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).

CLICK TO ENLARGE

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.”


Featured Title from this Author

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

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

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

Mission Impossible

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Missions, More Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mum’s the Word

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

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

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

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

Mission Impossible

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.”


Featured Title from this Author

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

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

I ran into David Petraeus the other night. Or rather, I ran after him.

It’s been more than a year since I first tried to connect with the retired four-star general and ex-CIA director — and no luck yet. On a recent evening, as the sky was turning from a crisp ice blue into a host of Easter-egg hues, I missed him again. Led from a curtained “backstage” area where he had retreated after a midtown Manhattan event, Petraeus moved briskly to a staff-only room, then into a tightly packed elevator, and momentarily out onto the street before being quickly ushered into a waiting late-model, black Mercedes S550.

And then he was gone, whisked into the warm New York night, companions in tow.

For the previous hour, Petraeus had been in conversation with Peter Bergen, a journalist, CNN analyst, and vice president at New America, the think tank sponsoring the event. Looking fit and well-rested in a smart dark-blue suit, the former four-star offered palatable, pat, and — judging from the approving murmurs of the audience — popular answers to a host of questions about national security issues ranging from the fight against the Islamic State to domestic gun control. While voicing support for the Second Amendment, for example, he spoke about implementing “common sense solutions to the availability of weapons,” specifically keeping guns out of the hands of “domestic abusers” and those on the no-fly list.  Even as he expressed “great respect” for those who carried out acts of torture in the wake of 9/11, he denounced its use — except in the case of a “ticking time bomb.”  In an era when victory hasn’t been a word much used in relation to the American military, he even predicted something close to it on the horizon.  “I’ve said from the very beginning, even in the darkest days, the Islamic State would be defeated in Iraq,” he told the appreciative crowd.

I went to the event hoping to ask Petraeus a question or two, but Bergen never called on me during the Q & A portion of the evening. My attendance was not, however, a total loss.

Watching the retired general in action, I was reminded of the peculiarity of this peculiar era — an age of generals whose careers are made in winless wars; years in which such high-ranking, mission-unaccomplished officers rotate through revolving doors that lead not only to top posts with major weapons merchants, but also too-big-to-fail banks, top universities, cutting-edge tech companies, healthcare firms, and other corporate behemoths.  Hardly a soul, it seems, cares that these generals and admirals have had leading roles in quagmire wars or even, in two prominent cases, saw their government service cease as a result of career-ending scandal.  And Citizen David Petraeus is undoubtedly the epitome of this phenomenon.

Celebrated as the most cerebral of generals, the West Point grad and Princeton Ph.D. rose to stardom during the Iraq War — credited with pacifying the restive city of Mosul before becoming one of the architects of the new Iraqi Army.  Petraeus would then return to the United States where he revamped and revived the Army’s failed counterinsurgency doctrine from the Vietnam War, before being tapped to lead “The Surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq — an effort to turn around the foundering conflict.  Through it all, Petraeus waged one of the most deft self-promotion campaigns in recent memory, cultivating politicians, academics, and especially fawning journalists who reported on his running stamina, his penchant for push-ups, and even — I kid you not — how he woke a lieutenant from what was thought to be an irreversible coma by shouting the battle cry of his unit.

A series of biographers would lionize the general who, after achieving what to some looked like success in Iraq, went on to head U.S. Central Command, overseeing the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  When the military career of his subordinate General Stanley McChrystal imploded, Petraeus was sent once more unto the breach to spearhead an Afghan War surge and win another quagmire war.

And win Petraeus did.  Not in Afghanistan, of course.  That war grinds on without end.  But the Teflon general somehow emerged from it all with people talking about him as a future presidential contender.  Looking back at Petraeus’s successes, one understands just what a feat this was.  Statistics show that Petraeus never actually pacified Mosul, which has now been under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) for years.  The army Petraeus helped build in Iraq crumbled in the face of that same force which, in some cases, was even supported by Sunni fighters Petraeus had put on the U.S. payroll to make The Surge appear successful.

Indeed, Petraeus had come to New America’s New York headquarters to answer one question in particular: “What will the next president’s national security challenges be?”  Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Iraq, Afghanistan: precisely the set of groups he had fought, places he had fought in, or what had resulted from his supposed victories.

Retired Brass, Then and Now

“What can you do with a general, when he stops being a general? Oh, what can you do with a general who retires?”

Irving Berlin first posed these questions in 1948 and Bing Crosby crooned them six years later in White Christmas, the lavish Hollywood musical that has become a holiday season staple.

These are not, however, questions which seem to have plagued David Petraeus.  He retired from the Army in 2011 to take a job as director of the CIA, only to resign in disgrace a year later when it was revealed that he had leaked classified information to his biographer and one-time lover Paula Broadwell and then lied about it to the FBI.  Thanks to a deal with federal prosecutors, Petraeus pled guilty to just a single misdemeanor and served no jail time, allowing him, as the New York Times reported last year, “to focus on his lucrative post-government career as a partner in a private equity firm and a worldwide speaker on national security issues.”

In the Bing and Berlin era, following back-to-back victories in world wars, things were different.  Take George C. Marshall, a five-star general and the most important U.S. military leader during World War II who is best remembered today for the post-war European recovery plan that bore his name.  Fellow five-star general and later president Dwight Eisenhower recalled that, during the Second World War, Marshall “did not want to sit in Washington and be a chief of staff. I am sure he wanted a field command, but he wouldn’t even allow his chief [President Franklin Roosevelt] to know what he wanted, because he said, ‘I am here to serve and not to satisfy personal ambition.’”  That mindset seemed to remain his guiding directive after he retired in 1945 and went on to serve as a special envoy to China, secretary of state, and secretary of defense.

Marshall reportedly refused a number of lucrative offers to write his memoirs, including the then-princely sum of a million dollars after taxes from Time and Life publisher Henry Luce.  He did so on the grounds that it was unethical to profit from service to the United States or to benefit from the sacrifices of the men who had served under him, supposedly telling one publisher “that he had not spent his life serving the government in order to sell his life story to the Saturday Evening Post.”  In his last years, he finally cooperated with a biographer and gave his archives to the George C. Marshall Research Foundation on “the condition that no monetary returns from a book or books based on his materials would go to him or his family but would be used for the research program of the Marshall Foundation.”  Even his biographer was asked to “waive the right to any royalties from the biography.”  Marshall also declined to serve on any corporate boards.

Marshall may have been a paragon of restraint and moral rectitude, but he wasn’t alone.  As late as the years 1994-1998, according to an analysis by the Boston Globe, fewer than 50% of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives.  By 2004-2008, that number had jumped to 80%.  An analysis by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found that it was still at a lofty 70% for the years 2009-2011.

Celebrity generals like Petraeus and fellow former four-star generals Stanley McChrystal (whose military career was also consumed in the flames of scandal) and Ray Odierno (who retired amid controversy), as well as retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, don’t even need to enter the world of arms dealers and defense firms.  These days, those jobs may increasingly be left to second-tier military luminaries like Marine Corps general James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now on the board of directors at Raytheon, as well as former Vice Admiral and Director of Naval Intelligence Jack Dorsett, who joined Northrop Grumman.

If, however, you are one of the military’s top stars, the sky is increasingly the limit.  You can, for instance, lead a consulting firm (McChrystal and Mullen) or advise or even join the boards of banks and civilian corporations like JPMorgan Chase (Odierno), Jet Blue (McChrystal), and General Motors (Mullen).

For his part, after putting his extramarital affair behind him, Petraeus became a partner at the private equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. L.P. (KKR), where he also serves as the chairman of the KKR Global Institute and, according to his bio, “oversees the institute’s thought leadership platform focused on geopolitical and macro-economic trends, as well as environmental, social, and governance issues.”  His lieutenants include a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager for President George W. Bush, as well as a former leading light at Morgan Stanley.

KKR’s portfolio boasts a bit of everything, from Alliant Insurance Services and Panasonic Healthcare to a host of Chinese firms (Rundong Automobile Group and Asia Dairy, among them).  There are also defense firms under its umbrella, including TASC, the self-proclaimed “premier provider of advanced systems engineering and integration services across the Intelligence Community, Department of Defense, and civilian agencies of the federal government,” and Airbus Group’s defense electronics business which KKR recently bought for $1.2 billion.

KKR is, however, just where Petraeus’s post-military, post-CIA résumé begins.

A Man for Four Seasons

“Nobody thinks of assigning him, when they stop wining and dining him,” wrote Irving Berlin 68 years ago.

How times do change.  When it comes to Petraeus, the wining and dining is evidently unending — as when Financial Times columnist Edward Luce took him to the Four Seasons Restaurant earlier this year for a lunch of tuna tartare, poached salmon, and a bowl of mixed berries with cream.

At the elegant eatery, just a short walk from Petraeus’s Manhattan office, the former CIA chief left Luce momentarily forlorn.  “When I inquire what keeps him busy nowadays his answer goes on for so long I half regret asking,” he wrote.

I evidently heard a version of the same well prepared lines when, parrying a question from journalist Fred Kaplan at the New America event I attended, Petraeus produced a wall of words explaining how busy he is.  In the process, he shed light on just what it means to be a retired celebrity general from America’s winless wars.  “I’ve got a day job with KKR.  I teach once a week at the City University of New York — Honors College.  I do a week per semester at USC [University of Southern California].  I do several days at Harvard.  I’m on the speaking circuit.  I do pro bono stuff like this.  I’m the co-chairman of the Wilson Institute’s Global Advisory Council, the senior vice president of RUSI [Royal United Services Institute, a research institution focused on military issues].  I’m on three other think tank boards,” he said.

In an era when fellow leakers of government secrets — from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou to Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning — have ended up in exile or prison, Petraeus’s post-leak life has obviously been quite another matter.

The experience of former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake who shared unclassified information about that agency’s wasteful ways with a reporter is more typical of what leakers should expect.  Although the Justice Department eventually dropped the most serious charges against him — he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor — he lost his job and his pension, went bankrupt, and has spent years working at an Apple store after being prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act.  “My social contacts are gone, and I’m persona non grata,” he told Defense One last year. “I can’t find any work in government contracting or in the quasi-government space, those who defend whistleblowers won’t touch me.”

Petraeus, on the other hand, shared with his lover and biographer eight highly classified “black books” that the government says included “the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and defendant David Howell Petraeus’s discussions with the President of the United States of America.”  Petraeus was prosecuted, pled guilty, and was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $100,000.

Yet it’s Petraeus who today moves in rarified circles and through hallowed halls, with memberships and posts at one influential institution after another.  In addition to the positions he mentioned at New America, his CV includes: honorary visiting professor at Exeter University, co-chairman of the Task Force on North America at the Council on Foreign Relations, co-chairman of the Global Advisory Committee at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, member of the Concordia Summit’s Concordia Leadership Council, member of the board of trustees at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, member of the National Security Advisory Council of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, and a seat on the board of directors at the Atlantic Council.


Featured Title from this Author

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

Brand Petraeus

About a year ago, I tried to contact Petraeus through KKR as well as the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, to get a comment on a story.  I never received a reply.

I figured he was ducking me — or anyone asking potentially difficult questions — or that his gatekeepers didn’t think I was important enough to respond to.  But perhaps he was simply too busy.  To be honest, I didn’t realize just how crowded his schedule was.  (Of course, FT’s Edward Luce reports that when he sent Petraeus an email invite, the retired general accepted within minutes, so maybe it’s because I wasn’t then holding out the prospect of a meal at the Four Seasons.)

I attended the New America event because I had yet more questions for Petraeus.  But I wasn’t as fortunate as Fred Kaplan — author, by the way, of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War — and wasn’t quite speedy or nimble enough to catch the former general before he slipped into the backseat of that luxurious Mercedes sedan.

Irving Berlin’s “What Can You Do With A General?” ends on a somber note that sounds better in Crosby’s dulcimer tones than it reads on the page: “It seems this country never has enjoyed, so many one and two and three and four-star generals, unemployed.”

Today, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retiring after 38 years receives a pension of about $20,000 a month, not exactly a shabby unemployment check for the rest of your life, but one that many in the tight-knit fraternity of top officers are still eager to supplement.  Take General Cartwright, who joined Raytheon in 2012 and, according to Morningstar, the investment research firm, receives close to $364,000 per year in compensation from that company while holding more than $1.2 million in its stock.

All of this left me with yet more questions for Petraeus (whose pension is reportedly worth more than $18,000 per month or $220,000 per year) about a mindset that seems light years distant from the one Marshall espoused during his retirement.  I was curious, for instance, about his take on why the winning of wars isn’t a prerequisite for cashing in on one’s leadership in them, and why the personal and professional costs of scandal are so incredibly selective.

Today, it seems, a robust Rolodex with the right global roster, a marquee name, and a cultivated geopolitical brand covers a multitude of sins.  And that’s precisely the type of firepower that Petraeus brings to the table.

After a year without a reply, I got in touch with KKR again.  This time, through an intermediary, Petraeus provided me an answer to a new request for an interview.  “Thank you for your interest, Nick, but he respectfully declines at this time,” I was told.

I’m hoping, however, that the retired general changes his mind.  For the privilege of asking Petraeus various questions, I’d be more than happy to take him to lunch at the Four Seasons.

With that tony power-lunch spot closing down soon as part of a plan to relocate elsewhere, we’d need to act fast.  Getting a table could be tough.

Luckily, I know just the name to drop.

Copyright 2016 Nick Turse

Leaker, Speaker, Soldier, Spy

General David Rodriguez might be a modern military celebrity — if he hadn’t spent his career ducking the spotlight. After graduating from West Point in 1976, he began his long march up the chain of command, serving in Operation Just Cause (the U.S. invasion of Panama) and Operation Desert Storm (Iraq War 1.0) before becoming deputy commander of United States Forces, Afghanistan, and commander of the International Security Assistance Force-Joint Command in 2009.

In 2011, the 6’5” former paratrooper received his fourth star and two years later the coveted helm of one of the Defense Department’s six geographic combatant commands, becoming the third chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Rodriguez has held that post ever since, overseeing a colossal American military expansion on that continent.  During his tenure, AFRICOM has grown in every conceivable way, from outposts to manpower. In the process, Africa has become a key hub for shadowy U.S. missions against terror groups from Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to Somalia and Libya. But even as he now prepares to turn over his post to Marine Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, Rodriguez continues to downplay the scope of U.S. operations on the continent, insisting that his has been a kinder, gentler combatant command.

As he prepares to retire, Rodriguez has an additional reason for avoiding attention.  His tenure has not only also been marked by an increasing number of terror attacks from Mali and Burkina Faso to, most recently, Côte d’Ivoire, but questions have arisen about his recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Did the outgoing AFRICOM chief lie to the senators about the number of missions being carried out on the continent? Is AFRICOM maintaining two sets of books in an effort to obscure the size and scope of its expanding operations?  Is the command relying on a redefinition of terms and massaging its numbers to buck potential oversight?

If Rodriguez knowingly deceived the Senate Armed Services Committee in an effort to downplay the size and scope of his command’s operations, that act would be criminal and punishable by law, experts say.  That’s a big “if.”  But U.S. Africa Command’s response hardly inspires confidence.  AFRICOM has refused to comment on the subject, stonewalling TomDispatch on questions about why Rodriguez has been peddling contradictory figures about his command’s activities to Congress.  And this rejection of transparency and accountability is only the latest incident in a long history of AFRICOM personnel ducking questions, rebuffing press inquiries, and preventing Americans from understanding what’s being done in their name and with their tax dollars in Africa.

Numbers Game

In March 2015, General David Rodriguez appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to report on the previous year’s military missions in Africa.  “In Fiscal Year 2014, we conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 security cooperation activities,” he told the senators.  The U.S. had, in other words, carried out a total of 674 military missions across Africa, nearly two per day, up from 546 the year before.  Those 674 missions amounted to an almost 300% jump in the number of annual operations, exercises, and military-to-military trainings since U.S. Africa Command was established in 2008.

These missions form the backbone of U.S. military engagement on the continent.  “The command’s operations, exercises, and security cooperation assistance programs support U.S. Government foreign policy and do so primarily through military-to-military activities and assistance programs,” according to AFRICOM.  “These activities build strong, enduring partnerships with African nations, regional and international organizations, and other states that are committed to improving security in Africa.”

Very little is known about most of these missions due to AFRICOM’s secretive nature.  Only a small fraction of them are reported in the command’s press releases with little of substance chronicled.  An even tinier number are covered by independent journalists.  “Congress and the public need to know about U.S. military operations overseas, regardless of what euphemism is used to describe them,” says William Hartung, a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor which tracks American military aid around the globe. “Calling something a ‘security cooperation activity’ doesn’t change the fact that U.S. troops are working directly with foreign military forces.”

This spring, at his annual appearance before the SASC, Rodriguez provided the senators with an update on these programs.  “In fiscal year 2015,” he announced, “we conducted 75 joint operations, 12 major joint exercises, and 400 security cooperation activities.”  For the first time ever, it seemed that AFRICOM had carried out fewer missions than the year before — just 487.  This 28% drop was noteworthy, if little noticed.

But was it true?

Things started getting hazy when Rodriguez went on to offer a new version of the number of missions AFRICOM had carried out in 2014.  To hear him tell it, 2015 hadn’t represented a drop in those missions but a banner year for them.  After all, its 75 joint operations, he told the senators, topped the 68 of 2014.  Twelve major joint exercises one-upped the 11 of a year earlier.  And 400 security cooperation activities beat the 363 of the year before.

I did a double take and reread his 2015 statement.  The discrepancy couldn’t have been plainer.  His exact words last year: “In Fiscal Year 2014, we conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 security cooperation activities.”  And this year he said: “[W]e conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 363 security cooperation activities in fiscal year 2014.” Somehow, between 2015 and 2016, more than 200 missions from 2014 had simply vanished and, months later, AFRICOM has still failed to offer an explanation for what happened, while the Senate Armed Services Committee has, apparently, not even bothered to ask for any clarification.

A discrepancy of 232 security cooperation activities can’t be chalked up to a mere miscount.  And since both numbers were presented to the SASC in written statements, the AFRICOM chief can’t simply have misspoken.


Featured Title from this Author

Kill Anything That Moves

Kill Anything That Moves

The Real American War in Vietnam

Such a discrepancy in the total number of “security cooperation activities” conducted by his command raises questions about what AFRICOM is actually doing on the continent (or whether it even knows what it’s doing).  The figure Rodriguez offered this year also contradicts projections laid out in U.S. Army Africa (USARAF) documents obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act in 2014.  These refer to more than 400 activities scheduled for Army troops alone in Africa that year.

Despite numerous requests over several weeks, AFRICOM has failed to provide any comment or clarification to TomDispatch.  It also failed to respond to requests to interview Rodriguez.  A Pentagon spokesperson was able to coax a reply out of the command as to the correct number of security cooperation activities in 2014.  According to AFRICOM, that number is indeed 363, directly contradicting Rodriguez’s 2015 testimony and suggesting that, whether purposely or not, the general misled members of Congress.  Messages seeking comment from the SASC staff, including Dustin Walker and Chip Unruh — spokespeople, respectively, for U.S. Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, the chairman and the ranking member of the committee — were not returned.

“The fact that General Rodriguez gave such wildly conflicting figures, and that members of Congress aren’t pressing him for an explanation, is just one more example of how U.S. military activities in Africa and beyond have spun out of control,” says Hartung.

Bending the Law — or Breaking It?

With Rodriguez, Africa Command, and the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee staying silent, it’s impossible to know what motives — if any — lay behind the bogus numbers offered by the AFRICOM chief.

The command may, without public announcement, have redefined “security cooperation activities” thanks to an as-yet-unreleased 2014 Defense Department memorandum meant to provide guidance on the so-called Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S from providing assistance to foreign security forces implicated in human rights abuses.  Reclassifying certain types of training missions makes it more difficult than ever to track both the dollars spent by AFRICOM and the number of activities it conducted on that continent.

Africa Command, its subordinate units, and partners also have a long history of being unable to effectively track and manage their own efforts.  A 2015 study by the Government Accountability Office noted that AFRICOM “identifies and synchronizes security cooperation activities through various planning processes, but the brigades allocated to AFRICOM sometimes lack key information about these activities.”  According to officials involved in the process, “the increasing number of activities being conducted in Africa… challenges the ability of the Offices of Security Cooperation to fully coordinate individual activities with the host nation, AFRICOM, USARAF, the other service components, and DOD executing units.”

A 2013 report by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General on AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa found recordkeeping so abysmal that its officials “did not have an effective system to manage or report community relations and low-cost activities.”  A spreadsheet supposedly tracking such missions during 2012 and 2013 was, for example, so incomplete that 43% of such efforts went unmentioned.

New definitions, poor recordkeeping, ineffective management, and incompetence aren’t, however, the only possible explanations for the discrepancies.  AFRICOM has a history of working to thwart efforts aimed at transparency and accountability and has long been criticized for its atmosphere of secrecy.  Beyond spin, the highly selective release of information, the cherry-picking of reporters to cover a tiny fraction of its undertakings, and the issuing of news releases that tell a very limited story about the command, AFRICOM has taken steps to thwart press coverage of its footprint and missions.

After I started asking the command questions about the shifting count of security cooperation activities, Rodriguez told Stars and Stripes that the command had carried out “roughly 430 annual ‘theater security cooperation’ activities” last year, a difference of 30 from the figure he provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.  Why he has continued to peddle different numbers at different times is unclear.

Under Section 1623 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, knowingly making contradictory statements in court or a grand jury while under oath can get you five years in prison.  While that statute doesn’t cover Rodriguez’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, experts point to Section 1621 of Title 18, which prohibits lying to Congress while under oath and Section 1001 covering testimony given while not under oath, as the operative portions of the U.S. Code.  A person convicted of the former faces up to five years in jail and fines of up to $250,000.  There is, however, a high burden of proof when it comes to perjury, including clear evidence of intent.

Rodriguez could, for example, have been provided with faulty numbers by subordinates or the command might have altered the way it tracks missions.  If, however, Rodriguez intentionally manipulated the numbers to deceive Congress, he broke the law, according to Andrew McBride, who served in the Department of Justice for a decade and is now a partner with the Washington D.C.-based law firm of Wiley Rein.  “If he has a reason to do it and he knows what he’s doing, that is perjury.  That is willfully lying under oath,” says McBride.  And under Section 1001, a person does not even have to be under oath for the federal government to bring a false statements charge.  It’s enough for an individual to provide false information with an intent to deceive a federal agent or entity.

There is, as yet, no evidence that Rodriguez violated the law, but should he find himself in hot water, it would not be a first for an AFRICOM chief.  Just after Rodriguez was nominated to take the helm of AFRICOM back in 2012, its first commander, General William Ward, was demoted as he was retiring from the military and ordered to repay the government $82,000 for lavish spending on the taxpayers’ dime.

On the eve of his own retirement, Rodriguez now finds himself the subject of scrutiny, with his subordinates stonewalling requests for comment.  Numerous emails sent to AFRICOM spokesman Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo — including those with a subject line indicating a request to interview the AFRICOM chief — were, according to automatic return receipts, “deleted without being read.”

At a time when the number of U.S. troops, bases, and — perhaps — missions in Africa are increasing, along with the number of terrorist groups and terror attacks on the continent, hundreds of already murky missions have apparently been disappeared, purged from the command’s rolls and the historical record.  As troubling as this may be, the stakes go far beyond numbers, says the Security Assistance Monitor’s William Hartung.  Precise figures about foreign military engagements are essential in a world where blowback from military operations is an ever-present reality, but they are only a first step.

“Providing accurate public information on what U.S. troops are doing would at least provide early warning of what might be to come, and allow for scrutiny and accountability,” he points out.   “Not only should AFRICOM report the number of activities, but there should be some description of what these activities entail.  Arming and training missions can escalate into more substantial military involvement.”

Copyright 2016 Nick Turse

The Numbers Racket

LEER, South Sudan — I’m sitting in the dark, sweating. The blinding white sun has long since set, but it’s still in the high 90s, which is a relief since it was above 110 earlier. Slumped in a blue plastic chair, I’m thinking back on the day, trying to process everything I saw, the people I spoke with: the woman whose home was burned down, the woman whose teenage daughter was shot and killed, the woman with 10 mouths to feed and no money, the glassy-eyed soldier with the AK-47.

Then there were the scorched ruins: the wrecked houses, the traditional wattle-and-daub tukuls without roofs, the spectral footprints of homes set aflame by armed raiders who swept through in successive waves, the remnants of a town that has ceased to exist.

And, of course, there were the human remains: a field of scattered skulls and femurs and ribs and pelvises and spinal columns.

And I’m sitting here — spent, sweaty, stinking — trying to make sense of it all about 10 feet from a sandbagged bunker I’m supposed to jump into if the shooting starts again. “It’s one of the worse places in the world,” someone had assured me before I left South Sudan’s capital, Juba, for this hellscape of burnt-out buildings and unburied bones that goes by the name of Leer.

A lantern on a nearby table casts a dim glow on an approaching aid worker, an African with a deep knowledge of this place. He’s come to fetch his dinner. I’m hoping to corral him and pick his brain about the men who torched this town, burned people alive, beat and murdered civilians, abducted, raped, and enslaved women and children, looted and pillaged and stole.

Before I can say a word, he beats me to the punch with his own set of rapid-fire questions: “This man called Trump — what’s going on with him?  Who’s voting for him?  Are you voting for him?”  He then proceeds to tell me everything he’s heard about the Republican frontrunner — how Trump is tarnishing America’s global image, how he can’t believe the things Trump says about women and immigrants.

Here, where catastrophic food insecurity may tip into starvation at any time, where armed men still arrive in the night to steal and rape.  (“They could come any night.  You might even hear them tonight.  You’ll hear the women screaming,” another aid worker told me earlier in the day.)  Here, where horrors abound, this man wants — seemingly needs — to know if Donald Trump could actually be elected president of the United States.  “I’m really afraid,” he says of the prospect without a hint of irony.

Of Midwifery and Militias

After decades of effort, the United States “helped midwife the birth” of the Republic of South Sudan, according to then-Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry.  In reality, for the South Sudanese to win their independence it took two brutal conflicts with Sudan, the first of which raged from 1955 to 1972, and the second from 1983 to 2005, leaving millions dead and displaced.  Still, it is true that for more than 20 years, a bipartisan coalition in Washington and beyond championed the southern rebels, and that, as the new nation broke away from Sudan, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in aid, including hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance.

The world’s youngest nation, South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 and just two and a half years later plunged into civil war.  Since then, an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 people have been killed in a conflict pitting President Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, against Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer and the vice president he sacked in July 2013.  That December, a fight between Dinka and Nuer troops set off the current crisis, which then turned into a slaughter of Nuers by Kiir’s forces in Juba.  Reprisals followed as Machar’s men took their revenge on Dinkas and other non-Nuers in towns like Bor and Bentiu.  The conflict soon spread, splintering into local wars within the larger war and birthing other violence that even a peace deal signed last August and Machar’s recent return to the government has been unable to halt.

The signature feature of this civil war has been its preferred target: civilians.  It has been marked by massacres, mass rape, sexual slavery, assaults of every sort, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement of local populations, disappearances, abductions, torture, mutilations, the wholesale destruction of villages, pillaging, looting, and a host of other crimes.

Again and again, armed men have fallen upon towns and villages filled with noncombatants.  That’s exactly what happened to Leer in 2015.  Militias allied with the government, in coordination with Kiir’s troops — the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA — attacked the town and nearby villages again and again.  Rebel forces fled in the face of the government onslaught.  Fearing execution, many men fled as well.  Women stayed behind, caring for children, the sick, and the elderly.  There was an assumption that they would be spared.  They weren’t.  Old men were killed in their homes that were then set ablaze.  Women were gang raped.  Others were taken away as sex slaves.  Whole villages were razed.  Survivors were chased into the nearby swamps, tracked down, and executed.  Children drowned in the chaos.

Those who lived through it spent months in those waterlogged swamps, eating water lily bulbs.  When they returned home, they were confronted yet again by pitiless armed men who, at gunpoint, took what meager belongings they had left, sometimes the very clothes off children’s backs.

This is a story that ought to be told and told and retold.  And yet here in Leer, like everywhere I went in South Sudan, I couldn’t get away from Donald Trump.  So many — South Sudanese, Americans, Canadians, Europeans — seemed to want to talk about him.  Even in this ruined shell of a town, Trump was big news.

The “Endorsement” Heard Round the World

Back in Juba, I settle down in the shade of my hotel’s bar on a Saturday morning to read the Daily Vision.  In that newspaper, there’s a story about the dire economic straits the country finds itself in and the violence it’s breeding, as well as one about violations of the 2015 peace pact.  And then there’s this gem of a headline: “Nobody Likes Donald Trump.  Not Even White Men.”

A fair number of South Sudanese men I ran into, however, did like him.  “He mixes it up,” one told me, lauding Trump’s business acumen.  “At least he speaks his mind.  He’s not afraid to say things that people do not want to hear,” said another.  I heard such comments in Juba and beyond.  It leaves you with the impression that if his campaign hits rough shoals in the U.S., Trump might still have a political future in South Sudan.  After all, this is a country currently led by a brash, cowboy-hat-wearing former guerrilla who mixes it up and is certainly not afraid to speak his mind even when it comes to threatening members of the press with death.

Compared to Kiir, who stands accused by the United Nations of war crimes, Trump looks tame indeed.  The Republican candidate has only threatened to weaken First Amendment protections in order to make it easier to sue, not kill, reporters.  Still, the two leaders do seem like-minded on a number of issues.  Kiir’s government, for example,  is implicated in all manner of atrocities, including torture, which Trump has shown an eagerness to employ as a punishment in Washington’s war on terror.  Trump has also expressed a willingness to target not only those deemed terrorists, but also their families.  Kiir’s forces have done just that, attacking noncombatants suspected of sympathizing with the rebels, as they did during the sack of Leer.

So it didn’t come as a surprise when, in March, the Sudan Tribune — a popular Paris-based website covering South Sudan and Sudan — reported that Salva Kiir had endorsed Trump.  It even provided readers with the official statement issued by Kiir’s office after his phone call with the U.S. presidential candidate: “Donald Trump is a true, hard-working, no-nonsense American who, when he becomes president, will support South Sudan in its democratic path and stability. South Sudan, the world newest nations [sic], is also looking forward to Donald Trump’s support and investment in almost all the sectors.”  Trump, said the Tribune, “expressed his thanks for the endorsement and said he will send his top aides to the country to discuss further the investment opportunities.”

It turned out, however, that the Tribune had been taken in by a local satirical news site, Saakam — the Onion of South Sudan — whose tagline is “Breaking news like it never happened.”  That the Tribune was fooled by the story is not as strange as it might first seem.  As journalist Jason Patinkin observed in Quartz, “Kiir’s reputation is such that many Africa watchers and journalists found the story plausible.”

I, for one, hadn’t even bothered to read the Tribune article.  The title told me all I needed to know.  It sounded like classic Kiir.  I almost wondered what had taken him so long to reach out.  But South Sudan’s foreign ministry assured Patinkin, “There is no truth to [the story] whatsoever.”

For now, at least.

Will He Win?

There’s a fever-dream, schizophrenic quality to the war in South Sudan.  The conflict began in an orgy of violence, then ebbed, only to flare again and again.  As the war has ground on, new groups have emerged, and alliances have formed while others broke down.  Commanders switch sides, militias change allegiances.  In 2014, for example, Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, the rebel army’s spokesman, called out the SPLA for “committing crimes against humanity.”  Kiir, he said, had lost control of his forces and had become little more than a puppet of his Ugandan backers.  Last year, Lul split from Machar to form the “South Sudan Resistance Movement/Army” — an organization that attracted few followers.  This year, he found a new job, as the spokesman for the military he once cast as criminal.  “I promise to defend SPLA in Media Warfare until the last drop of blood,” he wrote in a Facebook post after being tapped by Kiir.  Of course, Machar himself has just recently returned to Juba to serve as first vice-president to Kiir.

In a country like this, enmeshed in a war like this, it’s hardly surprising that ceasefires have meant little and violence has ground on even after a peace deal was signed last August.  Leer was just one of the spots where atrocities continued despite the pact that “ended” the conflict.

More recently, the war — or rather the various sub-conflicts it’s spawned, along with other armed violence — has spread to previously peaceful areas of the country.  Cattle-raiding, a long-standing cultural practice, now supercharged by modern weaponry and military-style tactics, has proven increasingly lethal to communities nationwide, and has recently even bled across the border into Ethiopia.  A South Sudanese raid into that country’s Gambela region last month killed 208 Ethiopians, and the attackers abducted 108 women and children while stealing more than 2,000 head of cattle.

While in Leer, I do end up talking at length with the Trump-intrigued aid worker about local cattle-raiding, as well as the killings, the rapes, and the widespread looting.  I was always, however, aware that, like many other foreign aid workers and locals I meet, what he really wanted was an American take on the man presently dominating U.S. politics, an explanation of the larger-than-life and stranger-than-life figure who, even in South Sudan, has the ability to suck the air out of any room.

“This Trump.  He’s a crazy man!” he tells me as we sit together beneath an obsidian sky now thick with stars.  He reminds me that he’s not authorized by his employer to speak on the record.  I nod.  Then he adds incredulously, “He says some things and you wonder: Are you going to be president?  Really?!

A couple of other people are around us now, eating dinner after a long, sweltering day.  They, too, join in the conversation, looking to me for answers.  I find myself at a loss.  Here, in this place of acute hunger ever-teetering on the brink of famine, here, a short walk from homes that are little more than hovels, where children go naked, women wear dresses that are essentially rags, and a mother’s dream is to lay her hands on a sheet of plastic to provide protection from the coming rains, I do my best to explain seething white male anger in America over “economic disenfranchisement,” “losing out,” and being “left behind,” over Donald Trump’s channeling of “America’s economic rage.”  I’m disgusted even articulating these sentiments after spending the day speaking to people whose suffering is as unfathomable in America as America’s wealth is unimaginable here.

Some of Leer’s women fled with their children into the nearby swamps when armed men swept in.  Imagine running blind, in the black of night, into such a swamp.  Imagine tripping, falling, losing your grip on a small child’s hand as shots ring out.  Imagine that child stumbling into water too deep for her to stand.  Imagine slapping frantically at that water, disoriented, spinning in the darkness, desperate to find a child who can’t swim, who’s slipped beneath the surface, who is suddenly gone.

And now imagine me trying to talk about the worries of Trump supporters “that their kids won’t have a chance to get ahead.”

I really don’t want to say any more.  I don’t want to try to make sense of it or try to explain why so many Americans are so enraged at their lot and so enthralled with Donald Trump.

The aid worker lets me off the hook with another assessment of the Republican candidate.  “Things he says, they are very awkward.  When he says those things, you think: He’s crazy.  How can he be a presidential candidate?”

How to respond? I’m at a loss.

“If he wins the election, America will not have the influence it’s had,” he says.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, I counter.  Maybe not having such influence would be good for the world.

It’s the truth.  It also completely misses the point.  Even here, even as I’m revolted by talking about America’s “problems” amid the horrors of Leer, I’m still looking at things from a distinctly American vantage point.  I’m talking about theoretically diminished U.S. power and what that might mean for the planet, but come 2017 he’s going to be out in the thick of it, in this or some other desperate place, and he’s obviously worried about what the foreign policy of Donald Trump’s America is going to mean for him, for Africa, for the world.

I go silent.  He goes silent.  Another aid worker has been listening in, piping up intermittently between mouthfuls of rice and goat meat.  “So is he going to win?” he asks me.

I look over at him and half-shrug.  Everyone, I say, thought Trump was going to flame out long ago.  And I stop there.  I’m too spent to talk Trump anymore.  I don’t have any answers.

My companion looks back at me and breaks his silence.  “It can’t happen, can it?”

Copyright 2016 Nick Turse

Donald Trump in South Sudan

There’s good news coming out of Iraq… again. The efforts of a 65-nation coalition and punishing U.S. airstrikes have helped local ground forces roll back gains by the Islamic State (IS).

Government forces and Shiite militias, for example, recaptured the city of Tikrit, while Kurdish troops ousted IS fighters from the town of Sinjar and other parts of northern Iraq. Last month, Iraqi troops finally pushed Islamic State militants out of most of the city of Ramadi, which the group had held since routing Iraqi forces there last spring.

In the wake of all this, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter touted “the kind of progress that the Iraqi forces are exhibiting in Ramadi, building on that success to… continue the campaign with the important goal of retaking Mosul as soon as possible.”  Even more recently, he said those forces were “proving themselves not only motivated but capable.”  I encountered the same upbeat tone when I asked Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, about the Iraqi security forces.  “The last year has been a process of constructing, rebuilding, and refitting the Iraqi army,” he explained. “While it takes time for training and equipping efforts to take effect, the increasing tactical confidence and competence of the ISF [Iraqi security forces] and their recent battlefield successes indicate that we are on track.”

“Progress.”  “Successes.”  “On track.”  “Increasing tactical confidence and competence.”  It all sounded very familiar to me.

By September 2012, after almost a decade at the task, the U.S. had allocated and spent nearly $25 billion on “training, equipping, and sustaining” the Iraqi security forces, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.  Along the way, a parade of generals, government officials, and Pentagon spokesmen had offered up an almost unending stream of good news about the new Iraqi Army.  Near constant reports came in of “remarkable,” “big,” even “enormous” progress for a force that was said to be exuding increasing “confidence,” and whose performance was always improving.  In the end, the U.S. claimed to have trained roughly 950,000 members of the “steady,” “solid,” Iraqi security forces.

And yet just two and a half years after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, that same force collapsed in spectacular fashion in the face of assaults by Islamic State militants who, by CIA estimates, numbered no more than 31,000 in all.  In June 2014, for example, 30,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi troops abandoned their equipment and in some cases even their uniforms, fleeing as few as 800 Islamic State fighters, allowing IS to capture Mosul, the second largest city in the country.

Blaming the Victim

“When U.S. forces departed Iraq in 2011, it was after helping the Iraqi government create an entirely new Iraqi Security Force following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” Major Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman with U.S. Central Command, explained to me last year.  It almost sounded as if the old regime had toppled of its own accord, a new government had arisen, and the U.S. had generously helped build a military for it.  In reality, of course, a war of choice — based on trumped up claims of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction — led to a U.S. occupation and the conscious decision to dissolve Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military and create a new army in the American mold.  “[T]he Iraqi security forces were a fully functioning element of the Iraq Government,” Kellogg continued, explaining how such an Iraqi military collapse could occur in 2014.  “However, the military standards established and left in place were allowed to atrophy following the departure of U.S. troops.”

More recently, Colonel Steve Warren brought up another problem with Iraq’s forces in an email to me.  “The Iraqi army that we left in 2011 was an army that had been trained for counterinsurgency. That means route clearance, checkpoint operations, and IED [improvised explosive device] reduction, for example.  The Iraqi army that collapsed in 2014 was… not trained and… not ready for a conventional fight — the conventional assault that ISIL brought to Mosul and beyond.”

Both Kellogg and Warren stopped short of saying what seems obvious to many.  Kalev Sepp, the adviser to two top American generals in Iraq and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and counterterrorism, shows no such hesitation. “We had 12 years to train the Iraqi Army… We failed.  It’s obvious.  So when this lightly-armed insurgent group, the so-called Islamic State, invaded the country, the Iraqi army collapsed in front of it.” 

It’s taken billions of dollars and a year and a half of air strikes, commando raids, advice, and training to begin to reverse the Islamic State’s gains.  According to Warren, the U.S. and its partners have once again trained more than 17,500 ISF troops, with another 2,900 currently in the pipeline.  And once again we’re hearing about their successes. Secretary of Defense Carter, for example, called the fight for Ramadi “a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group,” while Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the Islamic State had “suffered a major defeat” there.

Still, the tiny terror group seems to have no difficulty recruiting new troops, is ramping up attacks in the district of Haditha, carrying out complex attacks in Baghdad and the town of Muqdadiya, and continues to hold about 57,000 square miles of Syrian and Iraqi territory, including Mosul. With questions already being raised by Pentagon insiders about just how integral the Iraqi security forces were to the retaking of Ramadi and doubts about their ability to clear cities like Mosul, it’s worth taking a look back at all those upbeat reports of “progress” during the previous U.S. effort to build an Iraqi Army from scratch.

Nothing “Succeeds” Like “Success”

After the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush administration began remaking the battered nation from the ground up.  One of the first acts of L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian official in the occupied country, was to dissolve Iraq’s military.  His plan: to replace Saddam Hussein’s 350,000-man army with a lightly armed border protection force that would peak at around 40,000 soldiers, supplemented by police and civil defense forces.  In an instant, hundreds of thousands of well-trained soldiers were unemployed, providing a ready source of fighters for a future insurgency.

“In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis… Indeed, the progress has been so swift that… it will not be long before [the Iraqi security forces] will… outnumber the U.S. forces,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested in a cheery assessment in October 2003.

Major General Paul Eaton, tasked with rebuilding the Iraqi Army, similarly articulated his upbeat vision for the force.  Schooled by Americans in “fundamental soldier and leadership skills” and outfitted with all the accoutrements of modern Western troops, including body armor and night-vision equipment, the new military would be committed to “defend[ing] Iraq and its new-found freedom,” he announced at a Baghdad briefing in January 2004.  Soon, Iraqis would even take over the task of instruction.  “I would like to emphasize that this will be an Iraqi Army, trained by Iraqis,” he said. “As Iraq is reborn,” he added, “we believe that her armed forces can lead the way in unifying” the country.

“Paul Eaton and his team did an extraordinary amount for the Iraqi Security Force mission,” his successor Lieutenant General David Petraeus would say a couple of years later.  “They established a solid foundation on which we were able to build as the effort was expanded very substantially and resourced at a much higher level.”

Retired Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp, who traveled to Iraq as an adviser five times, had a different assessment. “General Eaton was direct in letting me know that he wanted to be remembered as the father of the new Iraqi Army,” he told me. “I thought his approach was conceptually wrong,” Sepp recalled, noting that Eaton “understood his mission was to create an army to defend Iraq from foreign invasion, but he completely overlooked the internal insurgency.” (A request to interview Eaton, sent to the American Security Project, a Washington D.C.-based think tank with which the retired general is affiliated, went unanswered.)

General Eaton would later blame the Bush administration for initial setbacks in the performance of the Iraqi Army, thanks to poor prewar planning and insufficient resources for the job.  “We set out to man, train, and equip an army for a country of 25 million — with six men,” General Eaton told the New York Times in 2006.  He did, however, accept personal responsibility for the most visible of its early failures, the mutiny of a freshly minted Iraqi battalion en route to its first battle in April 2004.

In the years that followed, America’s Iraq exploded into violence as Sunni and Shiite militants battled each other, the U.S. occupiers, and the U.S.-backed Baghdad government.  On the fly, U.S. officials came up with new plans to build a large, conventional, heavily armed force to secure Iraq in the face of sectarian strife, multiple raging insurgencies, and ultimately civil war.  “The Iraqi military and police forces expanded rapidly from 2004 to 2006, adapting to the counterinsurgency mission,” according to a report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.  As chaos spread and death tolls rose, estimates of the necessary numbers of Iraqi troops, proposals concerning the right types of weapons systems for them, and training stratagems for building the army were amended, adjusted, and revised, again and again.  There was, however, one constant: praise.

In September 2005, as violence was surging and more than 1,400 civilians were being killed in attacks across the country, General George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, reported that the security forces were “progressing and continuing to take a more prominent role in defending their country.”  He repeatedly emphasized that training efforts were on track — a sentiment seconded by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.  “Every single day, the Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better and better trained and better equipped and more experienced,” he said.

“I think we did a very effective job of training the Iraqi military recruits that were brought to us,” Casey told me last year, reflecting on U.S. efforts during his two and a half years in command.  The trouble, he said, was with the Iraqis.  “The political situation in Iraq through 2007 and even to this day is such that the leadership of the Iraqi government and the military never could instill the loyalty of the troops in the government.”

At the time, however, American generals emphasized progress over problems.  After Petraeus finished his own stint heading the training effort, he was effusive in his praise. “The bottom line up front that I’d like to leave with you today is that there has been enormous progress with the Iraqi security forces over the course of the past 16 months in the face of a brutal insurgency,” he boasted in October 2005, adding that “considerable work” still lay ahead. “Iraqi security force readiness has continued to grow with each passing week.  You can take a percentage off every metric that’s out there, whatever you want — training, equipping, infrastructure reconstruction, units in the fight, schools, academies reestablished — you name it — and what has been accomplished… would still be remarkable.”  (Messages seeking an interview sent to Petraeus at Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., the investment firm where he serves as chairman of the KKR Global Institute, were not answered.)

In November 2005, President Bush voiced the same sentiments.  “As the Iraqi security forces stand up, their confidence is growing,” he told midshipmen at the Naval Academy.  “And they’re taking on tougher and more important missions on their own.”  By the following February, General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was similarly lauding that military, claiming “the progress that they’ve made over this last year has been enormous.”

The next month, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, who succeeded Petraeus as commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) and later served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, chimed in with glowing praise: “What we’re seeing now is progress on a three-year investment in Iraq’s security forces.  It’s been a big investment, and it’s yielding big progress.”

I asked retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, how so many American officials could have seen so much progress from a force that would later collapse so rapidly and spectacularly.  “I think there’s a psychological need to see progress and, of course, it’s helpful to parrot the party line.  I do think that, psychologically, you need to be able to persuade yourself that your hard-earned efforts — this time spent away from home in lousy conditions — actually produced something positive.”

Kalev Sepp, who traveled all over Iraq talking to the commanders of more than 30 U.S. units while conducting a seminal counterinsurgency study known simply as the “COIN Survey,” told me that when he asked about the progress of the Iraqi units they were working with, U.S. officers invariably linked it to their own tour of duty. “Almost every commander said exactly the same thing.  If the commander had six months left in his tour, the Iraqis would be combat-capable in six months.  If the commander had four months left, then the Iraqis would be ready in four months.  Was a commander going to say ‘I won’t accomplish my mission.  I’m not going to be done on time’?  All the other units were saying their Iraqis were going to be fully trained.  Who was going to be the one commander who said ‘I don’t think my Iraqi unit is really ready’?”

Official praise continued as insurgencies raged across the country and monthly civilian death tolls regularly exceeded 2,000, even topping 3,000 in 2006 and 2007.  “The Iraqi security force continues to develop and grow, assisted by embedded transition teams,” Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq, announced to the press in May 2007.  “Yes, there are still problems within the Iraqi security forces — some sectarian, some manning, and some to do with equipping.  But progress is being made, and it’s steady.”  A 2008 Pentagon review also indicated remarkable progress with 102 out of 169 Iraqi battalions being declared “capable of planning, executing, and sustaining counterinsurgency operations with or without Iraqi or coalition support,” up from just 24 battalions in 2005.

Years later, Odierno, still in charge of the command, then known as United States Forces-Iraq, continued to tout improvement.  “Clearly there’s still some violence, and we still need to make more progress in Iraq,” he told reporters in July 2010. “But Iraqi security forces have taken responsibility for security throughout Iraq, and they continue to grow and improve every day.”

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, was also upbeat, noting in 2010 that the $21.3 billion already spent to build up the then-660,000-man security force had “begun to pay off significantly.”  Don Cooke, head of the State Department’s Iraq assistance office, agreed.  “We have built an Iraqi security force which is capable of maintaining internal security in Iraq… And four or five or six years ago, there were people who were saying it was going to take decades.”

In October 2011, as U.S. forces were preparing to end eight years of occupation, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offered up his own mission-accomplished assessment.  “You know, the one thing… we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself.  We’ve taken out now about a hundred thousand [U.S.] troops [from Iraq], and yet the level of violence has remained relatively low.  And I think that’s a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country,” he said of the by then 930,000-man security forces.

Winners and Losers

As the U.S. was training recruits at bases all over Iraq — including Camp Bucca, where Iraqi cadets attended a U.S.-run course for prison guards — another force was also taking shape.  For years, U.S.-run prison camps were decried by many as little more than recruiting and training sites for would-be insurgents, with innocents — angered by arbitrary and harsh detentions — housed alongside hardcore militants.  But Camp Bucca proved to be even more dangerous than that.  It became the incubator not just for an insurgency, but for a proto-state, the would-be caliphate that now lords over significant portions of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Nine top commanders of the Islamic State did prison time at America’s Camp Bucca, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader who spent nearly five years there.  “Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America,” Andrew Thompson, an Iraq War veteran, and academic Jeremi Suri wrote in a 2014 New York Times piece. “Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following… The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.”

So how could U.S. officials have so successfully (if inadvertently) fostered the leadership of what would become a truly effective fighting force that would one day best the larger, far more intensively trained, better-armed military they had built to the tune of tens of billions of dollars?  “The people we imprisoned didn’t leave with skills when they finally got out of prison, but they did leave with will,” says Andrew Bacevich.  “What we were doing was breeding resentment, anger, determination, disgust, which provided the makings of an army that turns out to be more effective than the Iraqi Army.”

General George Casey, who went on to serve as Army Chief of Staff before retiring in 2011, sees the failure of Iraq’s Shiite government to reach out to minority Sunnis as the main driver of the collapse of significant portions of the country’s army in 2014.  “You hear all kinds of reasons why the Sunni forces [of the Iraqi military] ran out of Mosul, but it wasn’t a surprise to any of us who had been over there.  If your country doesn’t support what you’re doing, there’s no reason to fight for them,” Casey explained in a phone interview last year.  “People probably give short shrift to what we in the military call ‘the will to fight.’  When it comes right down to it, that’s what it’s all about.  And we can’t instill the will to fight in the heart of a soldier from another country.  We just can’t do it.”

“We can talk about how appalling Daesh is,” adds Kalev Sepp, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, “but their fighters believe in what they’re doing and that adds a particular steel to one’s backbone.”  Bacevich, who has recently finished writing a military history, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, echoed this sentiment, noting the stark difference between U.S.-trained Iraqi forces and their brutal opponents.  “Whatever else we may think of ISIS, their forces appear to be keen to fight and willing to die in order to promote their cause.  The same cannot be said of the Iraqi Army.”

And yet, in the wake of the implosion of Iraq’s security forces, the United States — as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, its campaign against IS — began a new advisory and training effort to assist and re-rebuild Iraq’s army.  In June 2014, President Obama announced that up to 300 advisors would be sent to Iraq.  The size of the U.S. presence has increased steadily ever since to roughly 3,500.

“As per policy we do not disclose specific numbers of troops and their roles,” Colonel Warren, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, explained to me.  He did, however, note that there are approximately 5,500 Coalition personnel from 17 partner nations including the United States conducting advise and assist missions and training at “Building Partner Capacity sites.”

Despite the poor results of the prior training effort, even some of its critics are hopeful that the current mission may succeed.  “American advisors could have a positive effect,” Sepp, now a senior lecturer in defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me.  He explained that a pinpoint mission of training Iraqis to take back a particular city or defend a specific area stands a real chance of success.  Casey, his former boss, agreed but insisted that such success would not come easily or quickly.  “This is going to take a long time.  This is not a short-term thing.  People want to see ISIS defeated — whatever that means — quickly.  But it’s not going to be ‘quickly’ because the problems are political more than military and that’s going to take the Iraqis some time to come to grips with.”

Doomed to Repeat It?

History suggests that time is no panacea when Washington attempts to prop up, advise, or build armies.  In the early 1950s, the U.S. provided extensive support to the French military in Indochina — eventually footing nearly 80% of the cost of its war there — only to see that force defeated by a less advanced, less well-equipped Vietnamese army.  Not long after, the U.S. began an expensive process that continued into the mid-1970s of building, advising, equipping, and bankrolling the South Vietnamese military.  In those years, it ballooned into a million-man army, only to disintegrate two years after the U.S. ended its own long, unsuccessful combat effort in that country.

“The assumption that we know how to create armies in other parts of the world is a pretty dubious proposition,” Andrew Bacevich, a veteran of that war, told me.  “Yes, Vietnam was a vivid demonstration of a failed project to build an effective army, but you don’t even have to cite Vietnam.  Iraq obviously is another case.  And more generally, the Pentagon exaggerates its ability to create effective fighting forces in parts of the developing world.”

Indeed, recent U.S. training efforts around the globe have been marked by a string of scandals, setbacks, and failures.  Last year, for example, the Obama administration scrapped a $500 million program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian rebels.  It was supposed to yield 15,000 fighters over three years but instead produced only a few dozen.  Then there’s the 13-year, $65 billion effort in Afghanistan that has yielded a force whose rolls are filled with nonexistent “ghost” troops, wracked by desertions, and hobbled by increasing casualties.  It has been unable to defeat a small, unpopular, Taliban insurgency now growing in strength and reach. The short-term loss by U.S.-backed Afghan forces of the city of Kunduz late last year and recent Taliban gains in Helmand province have cast a bright light on this slow-motion fiasco.

These efforts have hardly been anomalies. A U.S.-trained Congolese commando battalion was, for example, implicated by the United Nations in mass rapes and other atrocities.  One effort to train Libyan militiamen ended up stillborn; another saw militants repeatedly raid a U.S. training camp and loot it of high-tech equipment, including hundreds of weapons; and still another saw advisers run out of the country by a militia soon after touching down. Then there were the U.S.-trained officers who overthrew their governments in coups in Mali in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2014.  In fact, a December 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service noted:

“Recent events, particularly the battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban over K[u]nduz, the inability of [Department of Defense]-led efforts to produce more than a ‘handful’ of anti-Assad, anti-Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, and the collapse of U.S.-trained forces in Iraq in the face of the Islamic State, have called into question — including in the Congress — whether these [building partner capacity] programs can ever achieve their desired effects.”

Despite all of this, the Pentagon remains committed to creating another Iraqi Army in the American mold with, as Colonel Warren recently explained to me, “modern American equipment, modern conventional training, and of course, supported by air power.”  The U.S. has, he notes, already spent $2.3 billion arming and equipping this new force.

Andrew Bacevich once again sees crucial flaws in the American plan.  “Our trainers, I suspect, are probably pretty good at imparting technical skills… I’m sure that they can teach them marksmanship, how to conduct a patrol, how to maintain their weapons, but I can’t imagine that we have much of a facility for imparting fighting spirit, sense of national unity, and that’s where Iraqi forces have been deficient. It’s this will versus skill thing.  We can convey skills.  I don’t think we can convey will.”

For his part, Secretary of Defense Carter seems singularly focused on the skills side of the equation. “ISIL’s lasting defeat still requires local forces to fight and prevail on the ground.  We can and will continue to develop and enable such local forces,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in June 2015.  “That’s why [the Department of Defense] seeks to bolster… Iraq’s security forces to be capable of winning back, and then defending and holding the ISIL-controlled portions of the Iraqi state.”  Last month, Carter assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was still “urging the Iraqi government to do more to recruit, train, arm, and mobilize Sunni popular mobilization fighters in their communities.”

This presumes, however, that there is a truly functioning Iraqi state in the first place.  Andrew Bacevich isn’t so sure.  “It may be time to admit that there is no Iraq.  We presume to be creating a national army that is willing to fight for the nation of Iraq, but I don’t think it’s self-evident that Iraq exists, except in the most nominal sense.  If that’s true, then further efforts — a second decade’s worth of efforts to build an Iraqi army — simply are not likely to pan out.”

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Tomorrow’s Battlefield, as well as Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nation, and is a contributing writer for the Intercept.

Copyright 2016 Nick Turse

The Pentagon’s Progress

On October 7th, at an “undisclosed location” somewhere in “Southwest Asia,” men wearing different types of camouflage and dun-colored boots gathered before a black backdrop adorned with Arabic script.  They were attending a ceremony that mixed solemnity with celebration, the commemoration of a year of combat that left scores of their enemies slain.  One of their leaders spoke of comraderie and honor, of forging a family and continuing a legacy.     

While this might sound like the description of a scene from an Islamic State (IS) video or a clip from a militia battling them, it was, in fact, a U.S. Air Force “inactivation ceremony.”  There, Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Drake handed over to Colonel John Orchard the “colors” of his drone unit as it slipped into an ethereal military limbo.  But that doesn’t mean the gathering had no connection to the Islamic State. 

It did.

Within days, Drake was back in the United States surprising his family at a Disney “musical spectacular.”  Meanwhile, his former unit ended its most recent run having been responsible for the “neutralization of 69 enemy fighters,” according to an officer who spoke at that October 7th ceremony.  Exactly whom the unit’s drones neutralized remains unclear, but an Air Force spokesman has for the first time revealed that Drake’s force, based in the Horn of Africa, spent more than a year targeting the Islamic State as part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the undeclared war on the militant group in Iraq and Syria.  The Air Force has since taken steps to cover up the actions of the unit.

Base-Building in the Horn of Africa

From November 20, 2014, until October 7, 2015, Drake commanded the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, a unit operating under the auspices of U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), which flew MQ-1 Predator drones from Chabelley Airfield in the tiny sun-baked African nation of Djibouti.  For the uninitiated, Chabelley is the other U.S. outpost in that country — the site of America’s lone avowed “major military facility” in Africa, Camp Lemonnier — and a key node in an expanding archipelago of hush-hush American outposts that have spread across that continent since 9/11. 

Last week, in fact, the New York Times reported on new Pentagon plans to counter the Islamic State by creating a hub-and-spoke network of bases and outposts stretching across southern Europe, the Greater Middle East, and Africa by “expanding existing bases in Djibouti and Afghanistan — and… more basic installations in countries that could include Niger and Cameroon, where the United States now carries out unarmed surveillance drone missions, or will soon.” 

Weeks earlier, TomDispatch had revealed that those efforts were already well underway, drawing attention to key bases in Spain and Italy as well as 60 U.S. military outposts, port facilities, and other sites dotting the African continent, including those in Djibouti, Niger, and Cameroon.  The Times cited a senior Pentagon official who noted that some colleagues are “advocating a larger string of new bases in West Africa,” a plan TomDispatch had reported on early last year.  The Times didn’t mention Djibouti’s secret drone base by name, but that airfield, Drake’s home for almost a year, is now a crucial site in this expanding network of bases and was intimately involved in the war on the Islamic State a year before the Times took notice.

A few years ago, Chabelley was little more than a tarmac in the midst of a desert wasteland, an old French Foreign Legion outpost that had seemingly gone to seed.  About 10 kilometers away, Camp Lemonnier, which shares a runway with the international airport in Djibouti’s capital, was handling America’s fighter aircraft and cargo planes, as well as drones carrying out secret assassination missions in Yemen and Somalia.  By 2012, an average of 16 U.S. drones and four fighter jets were taking off or landing there each day.  Soon, however, local air traffic controllers in the predominantly Muslim nation became incensed about the drones being used to kill fellow Muslims.  At about the same time, those robotic planes taking off from the base began crashing, although the Air Force did not find Djiboutians responsible.

In February 2013, the Pentagon asked Congress to provide funding for “minimal facilities necessary to enable temporary operations” at Chabelley.  That June, as the House Armed Services Committee noted, “the Government of Djibouti mandated that operations of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) cease from Camp Lemonnier, while allowing such operations to relocate to Chabelley Airfield.”  By the fall, the U.S. drone fleet had indeed been transferred to the more remote airstrip.  “Since then, Chabelley Airfield has become more permanent.  And it appears to have grown,” says Dan Gettinger, co-founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College and the author of a guide to identifying drone bases from satellite imagery.    

Despite the supposedly temporary nature of the site, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) “directed an expansion of operations” at Chabelley and, in May 2014, the U.S. signed a “long-term implementing arrangement” with the Djiboutian government to establish the airfield as an “enduring” base, according to documents provided to the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year by the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller).

Click here to see a larger version

Chabelley Airfield, satellite photo, April 2013.

Click here to see a larger version

Chabelley Airfield, satellite photo, August 2015.

The Djiboutian Solution to the Islamic State

As 2014 was coming to a close, Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Drake took command of the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Chabelley.  Under his watch, the unit reportedly carried out combat operations in support of three combatant commanders.  AFCENT failed to respond to a request for clarification about which commands were involved, but Gettinger speculates that AFRICOM; U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), responsible for the Greater Middle East; and Special Operations Command were the most likely.

Before U.S. drones moved from Camp Lemonnier to Chabelley, according to secret Pentagon documents exposed by the Interceptin October, a Special Operations task force based there conducted a drone assassination campaign in nearby Yemen and Somalia.  Gettinger believes the missions continued after the move.  “We know that MQ-1s have been involved in counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and Predators have for many years been flying missions over Yemen,” he told me recently by phone, noting however that the strikes in Yemen have slowed of late. 

“There were no U.S. drone strikes reported in Yemen in November, the second calendar month this year without a reported attack,” researchers with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism noted earlier this month.  After a lull since July, a November drone strike in Somalia killed at least five people, according to local reports.  And just last week, the Pentagon announced that another U.S. strike in Somalia had killed Abdirahman Sandhere, a senior leader of the militant group al-Shabaab.

Drake’s 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, however, focused its firepower on another target: the Islamic State.  The unit was “a large contributor to OIR,” according to Major Tim Smith of AFCENT Public Affairs, and “executed combat flight operations for AFCENT in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.”

Based in Africa, it was, according to Lieutenant Colonel Kristi Beckman, director of public affairs at the Combined Air Operations Center at al-Udeid air base in Qatar, “a geographically separated unit.”  By the beginning of October 2015, drones flown out of Chabelley had already logged more than 24,000 hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), according to the chief of operations analysis and reconstructions of the 380th Expeditionary Operations Group, its parent unit. (In an Air Force news release, that officer was identified only as “Major Kori,” evidently to obscure his identity.)  According to Kori, Chabelley’s drones were also “responsible for the neutralization of 69 enemy fighters, including five high-valued individuals.”

AFCENT failed to provide additional details about the missions, those targeted, or that euphemism, “neutralization,” which was once a favored term of the CIA’s often muddled and sometimes murderous Phoenix Program that targeted the civilian “infrastructure” of America’s enemies during the Vietnam War.  Beckman did, however, confirm that “neutralizations” took place in Iraq and/or Syria.

Click here to see a larger version

A satellite photo of Predator and Reaper drones at Chabelley Airfield during Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Drake’s time in command of the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron.   

Despite the loss of a unit that had flown tens of thousands of hours of ISR missions and attacked scores of targets, Smith says that America’s war on the Islamic State has not suffered.  “Coalition efforts in the region are not hampered,” he assured me.  “Operation Inherent Resolve has the personnel and assets necessary to continue aerial dominance within the region,” according to Smith.  “Though the squadron isn’t needed anymore, there is sufficient capability within the AOR [area of operations] to ensure the needs of the mission are met.”

The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning for Drones in Djibouti?

Some commentators have speculated that the transfer of the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron’s Predators indicates a possible end to U.S. drone missions from Djibouti.  Others suggest that the move offers a clear indication of demands for the robot aircraft elsewhere in the world. 

There’s no question about the demand for drones. The Air Force pushed back plans to retire the Predator by a year — until 2018 — and began outsourcing combat air patrols to civilian contractors to deal with a paucity of drone pilots at a moment of expanding operations.  Last week, it unveiled a $3 billion plan, which must be approved by Congress, to significantly expand its drone program by doubling the number of pilots, deploying them to more bases, and adding scores of new drones to its arsenal. 

All of this comes at a time when, according to a top AFRICOM commander, the Islamic State is making inroads in Africa from Nigeria to Somalia, and especially in Libya. "If Raqqa [the “capital” of its caliphate in Syria] is the nucleus, the nearest thing to the divided nucleus is probably Sirte,” said Vice Admiral Michael Franken, the command's deputy for military operations, speaking of a Libyan city in which IS fighters are deeply entrenched. “From there they look to export their terror into Europe and elsewhere.”

Dan Gettinger sees no end in sight for the use of the Djiboutian airfield or of American drones flying from there.  “All the signs point to a more permanent installation at Chabelley,” he says, noting a string of construction contracts awarded for the base in recent years.  Indeed, at the end of October, Navy Seabees were constructing another aircraft maintenance pad there.  This month, they are working to extend the apron — where aircraft can be parked and serviced — at the drone base.  It’s the Predator that’s on its way out, he tells me. “I think the MQ-1 is becoming old hat at this point.” 

Like Gettinger, Jack Serle of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism sees the larger, more heavily armed cousins of the Predator, MQ-9 Reapers, as the future of drone operations at the satellite Djiboutian base.  “I don't think this means the Predators the 60th launched and recovered are being retired — I think they'll have been redeployed,” he told me by email.  “And I don't think this means Chabelley is denuded of drones. I think it means Reapers only will be operating out of there.” 

“The personnel that were assigned to the 60th were sent back to the states to retrain on other weapon systems and the assets were redistributed to the states, [European Command], and CENTCOM,” AFCENT’s Major Tim Smith told me.  “And this unit has not been replaced with another.”  Military press materials suggest, however, that members of the 870th Air Expeditionary Squadron and the 33rd Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron have recently been operating at Chabelley airfield.  The latter unit has been known to fly Reapers from there.

Family Planning

U.S. Air Forces Central Command failed to provide additional information in response to multiple requests for clarification about missions carried out by the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron.  “Due to force protection concerns and operational security, I cannot discuss further,” Smith explained, although how the security of an inactive unit could be compromised was unclear.  Smith also referred me to AFRICOM for answers.  That command, however, failed to respond to repeated questions about drone operations flown from Chabelley.

During the course of my reporting, the Air Force news release about the October 7th inactivation ceremony was removed from the AFCENT website, leaving only an error message — "404 – Page not found!" — where an article with minimalist details about the “neutralization” of “enemy fighters” by drones once stood.  AFCENT failed to reply to a request for further information on the reason the story was withdrawn.

Nor did the command respond to a request for an interview with Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Drake.  Before he traveled home to surprise his own family, however, Drake spoke of the “family” he had forged as, in the words of Major Kori, he “engaged enemies of the United States from Chabelley Airfield.” 

“My desire at the beginning was simple: make the squadron a family while still continuing the tradition of excellence the previous commanders already established,” said Drake. “[I]f I took care of the people they took care of the mission… I am most proud of the family this squadron became.”

Today, those words, along with photos of the ceremony, have vanished from AFCENT’s website, joining a raft of information about America’s war against the Islamic State, operations in Africa, and drone campaigns that the military has no interest in sharing with the taxpayers who foot the bill for all of it and in whose name it’s carried out. For more than a year, U.S. drones flying out of Djibouti waged a secret war against the Islamic State. For more than a year, it went unreported on the nightly news, in the country’s flagship newspapers, or evidently anywhere else. 

The New York Times now reports that "the Pentagon has proposed a new plan to the White House to build up a string of military bases in Africa" and beyond, "bring[ing] an ad hoc series of existing bases into one coherent system that would be able to confront regional threats from the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups." But the expansion of Chabelley, the far flung network of bases of which it’s a part, and the war on the Islamic State waged from it suggest that there is little "new" about the proposal. The facts on the ground indicate that the Pentagon’s plan has been underway for a long time. What’s new is its emergence from the shadows. 

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his bookKill Anything That Moves, his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Intercept, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book is Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

America’s Secret African Drone War Against the Islamic State