Did the wars in Vietnam or Laos defend those same values?  What about the war waged in Iraq by the “finest fighting force” in world history?

In March 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laid out U.S aims for that conflict.  “Our goal is to defend the American people, and to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and to liberate the Iraqi people,” he said, before offering even more specific objectives, such as having U.S. troops “search for, capture, [and] drive out terrorists who have found safe harbor in Iraq.”  Of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq would turn that country into a terrorist magnet, leading to the ultimate safe harbor; a terror caliphate extending over swaths of that country and neighboring Syria.  The elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would prove impossible for obvious reasons.  The “liberation” of its people would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands; the forced displacement of millions; and a country divided along sectarian lines, where up to 50% of its 33 million inhabitants may suffer from the effects of trauma brought on by the last few decades of war.  And what about the defense of the American people?  They certainly don’t feel defended.  According to recent polling, more Americans fear terrorism today than just after 9/11.  And the particular threat Americans fear most?  The terror groupborn and bred in America’s Iraqi prison camps: ISIS.

This record seems to matter little to the presidential candidate who, as a senator, voted for the invasion of Iraq.  Regarding that war and other military missions, Hillary Clinton, as Bacevich notes, continues to avoid asking the most obvious question: “Is the use of the American military conclusively, and at reasonable costs, achieving our political objectives?”

Trump’s perspective seems to better fit SOCOM’s assessment when it comes to America’s warfighting prowess in these years.  “We don’t win.  We can’t beat ISIS.  Can you imagine General Douglas MacArthur or General Patton?  Can [you] imagine they are spinning in their grave right now when they see the way we fight,” he recently told FOX News’s Bill O’Reilly, invoking the names of those military luminaries who both served in a “draw” in Mexico in the 1910s and U.S. victories in World Wars I and II, and in the case of MacArthur a stalemate in Korea as well.

Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns responded to TomDispatch’s requests for comment.  SOCOM similarly failed to respond before publication to questions about the conclusions to be drawn from its timeline, but its figures alone — especially regarding post-9/11 conflicts — speak volumes.

“In order to evaluate our recent military history and the gap between the rhetoric and the results,” says Andrew Bacevich, “the angle of analysis must be one that acknowledges our capacity to break things and kill people, indeed that acknowledges that U.S. forces have performed brilliantly at breaking things and killing people, whether it be breaking a building — by putting a precision missile through the window — or breaking countries by invading them and producing chaos as a consequence.”

SOCOM’s briefing slide seems to recognize this fact.  The U.S. has carried out a century of conflict, killing people from Nicaragua and Haiti to Germany and Japan; battering countries from the Koreas and Vietnams to Iraq and Afghanistan; fighting on a constant basis since 1980.  All that death and devastation, however, led to few victories.  Worse yet for the armed forces, the win-loss record of this highly professionalized, technologically sophisticated, and exceptionally well-funded military has, since assuming the mantle of the finest fighting force in the history of the world, plummeted precipitously, as SOCOM’s Intelligence Directorate points out.

An American century of carnage and combat has yielded many lessons learned, but not, it seems, the most important one when it comes to military conflict.  “We can kill people, we can break things,” Bacevich observes, “but we don’t accomplish our political goals.”

Win, Lose, or Draw

Sometimes the real news is in the details — or even in the discrepancies. Take, for instance, missions by America’s most elite troops in Africa.

It was September 2014. The sky was bright and clear and ice blue as the camouflage-clad men walked to the open door and tumbled out into nothing. One moment members of the U.S. 19th Special Forces Group and Moroccan paratroopers were flying high above North Africa in a rumbling C-130 aircraft; the next, they were silhouetted against the cloudless sky, translucent green parachutes filling with air, as they began to drift back to earth.

Those soldiers were taking part in a Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET mission, conducted under the auspices of Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa out of Camp Ram Ram, Morocco. It was the first time in several years that American and Moroccan troops had engaged in airborne training together, but just one of many JCET missions in 2014 that allowed America’s best-equipped, best-trained forces to hone their skills while forging ties with African allies.

A key way the U.S. military has deepened its involvement on the continent, JCETs have been carried out in an increasing number of African countries in recent years, according to documents recently obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).   When it comes to U.S. troops involved, foreign forces taking part, and U.S. tax dollars spent, the numbers have all been on the rise.  From 2013 to 2014, as those recently released files reveal, the price tag almost doubled, from $3.3 million to $6.2 million.

These increases offer a window into the rising importance of such missions by U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) around the world, including their increasingly conspicuous roles in conflicts from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Afghanistan.  On any given day, 10,000 special operators are “deployed” or “forward stationed” conducting overseas missions “from behind-the-scenes information-gathering and partner-building to high-end dynamic strike operations” — so General Joseph Votel, at the time chief of Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

Through such figures, the growing importance of the U.S. military’s pivot to Africa becomes apparent.  The number of elite forces deployed there, for example, has been steadily on the rise.  In 2006, the percentage of forward-stationed special operators on the continent hovered at 1%.  In 2014, that number hit 10% — a jump of 900% in less than a decade.  While JCETs make up only a small fraction of the hundreds of military-to-military engagements carried out by U.S. forces in Africa each year, they play an outsized role in the pivot there, allowing U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to deepen its ties with a variety of African partners through the efforts of America’s most secretive and least scrutinized troops.

Exactly how many JCETs have been conducted in Africa is, however, murky at best.  The documents obtained from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) via FOIA present one number; AFRICOM offers another.  It’s possible that no one actually knows the true figure.  One thing is certain, however, according to a study by RAND, America’s premier think tank for evaluating the military: the program consistently produces poor results.

The Gray Zone

According to SOCOM, Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) is, on average, “routinely engaged” in about half of Africa’s 54 countries, “working with and through our African counterparts.”  For his part, SOCAFRICA commander Brigadier General Donald Bolduc has said that his team of 1,700 personnel is “busy year-round in 22 partner nations.”

The 2014 SOCOM documents TomDispatch obtained note that, in addition to conducting JCETs, U.S. Special Operations forces took part in the annual Flintlock training exercise, involving 22 nations, and four named operations: Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging effort, formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara, aimed at Northwest Africa; Juniper Micron, a U.S.-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali (following a coup there by a U.S.-trained officer) that has been grinding on since 2013; Octave Shield, an even longer-suffering mission against militants in East Africa; and Observant Compass, a similarly long-running effort aimed at Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa (that recently retired AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez derided as an expensive and strategically unimportant burden).

America’s most elite forces in Africa operate in what Bolduc calls “the gray zone, between traditional war and peace.”  In layman’s terms, its missions are expanding in the shadows on a continent the United States sees as increasingly insecure, unstable, and riven by terror groups.

“Operating in the Gray Zone requires SOCAFRICA to act in a supporting role to a host of other organizations,” he told the CTC Sentinel, the publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  “One must understand, in Africa we are not the kinetic solution. If required, partner nations should do those sorts of operations. We do, however, build this capability, share information, provide advice and assistance, and accompany and support with enablers.”


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Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

Officially, the Joint Combined Exchange Training program isn’t so much about advice and assistance, support, or training partners, as it is about providing Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other special operators with unique opportunities to hone their craft — specifically, unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense — overseas.  “The purpose of JCETs is to foster the training of U.S. SOF in mission-critical skills by training with partner-nation forces in their home countries,” according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw.  “The program enables U.S. SOF to build their capability to conduct operations with partner-nation military forces in an unfamiliar environment while developing their language skills, and familiarity with local geography and culture.”

Authorization for the JCET program does, however, allow for “incidental-training benefits” to “accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost.”  In reality, say experts, this is an overarching goal of JCETs.

Mission Impossible

U.S. Special Operations forces conducted 20 JCETs in Africa during 2014, according to the documents obtained from SOCOM.  These missions were carried out in 10 countries, up from eight a year earlier.  Four took place in both Kenya and Uganda; three in Chad; two in both Morocco and Tunisia; and one each in Djibouti, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania.  “These events were invaluable training platforms that allowed U.S. SOF to train and sustain in both core and specialized skills, while working hand-in-hand with host nation forces,” say the files.  African forces involved numbered 2,770, up from 2,017 in 2013.  The number of U.S. special operators increased from 308 to 417.

Impressive as these figures are, the actual numbers may prove higher still.  AFRICOM claims it carried out not 20 but 26 JCETs in 2014, according to figures provided last year by spokesman Chuck Prichard.  Similar discrepancies can be found in official figures for previous years as well.  According to Prichard, special operators conducted “approximately nine JCETs across Africa in Fiscal Year 2012” and 18 in 2013.  Documents obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act from the office of the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs indicate, however, that there were 19 JCETs in 2012 and 20 in 2013.

AFRICOM ignored repeated requests for clarification about the discrepancies among these figures.  Multiple emails with subject lines indicating questions about JCETs sent to spokesperson Anthony Falvo, were “deleted without being read,” according to automatic return receipts.  Asked for an explanation of why AFRICOM and SOCOM can’t agree on the number of JCETs on the continent or if anyone actually knows the real number, Ken McGraw of Special Operations Command demurred.  “I don’t know the source of AFRICOM’s information,” he told TomDispatch.  “To the best of my knowledge, the information our office provided you was from official reporting.”

In fact, effective oversight of even some relatively pedestrian training efforts is often hard to come by, thanks to the military’s general lack of transparency and the opaque nature of assistance programs, says Colby Goodman, the director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy.  “And for JCETs and other Special Operations programs,” he says, “it’s even more difficult.”

Given that the two commands involved with the JCET program can’t even come to a consensus on the number of missions involved raises a simple but sweeping question: Does anyone really know what America’s most elite forces are doing in Africa?

Under the circumstances, it should surprise no one that a military that can’t keep a simple count of one type of mission on one continent would encounter difficulties with larger, more difficult tasks.

More Missions, More Problems

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, the incoming commander of SOCOM, General Raymond Thomas III, laid out a sweeping vision of the “U.S. strategy in Africa.” It included “neutralizing Al-Shabaab in East Africa” and empowering Somalia’s government to do the same; “working with our African partners in North and West Africa to ensure they are willing and capable of containing the instability in Libya, degrading VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] in the Sahel-Maghreb region, and interdicting the flow of illicit material,” as well as working with African allies to contain Boko Haram and empowering Nigeria to suppress the terror group.

“SOF implements this strategy by being a part of [a] global team of national and international partners that conduct persistent, networked, and distributed full spectrum special operations in support of AFRICOM to promote stability and prosperity in Africa,” said Thomas.  “The SOCAFRICA end states are to neutralize Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda Affiliates and Adherents in East Africa, contain Libyan instability and Violent Extremist Organizations and other Terrorist organizations in North and West Africa, and degrade Boko Haram.”

Bolduc, SOCAFRICA’s commander, suggested that the U.S. is well on its way toward achieving those goals.  “Our security assistance and advise-and-assist efforts in Africa have been effective as we continue to see gradual improvements in the overall security capabilities of African partner nations across the continent,” he said earlier this year.  “Clearly, there’s been more progress in certain areas versus others, but the trends I see with these forces are positive.”

Independent assessments suggest just the opposite.  Data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland show, for example, that terror attacks have spiked over the last decade, roughly coinciding with AFRICOM’s establishment.  Before it became an independent command in 2007, there were fewer than 400 such incidents annually in sub-Saharan Africa.  Last year, the number reached nearly 2,000.

Similarly, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which uses media reports to monitor violence, shows that “conflict events” have jumped precipitously, from less than 4,000 to more than 15,000 per year, over the same span.

Earlier this year, the Defense Department’s own Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a research institution dedicated to the analysis of security issues on that continent, drew attention to skyrocketing terrorism fatalities there in recent years.  It also published a map of “Africa’s Active Militant Islamist Groups” that showed 22 organizations menacing the continent.  Bolduc himself has repeatedly cited the far higher figure of nearly 50 terrorist and “malign groups” now operating in Africa, up from just one major threat cited by AFRICOM commander Carter Ham in 2010.

In addition to troubling overall trends in Africa since the U.S. pivot there, JCETs have come under special criticism.  A 2013 report by the RAND Corporation on “building partner capacity” (BPC) cited several limitations of the program.  “U.S. forces cannot provide support to partner equipment under JCETs and cannot conduct dedicated training in advanced CT [counterterrorism] techniques (and hence cannot conduct planning for BPC),” it noted.  Ultimately the RAND study, which was prepared for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, found “moderately low” effectiveness for JCETs conducted in Africa.

In an email, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw said he didn’t have the time to review the results of the RAND study and refused to offer comment on it.

Mum’s the Word

The U.S. military either can’t or won’t come to a consensus on how many missions have been carried out by its most elite troops in Africa.  Incredible as it might seem, given that we’re talking about an organization that notoriously can’t keep track of the money it spends or the weapons it sends to allied forces or even audit itself, it’s entirely possible that no one actually knows how many JCETs — and as a result how many special operations missions — have been carried out on the continent, where they occurred, or what transpired during them.

What is known is that a Pentagon-commissioned study by RAND, the largest American think tank and the military’s go-to source for analysis, found that the JCET program had yielded poor results.  The command whose troops carried out the training, however, may not even have been aware of the years-old study and won’t offer comment on it.  At the same time, the command responsible for the continent where the training takes place won’t even acknowledge questions about the program, let alone offer answers.

With independent analyses showing armed violence and terror attacks on the rise in Africa, the Pentagon’s center for the study of the continent showing terrorism fatalities spiking, and the commander of America’s most elite forces in Africa acknowledging a proliferation of terrorist groups there, perhaps it’s no surprise that the U.S. military isn’t interested in looking too closely at its efforts over the last decade.  Experts, however, say that keeping the American people in the dark is both dangerous for democracy and a threat to effective overseas U.S. military engagement.

“There is a serious lack of transparency on this type of training and that inhibits efforts for Congressional staff and the public to provide oversight,” says Colby Goodman of the Center for International Policy.  Repeatedly asked about Goodman’s assertion, AFRICOM’s Anthony Falvo offered his typical non-response: Emails to the spokesman seeking comment were “deleted without being read.”

Mission Impossible