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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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.’” 


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Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

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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.   


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Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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

It’s rare to hear one top military commander publicly badmouth another, call attention to his faults, or simply point out his shortcomings. Despite a seemingly endless supply of debacles from strategic setbacks to quagmire conflicts since 9/11, the top brass rarely criticize each other or, even in retirement, utter a word about the failings of their predecessors or successors.  Think of it as the camouflage wall of silence.  You may loathe him.  You may badmouth him behind closed doors.  You may have secretly hoped for his career to implode.  But publicly point out failures?  That’s left to those further down the chain of command.

And yet that’s effectively exactly what newly installed U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) chief, General Thomas Waldhauser, did earlier this year in a statement to the Senate Arms Services Committee (SASC).  It’s just that no one, almost certainly including Waldhauser himself, seemed to notice or recognize it for the criticism it was, including the people tasked with oversight of military operations and those in the media.

Over these last years, the number of personnel, missions, dollars spent, and special ops training efforts as well as drone bases and other outposts on the continent have all multiplied.  At the same time, incoming AFRICOM commanders have been publicly warning about the escalating perils and challenges from terror groups that menace the command’s area of operations.  Almost no one, however — neither those senators nor the media — has raised pointed questions, no less demanded frank answers, about why such crises on the continent have so perfectly mirrored American military expansion.

Asked earlier this year about the difficulties he’d face if confirmed, Waldhauser was blunt: “A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and ISIL in Libya.”

That should have been a déjà vu moment for some of those senators.  Three years earlier, the man previously nominated to lead AFRICOM, General David Rodriguez, was asked the same question.  His reply was suspiciously similar: “A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of Mali as an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb safe haven, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.” 

All that had changed between 2013 and 2016, it seemed, was the addition of one more significant threat. 

In the midst of Rodriguez’s 2016 victory lap (as he was concluding 40 years of military service), Waldhauser publicly drew attention to just how ineffective his run as AFRICOM chief had been.  Some might call it unkind — a slap in the face for a decorated old soldier — but perhaps turnabout is fair play.  After all, in 2013, Rodriguez did much the same to his predecessor, General Carter Ham, when he offered his warning about the challenges on the continent.

Three years before that, in 2010, Ham appeared before the same committee and said, “I believe that the extremist threat that’s emerging from East Africa is probably the greatest concern that Africa Command will face in the near future.”  Ham expressed no worry about threats posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Boko Haram.  ISIL in Libya didn’t even exist.  And even that “greatest concern,” al-Shabaab, was, Ham noted, “primarily focused on internal matters in Somalia.”

In other words, over these last years, each incoming AFRICOM commander has offered a more dismal and dire assessment of the situation facing the U.S. military than his predecessor.  Ham drew attention to only one major terror threat, Rodriguez to three, and Waldhauser to four. 

His Own Worst Critic

That said, Waldhauser isn’t the only AFRICOM chief to point a finger at Rodriguez’s checkered record.  Another American general cast an even darker shadow on the outgoing commander’s three-year run overseeing Washington’s shadow war in Africa:

“AFRICOM’s priorities on the continent for the next several years will be… in East Africa to improve stability there.  Most of that is built around the threat of al-Shabaab.  And then, in the North and West Africa is really built around the challenges from Libya down to northern Mali and that region and that instability there creates many challenges… And then after that is the West Africa, really about the Boko Haram and the problem in Nigeria that is, unfortunately, crossing the boundary into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.  So those are the big challenges and then just the normal ones that continue to be a challenge are the Gulf of Guinea… as well as countering the Lord’s Resistance Army…”

That critic was, in fact, General David Rodriguez himself in an AFRICOM promotional video released on multiple social media platforms last month.  It was posted on the very day that his command also touted its “more than 30 major exercises and more than 1,000 military to military engagements” between 2013 and 2015.  It was hardly a surprise, however, that these two posts and the obvious conclusion to be drawn from them — just how little AFRICOM’S growing set of ambitious continent-wide activities mattered when it came to the spread of terror movements — went unattended and uncommented upon.

Waldhauser and Rodriguez have not, however, been alone in pointing out increased insecurity on the continent.  “Terrorism and violent extremism are major sources of instability in Africa,” Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May.  “Terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab, Boko Haram (which now calls itself the Islamic State in West Africa), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Murabitoun are conducting asymmetric campaigns that cause significant loss of innocent life and create potentially long-term humanitarian crises.”


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National intelligence director James Clapper, who called the continent “a hothouse for the emergence of extremist and rebel groups” in 2014, spoke of the dangers posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabaab, as well as terror threats in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, and Tunisia, and instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Burundi, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year.

And then there’s Brigadier General Donald Bolduc who heads Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), the most elite U.S. troops on the continent.  He painted a picture that was grimmer still.  Last November, during a closed door presentation at the annual Special Operations Command Africa Commander’s Conference in Garmisch, Germany, the SOCAFRICA chief drew attention not just to the threats of al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, ISIL, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, but also another “43 malign groups” operating in Africa, according to another set of documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.  

The growth of terror groups from the one named by Ham in 2010 to the 48 mentioned by Bolduc in 2015 is as remarkable as it has been unremarked upon, a record so bleak that it demands a congressional investigation that will, of course, never take place.

Questions Unasked, Questions Unanswered

U.S. Africa Command boasts that it “neutralizes transnational threats” and “prevents and mitigates conflict,” while training local allies and proxies “in order to promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”  Rodriguez’s tenure was, however, marked by the very opposite: increasing numbers of lethal terror attacks across the continent including those in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Tunisia.  In fact, data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland shows that attacks have spiked over the last decade, roughly coinciding with AFRICOM’s establishment.  In 2007, just before it became an independent command, there were fewer than 400 such incidents annually in sub-Saharan Africa.  Last year, the number reached nearly 2,000.

While these statistics may be damning, they are no more so than the words of AFRICOM’s own chiefs.  Yet the senators who are supposed to provide oversight haven’t seemed to bat an eye, let alone ask the obvious questions about why terror groups and terror attacks are proliferating as U.S. operations, bases, manpower, and engagement across the continent grow.  (Note that this is, of course, the same Senate committee that Rodriguez misled, whether purposefully or inadvertently, earlier this year when it came to the number of U.S. military missions in Africa without — again — either apparent notice or any repercussions.) 

In an era of too-big-to fail generals, an age in which top commanders from winless wars retire to take prominent posts at influential institutions and cash in with cushy jobs on corporate boards, AFRICOM chiefs have faced neither hard questions nor repercussions for the deteriorating situation.  (Similar records — heavy on setbacks, short on victories — have been produced by Washington’s war chiefs in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past 15 years and they, too, have never led to official calls for any sort of accountability.)

Rodriguez is now planning on resting at his northern Virginia home for a few months and, as he told Stars and Stripes, seeing “what comes next.” 

U.S. Africa Command failed to respond to multiple requests for an interview with Rodriguez, but if he follows in the footsteps of the marquee names among fellow retired four-stars of his generation, like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, he’ll supplement his six-figure pension with one or more lucrative private sector posts.

What comes next for AFRICOM will play out on the continent and in briefings before the Senate Armed Services Committee for years to come.  If history is any guide, the number of terror groups on the continent will not decrease, the senators will fail to ask why this is so, and the media will follow their lead. 

During his final days in command, AFRICOM released several more short videos of Rodriguez holding forth on varioius issues.  In one of the last of these, the old soldier praised “the whole team” for accomplishing “a tremendous amount over the last several years.”  What exactly that was went unsaid, though it certainly wasn’t achieving AFRICOM’s mandate to “neutraliz[e] transnational threats.”  But what Rodriguez said next made a lot of sense.  He noted that AFRICOM wasn’t alone in it — whatever it was.  Washington, D.C., he said, had played a key role, too.  In that, he couldn’t have been more on target.  The increasingly bleak outlook in Africa can’t simply be laid at the feet of AFRICOM’s commanders.  Again and again, they’ve been upfront about the deteriorating situation.  Washington has just preferred to look the other way.            

Copyright 2016 Nick Turse

Breaking the Camouflage Wall of Silence