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).

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Chabelley Airfield, satellite photo, April 2013.

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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.

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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

In the shadows of what was once called the “dark continent,” a scramble has come and gone. If you heard nothing about it, that was by design. But look hard enough and — north to south, east to west — you’ll find the fruits of that effort: a network of bases, compounds, and other sites whose sum total exceeds the number of nations on the continent. For a military that has stumbled from Iraq to Afghanistan and suffered setbacks from Libya to Syria, it’s a rare can-do triumph. In remote locales, behind fences and beyond the gaze of prying eyes, the U.S. military has built an extensive archipelago of African outposts, transforming the continent, experts say, into a laboratory for a new kind of war.

So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa?  It’s a simple question with a simple answer.  For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America’s only acknowledged “base” on the continent.  It wasn’t true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.

Take a look at the Pentagon’s official list of bases, however, and the number grows.  The 2015 report on the Department of Defense’s global property portfolio lists Camp Lemonnier and three other deep-rooted sites on or near the continent: U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3, a medical research facility in Cairo, Egypt, that was established in 1946; Ascension Auxiliary Airfield, a spacecraft tracking station and airfield located 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa that has been used by the U.S. since 1957; and warehouses at the airport and seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, that were built in the 1980s.

That’s only the beginning, not the end of the matter.  For years, various reporters have shed light on hush-hush outposts — most of them built, upgraded, or expanded since 9/11 — dotting the continent, including so-called cooperative security locations (CSLs).  Earlier this year, AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez disclosed that there were actually 11 such sites.  Again, devoted AFRICOM-watchers knew that this, too, was just the start of a larger story, but when I asked Africa Command for a list of bases, camps and other sites, as I periodically have done, I was treated like a sap.   

“In all, AFRICOM has access to 11 CSLs across Africa. Of course, we have one major military facility on the continent: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” Anthony Falvo, AFRICOM’s Public Affairs chief, told me.  Falvo was peddling numbers that both he and I know perfectly well are, at best, misleading.  “It’s one of the most troubling aspects of our military policy in Africa, and overseas generally, that the military can’t be, and seems totally resistant to being, honest and transparent about what it’s doing,” says David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.

Research by TomDispatch indicates that in recent years the U.S. military has, in fact, developed a remarkably extensive network of more than 60 outposts and access points in Africa.  Some are currently being utilized, some are held in reserve, and some may be shuttered.  These bases, camps, compounds, port facilities, fuel bunkers, and other sites can be found in at least 34 countries — more than 60% of the nations on the continent — many of them corrupt,repressive states with poor human rights records.  The U.S. also operates “Offices of Security Cooperation and Defense Attaché Offices in approximately 38 [African] nations,” according to Falvo, and has struck close to 30 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

There is no reason to believe that even this represents a complete accounting of America’s growing archipelago of African outposts.  Although it’s possible that a few sites are being counted twice due to AFRICOM’s failure to provide basic information or clarification, the list TomDispatch has developed indicates that the U.S. military has created a network of bases that goes far beyond what AFRICOM has disclosed to the American public, let alone to Africans. 

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U.S. military outposts, port facilities, and other areas of access in Africa, 2002-2015 (Nick Turse/TomDispatch, 2015)

AFRICOM’s Base Bonanza

When AFRICOM became an independent command in 2008, Camp Lemonnier was reportedly still one of the few American outposts on the continent.  In the years since, the U.S. has embarked on nothing short of a building boom — even if the command is loath to refer to it in those terms.  As a result, it’s now able to carry out increasing numbers of overt and covert missions, from training exercises to drone assassinations. 

“AFRICOM, as a new command, is basically a laboratory for a different kind of warfare and a different way of posturing forces,” says Richard Reeve, the director of the Sustainable Security Programme at the Oxford Research Group, a London-based think tank.  “Apart from Djibouti, there’s no significant stockpiling of troops, equipment, or even aircraft.  There are a myriad of ‘lily pads’ or small forward operating bases… so you can spread out even a small number of forces over a very large area and concentrate those forces quite quickly when necessary.”

Indeed, U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts — many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions — have been built (or built up) in Burkina FasoCameroon, the Central African RepublicChadDjiboutiEthiopiaGabon,GhanaKenyaMaliNigerSenegalthe SeychellesSomaliaSouth Sudan, and Uganda.  A 2011 report by Lauren Ploch, an analyst in African affairs with the Congressional Research Service, also mentioned U.S. military access to locations in Algeria, Botswana, Namibia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and Zambia.  AFRICOM failed to respond to scores of requests by this reporter for further information about its outposts and related matters, but an analysis of open source information, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and other records show a persistent, enduring, and growing U.S. presence on the continent.

“A cooperative security location is just a small location where we can come in… It would be what you would call a very austere location with a couple of warehouses that has things like: tents, water, and things like that,” explained AFRICOM’s Rodriguez.  As he implies, the military doesn’t consider CSLs to be “bases,” but whatever they might be called, they are more than merely a few tents and cases of bottled water. 

Designed to accommodate about 200 personnel, with runways suitable for C-130 transport aircraft, the sites are primed for conversion from temporary, bare-bones facilities into something more enduring.  At least three of them in Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon are apparently designed to facilitate faster deployment for a rapid reaction unit with a mouthful of a moniker: Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF).  Its forces are based in Morón, Spain, and Sigonella, Italy, but are focused on Africa.  They rely heavily on MV-22 Ospreys, tilt-rotor aircraft that can take-off, land, and hover like helicopters, but fly with the speed and fuel efficiency of a turboprop plane.

This combination of manpower, access, and technology has come to be known in the military by the moniker “New Normal.”  Birthed in the wake of the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the New Normal effectively allows the U.S. military quick access 400 miles inland from any CSL or, as Richard Reeve notes, gives it “a reach that extends to just about every country in West and Central Africa.”    

The concept was field-tested as South Sudan plunged into civil war and 160 Marines and sailors from Morón were forward deployed to Djibouti in late 2013.  Within hours, a contingent from that force was sent to Uganda and, in early 2014, in conjunction with another rapid reaction unit, dispatched to South Sudan to evacuate 20 people from the American embassy in Juba.  Earlier this year, SPMAGTF-CR-AF ran trials at its African staging areas including the CSL in Libreville, Gabon, deploying nearly 200 Marines and sailors along with four Ospreys, two C-130s, and more than 150,000 pounds of materiel.  

A similar test run was carried out at the Senegal CSL located at Dakar-Ouakam Air Base, which can also host 200 Marines and the support personnel necessary to sustain and transport them.  “What the CSL offers is the ability to forward-stage our forces to respond to any type of crisis,” Lorenzo Armijo, an operations officer with SPMAGTF-CR-AF, told a military reporter. “That crisis can range in the scope of military operations from embassy reinforcement to providing humanitarian assistance.” 

Another CSL, mentioned in a July 2012 briefing by U.S. Army Africa, is located in Entebbe, Uganda.  From there, according to a Washington Postinvestigation, U.S. contractors have flown surveillance missions using innocuous-looking turboprop airplanes.  “The AFRICOM strategy is to have a very light touch, a light footprint, but nevertheless facilitate special forces operations or ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] detachments over a very wide area,” Reeve says.  “To do that they don’t need very much basing infrastructure, they need an agreement to use a location, basic facilities on the ground, a stockpile of fuel, but they also can rely on private contractors to maintain a number of facilities so there aren’t U.S. troops on the ground.”

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U.S. Army Africa briefing slide from 2012 detailing work at the Entebbe CSL

The Outpost Archipelago

AFRICOM ignored my requests for further information on CSLs and for the designations of other outposts on the continent, but according to a 2014 article in Army Sustainment on “Overcoming Logistics Challenges in East Africa,” there are also “at least nine forward operating locations, or FOLs.”  A 2007 Defense Department news release referred to an FOL in Charichcho, Ethiopia.  The U.S. military also utilizes “Forward Operating Location Kasenyi” in Kampala, Uganda.  A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office mentioned forward operating locations in Isiolo and Manda Bay, both in Kenya. 

Camp Simba in Manda Bay has, in fact, seen significant expansion in recent years.  In 2013, Navy Seabees, for example, worked 24-hour shifts to extend its runway to enable larger aircraft like C-130s to land there, while other projects were initiated to accommodate greater numbers of troops in the future, including increased fuel and potable water storage, and more latrines.  The base serves as a home away from home for Navy personnel and Army Green Berets among other U.S. troops and, as recently revealed at theIntercept, plays an integral role in the secret drone assassination program aimed at militants in neighboring Somalia as well as in Yemen.

Drones have played an increasingly large role in this post-9/11 build-up in Africa.  MQ-1 Predators have, for instance, been based in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, while their newer, larger, more far-ranging cousins, MQ-9 Reapers, have been flown out of Seychelles International Airport.  As of June 2012, according to the Intercept, two contractor-operated drones, one Predator and one Reaper, were based in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, while a detachment with one Scan Eagle (a low-cost drone used by the Navy) and a remotely piloted helicopter known as an MQ-8 Fire Scout operated off the coast of East Africa.  The U.S. also recently began setting up a base in Cameroon for unarmed Predators to be used in the battle against Boko Haram militants. 

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U.S. Army Africa briefing slide from 2013 obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act

In February 2013, the U.S. also began flying Predator drones out of Niger’s capital, Niamey.  A year later, Captain Rick Cook, then chief of U.S. Africa Command’s Engineer Division, mentioned the potential for a new “base-like facility” that would be “semi-permanent” and “capable of air operations” in that country.  That September, the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock exposed plans to base drones at a second location there, Agadez.  Within days, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey announced that AFRICOM was, indeed, “assessing the possibility of establishing a temporary, expeditionary contingency support location in Agadez, Niger.”

Earlier this year, Captain Rodney Worden of AFRICOM’s Logistics and Support Division mentioned “a partnering and capacity-building project… for the Niger Air Force and Armed Forces in concert with USAFRICOM and [U.S.] Air Forces Africa to construct a runway and associated work/life support area for airfield operations.”  And when the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 was introduced in April, embedded in it was a $50 million request for the construction of an “airfield and base camp at Agadez, Niger… to support operations in western Africa.”  When Congress recently passed the annual defense policy bill, that sum was authorized.

According to Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, there is also a team of Special Operations forces currently “living right next to” local troops in Diffa, Niger.  A 2013 military briefing slide, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, indicates a “U.S. presence” as well in Ouallam, Niger, and at both Bamako and Kidal in neighboring Mali.  Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a country that borders both of those nations, plays host to a Special Operations Forces Liaison Element Team, a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative which, according to official documents, facilitates “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. 

On the other side of the continent in Somalia, elite U.S. forces are operating from small compounds in Kismayo and Baledogle, according to reporting byForeign Policy.  Neighboring Ethiopia has similarly been a prime locale for American outposts, including Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, contingency operating locations at both Hurso and Bilate, and facilities used by a 40-man team based in Bara.  So-called Combined Operations Fusion Centers were set up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan as part of an effort to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Washington Post investigations have revealed that U.S. forces have also been based in DjemaSam Ouandja, and Obo, in the Central African Republic as part of that effort.  There has recently been new construction by Navy Seabees at Obo to increase the camp’s capacity as well as to install the infrastructure for a satellite dish.

There are other locations that, while not necessarily outposts, nonetheless form critical nodes in the U.S. base network on the continent.  These include 10 marine gas and oil bunkers located at ports in eight African nations.  Additionally, AFRICOM acknowledges an agreement to use Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling as well as for the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities.”  A similar deal is in place for the use of Kitgum Airport in Kitgum, Uganda, and Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia.  All told, according to the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military has struck 29 agreements to use airports as refueling centers in 27 African countries. 

Not all U.S. bases in Africa have seen continuous use in these years.  After the American-backed military overthrew the government of Mauritania in 2008, for example, the U.S. suspended an airborne surveillance program based in its capital, Nouakchott.  Following a coup in Mali by a U.S.-trained officer, the United States suspended military relations with the government and a spartan U.S. compound near the town of Gao was apparently overrun by rebel forces. 

Most of the new outposts on that continent, however, seem to be putting down roots.  As TomDispatch regular and basing expert David Vine suggests, “The danger of the strategy in which you see U.S. bases popping up increasingly around the continent is that once bases get established they become very difficult to close.  Once they generate momentum, within Congress and in terms of funding, they have a tendency to expand.”

To supply its troops in East Africa, AFRICOM has also built a sophisticated logistics system.  It’s officially known as the Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.”  It connects Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.  These hubs are, in turn, part of a transportation and logistics network that includes bases located in Rota, Spain; Aruba in the Lesser Antilles; Souda Bay, Greece; and a forward operating site on Britain’s Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. 

Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, headquarters of U.S. Air Forces Europe and one of the largest American military bases outside the United States, is another key site.  As the Intercept reported earlier this year, it serves as “the high-tech heart of America’s drone program” for the Greater Middle East and Africa.  Germany is also host to AFRICOM’s headquarters, located at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, itself a site reportedly integral to drone operations in Africa.  

In addition to hosting a contingent of the Marines and sailors of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa, Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily, Italy, is another important logistics facility for African operations.  The second-busiest military air station in Europe, Sigonella is a key hub for drones covering Africa, serving as a base for MQ-1 Predators and RQ-4B Global Hawk surveillance drones.

The Crown Jewels

Back on the continent, the undisputed crown jewel in the U.S. archipelago of bases is indeed still Camp Lemonnier.  To quote Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, it is “a hub with lots of spokes out there on the continent and in the region.”  Sharing a runway with Djibouti’s Ambouli International Airport, the sprawling compound is the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa and is home to the East Africa Response Force, another regional quick-reaction unit.  The camp, which also serves as the forward headquarters for Task Force 48-4, a hush-hush counterterrorism unit targeting militants in East Africa and Yemen, has seen personnel stationed there jump by more than 400% since 2002.

In the same period, Camp Lemonnier has expanded from 88 acres to nearly 600 acres and is in the midst of a years-long building boom for which more than $600 million has already been awarded or allocated.  In late 2013, for example, B.L. Harbert International, an Alabama-based construction company, was awarded a $150 million contract by the Navy for “the P-688 Forward Operating Base at Camp Lemonnier.” According to a corporate press release, “the site is approximately 20 acres in size, and will contain 11 primary structures and ancillary facilities required to support current and emerging operational missions throughout the region.” 

In 2014, the Navy completed construction of a $750,000 secure facility for Special Operations Command Forward-East Africa (SOCFWD-EA).  It is one of three similar teams on the continent — the others being SOCFWD-Central Africa and SOCFWD-North and West Africa — which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.” 

In 2012, according to secret documents recently revealed by the Intercept, 10 Predator drones and four Reaper drones were based at Camp Lemonnier, along with six U-28As (a single-engine aircraft that conducts surveillance for special operations forces) and two P-3 Orions (a four-engine turboprop surveillance aircraft).  There were also eight F-15E Strike Eagles, heavily armed, manned fighter jets. By August 2012, an average of 16 drones and four fighters were taking off or landing at the base each day.

The next year, in the wake of a number of drone crashes and turmoil involving Djiboutian air traffic controllers, drone operations were moved to a more remote site located about six miles away.  Djibouti’s Chabelley Airfield, which has seen significant construction of late and has a much lower profile than Camp Lemonnier, now serves as a key base for America’s regional drone campaign.  Dan Gettinger, the co-founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, recently told the Intercept that the operations run from the site were “JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] and CIA-led missions for the most part,” explaining that they were likely focused on counterterrorism strikes in Somalia and Yemen, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities, as well as support for the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen.

A Scarier Future

Over many months, AFRICOM repeatedly ignored even basic questions from this reporter about America’s sweeping archipelago of bases.  In practical terms, that means there is no way to know with complete certainty how many of the more than 60 bases, bunkers, outposts, and areas of access are currently being used by U.S. forces or how many additional sites may exist.  What does seem clear is that the number of bases and other sites, however defined, is increasing, mirroring the rise in the number of U.S. troops, special operations deployments, and missions in Africa.

“There’s going to be a network of small bases with maybe a couple of medium-altitude, long-endurance drones at each one, so that anywhere on the continent is always within range,” says the Oxford Research Group’s Richard Reeve when I ask him for a forecast of the future.  In many ways, he notes, this has already begun everywhere but in southern Africa, not currently seen by the U.S. military as a high-risk area. 

The Obama administration, Reeve explains, has made use of humanitarian rhetoric as a cover for expansion on the continent. He points in particular to the deployment of forces against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, the build-up of forces near Lake Chad in the effort against Boko Haram, and the post-Benghazi New Normal concept as examples.  “But, in practice, what is all of this going to be used for?” he wonders.  After all, the enhanced infrastructure and increased capabilities that today may be viewed by the White House as an insurance policy against another Benghazi can easily be repurposed in the future for different types of military interventions.

“Where does this go post-Obama?” Reeve asks rhetorically, noting that the rise of AFRICOM and the proliferation of small outposts have been “in line with the Obama doctrine.”  He draws attention to the president’s embrace of a lighter-footprint brand of warfare, specifically a reliance on Special Operations forces and drones.  This may, Reeve adds, just be a prelude to something larger and potentially more dangerous.   

“Where would Hillary take this?” he asks, referencing the hawkish Democratic primary frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.  “Or any of the Republican potentials?”  He points to the George W. Bush administration as an example and raises the question of what it might have done back in the early 2000s if AFRICOM’s infrastructure had already been in place.  Such a thought experiment, he suggests, could offer clues to what the future might hold now that the continent is dotted with American outposts, drone bases, and compounds for elite teams of Special Operations forces.  “I think,” Reeve says, “that we could be looking at something a bit scarier in Africa.”

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

Does Eleven Plus One Equal Sixty?

They’re some of the best soldiers in the world: highly trained, well equipped, and experts in weapons, intelligence gathering, and battlefield medicine.  They study foreign cultures and learn local languages.  They’re smart, skillful, wear some very iconic headgear, and their 12-member teams are “capable of conducting the full spectrum of special operations, from building indigenous security forces to identifying and targeting threats to U.S. national interests.” 

They’re also quite successful.  At least they think so.

“In the last decade, Green Berets have deployed into 135 of the 195 recognized countries in the world. Successes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Trans-Sahel Africa, the Philippines, the Andean Ridge, the Caribbean, and Central America have resulted in an increasing demand for [Special Forces] around the globe,” reads a statement on the website of U.S. Army Special Forces Command.

The Army’s Green Berets are among the best known of America’s elite forces, but they’re hardly alone.  Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, Army Rangers, Marine Corps Raiders, as well as civil affairs personnel, logisticians, administrators, analysts, and planners, among others, make up U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF).  They are the men and women who carry out America’s most difficult and secret military missions.  Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has grown in every conceivable way from funding and personnel to global reach and deployments.  In 2015, according to Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to a record-shattering 147 countries — 75% of the nations on the planet, which represents a jump of 145% since the waning days of the Bush administration. On any day of the year, in fact, America’s most elite troops can be found in 70 to 90 nations.

There is, of course, a certain logic to imagining that the increasing global sweep of these deployments is a sign of success.  After all, why would you expand your operations into ever-more nations if they weren’t successful?  So I decided to pursue that record of “success” with a few experts on the subject.    

I started by asking Sean Naylor, a man who knows America’s most elite troops as few do and the author of Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, about the claims made by Army Special Forces Command.  He responded with a hearty laugh.  “I’m going to give whoever wrote that the benefit of the doubt that they were referring to successes that Army Special Forces were at least perceived to have achieved in those countries rather than the overall U.S. military effort,” he says.  As he points out, the first post-9/11 months may represent the zenith of success for those troops.  The initial operations in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — carried out largely by U.S. Special Forces, the CIA, and the Afghan Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. airpower — were “probably the high point” in the history of unconventional warfare by Green Berets, according to Naylor.  As for the years that followed?  “There were all sorts of mistakes, one could argue, that were made after that.” He is, however, quick to point out that “the vast majority of the decisions [about operations and the war, in general] were not being made by Army Special Forces soldiers.”

For Linda Robinson, author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, the high number of deployments is likely a mistake in itself.  “Being in 70 countries… may not be the best use of SOF,” she told me.  Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, advocates for a “more thoughtful and focused approach to the employment of SOF,” citing enduring missions in Colombia and the Philippines as the most successful special ops training efforts in recent years.  “It might be better to say ‘Let’s not sprinkle around the SOF guys like fairy dust.’  Let’s instead focus on where we think we can have a success… If you want more successes, maybe you need to start reining in how many places you’re trying to cover.”

Most of the special ops deployments in those 147 countries are the type Robinson expresses skepticism about — short-term training missions by “white” operators like Green Berets (as opposed to the “black ops” man-hunting missions by the elite of the elite that captivate Hollywood and video gamers).  Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Special Operations forcescarried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as 67 countries, practicing everything from combat casualty care and marksmanship to small unit tactics and desert warfare alongside local forces.  And JCETs only scratch the surface when it comes to special ops missions to train proxies and allies.  Special Operations forces, in fact, conduct a variety of training efforts globally.

A recent $500 million program, run by Green Berets, to train a Syrian force of more than 15,000 over several years, for instance, crashed and burned in a very public way, yielding just four or five fighters in the field before beingabandoned.  This particular failure followed much larger, far more expensive attempts to train the Afghan and Iraqi security forces in which Special Operations troops played a smaller yet still critical role. The results of these efforts recently prompted TomDispatch regular and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich to write that Washington should now assume “when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.”

The Elite Warriors of the Warrior Elite

In addition to training, another core role of Special Operations forces is direct action — counterterror missions like low-profile drone assassinations andkill/capture raids by muscled-up, high-octane operators.  The exploits of the men — and they are mostly men (and mostly Caucasian ones at that) — behind these operations are chronicled in Naylor’s epic history of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secret counterterrorism organization that includes the military’s most elite and shadowy units like the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force.  A compendium of more than a decade of derring-do from Afghanistan to Iraq, Somalia to Syria, Relentless Strikepaints a portrait of a highly-trained, well-funded, hard-charging counterterror force with global reach.  Naylor calls it the “perfect hammer,” but notes the obvious risk that “successive administrations would continue to view too many national security problems as nails.”

When I ask Naylor about what JSOC has ultimately achieved for the country in the Obama years, I get the impression that he doesn’t find my question particularly easy to answer.  He points to hostage rescues, like the high profile effort to save “Captain Phillips” of the Maersk Alabama after the cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates, and asserts that such missions might “inhibit others from seizing Americans.”  One wonders, of course, if similar high-profile failed missions since then, including the SEAL raid that ended in the deaths of hostages Luke Somers, an American photojournalist, and Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher, as well as the unsuccessful attempt to rescue the late aid worker Kayla Mueller, might then have just the opposite effect.

“Afghanistan, you’ve got another fairly devilish strategic problem there,” Naylor says and offers up a question of his own: “You have to ask what would have happened if al-Qaeda in Iraq had not been knocked back on its heels by Joint Special Operations Command between 2005 and 2010?”  Naylor calls attention to JSOC’s special abilities to menace terror groups, keeping them unsteady through relentless intelligence gathering, raiding, and man-hunting. “It leaves them less time to take the offensive, to plan missions, and to plot operations against the United States and its allies,” he explains.  “Now that doesn’t mean that the use of JSOC is a substitute for a strategy… It’s a tool in a policymaker’s toolkit.” 

Indeed.  If what JSOC can do is bump off and capture individuals and pressure such groups but not decisively roll up militant networks, despite years of anti-terror whack-a-mole efforts, it sounds like a recipe for spending endless lives and endless funds on endless war.  “It's not my place as a reporter to opine as to whether the present situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen were ‘worth’ the cost in blood and treasure borne by U.S. Special Operations forces,” Naylor tells me in a follow-up email.  “Given the effects that JSOC achieved in Iraq (Uday and Qusay Hussein killed, Saddam Hussein captured, [al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi killed, al-Qaeda in Iraq eviscerated), it's hard to say that JSOC did not have an impact on that nation's recent history.” 

Impacts, of course, are one thing, successes another.  Special Operations Command, in fact, hedges its bets by claiming that it can only be as successful as the global commands under which its troops operate in each area of the world, including European Command, Pacific Command, Africa Command, Southern Command, Northern Command, and Central Command or CENTCOM, the geographic combatant command that oversees operations in the Greater Middle East.  “We support the Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCCs) — if they are successful, we are successful; if they fail, we fail,” says SOCOM’s website. 

With this in mind, it’s helpful to return to Naylor’s question: What if al-Qaeda in Iraq, which flowered in the years after the U.S. invasion, had never been targeted by JSOC as part of a man-hunting operation going after its foreign fighters, financiers, and military leaders?  Given that the even more brutal Islamic State (IS) grew out of that targeted terror group, that IS wasfueled in many ways, say experts, both by U.S. actions and inaction, that its leader’s rise was bolstered by U.S. operations, that “U.S. training helpedmold” another of its chiefs, and that a U.S. prison served as its “boot camp,” and given that the Islamic State now holds a significant swath of Iraq, was JSOC’s campaign against its predecessor a net positive or a negative?  Were special ops efforts in Iraq (and therefore in CENTCOM’s area of operations) — JSOC’s post-9/11 showcase counterterror campaign — a success or a failure?

Naylor notes that JSOC’s failure to completely destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq allowed IS to grow and eventually sweep “across northern Iraq in 2014, seizing town after town from which JSOC and other U.S. forces had evicted al-Qaeda in Iraq at great cost several years earlier.”  This, in turn, led to the rushing of special ops advisers back into the country to aid the fight against the Islamic State, as well as to that program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian fighters that foundered and then imploded.  By this spring, JSOC operators were not only back in Iraq and also on the ground in Syria, but they were soon conducting drone campaigns in both of those tottering nations.    

This special ops merry-go-round in Iraq is just the latest in a long series of fiascos, large and small, to bedevil America’s elite troops.  Over the yearsinthat countryin Afghanistanand elsewherespecial operators have regularlybeen involved in all manner of mishapsembroiled in various scandalsandimplicated in numerous atrocities. Recently, for instance, members of the Special Operations forces have come under scrutiny for an air strike on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan that killed at least 22 patients and staff, for an alliance with “unsavory partners” in the Central African Republic, for the ineffective and abusive Afghan police they trained and supervised, and for a shady deal to provide SEALs with untraceable silencers that turned out to be junk, according to prosecutors.

Winners and Losers

JSOC was born of failure, a phoenix rising from the ashes of Operation Eagle Claw, the humiliating attempt to rescue 53 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1980 that ended, instead, in the deaths of eight U.S. personnel. Today, the elite force trades on an aura of success in the shadows. Its missions are the stuff of modern myths

In his advance praise for Naylor’s book, one cable news analyst called JSOC’s operators “the finest warriors who ever went into combat.”  Even accepting this — with apologies to the Mongols, the Varangian Guard, Persia’s Immortals, and the Ten Thousand of Xenophon’s Anabasis – questions remain: Have these “warriors” actually been successful beyond budget battles and the box office? Is exceptional tactical prowess enough?  Are battlefield triumphs and the ability to batter terror networks through relentless raiding the same as victory? Such questions bring to mind an exchange that Army colonel Harry Summers, who served in Vietnam, had with a North Vietnamese counterpart in 1975.  “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,” Summers told him.  After pausing to ponder the comment, Colonel Tu replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”

So what of those Green Berets who deployed to 135 countries in the last decade? And what of the Special Operations forces sent to 147 countries in 2015? And what about those Geographic Combatant Commanders across the globe who have hosted all those special operators? 

I put it to Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. “As far back as Vietnam,” he tells me, “the United States military has tended to confuse inputs with outcomes. Effort, as measured by operations conducted, bomb tonnage dropped, or bodies counted, is taken as evidence of progress made. Today, tallying up the number of countries in which Special Operations forces are present repeats this error. There is no doubt that U.S. Special Operations forces are hard at it in lots of different places. It does not follow that they are thereby actually accomplishing anything meaningful.”

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

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Special Ops “Successes”

You can find them in dusty, sunbaked badlands, moist tropical forests, and the salty spray of third-world littorals. Standing in judgement, buffeted by the rotor wash of a helicopter or sweltering beneath the relentless desert sun, they instructyell, and cajole as skinnier men playact under their watchful eyes. In many places, more than their particular brand of camouflage, better boots, and designer gear sets them apart. Their days are scented by stale sweat and gunpowder; their nights are spent in rustic locales or third-world bars.

These men — and they are mostly men — belong to an exclusive military fraternity that traces its heritage back to the birth of the nation. Typically, they’ve spent the better part of a decade as more conventional soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen before making the cut. They’ve probably beendeployed overseas four to 10 times. The officers are generally approaching their mid-thirties; the enlisted men, their late twenties. They’ve had more schooling than most in the military. They’re likely to be married with a couple of kids. And day after day, they carry out shadowy missions over much of the planet: sometimes covert raids, more often hush-hush training exercises from Chad to Uganda, Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, Albania to Romania, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Belize to Uruguay. They belong to the Special Operations forces (SOF), America’s most elite troops — Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, among others — and odds are, if you throw a dart at a world map or stop a spinning globe with your index finger and don’t hit water, they’ve been there sometime in 2015.

The Wide World of Special Ops

This year, U.S. Special Operations forces have already deployed to 135 nations, according to Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  That’s roughly 70% of the countries on the planet.  Every day, in fact, America’s most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations, practicing night raids or sometimes conducting them for real, engaging in sniper training or sometimes actually gunning down enemies from afar. As part of a global engagement strategy of endless hush-hush operations conducted on every continent but Antarctica, they have now eclipsed the number and range of special ops missions undertaken at the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

In the waning days of the Bush administration, Special Operations forces (SOF) were reportedly deployed in only about 60 nations around the world.  By 2010, according to the Washington Post, that number had swelled to 75.  Three years later, it had jumped to 134 nations, “slipping” to 133 last year, before reaching a new record of 135 this summer.  This 80% increase over the last five years is indicative of SOCOM’s exponential expansion which first shifted into high gear following the 9/11 attacks.

Special Operations Command’s funding, for example, has more than tripled from about $3 billion in 2001 to nearly $10 billion in 2014 “constant dollars,”according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  And this doesn’t include funding from the various service branches, which SOCOM estimates at around another $8 billion annually, or other undisclosed sums that the GAO was unable to track.  The average number of Special Operations forces deployed overseas has nearly tripled during these same years, while SOCOM more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 now.

Each day, according to SOCOM commander General Joseph Votel, approximately 11,000 special operators are deployed or stationed outside the United States with many more on standby, ready to respond in the event of an overseas crisis. “I think a lot of our resources are focused in Iraq and in the Middle East, in Syria for right now. That’s really where our head has been,” Votel told the Aspen Security Forum in July.  Still, he insisted his troops were not “doing anything on the ground in Syria” — even if they had carried out a night raid there a couple of months before and it was later revealed that they are involved in a covert campaign of drone strikes in that country. 

“I think we are increasing our focus on Eastern Europe at this time,” he added. “At the same time we continue to provide some level of support on South America for Colombia and the other interests that we have down there. And then of course we’re engaged out in the Pacific with a lot of our partners, reassuring them and working those relationships and maintaining our presence out there.”

In reality, the average percentage of Special Operations forces deployed to the Greater Middle East has decreased in recent years.  Back in 2006, 85% of special operators were deployed in support of Central Command or CENTCOM, the geographic combatant command (GCC) that oversees operations in the region.  By last year, that number had dropped to 69%, according to GAO figures.  Over that same span, Northern Command — devoted to homeland defense — held steady at 1%, European Command (EUCOM) doubled its percentage, from 3% to 6%, Pacific Command (PACOM) increased from 7% to 10%, and Southern Command, which overseas Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, inched up from 3% to 4%. The largest increase, however, was in a region conspicuously absent from Votel’s rundown of special ops deployments.  In 2006, just 1% of the special operators deployed abroad were sent to Africa Command’s area of operations.  Last year, it was 10%.

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A member of the U.S. Special Operations forces guides two soldiers from Cameroon’s 3rd Battalion Intervention Rapid (BIR) during a 2013 training event. (Photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Larry W. Carpenter Jr.)

Globetrotting is SOCOM’s stock in trade and, not coincidentally, it’s divided into a collection of planet-girding “sub-unified commands”: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR, the European contingent; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of CENTCOM; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which conducts missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCNORTH, which is devoted to “homeland defense”; and the ever-itinerant Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command (formerly headed by Votel) made up of personnel from each service branch, including SEALs, Air Force special tactics airmen, and the Army’s Delta Force that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists.

The elite of the elite in the special ops community, JSOC takes on covert, clandestine, and low-visibility operations in the hottest of hot spots.  Some covert ops that have come to light in recent years include a host of Delta Force missions: among them, an operation in May in which members of the elite force killed an Islamic State commander known as Abu Sayyaf during a night raid in Syria; the 2014 release of long-time Taliban prisoner Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl; the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspect in 2012 terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya; and the 2013 abduction of Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda militant, off a street in that same country.  Similarly, Navy SEALs have, among other operations, carried out successful hostage rescue missions in Afghanistan and Somalia in 2012; a disastrous one in Yemen in 2014; a 2013 kidnap raid in Somalia that went awry; and — that same year — a failed evacuation mission in South Sudan in which three SEALs were wounded when their aircraft was hit by small arms fire. 

SOCOM’s SOF Alphabet Soup

Most deployments have, however, been training missions designed to tutor proxies and forge stronger ties with allies. “Special Operations forces provide individual-level training, unit-level training, and formal classroom training,” explains SOCOM’s Ken McGraw.  “Individual training can be in subjects like basic rifle marksmanship, land navigation, airborne operations, and first aid.  They provide unit-level training in subjects like small unit tactics, counterterrorism operations and maritime operations. SOF can also provide formal classroom training in subjects like the military decision-making process or staff planning.”

From 2012 to 2014, for instance, Special Operations forces carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as 67 countries each year.  JCETs are officially devoted to training U.S. forces, but they nonetheless serve as a key facet of SOCOM’s global engagement strategy. The missions “foster key military partnerships with foreign militaries, enhance partner-nations’ capability to provide for their own defense, and build interoperability between U.S. SOF and partner-nation forces,” according to SOCOM’s McGraw. 

And JCETs are just a fraction of the story.  SOCOM carries out many other multinational overseas training operations.   According to data from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), for example, Special Operations forces conducted 75 training exercises in 30 countries in 2014.  The numbers were projected to jump to 98 exercises in 34 countries by the end of this year.

“SOCOM places a premium on international partnerships and building their capacity.  Today, SOCOM has persistent partnerships with about 60 countries through our Special Operations Forces Liaison Elements and Joint Planning and Advisory Teams,” said SOCOM’s Votel at a conference earlier this year, drawing attention to two of the many types of shadowy Special Ops entities that operate overseas.  These SOFLEs and JPATs belong to a mind-bending alphabet soup of special ops entities operating around the globe, a jumble of opaque acronyms and stilted abbreviations masking a secret world of clandestine efforts often conducted in the shadows in impoverished lands ruled by problematic regimes.  The proliferation of this bewildering SOCOM shorthand — SOJTFs and CJSOTFs, SOCCEs and SOLEs — mirrors the relentless expansion of the command, with its signature brand of military speak or milspeak proving as indecipherable to most Americans as its missions are secret from them.

Around the world, you can find Special Operations Joint Task Forces (SOJTFs), Combined Joint Special Operations Task Forces (CJSOTFs), and Joint Special Operations Task Forces (JSOTFs), Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), as well as Special Operations Command and Control Elements (SOCCEs) and Special Operations Liaison Elements (SOLEs).  And that list doesn’t even include Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements — small teams which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.” 

Special Operations Command will not divulge the locations or even a simple count of its SOC FWDs for “security reasons.”  When asked how releasing only the number could imperil security, SOCOM’s Ken McGraw was typically opaque.  “The information is classified,” he responded.  “I am not the classification authority for that information so I do not know the specifics of why the information is classified.”  Open source data suggests, however, that they are clustered in favored black ops stomping grounds, including SOC FWD PakistanSOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon, as well as SOC FWD East Africa, SOC FWD Central Africa, and SOC FWD West Africa

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A U.S. Army Special Forces soldier readies himself to jump out of a C-130J Super Hercules over Hurlburt Field, Fla., March 3, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder)  

What’s clear is that SOCOM prefers to operate in the shadows while its personnel and missions expand globally to little notice or attention.  “The key thing that SOCOM brings to the table is that we are — we think of ourselves — as a global force. We support the geographic combatant commanders, but we are not bound by the artificial boundaries that normally define the regional areas in which they operate. So what we try to do is we try to operate across those boundaries,” SOCOM’s Votel told the Aspen Security Forum.

In one particular blurring of boundaries, Special Operations liaison officers (SOLOs) are embedded in at least 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations.  Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019.  The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among other outfits, through the use of liaison officers and Special Operations Support Teams (SOSTs). 

“In today’s environment, our effectiveness is directly tied to our ability to operate with domestic and international partners. We, as a joint force, must continue to institutionalize interoperability, integration, and interdependence between conventional forces and special operations forces through doctrine, training, and operational deployments,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring.  “From working with indigenous forces and local governments to improve local security, to high-risk counterterrorism operations — SOF are in vital roles performing essential tasks.”

SOCOM will not name the 135 countries in which America’s most elite forces were deployed this year, let alone disclose the nature of those operations.  Most were, undoubtedly, training efforts.  Documents obtained from the Pentagon via the Freedom of Information Act outlining Joint Combined Exchange Training in 2013 offer an indication of what Special Operations forces do on a daily basis and also what skills are deemed necessary for their real-world missions: combat marksmanship, patrolling, weapons training, small unit tactics, special operations in urban terrain, close quarters combat, advanced marksmanship, sniper employment, long-range shooting, deliberate attack, and heavy weapons employment, in addition to combat casualty care, human rights awareness, land navigation, and mission planning, among others. 

From Joint Special Operations Task Force-Juniper Shield, which operates in Africa’s Trans-Sahara region, and Special Operations Command and Control Element-Horn of Africa, to Army Special Operations Forces Liaison Element-Korea and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula, the global growth of SOF missions has been breathtaking.  SEALs or Green Berets, Delta Force operators or Air Commandos, they are constantly taking on what Votel likes to call the “nation’s most complex, demanding, and high-risk challenges.” 

These forces carry out operations almost entirely unknown to the American taxpayers who fund them, operations conducted far from the scrutiny of the media or meaningful outside oversight of any kind.  Everyday, in around 80 or more countries that Special Operations Command will not name, they undertake missions the command refuses to talk about.  They exist in a secret world of obtuse acronyms and shadowy efforts, of mystery missions kept secret from the American public, not to mention most of the citizens of the 135 nations where they’ve been deployed this year.

This summer, when Votel commented that more special ops troops are deployed to more locations and are conducting more operations than at the height of the Afghan and Iraq wars, he drew attention to two conflicts in which those forces played major roles that have not turned out well for the United States.  Consider that symbolic of what the bulking up of his command has meant in these years.

“Ultimately, the best indicator of our success will be the success of the [geographic combatant commands],” says the special ops chief, but with U.S. setbacks in Africa Command’s area of operations from Mali and Nigeria toBurkina Faso and Cameroon; in Central Command’s bailiwick from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Syria; in the PACOM region vis-à-vis China; and perhaps even in the EUCOM area of operations due to Russia, it’s far from clear what successes can be attributed to the ever-expanding secret operations of America’s secret military.  The special ops commander seems resigned to the very real limitations of what his secretive but much-ballyhooed, highly-trained, well-funded, heavily-armed operators can do. 

“We can buy space, we can buy time,” says Votel, stressing that SOCOM can “play a very, very key role” in countering “violent extremism,” but only up to a point — and that point seems to fall strikingly short of anything resembling victory or even significant foreign policy success.  “Ultimately, you know, problems like we see in Iraq and Syria,” he says, “aren’t going to be resolved by us.”

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Timesthe Interceptthe San Francisco Chronicle, the Nationand regularlyat TomDispatch. His latest book is Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

U.S. Special Ops Forces Deployed in 135 Nations

"Africa is a challenging place today and one that, if left unattended, is likely to be the birthplace of many more challenges in the future,” Army Secretary John McHugh said recently. Since 9/11, in fact, the continent has increasingly been viewed by the Pentagon as a place of problems to be remedied by military means. And year after year, as terror groups have multiplied, proxies have foundered, and allies have disappointed, the U.S. has doubled down again and again, with America’s most elite troops — U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) — leading the way.

The public face of this engagement is a yearly training exercise called Flintlock. Since 2005, it has brought together U.S. special operators and elite European and West African troops to “strengthen security institutions, promote multilateral sharing of information, and develop interoperability among the partner nations of the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP).”

Directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sponsored by SOCAFRICA — the special operations contingent of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) — andconducted by Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa, the Flintlock exercises have sought to “develop the capacity of and collaboration among African security forces to protect civilian populations across the Sahel region of Africa.” This year, for instance, 1,300 troops representing 28 countries — including U.S. Army Green Berets – trained together in the host nation of Chad, as well as in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Tunisia, conducting mock combat patrols and practicing counterterrorism missions.

Flintlock exercises provide AFRICOM with a patina of transparency and a plethora of publicity each year as a cherry-picked group of reporters provide mostly favorablesometimes breathless cookie-cutter coverage.  (The command has, for years, refused my repeated requests to attend.)  Spinning tales of tough-talking American commandos barking orders at “raw,” “poorly equipped” African troops “under the pewter sun” in the “suffocating heat” and the “fine Saharan sand” on a “dusty training ground” in the “rocky badlands” of West Africa, they dutifully report on one three-week U.S. special ops mission. 

What goes on the rest of the year is, however, shrouded in secrecy as the U.S. military “pivots” to Africa and shadowy contingents of Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets shuttle on and off the continent under the auspices of various programs.  This includes Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), low-profile missions that lay the groundwork for each year’s Flintlock exercise, providing instruction in all manner of combat capabilities, from advanced marksmanship and small unit tactics to training in conducting ambushes and perfecting sniper skills.

The U.S. military says little about JCET activities in Africa or elsewhere.  Special Operations Command, which oversees America’s most elite forces, will not even disclose the number of JCETs carried out by American commandos on the continent.  AFRICOM, for its part, refuses to reveal the locations of the missions, citing “operational security reasons and host nation sensitivities.”  And what little information that command will divulge only raises additional questions. 

According to AFRICOM, 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.  The reports provided by the Pentagon to keep Congress informed of “training of Special Operations forces” show that, from October 2011 to October 2013 (fiscal years 2012 and 2013), there was only one month in which U.S. commandos did not conduct Joint Combined Exchange Training somewhere on the African continent.  In all, according to those documents, Special Operations forces spent nearly 2,200 days in 12 countries under the JCET program alongside more than 3,800 African soldiers.           

AFRICOM attributes the confusion over the numbers to differing methods of accounting.  However one tallies them, such missions increased last year according to figures provided by the command and they seem to be on the rise again this year.  In 2014, the number of JCETs jumped to 26.  By the end of July, “approximately 22” had already been carried out. 

U.S. Africa Command refuses to name the forces it’s training with.  All that can be said, in the words of AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, is that “there are locations where U.S. personnel are working side-by-side with African military members in close proximity to various threat groups.”  The documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, however, paint a vivid picture of unceasing special ops missions across Africa — many in nations with checkered human rights records.

The Company You Keep

Officially, Joint Combined Exchange Training is designed to enable U.S. special operators to "practice skills needed to conduct a variety of missions, including foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism."  Authorization for the program also allows "incidental-training benefits" to "accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost."

In reality, JCETs appear little different from other far more overt U.S. military overseas training efforts.  “They have to be able to show that more than 50% of the benefit of this training activity goes to U.S. Special Operations forces,” Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation and author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, says of the missions.  “Now, of course, the other 49% can be for the benefit of the partner and this certainly is a very strong rationale for doing it — ultimately that is the overarching goal of these activities.”

Africa Command doesn’t, in fact, shy away from touting the benefits to foreign troops.  “JCETs improve the capabilities of African forces to protect civilians from current and emerging threats.  The ultimate goal is to enable African states to address security issues without the need for foreign intervention and empower regional solutions to transnational threats,” according to AFRICOM’s Chuck Prichard.  Experts, however, question the efficacy of such training missions.

“There’s an unexamined assumption in policy circles that because we have, by our own estimation, the best soldiers in the world — indeed the best soldiers in all of recorded history — therefore it must follow that our soldiers have the ability to convey fighting capacity to anybody else that they deal with,” says Andrew Bacevich, retired Army lieutenant colonel and author ofBreach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. “At root,” he notes of U.S. efforts in Africa, “it’s probably a racist assumption that the white guys are going to be able to teach the ‘lesser breeds’ and somehow lift them up in a military sense.”

From October through November 2011, for example, Green Berets were deployed in Mali to work with 150 local troops.  For 45 days, they practiced patrolling and desert warfare, as part of a JCET, according to the Pentagon documents obtained by TomDispatch.  “International principles and procedures of human rights will be integrated throughout all phases of training,” reads the report.  What effect it had is open to debate. 

That same year, the State Department called out Mali due to “several reports that the government or its agents committed unlawful killings” as well as “arbitrary and/or unlawful deprivation of life.”  In early 2012, with the next Flintlock exercise to be held there, America’s troops were already in Mali when a U.S.-trained officer overthrew the democratically elected government.  Flintlock 2012 was first postponed, then finally cancelled

The junta soon found itself being muscled aside by Islamist militants whose ranks were joined by American-trained commanders of elite army units, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe, civilian deaths, and savage atrocities at the hands of all parties to the conflict.  Years later, after a U.S.-backed French and African intervention, Mali is still plagued by a seemingly interminable and increasingly brazen insurgency and remains a fragile state.  “It’s not some place that, by any stretch, you can say we’ve succeeded,” says RAND’s Linda Robinson.

And Mali was hardly an anomaly. 

Under the so-called Leahy Law — named for Vermont senator Patrick Leahy — the U.S. is prohibited from providing assistance to units “of the security forces of a foreign country if the secretary of state has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”  But this hasn’t stopped the U.S. from conducting JCETs alongside the military forces of African countries with genuinely dismal records in that regard. 

From October through December 2011, for example, members of an elite force of Navy SEALs and support personnel, known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU-10), carried out JCET training alongside soldiers from Cameroon’s elite 9th Battalion Intervention Rapid (9th BIR).  That same year, the U.S. State Department noted that the “most important human rights problems in the country were security force abuses,” including killings and the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners.  Members of NSWU-10 nonetheless were back in the country in January and February 2012 to continue the training, this time with troops from the 8th BIR, and members of still another BIR unit that August and September.  The same year, accordingto the State Department, members of various BIR units threatened, beat, shot at, and sometimes seriously injured civilians as well as policemen. 

In 2013, personnel from NSWU-10 trained with troops from Cameroon’s 1st BIR — three separate JCETs from January through June.  That same year,according to the State Department, “there were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,” specifically that members of “the BIR, an elite military unit” were “implicated in violence against civilians.”  In September, for example, “three members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) beat a man to death in a barroom altercation.”

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Members of the U.S. Special Operations forces alongside soldiers from the 3rd Battalion Intervention Rapid (BIR) training together in Bamenda, Cameroon, on January 17, 2013. (Photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Larry W. Carpenter Jr.)

Despite reports by human rights groups that Chad’s security forces were “killing and torturing with impunity,” members of NSWU-10 trained in desert warfare and long-range patrolling with elite indigenous forces there from October through November 2011. According to Amnesty International, during the spring of 2012 the Chadian Army was also recruiting “massive numbers of child soldiers.”  But that fall, members of NSWU-10 were back in Chad for a JCET that included training in reconnaissance operations and desert patrols.

In early 2013, while sailors from NSWU-10 and Chadian troops were practicing raids and “heavy weapons employment,” members of Chad's “security forces shot and killed unarmed civilians and arrested and detained members of parliament, military officers, former rebels, and others,” according to the State Department.  The next year, according to a United Nations report, Chadian soldiers in the Central African Republic opened fire on a marketplace filled with civilians, killing 30 and leaving 300 wounded.  Within a year, U.S. troops were nonetheless back in Chad, playing host to Flintlock 2015, while, reports Amnesty International, “cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments, including beatings, continued to be widely practiced by security forces… with almost total impunity.”

During 2012 and 2013, JCETs were also conducted in Algeria, where, according to the State Department, “Impunity remained a problem,” andKenya, where there were “abuses by the security forces, including unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture, rape, and use of excessive force.” 

In addition, the U.S. carried out such missions in Mauritania (“abusive treatment, arbitrary arrests”), Morocco (“excessive force to quell peaceful protests, resulting in hundreds of injuries; torture and other abuses by the security forces”), Niger (“reports that security forces beat and abused civilians”), Senegal (“some reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings”), Tunisia (“security forces committed human rights abuses”), and Uganda (“unlawful killings, torture, and other abuse of suspects and detainees”).  Meanwhile, Flintlock exercises were held in Senegal in 2011 (“reports of physical abuse and torture”),Mauritania in 2013 (“authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters, presidential opponents, and journalists”), Niger in 2014 ("some reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings”), and this year in Chad.

Discipline and Punish

While AFRICOM refused to name these foreign forces involved in JCET training, the command nonetheless touts the program as a success.  “SOF have conducted a series of JCETs with military forces in West Africa in addition to multi-national training events such as the Flintlock series of exercises. These same military units have since formed a regional task force to combat and contain Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin area,” AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard explained.  “We’re proud of our ongoing engagement with these military professionals and continue to support their efforts to protect citizens from Boko Haram violence.”

Despite regular tutelage and hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance in the decade since the Flintlock exercises began, the countries of the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership — Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, most of them also key JCET partners — haven’t fared well.  Year after year, as the U.S. trained the Nigerian military at Flintlock exercises and worked alongside them during weeks of JCET, for example, Boko Haram grew from an obscureradical sect in northern Nigeria to a raging regional insurgent movement that has killed thousands in that country as well as growing numbers, morerecently, in Chad and Cameroon.  And it is just one of a number of terror outfits, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitun, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group, that have all been wreaking havoc in one country after another.  Even General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, couldn’t help but note the bleakness of the situation. “Organizations like Boko Haram pose a significant threat to West-Central Africa… which is destabilizing a large part of the continent,” he said at a conference earlier this year.

At the closing ceremony for Flintlock 2015, AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez praised Chad and its “African partners” for conducting a military training exercise while also battling Boko Haram.  “The capacity to execute real world operations while simultaneously training to increase capacity and capability,” he said, “demonstrates a level of proficiency exhibited only by an extremely professional, capable, and disciplined military.”

But partner forces from Mali or Chad or Nigeria, for example, have hardly shown themselves to be “extremely professional, capable, and disciplined” militaries.  In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry castigated Nigerian security forces for “credible allegations” that they were “committing gross human rights violations.”  Last year, according to the State Department, their army “committed extrajudicial killings and used lethal and excessive force.”  A recent Amnesty International report is even more damning, revealingevidence of “horrific war crimes committed by Nigeria’s military including 8,000 people murdered, starved, suffocated, and tortured to death.” 

U.S. special operators have, in fact, partnered with rogue militaries throughout the region.  Last year, the government of Burkina Faso was, like Mali before it, overthrown by a U.S.-trained officer — a former student of the Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations University, no less.  There were also coups by the U.S.-backed militaries of Mauritania in 2005 and again in 2008 and Niger in 2010 as well as a 2011 revolution that overthrew Tunisia’s U.S.-backed government after its U.S.-supported army stood aside. 

Despite billions of dollars in aid from U.S. taxpayers as well as training missions and exercises conducted by America’s most elite troops, West African nations find themselves chronically imperiled by a plethora of insurgent groups and members of their own armed forces, with hundreds of thousands of Africans caught up in one conflictconflagration, or crisis afteranother

“Achieving peace, stability, and prosperity in the region begins with ensuring that security forces are well trained and equipped to… deny sanctuary to terrorist cells,” said Colonel Kurt Crytzer, the commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, following Flintlock 2010.  Five years, four Flintlocks, and scores of JCETs later, the verdict is seemingly in.  Amanda Dory, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, for instance, recently noted that terrorist incidents on the continent have increased exponentially over the last quarter century, with the pace quickening of late.  “The growth in the number of terrorist incidents globally, in particular from 2010, is mirrored in Africa,” she wrote.  

AFRICOM’s own 2015 posture statement is hardly less damning when it comes to the state of the region after more than a decade of military interventions.  “In North and West Africa, Libyan and Nigerian insecurity increasingly threaten U.S. interests. In spite of multinational security efforts, terrorist and criminal networks are gaining strength and interoperability,” it reads.  “Al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other violent extremist organizations are exploiting weak governance, corrupt leadership, and porous borders across the Sahel and Maghreb to train and move fighters and distribute resources.”

For years, AFRICOM’s answer to this increasing instability has been more:more money, more troops, more engagement. Back in 2010, 14 countries took part in the Flintlock exercise. By this year, the number had doubled. RAND’s Linda Robinson is also of the more-is-better school of thought, though in a highly nuanced fashion. “There were a lot of episodic JCETs over the years,” she said in regard to the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership nations.  While stressing that she had not conducted a “deep dive” study of the region, she drew attention to deficiencies plaguing the program.  “You have to have a different model. You can’t just string together a bunch of JCETs and an annual exercise, in this case Flintlock.  That is not enough to make it work.  That doesn’t constitute a successful model,” she said, advocating for a more persistent, though less widespread, U.S. special ops presence in the region.

Andrew Bacevich is far more skeptical.  “The assumption that we know how to create armies in other parts of the world is a pretty dubious proposition,” he told me recently.  “The Pentagon exaggerates its ability to create effective fighting forces in the developing world.” 

Nonetheless, JCETs — indeed all special ops engagement in Africa — seem impervious to failure.  Since 2006, in fact, the average number of special operators on the continent went from 1% of elite forces deployed abroad to 10%, a jump of 900%.  And with worldwide Joint Combined Exchange Training missions set to increase next year, according to Pentagon projections, Africa is a likely site of expansion. 

The question is: Will episodic training with militaries regularly implicated in human rights abuses, militaries that overthrow their governments, and militaries that have consistently failed to defeat local terror groups turn them into professional, successful armies when longer-term, more intensive, bigger-budget U.S. efforts to build-up national armies from South Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq have been so ineffective?  “It’s not difficult to make the case that we are viewed as aliens,” says Bacevich.  “Therefore the prospects of being able to effectively transmit whatever the magic is that makes an army into an effective force is not likely to be in the offing.  But still, we’re always disappointed and surprised when it turns out we can’t pull that off.”

Gabriel Karon contributed reporting to this article.

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

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

Problem Partners, Ugly Outcomes

PIBOR, South Sudan — “I’ve never been a soldier,” I say to the wide-eyed, lanky-limbed veteran sitting across from me. “Tell me about military life. What’s it like?” He looks up as if the answer can be found in the blazing blue sky above, shoots me a sheepish grin, and then fixes his gaze on his feet. I let the silence wash over us and wait. He looks embarrassed. Perhaps it’s for me.

Interviews sometimes devolve into such awkward, hushed moments. I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans over the years. Many have been reluctant to discuss their tours of duty for one reason or another. It’s typical. But this wasn’t the typical veteran — at least not for me.

Osman put in three years of military service, some of it during wartime. He saw battle and knows the dull drudgery of a soldier's life. He had left the army just a month before I met him.

Osman is 15 years old.

Young people the world over join militaries for all sorts of reasons — for a steady paycheck, to be a part of something greater than themselves, tomeasure up, to escape their homes, because they crave structure or excitementor adventure, because they have no better options, because they’re forced to.  Osman joined a militia called the Cobra faction, he told me, after soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA — the national armed forces of South Sudan — shot and killed his father.  It seemed to be the only option open to him.  It afforded him protection, care, a home.    

Osman was released from his military service in February and he wasn’t alone.  In recent months, more than 1,700 children have been demobilized by the Cobra faction.  But they’re the exceptions in South Sudan.  Today, about 13,000 other children are serving with the SPLA or the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition, a rebel force at war with the government, or with other militias and armed groups jockeying for power in that civil-war-wracked country. 

Despite a law prohibiting it, the United States looked the other way while this went on, providing aid and assistance to the SPLA even as it employed child soldiers.  Year after year, President Obama provided waivers to sidestep the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act, by which Congress prohibited the U.S. from providing military assistance to governments filling out their ranks with children.  It was just one facet of years of support, dating back to the 1980s, that saw the U.S. "midwife" — as then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry put it — South Sudan into existence. 

“For nearly a decade leading up to the 2011 declaration of independence, the cause of the nation and its citizens was one that was near and dear to the heart of two successive U.S. administrations and some of its most seasoned and effective thinkers and policymakers,” Patricia Taft, a senior associate with the Fund for Peace, wrote in an analysis of South Sudan last year.  “In order to secure this nation-building ‘win,’ both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations poured tons of aid into South Sudan, in every form imaginable. From military aid to food aid to the provision of technical expertise, America was South Sudan’s biggest ally and backer, ardently midwifing the country into nationhood by whatever means necessary.”

In the case of child soldiers, waivers were seen as a necessity when it came to helping build “an accountable and professional armed force,” in the words of Andy Burnett of the Office of the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan; that is, an ethical, modern military that would ultimately eschew the use of children.  The results were just the opposite.  The SPLA fractured in December 2013 and was soon implicated in the commission of mass atrocities and increased recruitment of child soldiers.  The war that haswracked the country since has been especially ruinous for South Sudan’s youth.  According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), around 600,000 children have been affected by psychological distress, 400,000 have been forced out of school, 235,000 are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, and more than 700 have been killed during a year and a half of civil war.

Cobra Commander

I meet Osman and a dozen other former child soldiers in an out-of-the-way town about 170 miles from South Sudan’s capital, Juba.  The temperature seems harsher in Pibor, the air drier and dustier.  The days leave you feeling sapped and shriveled.  The sun forces your eyes into a perpetual squint and the wind blows hot — unnaturally hot, blast-furnace hot. 

The ground in Pibor is parched to the point of cracking.  The gray moonscape has shattered into a spider’s web of crevices, fissures, and clefts tailor-made for wrenching knees and toppling chairs when you shift your weight.  Then there are the flies.  Swarms of flies.  Everywhere.  I’ve experienced flies before, flies you can’t keep off your food, so many that you cease swatting and call a truce; so many that you agree to share your plate and your fork with them, so much sharing that they might become part of your meal if they fail to flit away fast enough.  But the flies in Pibor are another matter: relentless, maddening, merciless, eternally landing on your sweaty hands and arms and cheeks and nose, on the goat meat being butchered nearby, on your water bottle.  Swat one and four more seem to arrive in response — until about 7:30 pm when, as if by magic, they simply disappear.

Osman, a local kid, doesn’t seem bothered by the flies or the heat.  Maybe that’s because this life beats the one he was living when he carried an assault rifle and served as a bodyguard for a high-ranking officer.  It was a typical job for a child soldier in the Cobra faction, a rebel militia that was — until last year — at war with the government here.  Korok, a baby-faced 16-year-old from Pibor, tells me he did the same thing during his two years of service.  “They gave me a gun,” he says as his large, lively eyes dart about.  “I followed big men around.”    

After his father was shot and killed and his mother died of malaria, Korok found himself alone.  His brother was off serving in the SPLA when soldiers from that force rampaged through the area around Pibor, punishing the local population — men, women, and children of the Murle tribe — for an uprising by native son and recurrent rebel David Yau Yau. 

A former theology student, Yau Yau once served as the Pibor county secretary of the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, a federal agency devoted to the reintegration and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons.  He has, however, spent the last five years forging a career out of anti-government uprisings.  A young upstart from the Murle minority, Yau Yau bucked local elders and ran as an independent for parliament in April 2010.  After losing — he was reportedly trounced — Yau Yau pursued another path to power, this time through an armed rebellion with 200 fighters under his command.  Just over a year later, after some skirmishes with government forces and minor acts of banditry, he accepted an offer of amnesty and was reportedly made a general in the SPLA. 

In March 2012, the SPLA launched a “disarmament campaign” in Murle areas around Pibor marked, locals say, by rampant atrocities, including rapes and assaults.  Soon, Yau Yau was again in revolt, attracting boys like Korok and Osman to his South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army also known as the SSDM/A-Cobra faction.  With thousands flocking to his cause and armed with heavier weapons, Yau Yau launched his first major attack, an ambush that reportedly killed more than 100 SPLA soldiers in August 2012, according to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based independent research group.  Battles between the Cobra faction and the SPLA raged through 2013 and civilians around Pibor continued to suffer.

SPLA court martial documents obtained by TomDispatch attest to the violence in the area.  On July 31, 2013, for example, Sergeant Ngor Mayik Magol and Private Bona Atem Akot shot and killed two Murle women and injured a child in Pibor County.  (Tried and convicted, they were ordered to pay “blood compensation” of 45 cows for each woman, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined 2,000 South Sudanese pounds each.)  In fact,according to Human Rights Watch, 74 Murle civilians, 17 of them women and children, were killed between December 2012 and July 2013.   

In May 2014, several months after a full-fledged civil war erupted with rebel forces under the leadership of former Vice President Riek Machar, South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir and Yau Yau agreed to a peace pact.  Later, the former rebel leader pledged to demobilize children from his forces.

In January, the Cobra faction began releasing youths, ages 9 to 17, some of whom had been fighting for up to four years.  In that first demobilization ceremony, overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Commission with support from UNICEF,280 youngsters turned in their weapons and uniforms.  Since then, almost 1,500 others have been released.  “These children have been forced to do and see things no child should ever experience,” said UNICEF South Sudan Representative Jonathan Veitch.  “The release of thousands of children requires a massive response to provide the support and protection these children need to begin rebuilding their lives.”

Zuagin tells me he’s 15, but he looks a couple years younger.  His legs seem to be hiding somewhere inside his pants and his shirt is a size too big.  Hailing from the nearby town of Gumuruk, he had served with the Cobra faction for about two years before being demobilized in February.  Like the other boys, he now spends his days at “the ICC” or Interim Care Center in Pibor, a compound dominated by a mud-walled church with a crude likeness of Christ drawn on an exterior wall. 

“UNICEF builds and runs the centers with our partners – they are providing temporary care and shelter to the children released while we trace their families,” UNICEF’s Claire McKeever explained to me.  “We have also trained local teams of social workers, cooks, and guards who work at the centers. The children are provided with food, shelter, items like mosquito nets, mats, and soap, psychosocial support and recreation activities. This is a two-year program in Pibor, but the hope is that these centers can become youth centers once the last children return home.” 

The child veterans at the ICC are like kids anywhere.  Some are curious but apprehensive, others wary and insecure; a few of the older ones act tougher and cooler than they are.  They find themselves on either side of that ethereal adolescent dividing line — some with the softer, rounder faces of little boys, others beginning to sport the more angular features of young men; some with tiny, falsetto voices, others speaking in tenor tones.  As a group, they are, however, united by body type: uniformly skinny, swimming in their button-down shirts or soccer jerseys.  Quite a few sport generic t-shirts emblazoned with the name “Obama.”  Many have energy to burn and a hunger for something more.  More than a few seem to delight in tormenting one of their caretakers, a man who wields a long thin branch that he brandishes in an attempt to keep the boys in line.  He threatens them with it, swinging it at them, though without much chance of actually hitting the speedy, young veterans.  They, in turn, mock him and when he sets his switch down, they steal it from him.  He tells me that he likes the boys, that they are good kids.  He also asks if I could help him get any other kind of job, anything at all.

Zuagin was yet another Cobra faction bodyguard who spent his tour of duty toting a gun to protect an older man with a high rank.  “He treated me well, with respect,” he says, but assures me that life is now much better than it was with the militia.  He has big plans for the future.  “I want to go to school,” he explains.  “I want to be a doctor.  We need sanitation.  If I’m a doctor, I can help the community.”  

Zuagin has a ready solution to South Sudan’s bloodshed and the seemingly interminable civil war that goes with it.  “To stop the violence, we need disarmament.  All the guns need to be collected.  After that, all the youths should go to school.”  I listen and nod, thinking about how a disarmament campaign led directly to violence here in Pibor, the violence that Osman tells me cost his father his life, the violence that forced so many of Zuagin’s fellow child soldiers into the arms of the Cobra faction in the first place.  I decide not to mention it. 

Osman has his own simple solution: full employment.  “To have peace, they should give a job to everybody,” he says in a soft, raspy voice.  “If they gave work to everybody, everybody would be busy and there would be no time for fighting.”   

Like the rest of the boys, Peter looks younger than the age he gives, which is 16.  And like many of the others, it was abuse by the SPLA that, two years earlier, led him to flee his home and join the Cobra faction.  “They were beating people.  They even stole my clothes,” he tells me as we sit in the minimal shade of a tree near the church in the ICC compound.  Life with the militia was tough: cooking, chores, bodyguard duties, combat.  Now, the bright-eyed youth says that he has free time and his life is so much better.  He was looking forward to school, too, but didn’t have the requisite 20 South Sudanese pounds needed for tuition.  It’s the same story for Osman who longs for school, but says he lacks the funds to attend. 

“Getting all children in Pibor back to school is a priority and services are slowly being reestablished after many years of under investment,” UNICEF’s McKeever told me by email.  “There are currently close to 3,000 children enrolled in Pibor [and nearby] Gumuruk and Lekuangule and one in three of the demobilized children from Pibor are in accelerated learning programs.” 

Veterans Day?

The Interim Care Center is a spartan facility by Western standards and creature comforts are few, but these young Cobra faction veterans have it better than many of their peers who find themselves hungrymalnourished,displacedhomeless, and hopeless.  “Life is very good here,” Osman told me.   The freedom to come and go as he pleases and wear civilian clothes looms large for him.  “Plus, I’m eating for free,” he adds.  When I ask if he ever wants to be a soldier again, he shoots me a disgusted look, before cracking a big smile and laughing aloud.  “No.  I don’t like it at all.  The worst part was fighting.”

Zujian, who speaks some English, agrees.  In a tiny voice that has yet to crack, let alone deepen, he swears that life now is so much better than when he carried a weapon and that he’s absolutely done with soldiering forever.  All the boys I talk to tell me the same — though it’s no guarantee that some of them won’t end up back under arms in the years to come.  Above all, however, every one of them wants something more.  All are looking for some way out. 

Peter bluntly requests that I take a couple of the boys back to the United States so they can tell their stories in person.  He strongly hints that he would like to be one of them.  In the meantime, he says, he will “pray for peace.”  Korok, it turns out, is praying too — for peace and better leadership for the country.  “Is there a possibility,” he asks, “for the American people to set up schools, so the children could go to class instead of becoming soldiers?”    

“South Sudan needs development.  It needs hospitals, not fighting,” Zujian tells me with a thoughtful smile.  True enough, but I wonder if there is any chance of it.  Recent, full-scale military offensives are wreaking havoc,killing and injuring civilians, and accountability is nearly nil.  The government derives more than 90% of its revenue not from citizens to whom it must provide services and transparency, but from foreign oil firms.  It is now also indebted to the Qatar National Bank, to whom the future of the nation has been mortgaged.  Its military has been consistently implicated in mass atrocities, as has the rebel force opposing it.  Both continue to employ child soldiers.  The country sits atop the Fund for Peace’s 178-nation list of the world’s most fragile nations, ranks exceptionally high in terms of povertyand corruption, and low when it comes to educationinfrastructurepress freedom, and human rights.  It’s one of the worst places on earth to be amother or a child.  Its economy is in shambles and nearly five million people are expected to face severe food shortages in the months ahead.  And given the fact that southern Sudan has, for the better part of 60 years, been embroiled in war — a series of conflicts that have upended, wrecked, or taken the lives of millions, sown bad blood, and stoked the fires of vengeance — the future looks grim.  

At the end of our interview, Zujian stares into my eyes, squinting as if looking for something, and then begins interviewing me.  What am I up to, he wants to know.  Why have I traveled all this way to the ICC to talk to the other boys and him?  

I try to explain how my country helped facilitate the recruitment of child soldiers in his, despite international condemnation of the practice and the fact one of our laws forbids it, as does South Sudanese law.  I say that people in America know little or nothing about the global scourge of child soldiers.  It’s important, I add, that they hear what boys like him have to say. 

I had come, I explain, to hear his story and I will do my best to tell it.  I can feel Zujian’s disappointment.  Like a number of the children, he clearly hoped for more from me — maybe even tangible assistance of some sort.  He manages to look skeptical and remain silent until we reach the outer edge of awkward.  Then, suddenly, he breaks into a wide grin and gracefully lets me off the hook. 

Clearly, U.S. assistance and nation-building efforts in South Sudan have had anything but the desired effects either for Washington or South Sudan.  No less clearly, President Obama’s gamble that looking the other way when it came to child soldiers would, in the long run, facilitate the end of their useimploded in 2013 with devastating results.  Despite this, Zujian refuses to sour on the United States or at least its citizens.  Somehow, in spite of all the disappointments, including me, he continues to have faith. 

“I’m happy to have talked with you,” he says with a nod, still smiling as we sit in the fading afternoon sun at this parched, uncertain way station, a literal no man’s land located somewhere between war and peace, youth and adulthood.  “If the American people read about us, maybe it will lead to something good.” 

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africahas just been published. Reporting for this article was made possible by the generous support of Lannan Foundation.

[Note: In this piece, names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children at the request of UNICEF.]

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

The Child Veterans of South Sudan Want to Know

MALAKAL, South Sudan — I didn’t really think he was going to shoot me.  There was no anger in his eyes.  His finger may not have been anywhere near the trigger.  He didn’t draw a bead on me.  Still, he was a boy and he was holding an AK-47 and it was pointed in my direction. 

It was unnerving.

I don’t know how old he was.  I’d say 16, though maybe he was 18 or 19.  But there were a few soldiers nearby who looked even younger — no more than 15.

When I was their age, I wasn’t trusted to drive, vote, drink, get married, gamble in a casino, serve on a jury, rent a car, or buy a ticket to an R-rated movie.  It was mandatory for me to be in school.  The law decreed just how many hours I could work and prohibited my employment in jobs deemed too dangerous for kids — like operating mixing machines in bakeries or repairing elevators.  No one, I can say with some certainty, would have thought it a good idea to put an automatic weapon in my hands.  But someone thought it was acceptable for them.  A lot of someones actually.  Their government — the government of South Sudan — apparently thought so.  And so did mine, the government of the United States. 

Photo Bomb

There was a reason that boy pointed his weapon my way.  A lot of them, in fact.  In the most immediate sense, I brought it upon myself.  I was doing something I knew could get me in trouble, but I just couldn’t help myself. 

I tried to take a picture.  Okay, I took a picture.  More than one.

Click here to see a larger version

Malakal airfield, July 2014.

Public photography is frequently frowned upon in South Sudan.  Take pictures of the wrong thing and the authorities might force you to delete theimages, or confiscate your camera, or maybe worse.

The incident in question took place during last year’s rainy season on the outskirts of sodden Malakal, a war-ravaged town 320 miles north of the capital, Juba.  The airport, near the banks of the White Nile, had devolved into an airstrip.  Nobody seemed to use its vintage blue and white terminal building anymore.  Instead, you drove past cold-eyed Rwandan peacekeepers, United Nations troop trucks, and an armored personnel carrier or two, right up to the tarmac.

That’s where I was when a fairly big, nondescript white plane arrived.  That in itself was hardly remarkable.  It’s de rigueur for Malakal.  If it isn’t a World Food Program flight, then it’s a big-bellied plane hauling in supplies for some non-governmental organization or a United Nations plane like the one that brought me there and that I was waiting for to whisk me away.

This nondescript white plane, however, was different from the others.  When the Canadair CRJ-100, with Cemair” written across its tail, taxied up and its door opened, it wasn’t your typical array of airline passengers who sallied down the gangway.  At least not at first.  It was a large group of young men in camouflage uniforms carrying assault rifles and machine guns.  And they were met on the runway by scores of similarly attired, similarly armed young men who had arrived in a convoy just minutes earlier. 

I’d never seen anything like it, so I pulled out my phone and tried to surreptitiously take a few photos.  Not surreptitiously enough, though.  A commander spotted me, got angry, and headed my way, waving his finger “no.”  It was then that this boy with the AK-47, who had arrived in the convoy, turned toward me — following the officer’s gaze — and the rifle in his arms turned with him, and I stepped lively to put the commander between me and him, while quickly shoving my phone in my pocket and apologizing again and again.

Click here to see a larger version

Malakal airfield, July 2014.

Approximately 13,000 children have been recruited into armed groups in South Sudan, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).  In addition, about 400,000 youngsters have been forced out of school due to the civil war that has been flaring and simmering there for almost a year and a half.  How so many children came to be affected by the conflict and why so many of them find themselves serving in the national army, the main rebel force, and other militias needs to be explained.  It has much to do with civil wars that started in the 1950s and lasted for the better part of five decades, pitting rebels in the south against the government in the north of what was then a single country: Sudan. 

Other factors include the 2005 peace deal that led to an independent South Sudan and transformed a guerrilla force into a national military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA; a rural culture in which cows are king because they are currency and young boys are armed to defend against cattle raids, as well as to conduct them; and an armed grudge match between political rivals representing different tribal groups in South Sudan that began in December 2013.  Add all of this together and any tangible recent progress toward ridding South Sudan of the scourge of child soldiers has been obliterated. 

Oh yes, and into that mix you would also have to factor the United States, a country that, as then U.S. Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry put it, helped “midwife” South Sudan into existence.

America’s African Army

In 1996, the United States began funneling military equipment through nearby Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda to rebels in southern Sudan as they battled for independence.  A decade later, after the civil war ended in a peace deal, Washington officially began offering military “assistance” to the SPLA, according to State Department documents.  At that point, without fanfare and far from the prying eyes of the press, the U.S. launched a concerted campaign to transform the SPLA from a guerrilla force into a professional army. 

When I recently asked about the scope of this training, Rodney Ford, the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs spokesperson, told me: “The U.S. government began a comprehensive defense professionalization program which started in [fiscal year] 2006 [and] continued after the referendum and independence of South Sudan until December 2013.  This assistance included infrastructure, vehicles, human rights training, logistics, administration, medical, military justice, finance, and English language training among an array of other military subjects.  The U.S. government, for example, conducted a comprehensive medical program with the South Sudanese military which entailed procuring mobile field hospitals, building clinics, training nurses and improving the military’s medical infrastructure.”

Ford also emphasized that no “lethal equipment” was provided and noted that the lessons were designed to “give soldiers the tools and skills that would benefit the civilian population.”  It sounded almost like they were building a South Sudanese Peace Corps. 

In reality, there was more to it.  U.S. support was not strictly a kumbaya effort of medical clinics and human rights instruction.  It included the training and equipping of the elite presidential guard; the construction of a new SPLA headquarters in Juba; the renovation of a training center at the SPLA Command and Staff College in Malou, a town north of the capital; and the construction of the headquarters of two SPLA divisions in the towns of Mapel and Duar.  Included as well were training programs for general officers and senior instructors; the deployment of a “training advisory team” to guide the overhaul of intelligence, communications, and other key functions; the employment of Kenyan and later Ethiopian instructors to teach basic military skills to SPLA recruits; the provision of secure voice and data communications to SPLA general headquarters; the development of riverine forces and up to 16 tactical watercraft; military police instruction; the training of commando forces by Ethiopian troops; and the establishment of a noncommissioned officers academy at Mapel with training from private contractors and later U.S. military personnel.  And according to a comprehensive report focusing on the years 2006-2010 by Richard Rands for the Small Arms Survey at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, this list only encompasses part of Washington’s efforts. 

During the early 2000s, as thousands of refugee “Lost Boys” who had fled the civil war in southern Sudan began to be resettled in cities across theUnited States, their brothers and sisters back home continued to suffer as civilians or as child combatants.  Between 2001 and 2006, however, as international pressure mounted and the civil war waned, some 20,000 child soldiers were also reportedly demobilized by the SPLA, although thousands remained in the force for a variety of reasons, including an extreme lack of other opportunities. 

By 2010, when the SPLA pledged to demobilize all of its child soldiers by the end of the year, there were an estimated 900 children still serving in the force.  The next year, under terms of the agreement that ended the civil war, the people of southern Sudan voted for their independence.  Six months later, on July 9th, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation, prompting a strong statement of support from President Barack Obama: “I am confident that the bonds of friendship between South Sudan and the United States will only deepen in the years to come.  As Southern Sudanese undertake the hard work of building their new country, the United States pledges our partnership as they seek the security, development, and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights.”

While child soldiers, in fact, remained in the SPLA, the U.S. nonetheless engaged in a years-long effort to pour billions of dollars in humanitarian aid, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance, into South Sudan.  Here’s the catch in all this: the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), passed by Congress in 2008 and enacted in 2010, prohibits the United States from providing military assistance to governments using child soldiers.  This means that the Obama administration should have been barredfrom providing South Sudan with military assistance in 2011.  The government, however, relied on a technicality to gain an exemption — claiming the list of barred countries was created before the new nation formally came into existence.

Washington’s support for the SPLA continued even as militia groups with children under arms were folded into the force.  The U.S. flung open the doors of advanced U.S. military schools, training centers, colleges, and universities to SPLA personnel.  In 2010 and 2011, for example, U.S. taxpayers footed the bill for some of them to attend U.S. military armor, artillery, intelligence, and infantry schools; in 2012 and 2013, it was the National Defense University, the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, the Marine Corps Combat Service Support School, and the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California, among other institutions. 

According to the State Department’s 2013 Congressional Budget Justification, tens of millions of dollars were also earmarked for “refurbishment, operations, and maintenance of training centers and divisional headquarters; strategic and operational advisory assistance; unit and individual professional training; and communications and other non-lethal equipment for the military.”  All of it, according to official State Department documents, was designed to promote “a military that is professionally trained and led, ethically balanced, aware of moral imperatives, and able to contribute positively to national and South-South reconciliation.” 

At the same time it was attempting to transform the SPLA into a national army, the U.S. military began operating from an outpost in South Sudan’s hinterlands.  At a Combined Operations Fusion Center in Nzara, a small contingent of U.S. Special Operations forces worked with South Sudanese military intelligence as part of Observant Compass, an operation focused on degrading or destroying Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  Planes and helicopters, flown by private contractors, ferried U.S. troops in and out of the small camp.  It was also used by special ops personnel for training SPLA forces in everything from navigation skills toairmobile helicopter assaults and as a staging area for joint raids against the LRA in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Until just weeks before the civil war broke out in South Sudan in 2013, U.S. special operators wereconducting military assault drills at Nzara.

As the United States was pouring money and effort into building up the country’s armed forces, human rights groups repeatedly complained about its military’s use of children.  This isn’t to say that the Obama administration turned a blind eye to the practice.  It was, in fact, much worse than that. 

On September 28, 2012, for example, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson issued a strong statement against the use of children as combatants.  “Protecting and assisting children affected by armed conflict and preventing abuses against them is a priority for the United States,” heannounced.  “We remain committed to ending the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).”  Carson went on to note that, adhering to provisions of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, the U.S. would indeed withhold certain security assistance to the DRC (though not all of it). 

That same day, President Obama issued a statement of his own, waiving the application of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act with respect to several nations (as the act indeed allows a president to do). South Sudan was included on the grounds that such a decision was in “the national interest of the United States.”  It was not, as it happens, in the interest of the children of South Sudan, not at least according to a senior United Nations official who was not authorized to speak on the record.  The U.S. waiver “was doing more harm than good because there is absolutely no political will to solve the child soldier problem,” that official explained to me.  

In September 2013, Obama issued still another CSPA waiver — in the form of a memorandum to Secretary of State Kerry — keeping South Sudan eligible for U.S. military assistance and the licenses needed to buy military equipment, again citing national interest. 

By the end of the year, South Sudan had collapsed into civil war with many SPLA soldiers, especially those of the Dinka tribe, remaining loyal to President Salva Kiir’s government and others, predominantly of Nuer ethnicity, joining former Vice President Riek Machar’s rebel forces.  Members of the SPLA were almost immediately implicated in mass atrocities, including the killing of Nuer civilians.  That presidential guard, trained and equipped by the U.S. a few years earlier, was especially singled out for its brutal crimes. 

Machar’s opposition forces, including many Nuers formerly with the SPLA, carried out their own atrocities, including large-scale massacres of Dinka civilians and others.  The State Department soon issued a report, indignant over the fact that “since the outbreak of conflict on December 15, [2013] there have been reports of forced conscription by government forces and recruitment and use of child soldiers by both government and antigovernment forces” — precisely the behavior the president had told the secretary of state was in the American national interest just a few months earlier. 

The Kids Aren’t All Right

“We worked closely with the SPLA to make sure the elimination of child soldiers or children associated with the military was a high priority,” a State Department official explained to me in a recent email.  “Right before the outbreak of the most recent conflict the U.N. had stated that there were no more ‘child soldiers’ in the South Sudanese military though some still remained on SPLA barracks cooking and cleaning, etc.” 

That’s not quite how the United Nations actually put it.

Before the civil war erupted, “the United Nations verified the recruitment and use of 162 children, all boys and mostly between 14 and 17 years of age,” 99 of whom were with the SPLA, 35 with a militia allied to a commander named David Yau Yau, 25 associated with the Lou Nuer tribe, and three with South Sudan’s national police. “Children associated with SPLA were identified in military barracks, wearing SPLA uniforms as well as undergoing military training in conflict areas,” according to the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.  “In addition, reports of the recruitment and use of 133 children were pending verification at the time of reporting.”

Since December 2013, the situation has become far worse.  “We have been deeply disappointed to see the progress South Sudan had achieved toward ending the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers since independence so gravely set back by the conflict that erupted in December,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told me last year.  “Both government-aligned and rebel forces have recruited and used child soldiers in the current conflict, and we call on both sides to end this practice.” 

By May 2014, UNICEF estimated that 9,000 children had been recruited into the armed forces of both sides in the civil war, despite the fact that under “both international and South Sudanese law, the forcible or voluntary recruitment of persons under the age of 18, whether as a member of a regular army or of an informal militia, is prohibited.”  Today, that number is estimated to have grown to 13,000.

About a year ago, Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) pledged to end the recruitment of child soldiers.  In late June, according to the U.N., Kiir’s government agreed to “restart the implementation of the Action Plan signed in 2012 to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.” 

There’s little evidence, however, that this has translated into tangible effects on the ground on either side.  “Despite renewed promises by both government and opposition forces that they will stop using child soldiers, both sides continue to recruit and use children in combat,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), earlier this year.  “In Malakal, government forces are even taking children from right outside the United Nations compound.”

A well-placed source within the United Nations offered a similar assessment.  “Even though the SPLA re-committed in June of last year, they haven’t released many kids — only a handful,” he explained.  “The SPLA aren’t releasing their kids and there doesn’t seem to be any incentive to do so.” 

Skye Wheeler, an expert on South Sudan at Human Rights Watch, agrees that the government hasn’t done much.  “The SPLA is entirely aware that at least two former militiamen who are now fighting with the government and who have both been integrated into the army are using and recruiting numerous child soldiers but have not made any significant steps towards punitive action,” she told me recently by email.  She added that she also knows of no significant efforts to curb the recruitment of children by Machar’s SPLA-IO. 

Last fall, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power chaired a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on children and armed conflict in which she declared: “Perpetrators have to be held accountable. Groups that fail to change their behavior must be hit where it hurts.”  A State Department official who refused to be named for this piece was equally unequivocal when it came to South Sudan.  “Since the outbreak of the conflict, there have been no waivers issued,” he told me in late March, “and we have expressed our concerns about the recruitment of children by multiple parties in the current conflict.”  But months earlier — just weeks after Power’s pronouncement and nearly a year after the civil war in South Sudan began — President Obama had indeed issued another partial waiver allowing continued support for the country, despite the prohibitions of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. 

When I asked about this discrepancy, the State Department backtracked, admitting that the president had “authorized a partial waiver of the application of the prohibition in section 404(a) of the CSPA with respect to South Sudan to allow for the provision of PKO assistance,” citing a provision of the act and referring to PKO, or “peacekeeping,” funding long used to train and equip the SPLA.  In this instance, the official insisted that “none of the funds relevant to this partial waiver have been used to provide any direct assistance to the SPLA.” 

Andy Burnett, a spokesperson from the Office of the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, then went further.  “Just to apologize, the wording on our response back [to you] was confusing,” he told me.  “We were speaking about waivers that had been done as in the past — related to capacity building and assistance for the SPLA.  This partial waiver was done with a more narrow intent.”

In fact, the way that waiver was issued did not sit well with some.  “We were disappointed that a partial waiver was put in place last year again without a clear and public statement by the [U.S. government] that this was purely to allow certain activities (support to IGAD monitors and anti-LRA activities) and that the government would not be receiving any significant military support until the abuses, including use and recruitment of child soldiers, are properly addressed,” HRW’s Skye Wheeler told me.  She was referring to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s Monitoring and Verification Mechanism for South Sudan, set up in January 2014 to support mediation of the current civil war. 

The State Department acknowledged the absence of such a declaration, but emphasized that the United States had expressed its “concern” about the issue to Kiir’s government.  Asked about South Sudan’s response to those concerns, Burnett foggily replied that there were “differences of opinion about the extent to which [recruitment of children by the SPLA] is happening; arguments that when it’s happening it’s done by the opposition or other armed groups that are outside of [SPLA] control.”  In other words, after years of copious aid, effort, and waivers, the U.S. can’t even get the government of South Sudan to acknowledge its wrongdoing when it comes to recruiting child fighters, let alone halt it.

Toy Guns, Real Guns, and National Interests

The war in South Sudan has been a nightmare for children.  UNICEFestimates that 600,000 have been affected by psychological distress, 235,000 are at risk of severe acute malnutrition this year, and 680 have been killed.  “Mothers are burying their children… the level of slaughter, of innocent victims, innocent civilians, is simply unacceptable by any standard whatsoever,” Secretary of State John Kerry recently told South Sudan’s Eye Radio in scolding remarks.  The leaders of South Sudan’s warring parties “Salva Kiir, the president, and Riek Machar… need to come to their senses,” he said. “They need to sign an agreement that’s real and they need to stop allowing the people to be the victims of their power struggle.”  On one thing Kerry was adamant: “We need to have accountability as this goes forward.”

But what about U.S. accountability? Does the United States, after years of waivers, bear a responsibility for helping to entrench South Sudan’s practice of using child soldiers?  “In and of itself, it could be perceived as sanctioning the practice, but in the day-to-day reality of engaging, we were a strong advocate for moving beyond the practices that had been historically taking place and removing any child soldiers within the SPLA,” says Andy Burnett.  “I’m not saying we deserve full credit,” he told me, even as he argued that the president’s waivers had led to real progress.  

Whatever progress might have been made before the civil war, as he readily admitted, was soon obliterated.  So was the U.S. training effort in South Sudan a failure?  After a wall of words about the difficulties involved in “creating an accountable and professional armed force” in the available time, Burnett took some responsibility, even if he carefully extended the blame to cover America’s partners in the effort.  “Yes, that the international effort to reform the SPLA was not successful in preventing something like this [the split of the SPLA in the war] is quite obvious,” he told me.  This admission, however, does little for the children toting arms now and those who will do so in the years ahead as part of what Burnett calls “a widening problem of child-soldiering,” due to “even more incidences of recruitment of children by armed groups within this conflict.”

Click here to see a larger version

Young children with toy guns, Tomping Protection of Civilians Site, Juba, South Sudan, July 2014.

Walking through a camp for internally displaced persons at a U.N. base in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, one blazing hot day last summer, I watched a young girl in a bright pink dress and sporting a huge smile, and a somewhat younger boy in pink shorts and gray sandals chase each other through the muck.  Each of them was holding a tiny, black plastic pistol and pretending to shoot the other, just the type of game I reveled in as a boy. 

As they raced around me, splattering mud and laughing, however, I began to wonder if one day just a few years down the road, she might be pressed into cooking or carrying water for soldiers and he might find himself with a real weapon thrust into his hands.  It’s a sad fact that, not so many years from now, I might well encounter that young boy — his toy pistol exchanged for a real assault rifle — on some out-of-the-way tarmac in the hinterlands of South Sudan.  Should that day ever come, I imagine I’ll feel just as unnerved as I did that morning in Malakal when a boy soldier turned his weapon in my direction.  I’ll then find little comfort in President Obama’s contention that looking the other way on child soldiers is in “the national interest of the United States.”  And I’m sure I’ll be just as disturbed that those “interests” — cited by a president who has his own kids — so easily trumped the interests of that boy in Malakal and the rest of South Sudan’s children.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africahas just been published.  Reporting for this article was made possible by the generous support of Lannan Foundation and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse 

The Kids Aren’t All Right

Six people lay lifeless in the filthy brown water.

It was 5:09 a.m. when their Toyota Land Cruiser plunged off a bridge in the West African country of Mali.  For about two seconds, the SUV sailed through the air, pirouetting 180 degrees as it plunged 70 feet, crashing into the Niger River.

Three of the dead were American commandos.  The driver, a captain nicknamed “Whiskey Dan,” was the leader of a shadowy team of operatives never profiled in the media and rarely mentioned even in government publications.  One of the passengers was from an even more secretive unit whose work is often integral to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which conducts clandestine kill-and-capture missions overseas.  Three of the others weren’t military personnel at all or even Americans.  They were Moroccan women alternately described as barmaids or "prostitutes."     

The six deaths followed an April 2012 all-night bar crawl through Mali’s capital, Bamako, according to a formerly classified report by U.S. Army criminal investigators. From dinner and drinks at a restaurant called Blah-Blah’s to more drinks at La Terrasse to yet more at Club XS and nightcaps at Club Plaza, it was a rollicking swim through free-flowing vodka. And vodka and Red Bull. And vodka and orange juice. And vanilla pomegranate vodka. And Chivas Regal.  And Jack Daniels.  And Corona beer. And Castel beer. And don’t forget B-52s, a drink generally made with Kahlúa, Grand Marnier, and Bailey’s Irish Cream. The bar tab at Club Plaza alone was the equivalent of $350 in U.S. dollars.

At about 5 a.m. on April 20th, the six piled into that Land Cruiser, with Captain Dan Utley behind the wheel, to head for another hotspot: Bamako By Night. About eight minutes later, Utley called a woman on his cell phone to ask if she was angry. He said he'd circle back and pick her up, but she told him not to bother. Utley then handed the phone to Maria Laol, one of the Moroccan women. “Don’t be upset.  We’ll come back and get you,” she said. The woman on the other end of the call then heard screaming before the line went dead.

A Command With Something to Hide

In the years since, U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM, which is responsible for military operations on that continent, has remained remarkably silent about this shadowy incident in a country that had recently seen its democratically elected president deposed in a coup led by an American-trained officer, a country with which the U.S. had suspended military relations a month earlier. It was, to say the least, strange. But it wasn’t the first time U.S. military personnel died under murky circumstances in Africa, nor the first (or last) time the specter of untoward behavior led to a criminal investigation. In fact, as American military operations have ramped up across Africa, reaching a record 674 missions in 2014, reports of excessive drinking, sex with prostitutes, drug use, sexual assaults, and other forms of violence by AFRICOM personnel have escalated, even though many of them have been kept under wraps for weeks or months, sometimes even for years. 

“Our military is built on a reputation of enduring core values that are at the heart of our character,” Major (then Brigadier) General Wayne Grigsby Jr., the former chief of AFRICOM’s subordinate command, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), wrote in an address to troops last year.  “Part of belonging to this elite team is living by our core values and professionalism every day. Incorporating those values into everything we do is called our profession of arms.” 

But legal documents, Pentagon reports, and criminal investigation files, many of them obtained by TomDispatch through dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and never before revealed, demonstrate that AFRICOM personnel have all too regularly behaved in ways at odds with those “core values.”  The squeaky clean image the command projects through news releases, official testimony before Congress, and mainstream media articles — often by cherry-picked journalists who are granted access to otherwise unavailable personnel and locales — doesn’t hold up to inspection.

“As a citizen and soldier, I appreciate how important it is to have an informed public that helps to provide accountable governance and is also important in the preservation of the trust between a military and a society and nation it serves,” AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez said at a press conference last year.  Checking out these revelations of misdeeds with AFRICOM’S media office to determine just how representative they are, however, has proven impossible. 

I made several hundred attempts to contact the command for comment and clarification while this article was being researched and written, but was consistently rebuffed.  Dozens of phone calls to public affairs personnel went unanswered and scores of email requests were ignored.  At one point, I called AFRICOM media chief Benjamin Benson 32 times on a single business day from a phone that identified me by name.  It rang and rang.  He never picked up.  I then placed a call from a different number so my identity would not be apparent.  He answered on the second ring.  After I identified myself, he claimed the connection was bad and the line went dead.  Follow-up calls from the second number followed the same pattern — a behavior repeated day after day for weeks on end. 

This strategy, of course, mirrored the command’s consistent efforts to keep embarrassing incidents quiet, concealing many of them and acknowledging others only with the sparest of reports.  The command, for example, issued a five-sentence press release regarding those deaths in Bamako.  They provided neither the names of the Americans nor the identities of the “three civilians” who perished with them.  They failed to mention that the men were with the Special Operations forces, noting only that the deceased were “U.S. military members.”  For months after the crash, the Pentagon kept secret the name of Master Sergeant Trevor Bast, a communications technician with the Intelligence and Security Command (whose personnel often work closely with JSOC) — until the information was pried out by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock. 

“It must be noted that the activities of U.S. military forces in Mali have been very public,” Colonel Tom Davis of AFRICOM told TomDispatch in the wake of the deaths, without explaining why the commandos were still in the country a month after the United States had suspended military relations with Mali’s government.  In the years since, the command has released no additional information about the episode. 

True to form, AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson failed to respond to requests for comment and clarification, but according to the final report on the incident by Army criminal investigators (obtained by TomDispatch through a FOIA request), the deaths of Utley, Bast, Sergeant First Class Marciano Myrthil, and the three women “were accidental, however [Captain] Utley’s actions were negligent resulting in the passengers' deaths.”  A final review by a staff judge advocate from Special Operations Command Africa found that there was probable cause to conclude Utley was guilty of negligent homicide.

AFRICOM’s Sex Crimes

The criminal investigation of the incident in Mali touched upon relationships between U.S. military personnel and African “females.”  Indeed, the U.S. military has many regulations regarding romantic attachments and sexual activity.  AFRICOM personnel have not always adhered to such strictures and, in the course of my reporting, I asked Benson if the command has had a problem with sexual misconduct.  He never responded.  

In recent years, allegations of widespread sex crimes have dogged the U.S. military.  A Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 members of the armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012, though just one in 10 of those victims reported the assaults.  In 2013, the number of personnel reporting such incidents jumped by 50% to 5,518 and last year reached nearly 6,000.  Given the gross underreporting of sexual assaults, it’s impossible to know how many of these crimes involved AFRICOM personnel, but documents examined by TomDispatch suggests a problem does indeed exist.

In August 2011, for example, a Marine with Joint Enabling Capabilities Command assigned to AFRICOM was staying at a hotel in Germany, the site of the command’s headquarters.  He began making random room-to-room calls that were eventually traced.  According to court martial documents examined by TomDispatch, the recipient of one of them said the “subject matter of the phone call essentially dealt with a solicitation for a sexual tryst.” 

About a week after he began making the calls, the Marine, who had previously been a consultant for the CIA, began chatting up a boy in the hotel lounge.  After learning that the youngster was 14 years old, “the conversation turned to oral sex with men and the appellant asked [the teen] if he had ever been interested in oral sex with men.  He also told [the teen] that if the appellant or any of his male friends were aroused, they would have oral sex with one another,” according to legal documents.  The boy attempted to change the subject, but the Marine moved closer to him, began “rubbing his [own] crotch area through his shorts,” and continued to talk to him “in graphic detail about sexual matters and techniques” before the youngster left the lounge.  The Marine was later court-martialed for his actions and convicted of making a false official statement, as well as "engaging in indecent liberty with a child" — that is, engaging in an act meant to arouse or gratify sexual desire while in a child’s presence.

That same year, according to a Pentagon report, a noncommissioned officer committed a sexual assault on a female subordinate at an unnamed U.S. base in Djibouti (presumably Camp Lemonnier, the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa).  “Subject grabbed victim's head and forced her to continue having sexual intercourse with him,” the report says.  He received a nonjudicial punishment including a reduction in rank, a fine of half-pay for two months, 45 days of restriction, and 45 days of extra duty.  The latter two punishments were later suspended and the perpetrator was, at the time the report was prepared, “being processed for administrative separation.” 

At an “unknown location” in Djibouti in 2011, an enlisted woman reported being raped by a fellow service member “while on watch.”  According to a synopsis prepared by the Department of Defense, that man “was not charged with any criminal violations in reference to the rape allegation against him. Victim pled guilty to failure to obey a lawful order and false official statement.” 

In a third case in Djibouti, an enlisted woman reported opening the door to her quarters only to be attacked.  An unknown assailant “placed his left hand over her mouth and placed his right hand under her shirt and began to slide it up the side of her body.”  All leads were later deemed exhausted and no suspect was identified.  According to Air Force documents obtained by TomDispatch, allegations also surfaced concerning an assault with intent to commit rape in Morocco, a forcible sodomy in Ethiopia, and possession of child pornography in Djibouti, all in 2012.

On July 22nd of that year, a group of Americans traveled to a private party in Djibouti attended by U.S. Ambassador Geeta Pasi and Major General Ralph Baker, the commander of a counterterrorism force in the Horn of Africa.  Baker drank heavily, according to an AFRICOM senior policy adviser who sat with him in the backseat of a sport utility vehicle on the return trip to Camp Lemonnier.  While two military personnel, one of them an agent of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), sat just a few feet away, Baker “forced his hand between [the adviser’s] legs and attempted to touch her vagina against her will,” according to a classified criminal investigation file obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

“I grabbed his hand and held it on the seat to try to prevent him from putting his hand deeper between my legs,” she told an investigator. “He responded by smiling at me and saying, ‘Cat got your tongue?’ I was appalled about what he was doing to me and did not know what to say.”  She later reported the offense via the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Hotline.  According to a report in the Washington Post, “Baker was given an administrative punishment at the time of the incident as well as a letter of reprimand — usually a career-ending punishment.”  Demoted in rank to brigadier general, he was allowed to quietly retire in September 2013.

A Pentagon report on sexual assault lists allegations of three incidents in Djibouti in 2013 — one act of “abusive sexual contact” and two reports of “wrongful sexual contact.”  The report also details a case in which a member of the U.S. military reported that she and a group of friends had been out eating and drinking at a local establishment.  Upon returning to her quarters at the base, one of her male companions asked to enter her room and she gave him permission.  He then began to kiss her neck and shoulders.  When she resisted, according to the report, “he grabbed her shorts and began to kiss and lick her vagina.”  That man was later charged with rape, abusive sexual contact, and wrongful sexual contact.  He was tried and acquitted.

The Pentagon has yet to issue its 2014 report on sexual assaults and AFRICOM has failed to release any statistics on its own, but given that military personnel fail to report most sexual crimes, whatever numbers may emerge will undoubtedly be drastic undercounts.

Sex, Drugs, and Guns

On the morning of April 10, 2010, a Navy investigator walked through the door of room 3092 at the Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort in Mombasa, Kenya.  Two empty wine bottles sat in the trash can.  Another was on the floor.  There were remnants of feminine hygiene products on the bathroom countertop, Axe body spray in an armoire, unopened condoms on a table, and inside a desk drawer, a tan powder that he took to be “an illicit narcotic,” all of this according to an official report by that NCIS agent obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act.    

Three days before, on April 7th, Sergeant Roberto Diaz-Boria of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard had been staying in this room.  On leave from Manda Bay, Kenya — home of Camp Simba, a hush-hush military outpost in Africa — he had come to Mombasa to kick back.  That night, along with a brother-in-arms, he ended up at Causerina, a nearby bar that locals said was a hotspot for drugs and prostitution.  Diaz-Boria left Causerina with a “female companion,” according to official documents, paid the requisite fee for such guests at the hotel, and took her to his room.  By morning, he was dead.  

A news story released soon after by Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa stated that Diaz-Boria had died while “stationed” in Mombasa.  The cause of death, the article noted, was “under investigation.”  CJTF-HOA failed to respond to a request for additional information about the case, but an Army investigation later determined that the sergeant “accidentally died of multiple drug toxicity after drinking alcohol and using cocaine and heroin.”  Where he obtained the drugs was never determined, but according to the summary of an interview with an NCIS agent, a close friend in his infantry unit did say that there were “rumors within the battalion about the easy access to very potent illegal narcotics in Manda Bay, Kenya.”    

Kenya is hardly an anomaly.  Criminal inquiries regarding illicit drug use also took place in Ethiopia in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2013, while another investigation into distribution was conducted in Cameroon that same year, according to Air Force records obtained by TomDispatch.  AFRICOM did not respond to questions concerning any of these investigations.

In late 2012, when I asked what U.S. personnel were up to in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, AFRICOM spokesman Eric Elliott replied that troops were “supporting humanitarian activities in the area.”  Indeed, official documents and other sources indicate U.S. personnel have been carrying out aid activities in the region for years.  But that wasn't all they were doing. 

The Lonely Planet guide says that the Samrat Hotel provides the best digs in town, with a “classy lobby” and “a good nightclub and restaurant.”  The one drawback: “stiff mattresses.”  That apparently didn’t affect the activities of at least nine of 19 U.S. military personnel from the 775th Engineer Detachment of the Tennessee Army National Guard.  After an unidentified “local national female” was seen emerging from a “secured communications room” in the hotel, a preliminary investigation was launched and found “military members of the unit allegedly routinely solicited prostitutes in the lobby of the hotel and later brought the prostitutes back to their assigned rooms or to the secured communications room,” according to documents obtained via FOIA request.  A later report by Army agents determined that personnel from the 775th Engineer Detachment and the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion “individually engaged in sexual acts in exchange for money” at the hotel between July 1 and July 22, 2013.  In the room of a staff sergeant, investigators also found what appeared to be khat, a popular local narcotic that offers a hyperactive high marked by aggressiveness that ultimately leaves the user in a glassy-eyed daze.

A sworn statement by a medic who served in Dire Dawa that month — obtained by TomDispatch in a separate FOIA request — paints a picture of a debauched atmosphere of partying, local “girlfriends,” and a variety of sex acts.  “Originally, before we departed to Ethiopia, I grabbed around 70 condoms.  However, I was told that was not going to be enough,” said the medic, noting that it was his job to carry medical supplies.  Instead, he brought 200. He confessed to obtaining a prostitute through the bartender at the Samrat Hotel and admitted to engaging in sex acts with another woman who, he said, later revealed herself to be a prostitute.  He paid her the equivalent of $60.  Another service member showed him pictures of a “local national in his bed in his hotel room,” the medic told the NCIS agent.  He continued: 

“I know this girl is a prostitute because I pulled her from the club previously.  The name of the club was ‘The Pom-Pom’… I had hooked up with this girl before [redacted name] so when he showed me the photo I recognized the girl.  [Redacted name] stated how she had a nice booty and was good in bed… I want to say that [redacted name] told me he paid about 1,000 Birr (roughly $30 US dollars), but I can’t recall exactly.”

Army investigation documents obtained by TomDispatch also indicate similar extracurricular activities by members of the 607th Air Control Squadron and the 422nd Communications Squadron in neighboring Djibouti.  An inquiry by Army criminal investigators determined that there was probable cause to believe three noncommissioned officers “committed the offense of patronizing a prostitute” at an “off-base residence” in June 2013.

AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on or to provide further information about members of the command engaging in illicit sex.  It was similarly nonresponsive when it came to criminal inquests into allegations of arson in South Africa, larceny in Burkina Faso, graft in Algeria, and drunk and disorderly conduct in Nigeria, among other alleged crimes.  The command has kept quiet about violent incidents as well.

On April 19, 2013, for instance, something went terribly wrong in Manda Bay, Kenya.  A specialist with the Kentucky Army National Guard, deployed at Camp Simba and reportedly upset by a posting he saw on Facebook, got drunk on bourbon whiskey — more than a fifth of Jim Beam, according to witnesses — stole a 9mm pistol, and shot a superior officer.  He would also point the pistol at a staff sergeant and a master sergeant and then barricade himself in his barracks room.  A member of the Army’s Special Forces serving at the base told an NCIS agent what he saw when the soldier emerged from his quarters:

"He had a gun in his hand and he was waving it around with the barrel level.  He was saying something to the effect of ‘Fuck you!’ or something like that.  I heard the [redacted] say something like ‘put the gun down!’ a couple of times and then the [redacted] shot at the subject 2-3 times with his handgun."

The drunken soldier was hit once in the leg and later surrendered.  An investigation determined that the specialist had probably committed a host of offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including wrongful appropriation of government property, failure to obey an order, and aggravated assault, although a charge of attempted murder was deemed “unfounded.” The incident, detailed in previously classified documents, was never made public.

General Malfeasance

AFRICOM has certainly had its troubles, starting at the top, since it began overseeing the U.S. military pivot to Africa.  Its first chief, General William “Kip” Ward, who led the fledgling command from 2007 until 2011, was demoted after a 2012 investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office found he had committed a raft of misdeeds, such as using taxpayer-funded military aircraft for personal travel and spending lavishly on hotels.

During an 11-day trip to Washington, for example, he billed the government $129,000 in expenses for his wife, 13 employees, and himself, but conducted official business on just two of those days.  According to the Inspector General’s report, Ward also had AFRICOM personnel ferry his wife around and run errands for the two of them, including shopping for “candy and baby items, picking up flowers and books, delivering snacks, and acquiring tickets to sporting events.”  He even accepted “complimentary meals and Broadway show tickets” from a “prohibited source with multiple [Department of Defense] contracts.”  

Ward was ordered to repay the government $82,000 and busted down from four stars to three, which will cost him about $30,000 yearly in retirement pay.  He’ll now only receive $208,802 annually.  An AFRICOM webpage devoted to the highlights of Ward’s career mentions nothing of his transgressions, demotion, or punishment.  The only clue to all of this is his official photo.  In it, he’s sporting four stars while his bio states that “Ward retired at the rank of Lieutenant General in November 2012.”

Ward’s wasteful ways became major news, but the story of his malfeasance has been the exception.  For every SUV that plunged off a bridge or general who was busted down for misbehavior, how many other AFRICOM sexual assaults, shootings, and prostitution scandals remain unknown? 

For years, as U.S. military personnel moved into Africa in ever-increasing numbers, AFRICOM has effectively downplayed, disguised, or covered-up almost every aspect of its operations, from the locations of its troop deployments to those of its expanding string of outposts.  Not surprisingly, it’s done the same when it comes to misdeeds by members of the command and continues to ignore questions surrounding crimes and alleged misconduct by its personnel, refusing even to answer emails or phone calls about them.  With taxpayer money covering the salaries of lawbreakers and the men and women who investigate them, with America’s sons dying after drink and drug binges and its daughters assaulted and sexually abused while deployed, the American people deserve answers when it comes to the conduct of U.S. forces in Africa.  Personally, I remain eager to hear AFRICOM’s side of the story, should Benjamin Benson ever be in the mood to return my calls.     

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, has just been published.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

Sex, Drugs, and Dead Soldiers

For three days, wearing a kaleidoscope of camouflage patterns, they huddled together on a military base in Florida. They came from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and U.S. Army Special Operations Command, from France and Norway, from Denmark, Germany, and Canada: 13 nations in all. They came to plan a years-long “Special Operations-centric” military campaign supported by conventional forces, a multinational undertaking that — if carried out — might cost hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of dollars and who knows how many lives.

From January 13th to 15th, representatives from the U.S. and 12 partner nations gathered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for an exercise dubbed Silent Quest 15-1. The fictional scenario on which they were to play out their war game had a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to it.  It was an amalgam of two perfectly real and ongoing foreign policy and counterterrorism disasters of the post-9/11 era: the growth of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the emergence of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL.  The war game centered on the imagined rise of a group dubbed the “Islamic State of Africa” and the spread of its proto-caliphate over parts of Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon — countries terrorized by the real Boko Haram, which did recently pledge its allegiance to the Islamic State.

In recent years, the U.S. has been involved in a variety of multinational interventions in Africa, including one in Libya that involved both a secret war and a conventional campaign of missiles and air strikes, assistance to French forces in the Central African Republic and Mali, and the training and funding of African proxies to do battle against militant groups like Boko Haram as well as Somalia’s al-Shabab and Mali’s Ansar al-Dine.  In 2014, the U.S. carried out 674 military activities across Africa, nearly two missions per day, an almost 300% jump in the number of annual operations, exercises, and military-to-military training activities since U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was established in 2008. 

Despite this massive increase in missions and a similar swelling of bases, personnel, and funding, the picture painted last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee by AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez was startlingly bleak.  For all the American efforts across Africa, Rodriguez offered a vision of a continent in crisis, imperiled from East to West by militant groups that have developed, grown in strength, or increased their deadly reach in the face of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.  

“Transregional terrorists and criminal networks continue to adapt and expand aggressively,” Rodriguez told committee members. “Al-Shabab has broadened its operations to conduct, or attempt to conduct, asymmetric attacks against Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and especially Kenya.  Libya-based threats are growing rapidly, including an expanding ISIL presence… Boko Haram threatens the ability of the Nigerian government to provide security and basic services in large portions of the northeast.”  Despite the grim outcomes since the American military began “pivoting” to Africa after 9/11, the U.S. recently signed an agreement designed to keep its troops based on the continent until almost midcentury.

Mission Creep   

For years, the U.S. military has publicly insisted that its efforts in Africa are negligible, intentionally leaving the American people, not to mention most Africans, in the dark about the true size, scale, and scope of its operations there.   AFRICOM public affairs personnel and commanders have repeatedly claimed no more than a “light footprint” on the continent.  They shrink from talk of camps and outposts, claiming to have just one base anywhere in Africa: Camp Lemonnier in the tiny nation of Djibouti.  They don’t like to talk about military operations.  They offer detailed information about only a tiny fraction of their training exercises.  They refuse to disclose the locations where personnel have been stationed or even counts of the countries involved.

During an interview, an AFRICOM spokesman once expressed his worry to me that even tabulating how many deployments the command has in Africa would offer a “skewed image” of U.S. efforts.  Behind closed doors, however, AFRICOM’s officers speak quite a different language.  They have repeatedly asserted that the continent is an American “battlefield” and that — make no bones about it — they are already embroiled in an actual “war.”

According to recently released figures from U.S. Africa Command, the scope of that “war” grew dramatically in 2014.  In its “posture statement,” AFRICOM reports that it conducted 68 operations last year, up from 55 the year before.  These included operations Juniper Micron and Echo Casemate, missions focused on aiding French and African interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic; Observant Compass, an effort to degrade or destroy what’s left of Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa; and United Assistance, the deployment of military personnel to combat the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The number of major joint field exercises U.S. personnel engaged in with African military partners inched up from 10 in 2013 to 11 last year. These included African Lion in Morocco, Western Accord in Senegal, Central Accord in Cameroon, and Southern Accord in Malawi, all of which had a field training component and served as capstone events for the prior year’s military-to-military instruction missions. 

AFRICOM also conducted maritime security exercises including Obangame Express in the Gulf of Guinea, Saharan Express in the waters off Senegal, and three weeks of maritime security training scenarios as part of Phoenix Express 2014, with sailors from numerous countries including Algeria, Italy, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey.

The number of security cooperation activities skyrocketed from 481 in 2013 to 595 last year.  Such efforts included military training under a “state partnership program” that teams African military forces with U.S. National Guard units and the State Department-funded Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance, or ACOTA, program through which U.S. military advisers and mentors provide equipment and instruction to African troops.

In 2013, the combined total of all U.S. activities on the continent reached 546, an average of more than one mission per day.  Last year, that number leapt to 674.  In other words, U.S. troops were carrying out almost two operations, exercises, or activities — from drone strikes to counterinsurgency instruction, intelligence gathering to marksmanship training — somewhere in Africa every day.  This represents an enormous increase from the 172 “missions, activities, programs, and exercises” that AFRICOM inherited from other geographic commands when it began operations in 2008. 

Transnational Terror Groups: Something From Nothing

In 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute examined the “African security environment.”  While it touched on “internal separatist or rebel movements” in “weak states,” as well as non-state actors like militias and “warlord armies,” there was conspicuously no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats.  Prior to 2001, in fact, the United States did not recognize any terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa and a senior Pentagon official noted that the most feared Islamic militants on the continent had “not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” 

In the wake of 9/11, even before AFRICOM was created, the U.S. began ramping up operations across the continent in an effort to bolster the counterterror capabilities of allies and insulate Africa from transnational terror groups, namely globe-trotting Islamic extremists.  The continent, in other words, was seen as something of a clean slate for experiments in terror prevention.  

Billions of dollars have been pumped into Africa to build bases, arm allies, gather intelligence, fight proxy wars, assassinate militants, and conduct perhaps thousands of military missions — and none of it has had its intended effect.  Last year, for example, Somali militants “either planned or executed increasingly complex and lethal attacks in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, and Ethiopia,” according to AFRICOM.  Earlier this month, those same al-Shabab militants upped the ante by slaughtering 142 students at a college in Kenya. 

And al-Shabab’s deadly growth and spread has hardly been the exception to the rule in Africa. In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, AFRICOM commander Rodriguez rattled off the names of numerous Islamic terror groups that have sprung up in the intervening years, destabilizing the very countries the U.S. had sought to strengthen.  While the posture statement he presented put the best gloss possible on Washington’s military efforts in Africa, even a cursory reading of it — and under the circumstances, it’s worth quoting at length — paints a bleak picture of what that “pivot” to Africa has actually meant on the ground. Sections pulled from various parts of the document speak volumes:

“The network of al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents continues to exploit Africa’s under-governed regions and porous borders to train and conduct attacks. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is expanding its presence in North Africa. Terrorists with allegiances to multiple groups are expanding their collaboration in recruitment, financing, training, and operations, both within Africa and trans-regionally. Violent extremist organizations are utilizing increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices, and casualties from these weapons in Africa increased by approximately 40 percent in 2014…

“In North and West Africa, Libyan and Nigerian insecurity increasingly threaten U.S. interests. In spite of multinational security efforts, terrorist and criminal networks are gaining strength and interoperability. Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other violent extremist organizations are exploiting weak governance, corrupt leadership, and porous borders across the Sahel and Maghreb to train and move fighters and distribute resources…

“Libya-based threats to U.S. interests are growing… Libyan governance, security, and economic stability deteriorated significantly in the past year… Today, armed groups control large areas of territory in Libya and operate with impunity. Libya appears to be emerging as a safe haven where terrorists, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-affiliated groups, can train and rebuild with impunity. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is increasingly active in Libya, including in Derna, Benghazi, Tripoli, and Sebha…

“The spillover effects of instability in Libya and northern Mali increase risks to U.S. interests in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, including the success of Tunisia’s democratic transition…

“The security situation in Nigeria also declined in the past year. Boko Haram threatens the functioning of a government that is challenged to maintain its people’s trust and to provide security and other basic services… Boko Haram has launched attacks across Nigeria’s borders into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger…

“…both the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo are at risk of further destabilization by insurgent groups, and simmering ethnic tensions in the Great Lakes region have the potential to boil over violently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

All this, mind you, is AFRICOM’s own assessment of the situation on the continent on which it has focused its efforts for the better part of a decade as U.S. missions there soared.  In this context, it’s worth reemphasizing that, before the U.S. ramped up those efforts, Africa was — by Washington’s own estimation — relatively free of transnational Islamic terror groups.

Tipping the Scales in Africa

Despite Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State and scare headlines lamenting their merger or conflating those or other brutal terror outfits operating under similar monikers, there is currently no real Islamic State of Africa.  But the war game carried out at MacDill Air Force Base in January against that fictional group is far from fantasy, representing as it does the next logical step in a series of operations that have been gaining steam since AFRICOM’s birth. And buried in the command’s 2015 Posture Statement is actual news that signals a continuation of this trajectory into the 2040s.

In May 2014, the U.S. reached an agreement — it’s called an “implementing arrangement” — with the government of Djibouti “that secures [its] presence” in that country “through 2044.”  In addition, AFRICOM officers are now talking about the possibility of building a string of surveillance outposts along the northern tier of the continent.  And don’t forget how, over the past few years, U.S. staging areas, mini-bases, and airfields have popped up in the contiguous nations of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and —  skipping Chad (where AFRICOM recently built temporary facilities for a special ops exercise) — the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia.  All of this suggests that the U.S. military is digging in for the long haul in Africa. 

Silent Quest 15-1 was designed as a model to demonstrate just how Washington will conduct “Special Operations-centric” coalition warfare in Africa.  It was, in fact, designed to align, wrote Gunnery Sergeant Reina Barnett in SOCOM’s trade publication Tip of the Spear, with the “2020 planning guidance of Army Maj. Gen. James Linder, commander of Special Operations Command Africa.” And the agreement with Djibouti demonstrates that the U.S. military is now beginning to plan for almost a quarter-century beyond that.  But, if the last six years — marked by a 300% increase in U.S. missions as well as the spread of terror groups and terrorism in Africa — are any indicator, the results are likely to be anything but pleasing to Washington. 

AFRICOM commander David Rodriguez continues to put the best face on U.S. efforts in Africa, citing “progress in several areas through close cooperation with our allies and partners.”  His command’s assessment of the situation, however, is remarkably bleak.  “Where our national interests compel us to tip the scales and enhance collective security gains, we may have to do more — either by enabling our allies and partners, or acting unilaterally,” reads the posture statement Rodriguez delivered to that Senate committee. 

After more than a decade of increasing efforts, however, there’s little evidence that AFRICOM has the slightest idea how to tip the scales in its own favor in Africa.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa (Haymarket Books), will soon be published.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

2044 or Bust

In the dead of night, they swept in aboard V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.  Landing in a remote region of one of the most volatile countries on the planet, they raided a village and soon found themselves in a life-or-death firefight.  It was the second time in two weeks that elite U.S. Navy SEALs had attempted to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers.  And it was the second time they failed.

On December 6, 2014, approximately 36 of America’s top commandos, heavily armed, operating with intelligence from satellites, drones, and high-tech eavesdropping, outfitted with night vision goggles, and backed up by elite Yemeni troops, went toe-to-toe with about six militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  When it was over, Somers was dead, along with Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher due to be set free the next day.  Eight civilians were also killed by the commandos, according to local reports.  Most of the militants escaped.

That blood-soaked episode was, depending on your vantage point, an ignominious end to a year that saw U.S. Special Operations forces deployed at near record levels, or an inauspicious beginning to a new year already on track to reach similar heights, if not exceed them.

During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises.  And this year could be a record-breaker.  Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.

Despite its massive scale and scope, this secret global war across much of the planet is unknown to most Americans.  Unlike the December debacle in Yemen, the vast majority of special ops missions remain completely in the shadows, hidden from external oversight or press scrutiny.  In fact, aside from modest amounts of information disclosed through highly-selective coverage by military media, official White House leaks, SEALs with something to sell, and a few cherry-picked journalists reporting on cherry-picked opportunities, much of what America’s special operators do is never subjected to meaningful examination, which only increases the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.        

The Golden Age

“The command is at its absolute zenith.  And it is indeed a golden age for special operations.”  Those were the words of Army General Joseph Votel III, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger, as he assumed command of SOCOM last August. 

His rhetoric may have been high-flown, but it wasn’t hyperbole.  Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, including their numbers, their budget, their clout in Washington, and their place in the country’s popular imagination.  The command has, for example, more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today, including a jump of roughly 8,000 during the three-year tenure of recently retired SOCOM chief Admiral William McRaven.

Those numbers, impressive as they are, don’t give a full sense of the nature of the expansion and growing global reach of America’s most elite forces in these years.  For that, a rundown of the acronym-ridden structure of the ever-expanding Special Operations Command is in order.  The list may be mind-numbing, but there is no other way to fully grasp its scope.   

The lion’s share of SOCOM’s troops are Rangers, Green Berets, and other soldiers from the Army, followed by Air Force air commandos, SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen and support personnel from the Navy, as well as a smaller contingent of Marines.  But you only get a sense of the expansiveness of the command when you consider the full range of “sub-unified commands” that these special ops troops are divided among: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR, the European contingent; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which conducts missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East; SOCNORTH, which is devoted to “homeland defense”; and the globe-trotting Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC — a clandestine sub-command (formerly headed by McRaven and then Votel) made up of personnel from each service branch, including SEALs, Air Force special tactics airmen, and the Army’s Delta Force, that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists.

And don’t think that’s the end of it, either.  As a result of McRaven’s push to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners,” Special Operations liaison officers, or SOLOs, are now embedded in 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations.  Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019.  The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among others.

Shadow Ops

Special Operations Command’s global reach extends further still, with smaller, more agile elements operating in the shadows from bases in the United States to remote parts of Southeast Asia, from Middle Eastern outposts to austere African camps. Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM.  Take, for instance, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) which, at its peak, had roughly 600 U.S. personnel supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.  After more than a decade spent battling that group, its numbers have been diminished, but it continues to be active, while violence in the region remains virtually unaltered. 

A phase-out of the task force was actually announced in June 2014.  “JSOTF-P will deactivate and the named operation OEF-P [Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines] will conclude in Fiscal Year 2015,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee the next month.  “A smaller number of U.S. military personnel operating as part of a PACOM [U.S. Pacific Command] Augmentation Team will continue to improve the abilities of the PSF [Philippine Special Forces]to conduct their CT [counterterrorism] missions…”  Months later, however, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines remained up and running. “JSOTF-P is still active although the number of personnel assigned has been reduced,” Army spokesperson Kari McEwen told reporter Joseph Trevithick of War Is Boring.

Another unit, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Bragg, remained in the shadows for years before its first official mention by the Pentagon in early 2014.  Its role, according to SOCOM’s Bockholt, is to “train and equip U.S. service members preparing for deployment to Afghanistan to support Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.”  That latter force, in turn, spent more than a decade conducting covert or “black” ops “to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of” the Afghan government.  This meant night raids and kill/capture missions — often in concert with elite Afghan forces — that led to the deaths of unknown numbers of combatants and civilians.  In response to popular outrage against the raids, Afghan President Hamid Karzai largely banned them in 2013. 

U.S. Special Operations forces were to move into a support role in 2014, letting elite Afghan troops take charge.  “We’re trying to let them run the show,” Colonel Patrick Roberson of the Afghanistan task force told USA Today.  But according to LaDonna Davis, a spokesperson with the task force, America’s special operators were still leading missions last year.  The force refuses to say how many missions were led by Americans or even how many operations its commandos were involved in, though Afghan special operations forces reportedly carried out as many as 150 missions each month in 2014.  “I will not be able to discuss the specific number of operations that have taken place,” Major Loren Bymer of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan told TomDispatch. “However, Afghans currently lead 96% of special operations and we continue to train, advise, and assist our partners to ensure their success.”

And lest you think that that’s where the special forces organizational chart ends, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan has five Special Operations Advisory Groups “focused on mentoring and advising our ASSF [Afghan Special Security Force] partners,” according to Votel.  “In order to ensure our ASSF partners continue to take the fight to our enemies, U.S. SOF must be able to continue to do some advising at the tactical level post-2014 with select units in select locations,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Indeed, last November, Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani quietly lifted the night raid ban, opening the door once again to missions with U.S. advisors in 2015.

There will, however, be fewer U.S. special ops troops available for tactical missions.  According to then Rear-, now Vice-Admiral Sean Pybus, SOCOM’s Deputy Commander, about half the SEAL platoons deployed in Afghanistan were, by the end of last month, to be withdrawn and redeployed to support “the pivot in Asia, or work the Mediterranean, or the Gulf of Guinea, or into the Persian Gulf.”  Still, Colonel Christopher Riga, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, whose troops served with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan near Kandahar last year, vowed to soldier on.  “There’s a lot of fighting that is still going on in Afghanistan that is going to continue,” he said at an awards ceremony late last year.  “We’re still going to continue to kill the enemy, until we are told to leave.”

Add to those task forces the Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements, small teams which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.”  SOCOM declined to confirm the existence of SOC FWDs, even though there has been ample official evidence on the subject and so it would not provide a count of how many teams are currently deployed across the world.  But those that are known are clustered in favored black ops stomping grounds, including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon, as well as SOC FWD East Africa, SOC FWD Central Africa, and SOC FWD West Africa.

Africa has, in fact, become a prime locale for shadowy covert missions by America’s special operators.  “This particular unit has done impressive things. Whether it’s across Europe or Africa taking on a variety of contingencies, you are all contributing in a very significant way,” SOCOM’s commander, General Votel, told members of the 352nd Special Operations Group at their base in England last fall.

The Air Commandos are hardly alone in their exploits on that continent.  Over the last years, for example, SEALs carried out a successful hostage rescue mission in Somalia and a kidnap raid there that went awry.  In Libya, Delta Force commandos successfully captured an al-Qaeda militant in an early morning raid, while SEALs commandeered an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen.  Additionally, SEALs conducted a failed evacuation mission in South Sudan in which its members were wounded when the aircraft in which they were flying was hit by small arms fire.  Meanwhile, an elite quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU-10) has been engaged with “strategic countries” such as Uganda, Somalia, and Nigeria. 

A clandestine Special Ops training effort in Libya imploded when militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided its camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment, hundreds of weapons — including Glock pistols, and M4 rifles — as well as night vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment.  As a result, the mission was scuttled and the camp was abandoned.  It was then reportedly taken over by a militia. 

In February of last year, elite troops traveled to Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise that brought together the forces of the host nation, Canada, Chad, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Burkina Faso.  Several months later, an officer from Burkina Faso, who received counterterrorism training in the U.S. under the auspices of SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University in 2012, seized power in a coup.  Special Ops forces, however, remained undaunted.  Late last year, for example, under the auspices of SOC FWD West Africa, members of 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, partnered with elite Moroccan troops for training at a base outside of Marrakech. 

A World of Opportunities

Deployments to African nations have, however, been just a part of the rapid growth of the Special Operations Command’s overseas reach.  In the waning days of the Bush presidency, under then-SOCOM chief Admiral Eric Olson, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world.  By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post.  In 2011, SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120 by the end of the year.  With Admiral William McRaven in charge in 2013, then-Major Robert Bockholt told TomDispatch that the number had jumped to 134.  Under the command of McRaven and Votel in 2014, according to Bockholt, the total slipped ever-so-slightly to 133.  Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted, however, that under McRaven’s command — which lasted from August 2011 to August 2014 — special ops forces deployed to more than 150 different countries.  “In fact, SOCOM and the entire U.S. military are more engaged internationally than ever before — in more places and with a wider variety of missions,” he said in an August 2014 speech.

He wasn’t kidding.  Just over two months into fiscal 2015, the number of countries with Special Ops deployments has already clocked in at 105, according to Bockholt.

SOCOM refused to comment on the nature of its missions or the benefits of operating in so many nations.  The command would not even name a single country where U.S. special operations forces deployed in the last three years.  A glance at just some of the operations, exercises, and activities that have come to light, however, paints a picture of a globetrotting command in constant churn with alliances in every corner of the planet. 

In January and February, for example, members of the 7th Special Forces Group and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment conducted a month-long Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) with forces from Trinidad and Tobago, while troops from the 353rd Special Operations Group joined members of the Royal Thai Air Force for Exercise Teak Torch in Udon Thani, Thailand.  In February and March, Green Berets from the 20th Special Forces Group trained with elite troops in the Dominican Republic as part of a JCET.

In March, members of Marine Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Unit 1 took part in maneuvers aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens as part of Multi-Sail 2014, an annual exercise designed to support “security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”  That same month, elite soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines took part in a training exercise code-named Fused Response with members of the Belizean military.  “Exercises like this build rapport and bonds between U.S. forces and Belize,” said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Heber Toro of Special Operations Command South afterward.

In April, soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group joined with Honduran airborne troops for jump training — parachuting over that country’s Soto Cano Air Base.  Soldiers from that same unit, serving with the Afghanistan task force, also carried out shadowy ops in the southern part of that country in the spring of 2014.  In June, members of the 19th Special Forces Group carried out a JCET in Albania, while operators from Delta Force took part in the mission that secured the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.  That same month, Delta Force commandos helped kidnap Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected “ringleader” in the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, while Green Berets deployed to Iraq as advisors in the fight against the Islamic State.

In June and July, 26 members of the 522nd Special Operations Squadron carried out a 28,000-mile, four-week, five-continent mission which took them to Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Japan, among other nations, to escort three “single-engine [Air Force Special Operations Command] aircraft to a destination in the Pacific Area of Responsibility.”  In July, U.S. Special Operations forces traveled to Tolemaida, Colombia, to compete against elite troops from 16 other nations — in events like sniper stalking, shooting, and an obstacle course race — at the annual Fuerzas Comando competition.

In August, soldiers from the 20th Special Forces Group conducted a JCET with elite units from Suriname.  “We’ve made a lot of progress together in a month. If we ever have to operate together in the future, we know we’ve made partners and friends we can depend upon,” said a senior noncommissioned officer from that unit.  In Iraq that month, Green Berets conducted a reconnaissance mission on Mount Sinjar as part an effort to protect ethnic Yazidis from Islamic State militants, while Delta Force commandos raided an oil refinery in northern Syria in a bid to save American journalist James Foley and other hostages held by the same group.  That mission was a bust and Foley was brutally executed shortly thereafter.

In September, about 1,200 U.S. special operators and support personnel joined with elite troops from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Slovenia for Jackal Stone, a training exercise that focused on everything from close quarters combat and sniper tactics to small boat operations and hostage rescue missions.  In September and October, Rangers from the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment deployed to South Korea to practice small unit tactics like clearing trenches and knocking out bunkers.  During October, Air Force air commandos also conducted simulated hostage rescue missions at the Stanford Training Area near Thetford, England.  Meanwhile, in international waters south of Cyprus, Navy SEALs commandeered that tanker full of oil loaded at a rebel-held port in Libya.  In November, U.S. commandos conducted a raid in Yemen that freed eight foreign hostages.  The next month, SEALs carried out the blood-soaked mission that left two hostages, including Luke Somers, and eight civilians dead.  And these, of course, are only some of the missions that managed to make it into the news or in some other way onto the record.

Everywhere They Want to Be

To America’s black ops chiefs, the globe is as unstable as it is interconnected.  “I guarantee you what happens in Latin America affects what happens in West Africa, which affects what happens in Southern Europe, which affects what happens in Southwest Asia,” McRaven told last year’s Geolnt, an annual gathering of surveillance-industry executives and military personnel.  Their solution to interlocked instability?  More missions in more nations — in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries, in fact — during McRaven’s tenure.  And the stage appears set for yet more of the same in the years ahead.  “We want to be everywhere,” said Votel at Geolnt.  His forces are already well on their way in 2015.

“Our nation has very high expectations of SOF,” he told special operators in England last fall. “They look to us to do the very hard missions in very difficult conditions.”  The nature and whereabouts of most of those “hard missions,” however, remain unknown to Americans.  And Votel apparently isn’t interested in shedding light on them.  “Sorry, but no,” was SOCOM’s response to TomDispatch’s request for an interview with the special ops chief about current and future operations.  In fact, the command refused to make any personnel available for a discussion of what it’s doing in America’s name and with taxpayer dollars.  It’s not hard to guess why.

Votel now sits atop one of the major success stories of a post-9/11 military that has been mired in winless wars, intervention blowback, rampant criminal activity, repeated leaks of embarrassing secrets, and all manner of shocking scandals.  Through a deft combination of bravado and secrecy, well-placed leaks, adroit marketing and public relations efforts, the skillful cultivation of a superman mystique (with a dollop of tortured fragility on the side), and one extremely popular, high-profile, targeted killing, Special Operations forces have become the darlings of American popular culture, while the command has been a consistent winner in Washington’s bare-knuckled budget battles

This is particularly striking given what’s actually occurred in the field: in Africa, the arming and outfitting of militants and the training of a coup leader; in Iraq, America’s most elite forces were implicated in torture, the destruction of homes, and the killing and wounding of innocents;  in Afghanistan, it was a similar story, with repeated reports of civilian deaths; while in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia it’s been more of the same.  And this only scratches the surface of special ops miscues.  

In 2001, before U.S. black ops forces began their massive, multi-front clandestine war against terrorism, there were 33,000 members of Special Operations Command and about 1,800 members of the elite of the elite, the Joint Special Operations Command.  There were then also 23 terrorist groups — from Hamas to the Real Irish Republican Army — as recognized by the State Department, including al-Qaeda, whose membership was estimated at anywhere from 200 to 1,000.  That group was primarily based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although small cells had operated in numerous countries including Germany and the United States

After more than a decade of secret wars, massive surveillance, untold numbers of night raids, detentions, and assassinations, not to mention billions upon billions of dollars spent, the results speak for themselves.  SOCOM has more than doubled in size and the secretive JSOC may be almost as large as SOCOM was in 2001.  Since September of that year, 36 new terror groups have sprung up, including multiple al-Qaeda franchises, offshoots, and allies.  Today, these groups still operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan — there are now 11 recognized al-Qaeda affiliates in the latter nation, five in the former — as well as in Mali and Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, Nigeria and Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen, among other countries.  One offshoot was born of the American invasion of Iraq, was nurtured in a U.S. prison camp, and, now known as the Islamic State, controls a wide swath of that country and neighboring Syria, a proto-caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that was only the stuff of jihadi dreams back in 2001.  That group, alone, has an estimated strength of around 30,000 and managed to take over a huge swath of territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, despite being relentlessly targeted in its infancy by JSOC.

“We need to continue to synchronize the deployment of SOF throughout the globe,” says Votel.  “We all need to be synched up, coordinated, and prepared throughout the command.”  Left out of sync are the American people who have consistently been kept in the dark about what America’s special operators are doing and where they’re doing it, not to mention the checkered results of, and blowback from, what they’ve done.  But if history is any guide, the black ops blackout will help ensure that this continues to be a “golden age” for U.S. Special Operations Command.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award winner, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam received a 2014 American Book Award.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

The Golden Age of Black Ops

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

“The Gulf of Guinea is the most insecure waterway, globally,” says Loic Moudouma.  And he should know.  Trained at the U.S. Naval War College, the lead maritime security expert of the Economic Community of Central African States, and a Gabonese Navy commander, his focus has been piracy and maritime crime in the region for the better part of a decade.  

Moudouma is hardly alone in his assessment. 

From 2012 to 2013, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence found a 25% jump in incidents, including vessels being fired upon, boarded, and hijacked, in the Gulf of Guinea, a vast maritime zone that curves along the west coast of Africa from Gabon to Liberia.  Kidnappings are up, too.  Earlier this year, Stephen Starr, writing for the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, asserted that, in 2014, the number of attacks would rise again. 

Today, what most Americans know about piracy likely centers on an attraction at Walt Disney World and the Johnny Depp movies it inspired.  If the Gulf of Guinea rings any bells at all, it’s probably because of the Ebola outbreak in, and upcoming U.S. military “surge” into, Liberia, the nation on the northern edge of that body of water.  But for those in the know, the Gulf itself is an intractable hotspot on a vast continent filled with them and yet another area where U.S. military efforts have fallen short.

A recent investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “piracy and maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea has escalated” and that “armed robbery at sea, oil theft, and kidnapping is a persistent problem that continues to contribute to instability” there.  Not only that, but as Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce, recently noted, piracy in the Gulf has taken on a particularly violent character.

What Benjamin Benson, media chief for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), thinks isn’t quite so clear.  As the situation in the Gulf of Guinea was worsening, he touted it as an American “success” story, pure and simple.  Then he claimed that he hadn’t done so, after which he clammed up completely.  What he thinks today is anyone’s guess.  He now refuses to say a word about it.

Loic Moudouma, for his part, claims to see progress in bringing security to a body of water nearly the size of the Gulf of Mexico that is critical to the economies of a dozen nations.  He also credits the United States for its support of security efforts there, even if they have paradoxically occurred alongside an increase in both piracy and insecurity.  West African states, says Moudouma, have left waterways ungoverned, turning them into breeding grounds for criminal activity.  The problem, he insists, is the poor leadership of the African nations in the region, America’s “partners” on the frontlines of the fight.  Their lust for power, according to Moudouma, has put the national security of numerous African nations and the economic well-being of the region at risk, yet the Obama administration only recently feted the area’s most corrupt strongman and the U.S. military regularly partners with his armed forces.

The Sweet Smell of Success

“Do not put words in my mouth.  I did not say the Gulf of Guinea was a success.  I did not say Gulf of Guinea maritime security was a success.”  This was AFRICOM spokesman Benson’s response last Novemberwhen I asked if he wanted to amend his earlier assessment of the Gulf of Guinea shortly after pirates kidnapped two Americans from a U.S.-flagged ship there. 

I was taken aback. 

I remembered him touting the region as a triumph when we talked in the spring of 2013, so I went back to a recording of our conversation.  “I’m wondering what you think the big success stories are,” I had asked about AFRICOM’s work on the continent.  “There’s actually two success stories,” he replied, telling me first about American efforts in Somalia.  “Another area that’s definitely a success is the Gulf of Guinea,” he added.  “We’ve been working with a number of different states developing… maritime security capabilities.”

I listened to that passage several times.  It sure sounded like he was calling the Gulf of Guinea a success.

For almost a year since then, Benson has failed to amend, clarify, or defend his statement.  He has ignored repeated requests for further information, refusing even to issue a pro forma “no comment.”  He may still claim that he never uttered those words or he may still believe the Gulf has been an American success story, but even his boss, AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, said “maritime criminal activities in the Gulf of Guinea remain at concerning levels.” 

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Analysis of Office of Naval Intelligence data by the Government Accountability Office from “Ongoing U.S. Counter-piracy Efforts Would Benefit From Agency Assessments” (GAO 14-422).

America’s Battle Against Pirates

The United States has been fighting African pirates since the early days of the republic — battles so formative that, among other things, they established a long-standing pattern of dealing with foreign policy problems through armed interventions and also inspired the iconic phrase “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Corps hymn.  By the late 2000s, American ships were once again under attack off an African coastline and the U.S. military had again been dispatched to kill pirates.  This time around, the conflict centered on the Horn of Africa — not North Africa — specifically the waters off the coast of Somalia.  

In the 1990s, Somalia descended into a maelstrom of violence, which has abated somewhat in recent years but continues to plague that nation and has since spread beyond its borders.  In 1993, when American troops infamously arrived in its capital, Mogadishu, in support of a United Nations humanitarian mission, they suffered 18 killed and two helicopters shot out of the sky in the “Black Hawk Down” disaster.  Somalia was then repeatedly battered as Islamic militants struggled for control against U.S.-backed militias and various African armed forces.  During those years, neighboring nations began illegally fishing in Somali waters, prompting local fishermen to arm themselves and collect “taxes” from foreign vessels.  Some of these proto-pirates soon began hijacking relief food shipments, while others moved on to attacking merchant vessels and oil tankers.  By 2008, Somali swashbucklers were, by some estimates, raking in as much as $150 million annually.

That same year, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) developed a document it called “Countering Piracy off the Horn of Africa: Partnership and Action Plan.”  Its focus was the prevention and disruption of maritime crime off the coast of Somalia.  Despite this, the number of reported attacks in the region nearly doubled between 2008 and 2009, and the next year the GAO weighed in with recommendations for the NSC to “reassess and update its Action Plan; identify metrics; assess the costs, benefits, and effectiveness of U.S. counter-piracy activities; and clarify agency roles and responsibilities.”  For the next four years, however, the NSC failed to respond. 

In those years, the United Nations also passed numerous resolutions related to maritime crime in the Horn of Africa, authorizing international militaries to conduct counter-piracy efforts.  Naval patrols and other missions by NATO and the European Union as well as Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, South Korea, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, China, Russia, Japan, India, and the U.S. — in addition to the use of armed mercenaries to protect ships and a slew of new policies designed to thwart attacks — have had a demonstrable effect.  According to the International Maritime Bureau, piracy incidents in the Horn of Africa declined from 219 in 2010 to just 15 in 2013.

“At the peak point of operations, up to 30 vessels from as many as 22 nations were engaged in counter-piracy operations in the region,” Rear Admiral Joseph Kuzmick told Congress last year. “International naval forces have thwarted pirate attacks in progress, engaged pirate skiffs, and successfully taken back hijacked ships during opposed boardings.”  While a truly international effort, the battle against the Somali pirates ranks as one of the few true bright spots for the U.S. military in Africa.

Over these same years, the U.S. has also been pouring money and effort into maritime security activities on the other side of the continent with drastically different results. 

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GULF OF GUINEA (April 2, 2014) – U.S. Sailors, U.S. Coast Guardsmen, and Ghanaian maritime specialists, ride in a rigid-hull inflatable boat as part of a U.S.-Ghana combined maritime law enforcement operation under the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeff Atherton)

From 2007 to 2011, the U.S. provided $35 million to West and Central African countries for coastal radar, boats, equipment, and maritime security training.  These efforts included the African Partnership Station (APS) — a shipboard effort designed to “provide quality military training to sailors and leaders of [partner] nations.”  Under the auspices of the APS, the United States annually hosts four regional security exercises around the African continent: Cutlass Express, Phoenix Express, Saharan Express, and Obangame Express, the latter based in the waters off West Africa.  

By 2012, five years after it was launched, APS activities involved more than 30 African, European, and North and South American countries.  In last year’s iteration of Obangame Express, some 16 nations participated in exercises in the Gulf of Guinea, including Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gabon, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, Togo, and the United States.  This year, 20 nations were involved, including 11 which took part in boarding exercises conducted aboard 36 different vessels in the gulf.

AFRICOM and the U.S. Coast Guard also provide counter-piracy training as well as instruction in search and seizure skills through the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership program.  In addition, the U.S. has held seminars, symposiums, and conferences devoted to maritime security; it has donated spare parts and even entire ships to West African allies, provided hands-on maintenance instruction, advised personnel from regional navies and coast guards, and offered aid for maritime counter-narcotics and law-enforcement projects.

Despite all these efforts, maritime insecurity has been markedly on the rise in the waters off West Africa.  When I spoke last year with AFRICOM’s Benson about signs of U.S. “success” in the Gulf of Guinea, he cited U.S. efforts that culminated in a conference where West and Central African leaders would hammer out a comprehensive strategy to improve maritime security, with a formal code of conduct for states to follow.  At the time, however, the conference — organized by the Economic Community of Central African States, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Commission of the Gulf of Guinea — had yet to take place. 

How could that count as a success, I wondered, especially when signs of regional failure were all too evident?  According to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, incidents of piracy and maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea jumped more than 80% from 2010 to 2013.  Last year, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, an advocacy group focusing on maritime security issues, West African pirates attacked at least 1,871 “seafarers” and 279 were known to have been taken hostage.  Additionally, 1,209 vessels were boarded by pirates.  Experts now estimate that $2 billion is lost each year in port revenue, insurance premiums, and security costs due to maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea.

Getting Cozy With Africa’s Most Corrupt Strongman

It was at a conference hosted by the Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, held on the periphery of the White House’s U.S.-AfricaLeaders Summit in August, that Loic Moudouma spoke positively about U.S. assistance in the region while also asserting that the Gulf of Guinea was the most insecure and violent waterway in the entire world.  When I questioned him about this apparent paradox — asking why maritime insecurity has escalated during years of increased U.S. assistance — he pointed to the slow pace in implementing plans and the relentlessness of the region’s pirates.  He also put the blame squarely on America’s allies in Africa.  “The state is still absent from the sea,” he said, drawing attention to the inability of nations to police their territorial waters.  Moudouma also called out the region’s heads of state.  “Over the last decade, our political leaders have been investing in how to stay in power as long as possible,” he said.

Moudouma sees systemic problems at the ministerial and presidential levels in African governments and called for more action aimed at heads of state.  This type of pressure, however, didn’t seem to be on the table at that recent White House summit when President Obama hosted — and stood for a smiling portrait with — Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang. 

Since he first seized power in a coup 35 years ago (just before Obama began his freshman year in college), Obiang has ruled that tiny, oil-rich nation on the Gulf of Guinea with an iron fist.  A perennial pariah state, his country is noted for its utter lack of press freedom and political opposition, and a profusion of corruption, oppression, and human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and the imprisonment and torture of opposition figures.  While most of Equatorial Guinea lives on about $2 per day, the Obiang family lives the high life, complete with a fleet of flashy cars — including Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, and Lamborghinis — not to mention private jets

The country seems to be the archetypal example of the sort of corruption Moudouma denounced.  It ranked 163 out of 175 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2013.  Yet year after year, U.S. forces have partnered with those of Equatorial Guinea for military exercises, training missions, and even, according to a 2009 Navy press release, “a flight deck reception for distinguished Equatorial Guinean visitors in order to develop relationships and promote regional cooperation between Equatorial Guinea and the United States.”

Succeeding at Failure

On June 19th, the Government Accountability Office published a new report, “Ongoing U.S. Counter-Piracy Efforts Would Benefit From Agency Assessments.”  It contrasted the much-improved situation off Somalia’s coast with the “persistent problem” of piracy and maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea.  It also drew attention to recommendations — like systematically tracking costs and identifying which agencies will lead or support various counter-piracy efforts — that, after four years, had yet to be implemented.

A day later, the National Security Council unveiled its 2014 “United States Counter Piracy and Maritime Security Action Plan.”  According to a statement provided to TomDispatch by NSC spokesman Ned Price, it “provides guidance to the Federal government focusing on three core areas including: prevention of attacks, response to acts of maritime crime, and enhancing maritime security and governance.” 

The new plan contains an annex devoted to the Gulf of Guinea (which went unmentioned in the 2008 report) and, according to the NSC, “effectively addresses the recommendations raised in the [June 2014 GAO] report.”  That isn’t quite the case according to Stephen Caldwell, one of that report’s authors.  “Our recommendations from the earlier report were only partially fulfilled,” he told me.  “Some of the more specific issues were not addressed.” 

While acknowledging that the National Security Council has a lot on its plate beyond piracy, Caldwell drew attention to the ways in which a continuing failure to track costs, identify resource constraints, and define specific roles for the agencies involved in maritime security efforts can lead to a lack of accountability and the inability to fix ineffective efforts.  “Although the United States has interagency and international efforts underway with African states to strengthen maritime security, it has not assessed its efforts or the need for a collective plan to address the evolving problem in the region,” says the GAO report.  “The U.S. role in addressing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has focused on prevention, disruption, and prosecution, through training and assistance to African coastal states. However, according to U.S. agencies working in the region, the National Security Council Staff (NSCS) has not directed them to collectively assess their efforts to address piracy and maritime crime.”

U.S. failures when it comes to the Gulf of Guinea are many: a failure to address the longstanding concerns of a government watchdog agency, a failure to effectively combat piracy despite an outlay of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and a failure to confront corrupt African leaders who enable piracy in the first place.  In fact, the rolling out of a red carpet in Washington for an astoundingly corrupt West African strongman, precisely the type of leader even a Pentagon-approved analyst cites as the source of regional instability, mirrors other U.S. efforts in Africa, from Libya to Mali to South Sudan, which have crumbled, collapsed, crashed, and burned. 

For the better part of a year, following his email outburst about putting words in his mouth, U.S. Africa Command spokesman Benjamin Benson has ignored my repeated requests for comment or clarification when it comes to the Gulf of Guinea.  And it’s little wonder.  After all, as the U.S. military has shown repeatedly in its “pivot” to Africa over these last years, it’s so much easier to claim success than to achieve it.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award winner, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam just received an American Book Award. This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.

Copyright 2014 Nick Turse

Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

Juba, South Sudan — Is this country the first hot battlefield in a new cold war?  Is the conflict tearing this new nation apart actually a proxy fight between the world’s two top economic and military powers?  That’s the way South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth tells it.  After “midwifing” South Sudan into existence with billions of dollars in assistance, aid, infrastructure projects, and military support, the U.S. has watched China emerge as the major beneficiary of South Sudan’s oil reserves.  As a result, Makuei claims, the U.S. and other Western powers have backed former vice president Riek Machar and his rebel forces in an effort to overthrow the country’s president, Salva Kiir.  China, for its part, has played a conspicuous double game.  Beijing has lined up behind Kiir, even as it publicly pushes both sides to find a diplomatic solution to a simmering civil war.  It is sending peacekeepers as part of the U.N. mission even as it also arms Kiir’s forces with tens of millions of dollars worth of new weapons.

While experts dismiss Makuei’s scenario — “farfetched” is how one analyst puts it — there are average South Sudanese who also believe that Washington supports the rebels.  The U.S. certainly did press Kiir’s government to make concessions, as his supporters are quick to remind anyone willing to listen, pushing it to release senior political figures detained as coup plotters shortly after fighting broke out in late 2013.  America, they say, cared more about a handful of elites sitting in jail than all the South Sudanese suffering in a civil war that has now claimed more than 10,000 lives, resulted in mass rapes, displaced more than 1.5 million people (around half of them children), and pushed the country to the very brink of famine. Opponents of Kiir are, however, quick to mention the significant quantities of Chinese weaponry flooding into the country. They ask why the United States hasn’t put pressure on a president they no longer see as legitimate.

While few outside South Sudan would ascribe to Makuei’s notion of a direct East-West proxy war here, his conspiracy theory should, at least, serve as a reminder that U.S. and Chinese interests are at play in this war-torn nation and across Africa as a whole — and that Africans are taking note.  Almost anywhere you look on the continent, you can now find evidence of both the American and the Chinese presence, although they take quite different forms.  The Chinese are pursuing a ruthlessly pragmatic economic power-projection strategy with an emphasis on targeted multilateral interventions in African conflicts.  U.S. policy, in contrast, appears both more muddled and more military-centric, with a heavy focus on counterterrorism efforts meant to bolster amorphous strategic interests. 

For the last decade, China has used “soft power” — aid, trade, and infrastructure projects — to make major inroads on the continent.  In the process, it has set itself up as the dominant foreign player here.  The U.S., on the other hand, increasingly confronts Africa as a “battlefield” or “battleground” or “war” in the words of the men running its operations. In recent years, there has been a substantial surge in U.S. military activities of every sort, including the setting up of military outposts and both direct and proxy interventions. These two approaches have produced starkly contrasting results for the powers involved and the rising nations of the continent.  Which one triumphs may have profound implications for all parties in the years ahead. The differences are, perhaps, nowhere as stark as in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. 

A Midwife’s Tale

Starting in the 1980s, the efforts of an eclectic, bipartisan collection of American supporters — Washington activists, evangelical Christians, influential Congressional representatives, celebrities, a rising State Department star, a presidential administration focused on regime change and nation-building, and another that picked up the mantle — helped bring South Sudan into existence.  “Midwife” was the word then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry chose to describe the process. 

In recent years, no country in Africa has received as much Congressional attention.  And on July 9, 2011, South Sudan’s Independence Day, President Barack Obama released a stirring statement.  “I am confident that the bonds of friendship between South Sudan and the United States will only deepen in the years to come.  As Southern Sudanese undertake the hard work of building their new country, the United States pledges our partnership as they seek the security, development, and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights.” 

As the new nation broke away from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance.  It also invested heavily in governmental institutions, and built infrastructure (constructing or repairing roads and bridges).  It sent military instructors to train the country’s armed forces and advisors to mentor government officials.  It helped to beef up the education sector, worked to facilitate economic development and American investment, and opened the U.S. market to duty-free South Sudanese imports.

The new nation, it was hoped, would bolster U.S. national security interests by injecting a heavy dose of democracy into the heart of Africa, while promoting political stability and good governance.  Specifically, it was to serve as a democratic bulwark against Sudan and its president, Omar al-Bashir, who had once harbored Osama bin Laden and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in that country’s Darfur region.    

When South Sudan broke away, it took much of Sudan’s oil wealth with it, becoming sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola.  In taking those resources out of Bashir’s hands, it offered the promise of more energy stability in Africa.  It was even expected to serve Washington’s military aims — and soon, the U.S. began employing South Sudanese troops as proxies in a quest to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army. 

That was the dream, at least.  But like Washington’s regime change and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, things soon started going very, very wrong.  Today, South Sudan’s armed forces are little more than a collection of competing militias that have fractured along ethnic lines and turned on each other.  The country’s political institutions and economy are in shambles, its oil production (which accounts for about 90% of government revenue) is crippled, corruption goes unchecked, towns have been looted and leveled during recent fighting, the nation is mired in a massive humanitarian crisis, famine looms, and inter-ethnic relations may have been irreparably damaged.  

The China Syndrome

During the years when America was helping bring South Sudan into existence, another world power also took an interest in the country — and a very different tack when it came to its development.  After having invested a reported $20 billion in Sudan — a country long on the U.S. sanctions blacklist — China watched as the new nation of South Sudan claimed about 75% of its oil fields.  In 2012, newly inaugurated South Sudanese President Salva Kiir traveled to China where he sipped champagne with then-President Hu Jintao and reportedly secured a pledge of $8 billion to build up his country’s infrastructure and support its oil sector.  (A top Chinese envoy later dismissed reports of such a sum, but hinted that China was willing to make even greater investments in the country if it achieved a lasting peace with its northern neighbor.) 

Two years later, the China National Petroleum Corporation, with a 40% stake, is now the largest shareholder in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, the top oil consortium in South Sudan.  It also leads another important consortium, the Greater Pioneer Operating Company.  During the first 10 months of 2013, China imported nearly 14 million barrels of oil from South Sudan.  That adds up to about 77% of the country’s crude oil output and twice as much as China imports from energy-rich Nigeria.  While South Sudanese oil accounts for only about 5% of China’s total petroleum imports, the country has nonetheless provided Beijing with a new African partner.  This was especially useful as a U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 created chaotic conditions, causing China to suffer heavy losses ($20 billion according to Chinese sources) in various energy and other projects in that country.

“At the end of the day, China’s main interest is stability so that they can function on a commercial basis.  And to achieve that stability they’ve had to get more involved on the political side,” says Cameron Hudson, director for African affairs on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House from 2005 to 2009.  “They have a very large presence in Juba and are doing a lot of business beyond the oil sector.”

In fact, just days before South Sudan plunged into civil war late last year, the deep-pocketed Export-Import Bank of China was reportedly preparing to offer the country $2 billion in loans and credit to build six key roads — including a 1,500-mile highway to link the capital, Juba, with Sudan’s main port — crucial bridges across the Nile River, schools and hospitals in every county, a hydropower plant, a government conference center, and a staple of Chinese construction schemes in Africa, a stadium.  

Recently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised to expand cooperation with South Sudan in trade, agriculture, construction of infrastructure, and energy.  Meanwhile, a separate $158 million deal to repair and expand the airport in Juba, financed by China’s Export-Import Bank and carried out by a Chinese firm, was announced.  In addition, China has just shipped nearly $40 million in arms — millions of rounds of ammunition, thousands of automatic rifles and grenade launchers, and hundreds of machine guns and pistols — to Salva Kiir’s armed forces.

Continental Competition

China’s interest in South Sudan is indicative of its relations with the continent as a whole.  Beijing has long looked to Africa for diplomatic cooperation in the international arena and, with the continent accounting for more than 25% of the votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations, relied on it for political support.  More recently, economics has become the paramount factor in the growing relationship between the rising Asian power and the continent.

Hungry for energy reserves, minerals, and other raw materials to fuel its domestic growth, China’s Export-Import Bank and other state-controlled entities regularly offer financing for railroads, highways, and other major infrastructure projects, often tied to the use of Chinese companies and workers.  In exchange, China expects long-term supplies of needed natural resources.  Such relationships have exploded in the new century with its African trade jumping from $10 billion to an estimated $200 billion, which far exceeds that of the United States or any European country.  It has now been Africa’s largest trading partner for the last five years and boasts of having struck $400 billion worth of deals in African construction projects which have already yielded almost 1,400 miles of railroad track and nearly 2,200 miles of highways.

Resources traded for infrastructure are, however, just one facet of China’s expanding economic relationship with Africa.  Looking down the road, Beijing increasingly sees the continent as a market for its manufacturing products.  While the West ages and sinks deeper into debt, Africa is getting younger and growing at an exponential pace.  Its population is, according to demographers, poised to double by the middle of the century, jumping to as many as 3.5 billion — larger than China and India combined — with working-age people far outnumbering the elderly and children.  

With its ability to produce goods at low prices, China is betting on being a major supplier of a growing African market when it comes to food, clothes, appliances, and other consumer goods.  As Howard French, author of China’s Second Continent notes, “a variety of economic indicators show that the fortunes of large numbers of Africans are improving dramatically and will likely continue to do so over the next decade or two, only faster.”  According to the International Monetary Fund, 10 of the 20 economies projected to grow fastest from 2013-2017 are located in sub-Saharan Africa.  Last year, the World Bank attributed 60% of Africa’s economic growth to consumer spending.  Beijing may even fuel this rise further by relocating low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs to that continent as it develops more skilled manufacturing and high-tech industries at home.

One Chinese export integral to Beijing’s dealings with Africa has, however, largely escaped notice.  In the space of a decade, as French points out, one million or more Chinese have emigrated to Africa, buying up land, establishing businesses, plying just about every conceivable trade from medicine to farming to prostitution. These expats are altering the fundamentals of cultural and economic exchange across the continent and creating something wholly new.  “For all of China’s denials that its overseas ambitions could be compared to those of Europeans or Americans,” writes French, “…what I was witnessing in Africa is the higgledy-piggledy cobbling together of a new Chinese realm of interest. Here were the beginnings of a new empire.”

This mass influx of Chinese pioneers has bred resentment in some quarters, as have heavy-handed tactics by Chinese companies that often ignore local labor laws and environmental regulations, freeze out local workers, mistreat them, or pay them exceptionally low wages.  This, in turn, has led to instances of violence against Africa’s Chinese, as has Beijing’s support for unpopular and repressive governments on the continent.  Such threats to the safety of Chinese citizens and business interests, as well as general political instability and armed conflicts — from Libya to South Sudan — have given China still another reason to build-up its presence.   

Traditionally, Beijing has adhered to a non-interference, “no strings attached” foreign policy — meaning no requirements on partner nations in terms of transparency, corruption, environmental protection, human rights, or good governance — and, as opposed to the United States, has avoided overseas military inventions.  While it has long contributed to U.N. peacekeeping operations — the only kind of foreign intervention Beijing considers legitimate — China has generally operated far from the front lines.  But things are subtly shifting on this score. 

In 2011, after the U.S.-backed revolution in Libya imperiled 30,000 Chinese living there, the People’s Liberation Army coordinated air and sea assets in the largest evacuation mission in its history.   And as the war in Libya destabilized neighboring Mali and a U.S.-trained officer overthrew that country’s elected president, China sent combat troops — for the first time in its history — to join U.N. forces in a bid to stabilize a nation that the U.S. had spent a decade bolstering through counterterrorism funding. 

Then, when U.S.-backed South Sudan slid into civil war late last year — and 300 Chinese workers had to be evacuated — Beijing departed from the hands-off approach it had taken only a few years earlier with Sudan, ramped up diplomatic efforts and pushed hard for peace talks.  “This is something new for us,” said China’s special envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua.  This was, he noted, the beginning of a “new chapter” in policies by which China would now “do more [in terms of] peace and security for this continent.”

More recently, Beijing managed to broker an unprecedented arrangement to expand the mandate of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan.  In addition to “protection of civilians, monitoring and investigating human rights abuses, and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” according to Foreign Policy, “Beijing quietly secured a deal that will put the U.N.’s famed blue helmets to work protecting workers in South Sudan’s oil installations, where China has invested billions of dollars.”  Although protecting the oil fields is akin to taking the government’s side in a civil war, the U.S., France, and Great Britain backed the plan to protect oil installations under a U.N. mandate, citing the importance of the energy sector to the future of the country.  In return, China will send an 850-man infantry battalion to bolster the U.N. mission, adding to the 350 military personnel it already had on the ground here. 

When it comes to protecting their infrastructure, “the Chinese have gotten very good at deploying peacekeeping forces,” Patricia Taft, a senior associate with the Fund for Peace, tells TomDispatch. “The Chinese have, in East Africa and also West Africa, inserted themselves as a security presence, mainly to protect their oil interests, their infrastructure, or whatever economic projects they’re deeply invested in.” 

Yun Sun, a fellow at the Stimson Center and an expert on China’s relations with Africa, doesn’t see these recent developments as a militarization of China’s mission, but as a symptom of increased investment in the countries of the continent.  “China cares more about security issues in Africa… due to its own national interests,” Sun tells TomDispatch. “It means China will contribute more to the peace and security issues of the continent.”  And it seems that Beijing is now doing so, in part on America’s dime.

Winners and Losers

U.S. taxpayers, who fund about 27% percent of the cost of United Nations peacekeeping missions, are now effectively underwriting China’s efforts to protect its oil interests in South Sudan.  Washington continues to pour aid into that country — more than $456 million in humanitarian assistance in fiscal year 2014 — while China has pledged far less in humanitarian relief.  Meanwhile, Juba has tied itself ever more tightly to Chinese energy interests, with plans to borrow more than $1 billion from oil companies to keep the government afloat as it battles the rebels. 

Taft sees these deals with largely Chinese firms as both risky for South Sudan’s future and potentially ineffective as well.  “It’s putting a band-aid on a hemorrhaging artery,” she says.  David Deng, research director for the South Sudan Law Society, echoes this: “We’re mortgaging our children’s future to fight a pointless war.”

South Sudan seems emblematic of a larger trend in the race between Washington and Beijing in Africa.  In 2000, China’s trade there passed $10 billion for the first time and has been growing at a 30% clip annually ever since.  Nine years later, China overtook the U.S. to become the continent’s largest trading partner and, by 2012, its trade was nearly double that of the U.S. — $198.5 billion to $99.8 billion.  While the United States recently announced that $900 million in unspecified “deals” with Africa will be unveiled at an upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, it will nonetheless continue to trail far behind China in terms of trade on the continent.

For the Chinese, Africa is El Dorado, a land of opportunity for one million migrants.  For America, it’s a collection of “ungoverned spaces,” “austere locations,” and failing states increasingly dominated by local terror groups poised to become global threats, a danger zone to be militarily managed through special operators and proxy armies.  “In Africa, terrorists, criminal organizations, militias, corrupt officials, and pirates continue to exploit ungoverned and under-governed territory on the continent and its surrounding waters,” reads the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).   “The potential for rapidly developing threats, particularly in fragile states, including violent public protests and terrorist attacks, could pose acute challenges to U.S. interests.”

Recent engagements in Somalia and Mali, in which African countries and regional organizations are working together with international partners in Europe and the United States, may provide a model for future partnerships,” adds the QDR.  But a look at those poster-child nations for U.S. involvement — one in East and one in West Africa — instead provides evidence of America’s failings on the continent.

In 2006, the Islamic Court Union (ICU), a loose confederation of indigenous Islamist groups seeking to impose order on the failed state of Somalia, defeated the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, a U.S.-supported militia, and pushed the U.S.-backed warlords out of Mogadishu, the capital.  In response, the United States green-lighted a 2007 invasion of the country by Ethiopia’s military and secretly sent in a small contingent of its own troops (still operating in Somalia to this day).  This succeeded only in splintering the ICU, sending its moderates into exile, while its hardliners formed a far more extreme Islamic group, al-Shabab, which became the key Muslim resistance force against al-Shabab, Washington’s Ethiopian proxies. 

Al-Shabab experienced a great deal of military success before being beaten back by the Ethiopians, troops from a U.S.-supported Somali transitional government, and well-armed peacekeepers from the U.S.-backed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).  These forces were, from 2009 onward, joined by proxies trained and armed by U.S.-ally Kenya, whose own army invaded the country in 2011.  Their forces in Somalia, eventually folded into the AMISOM mission, are still deployed there.  On the run and outgunned, al-Shabab responded by threatening to take the war beyond its borders and soon began to do so.

In other words, what started as a local Islamic group achieving, according to a Chatham House report, “the unthinkable, uniting Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years, and reestablishing peace and security,” quickly became a transnational terror organization in the wake of the Ethiopian invasion and other acts of intervention.  In 2010, al-Shabab carried out a bomb attack in Uganda as a punishment for that country’s contribution to the African Union mission in Somalia.  In 2011, it launched an escalating series of shootings, grenade attacks, and bombings in Kenya.  The next year, the formerly Somalia-centric outfit further internationalized its efforts as one of its leaders pledged obedience to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.  In 2013, the group carried out a devastating attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya that killed 67. 

Earlier this year, al-Shabab extended its reach even further with its first-ever suicide attack in Djibouti, the tiny Horn of Africa nation that contributes troops to AMISOM and hosts French troops, a key European proxy force for Washington on the continent, as well as the only avowed U.S. base in Africa.  “The attack was carried out against the French Crusaders for their complicity in the massacres and persecution of our Muslim brothers in the Central African Republic and for their active role in training and equipping the apostate Djiboutian troops in Somalia,” read an al-Shabab statement that also highlighted a U.S.-backed French military mission in the Central African Republic. 

In the months since, the group has repeatedly launched murderous assaults on civilians in Kenya and continues to threaten Uganda and Burundi, which also contributes troops to AMISOM, with future attacks.  It has even gained regional affiliates, like Al-Hijra, an underground group accused of recruiting for al-Shabab in Kenya.  

After 9/11, on the opposite side of the continent, U.S. programs like the Pan-Sahel Initiative and the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into training and arming the militaries of Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Algeria, and Tunisia, again in order to promote regional “stability.”  While U.S. Special Operations forces were teaching infantry tactics to Malian troops, the Chinese were engaging very differently with that West African nation.  Despite Mali’s lack of natural resources, China constructed a key bridge, a hospital, a stadium, a major government building, several factories, miles of highways, and a $230 million waterworks project. 

The U.S. wasn’t, however, left totally out in the cold on the construction front.  The State Department’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), for example, spent $71.6 million to expand the Bamako Airport.  The contract, however, went to a Chinese firm — as did many MCC contracts across Africa — because American companies were uninterested in working there despite guaranteed U.S. financing.        

What Washington was trying to build in Mali came crashing down, however, after the U.S. helped topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, causing that country to collapse into a morass of militia fiefdoms.  Nomadic Tuareg fighters looted the weapons stores of the Gaddafi regime they had previously served, crossed the border, routed U.S.-backed Malian forces and seized the northern part of the country.  This, in turn, prompted a U.S.-trained officer to stage a military coup in the Malian capital, Bamako, and oust the democratically elected president. 

Soon after, the Tuareg rebels were muscled aside by heavily-armed Islamist rebels who began taking over the country.  This, in turn, prompted the U.S. to back a 2013 invasion by French and African forces which arrested the complete collapse of Mali — leaving it in a permanent state of occupation and low-level insurgency.  Meanwhile, Islamist fighters and Gaddafi’s weapons were scattered across Africa, contributing to greater instability in Nigeria and Libya, as well as increased threat levels in Chad, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Senegal, and Togo.  It evidently also spurred an audacious revenge attack in Algeria that left more than 80 dead and an assault on a French-run uranium mine and a nearby military base in Niger in which at least 25 people were killed.

Two Systems, One Continent

In 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute examined the “African security environment.”  While it touched on “internal separatist or rebel movements” in “weak states,” as well as non-state actors like militias and “warlord armies,” there is conspicuously no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats.  Following the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official claimed that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan might drive “terrorists” out of that country and into African nations, but when pressed about actual transnational dangers on that continent, he admitted that even hardcore Somali militants “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” 

Despite this, Washington dispatched personnel to Africa in 2002 and began pouring money into counterterrorism efforts.  Since then, the U.S. has steadily increased its military footprint, its troop levels, and its missions on the continent — from night raids in Somalia and kidnap operations in Libya to the construction of a string of bases devoted to surveillance activities across the northern tier of Africa. 

For all the time spent training proxies, all the propaganda efforts, all the black ops missions, all the counterterror funds, the results have been dismal.  A glance at the official State Department list of terrorist organizations indicates that these efforts have been mirrored by the growth of radical militant groups, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group added in 2004, al-Shabab in 2008, Ansar al-Dine, Boko Haram, Ansaru, and the al-Mulathamun Battalion in 2013, and Libya’s Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi, and Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah, as well as Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, and the Egyptian militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, all in 2014.  And that’s hardly a full list.  Not included are various terror organizations, rebel forces, separatist movements, armed groups, and militias like the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, fighters from the group formerly known as Seleka and their rivals, anti-balaka militiamen in the Central African Republic, Taureg separatists of Mali’s National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the Congolese Resistance Patriots, Burundi’s National Forces of Liberation, and others.

Over these years, as the U.S. has chased terror groups and watched them proliferate, China has taken another route, devoting its efforts to building goodwill through public works and winning over governments through “no strings attached” policies. 

“Our goal is not to counter China; our goal is not to contain China,” President Obama said during a trip to Asia earlier this year.  In South Sudan, as in Africa as a whole, America seems increasingly unable to even keep up.  “On certain levels, we can’t or won’t compete with China,” says the Fund for Peace’s Patricia Taft.  “China will continue to eclipse us in terms of economic interests in Africa.”  The U.S. is, however, still preeminent in the political sphere and that influence, she says, will continue to trump anything China can currently offer. 

The question is: For how long?

Cameron Hudson, formerly of the National Security Council and now the acting director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, thinks strengthening partnerships with the Chinese could lead to major dividends for the United States.  “They have more skin in the game,” he says of Beijing’s relationship with South Sudan.  “They have a growing set of interests there.”

Benediste Hoareau, head of political affairs for the East African Standby Force — a rapid intervention force in-the-making, consisting of troops from the region’s militaries — expresses similar sentiments.  He believes in the often repeated axiom of finding African solutions to African problems and says that the foreign powers should provide the funds and let African forces do the fighting and peacekeeping in South Sudan. 

Hoareau, in fact, sees no need for a contest, new Cold War or otherwise, between the foreign titans here.  There are plenty of opportunities for both the United States and China in Africa and in South Sudan, he tells TomDispatch.  A rivalry between the two powers can only bring trouble.  “They’re elephants,” Hoareau says of China and America, “and you know just who will get trampled.”   

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award winner, he has reported from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.

Copyright 2014 Nick Turse

China, America, and a New Cold War in Africa?

What is Operation New Normal? 

It’s a question without an answer, a riddle the U.S. military refuses to solve. It’s a secret operation in Africa that no one knows anything about. Except that someone does. His name is Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee Magee. He lives and breathes Operation New Normal. But he doesn’t want to breath paint fumes or talk to me, so you can’t know anything about it. 

Confused? Stay with me.

Whatever Operation New Normal may be pales in comparison to the real “new normal” for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). The lower-cased variant is bold and muscular. It’s an expeditionary force on a war footing. To the men involved, it’s a story of growth and expansion, new battlefields, “combat,” and “war.” It’s the culmination of years of construction, ingratiation, and interventions, the fruits of wide-eyed expansion and dismal policy failures, the backing of proxies to fight America’s battles, while increasing U.S. personnel and firepower in and around the continent.  It is, to quote an officer with AFRICOM, the blossoming of a “war-fighting combatant command.” And unlike Operation New Normal, it’s finally heading for a media outlet near you.

Ever Less New, Ever More Normal

Since 9/11, the U.S. military has been ramping up missions on the African continent, funneling money into projects to woo allies, supporting and training proxy forces, conducting humanitarian outreach, carrying out air strikes and commando raids, creating a sophisticated logistics network throughout the region, and building a string of camps, “cooperative security locations,” and bases-by-other-names.

All the while, AFRICOM downplayed the expansion and much of the media, with a few notable exceptions, played along.  With the end of the Iraq War and the drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan, Washington has, however, visibly “pivoted” to Africa and, in recent weeks, many news organizations, especially those devoted to the military, have begun waking up to the new normal there.

While daily U.S. troop strength continent-wide hovers in the relatively modest range of 5,000 to 8,000 personnel, an under-the-radar expansion has been constant, with the U.S. military now conducting operations alongside almost every African military in almost every African country and averaging more than a mission a day.

This increased engagement has come at a continuing cost.  When the U.S. and other allies intervened in 2011 to aid in the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, it helped set off a chain reaction that led to a security vacuum destabilizing that country as well as neighboring Mali.  The latter saw its elected government overthrown by a U.S.-trained officer.  The former never recovered and has tottered toward failed-state status ever since.  Local militias have been carving out fiefdoms, while killing untold numbers of Libyans — as well, of course, as U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in a September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the “cradle” of the Libyan revolution, whose forces the U.S. had aided with training, materiel, and military might.

Quickly politicized by Congressional Republicans and conservative news outlets, “Benghazi” has become a shorthand for many things, including Obama administration cover-ups and misconduct, as well as White House lies and malfeasance.  Missing, however, has been thoughtful analysis of the implications of American power-projection in Africa or the possibility that blowback might result from it. 

Far from being chastened by the Benghazi deaths or chalking them up to a failure to imagine the consequences of armed interventions in situations whose local politics they barely grasp, the Pentagon and the Obama administration have used Benghazi as a growth opportunity, a means to take military efforts on the continent to the next level.  “Benghazi” has provided AFRICOM with a beefed-up mandate and new clout.  It birthed the new normal in Africa.   

The Spoils of Blowback

Those 2012 killings “changed AFRICOM forever,” Major General Raymond Fox, commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, told attendees of a recent Sea-Air-Space conference organized by the Navy League, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marine.   The proof lies in the new “crisis response” forces that have popped up in and around Africa, greatly enhancing the regional reach, capabilities, and firepower of the U.S. military.

Following the debacle in Benghazi, for instance, the U.S. established an Africa-focused force known as Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response (SP-MAGTF CR) to give AFRICOM quick-reaction capabilities on the continent.  “Temporarily positioned” at Morón Air Base in Spain, this rotating unit of Marines and sailors is officially billed as “a balanced, expeditionary force with built-in command, ground, aviation, and logistics elements and organized, trained, and equipped to accomplish a specific mission.”

Similarly, Benghazi provided the justification for the birthing of another rapid reaction unit, the Commander’s In-Extremis Force.  Long in the planning stages and supported by the head of the Special Operations Command, Admiral William McRaven, the Fort Carson, Colorado-based unit — part of the 10th Special Forces Group — was sent to Europe weeks after Benghazi.  Elements of this specialized counterterrorism unit are now “constantly forward deployed,” AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson told TomDispatch, and stand “ready for the commander to use, if there’s a crisis.”

The East Africa Response Force (EARF), operating from the lone avowed American base in Africa — Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti — is another new quick-reaction unit.  When asked about EARF, Benson said, “The growing complexity of the security environment demonstrated the need for us to have a [Department of Defense]-positioned response force that could respond to crises in the African region.”

In late December, just days after the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Riley, Kansas, arrived in Djibouti to serve as the newly christened EARF, members of the unit were whisked off to South Sudan.  Led by EARF’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lee Magee, the 45-man platoon was dispatched to that restive nation (midwifed into being by the U.S. only a few years earlier) as it slid toward civil war with armed factions moving close to the U.S. embassy in the capital, Juba.  The obvious fear: another Benghazi.

Joined by elements of the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response and more shadowy special ops troops, members of EARF helped secure and reinforce the embassy and evacuate Americans.  Magee and most of his troops returned to Djibouti in February, although a few were still serving in South Sudan as recently as last month

South Sudan, a nation the U.S. poured much time and effort into building, is lurching toward the brink of genocide, according to Secretary of State John Kerry.  With a ceasefire already in shambles within hours of being signed, the country stands as another stark foreign policy failure on a continent now rife with them.  But just as Benghazi proved a useful excuse for dispatching more forward-deployed firepower toward Africa, the embassy scare in South Sudan acted as a convenient template for future crises in which the U.S. military would be even more involved.  “We’re basically the firemen for AFRICOM. If something arises and they need troops somewhere, we can be there just like that,” Captain John Young, a company commander with the East Africa Response Force, told Stars and Stripes in the wake of the Juba mission.

The New Normal and the Same Old, Same Old

A batch of official Army Africa documents obtained by TomDispatch convinced me that EARF was intimately connected with Operation New Normal.  A July 2013 briefing slide, for instance, references “East Africa Response Force/New Normal,” while another concerning operations on that continent mentions “New Normal Reaction Force East.”  At the same time, the phrase “new normal” has been increasingly on the lips of the men running America’s African ops.

Jason Hyland, a 30-year State Department veteran who serves as Foreign Policy Advisor to Brigadier General Wayne Grigsby, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), for instance, told an interviewer that the task force “is at the forefront in this region in implementing U.S. policy on the ‘new normal’ to protect our missions when there are uncertain conditions.” 

A news release from CJTF-HOA concerning the Juba operation also used the phrase:While the East Africa Response Force was providing security for the embassy, additional forces were required to continue the evacuation mission. Under the auspices of ‘the new normal,’ which refers to the heightened threat U.S. Embassies face throughout the world, the SP-MAGTF CR arrived from Morón, Spain,” wrote Technical Sergeant Jasmine Reif.  

Earlier this year in Seapower magazine, the commander of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response, Colonel Scott Benedict, described the “new normal” as a world filled with “a lot of rapidly moving crises,” requiring military interventions and likened it to the Marine Corps deployments in the so-called Banana Wars in Central America and the Caribbean in the early twentieth century.

On a visit to Camp Lemonnier, Marine commandant General James Amos echoed the same sentiments, calling his troops “America’s insurance policy.”  Referencing the Marine task force, he invoked that phrase in an even more expansive way.  Aside from “winning battles” in Afghanistan, he said, the creation of that force was “probably the most significant thing we’ve done in the last year-and-a-half as far as adjusting the Marine Corps for what people are now calling the new normal, which are these crises that are happening around the world.”

In March, Brigadier General Wayne Grigsby explicitly noted that the phrase meant far more than simple embassy security missions.  “Sitting in Djibouti is really the new normal,” the CJTF-HOA commander said. (He was, in fact, sitting in an office in that country.)  “It’s not the new normal… as far as providing security for our threatened embassies.  It’s really the new normal on how we’re going to operate as a [Department of Defense entity] in supporting the national security strategy of our country.” 

Operation New Normal and the Incredible Disappearing Lee Magee

With so many officials talking about the “new normal” and with documents citing a specific operation sporting the same name, I called up AFRICOM’s media chief Benjamin Benson looking for more information.  “I don’t know the name new normal,” he told me. “It isn’t a term we’re using to define one of the operations.”

That seemed awfully curious.  An official military document obtained by TomDispatch explicitly noted that U.S. troops would be deployed as part of Operation New Normal in 2014. The term was even used, in still another document, alongside other code-named operations like Juniper Micron and Observant Compass, missions to aid the French and African interventions in Mali and to degrade or destroy Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa.

Click here to see a larger version

From a 2013 U.S. Army Africa briefing slide referencing Operation New Normal.

Next, I got in touch with Lieutenant Colonel Glen Roberts at CJTF-HOA and explained that I wanted to know about Operation New Normal.  His response was effusive and unequivocal: I should speak with Lee Magee — that is Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee Magee, a West Point graduate, third-generation Army officer, and commander of the East African Response Force who had deployed to South Sudan as the nation shattered on the rocks of reality.  “He lives this concept and has executed it,” was how Roberts put it. 

Was I available to talk to Magee the next day?  Yes, indeed.

On March 27th, the day of the proposed interview, however, a lower-ranking public affairs official got in touch to explain that Lieutenant Colonel Magee could not speak to me and Lieutenant Colonel Roberts was out of the office.  I asked to reschedule for the next day.  The spokesman said he didn’t know what their calendars looked like, but that Roberts was expected back later that day.  I left a message, but heard nothing.

The next morning, I called the press office in Djibouti and asked to speak to Magee.  He wasn’t there.  No one was.  Everyone had left work early. The reason? “Paint fumes.”

That was a new one.

Another follow-up and Roberts finally got back in touch.  “Apologies, but I am no longer able to arrange an interview with Magee,” he informed me.  “Thanks for understanding.”

But I didn’t understand and told him so.  After all, Magee was the man who lived and executed the new normal.  I thought we were set for an interview.  What happened?

“He has simply declined an interview, as is his privilege,” was the best Roberts could do.  Magee had been dropped into the hot zone in South Sudan to forestall the next Benghazi, and had previously spoken with other media outlets about his work in Africa, but conversing with me about Operation New Normal was apparently beyond the pale.  Or maybe it had something to do with those paint fumes.

On March 31st, Roberts told me that he could answer the questions by email — questions that I had already sent in on March 17th.  But no response came.  I followed up again.  And again.  And again.  I sent the questions a second time. 

As of publication, almost two months after my initial inquiry, no word yet.  That, evidently, is the new normal, too.

The Real New Normal

Quite obviously, the U.S. military isn’t eager to talk about Operation New Normal, which — despite Benjamin Benson’s contentions, Lee Magee’s silence, and Glen Roberts’ disappearance — is almost certainly the name for a U.S. military mission in East Africa that, U.S. documents suggest, is tied to the Benghazi-birthed East African Response Force.

More important than uncovering the nature of Operation New Normal, however, is recognizing the real new normal in Africa for the U.S. military: ever-increasing missions across the continent — now averaging about 1.5 per day — ever more engagement with local proxies in ever more African countries, the construction of ever more new facilities in ever more countries (including plans for a possible new compound in Niger), and a string of bases devoted to surveillance activities spreading across the northern tier of Africa.  Add to this impressive build-up the three new rapid reaction forces, specialized teams like a contingent of AFRICOM personnel and officials from the FBI and the departments of Justice, State, and Defense created to help rescue hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by members of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, and other shadowy quick-response units like the seldom-mentioned Naval Special Warfare Unit 10.

 “Having resources [on the continent] that are ready for a response is really valuable,” Benson told me when talking about the Djibouti-based EARF.  The same holds for the U.S. military’s new normal in Africa: more of everything valuable to a military seeking a new mission in the wake of two fading, none-too-successful wars.

The Benghazi killings, unrest in South Sudan, and now the Boko Haram kidnappings have provided the U.S. with ways to bring a long-running “light footprint in Africa” narrative into line with a far heavier reality.  Each crisis has provided the U.S. with further justification for publicizing a steady expansion on that continent that’s been underway but under wraps for years.  New forces, new battlefields, and a new openness about a new “war,” to quote one of the men waging it.  That’s the real new normal for the U.S. military in Africa — and you don’t need to talk to Lieutenant Colonel Lee Magee to know it. 

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award winner, his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nation, at the BBC and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (now out in paperback).

Copyright 2014 Nick Turse

The U.S. Military’s New Normal in Africa