General Thomas Waldhauser sounded a little uneasy. “I would just say, they are on the ground. They are trying to influence the action,” commented the chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) at a Pentagon press briefing in March, when asked about Russian military personnel operating in North Africa. “We watch what they do with great concern.”
And Russians aren’t the only foreigners on Waldhauser’s mind. He’s also wary of a Chinese “military base” being built not far from Camp Lemonnier, a large U.S. facility in the tiny, sun-blasted nation of Djibouti. “They’ve never had an overseas base, and we’ve never had a base of… a peer competitor as close as this one happens to be,” he said. “There are some very significant… operational security concerns.”
At that press conference, Waldhauser mentioned still another base, an American one exposed by the Washington Post last October in an article titled, “U.S. has secretly expanded its global network of drone bases to North Africa.” Five months later, the AFRICOM commander still sounded aggrieved. “The Washington Post story that said ‘flying from a secret base in Tunisia.’ It’s not a secret base and it’s not our base… We have no intention of establishing a base there.”
Waldhauser’s insistence that the U.S. had no base in Tunisia relied on a technicality, since that foreign airfield clearly functions as an American outpost. For years, AFRICOM has peddled the fiction that Djibouti is the site of its only “base” in Africa. “We continue to maintain one forward operating site on the continent, Camp Lemonnier,” reads the command’s 2017 posture statement. Spokespeople for the command regularly maintain that any other U.S. outposts are few and transitory — “expeditionary” in military parlance.
While the U.S. maintains a vast empire of military installations around the world, with huge — and hard to miss — complexes throughout Europe and Asia, bases in Africa have been far better hidden. And if you listened only to AFRICOM officials, you might even assume that the U.S. military’s footprint in Africa will soon be eclipsed by that of the Chinese or the Russians.
Highly classified internal AFRICOM files offer a radically different picture. A set of previously secret documents, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, offers clear evidence of a remarkable, far-ranging, and expanding network of outposts strung across the continent. In official plans for operations in 2015 that were drafted and issued the year before, Africa Command lists 36 U.S. outposts scattered across 24 African countries. These include low-profile locations — from Kenya to South Sudan to a shadowy Libyan airfield — that have never previously been mentioned in published reports. Today, according to an AFRICOM spokesperson, the number of these sites has actually swelled to 46, including “15 enduring locations.” The newly disclosed numbers and redacted documents contradict more than a decade’s worth of dissembling by U.S. Africa Command and shed new light on a constellation of bases integral to expanding U.S. military operations on the African continent and in the Middle East.
A map of U.S. military bases — forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations — across the African continent in 2014 from declassified AFRICOM planning documents (Nick Turse/TomDispatch).
A Constellation of Bases
AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated requests for further information about the 46 bases, outposts, and staging areas currently dotting the continent. Nonetheless, the newly disclosed 2015 plans offer unique insights into the wide-ranging network of outposts, a constellation of bases that already provided the U.S. military with unprecedented continental reach.
Those documents divide U.S. bases into three categories: forward operating sites (FOSes), cooperative security locations (CSLs), and contingency locations (CLs). “In total, [the fiscal year 20]15 proposed posture will be 2 FOSes, 10 CSLs, and 22 CLs” state the documents. By spring 2015, the number of CSLs had already increased to 11, according to then-AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez, in order to allow U.S. crisis-response forces to reach potential hot spots in West Africa. An appendix to the plan, also obtained by TomDispatch, actually lists 23 CLs, not 22. Another appendix mentions one additional contingency location.
These outposts — of which forward operating sites are the most permanent and contingency locations the least so — form the backbone of U.S. military operations on the continent and have been expanding at a rapid rate, particularly since the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The plans also indicate that the U.S. military regularly juggles locations, shuttering sites and opening others, while upgrading contingency locations to cooperative security locations in response to changing conditions like, according to the documents, “increased threats emanating from the East, North-West, and Central regions” of the continent.
AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement notes, for example, a recent round of changes to the command’s inventory of posts. The document explains that the U.S. military “closed five contingency locations and designated seven new contingency locations on the continent due to shifting requirements and identified gaps in our ability to counter threats and support ongoing operations.” Today, according to AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, the total number of sites has jumped from the 36 cited in the 2015 plans to 46 — a network now consisting of two forward operating sites, 13 cooperative security locations, and 31 contingency locations.
Location, Location, Location
AFRICOM’s sprawling network of bases is crucial to its continent-wide strategy of training the militaries of African proxies and allies and conducting a multi-front campaign aimed at combating a disparate and spreading collection of terror groups. The command’s major areas of effort involve: a shadow war against the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia (a long-term campaign, ratcheting up in the Trump era, with no end in sight); attempts to contain the endless fallout from the 2011 U.S. and allied military intervention that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the neutralizing of “violent extremist organizations” across northwest Africa, the lands of the Sahel and Maghreb (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the degradation of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin nations of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad (a long-term effort — to the tune of $156 million last year alone in support of regional proxies there — with no end in sight); countering piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (a long-term effort with no end in sight), and winding down the wildly expensive effort to eliminate Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa (both live on, despite a long-term U.S. effort).
The U.S. military’s multiplying outposts are also likely to prove vital to the Trump administration’s expanding wars in the Middle East. African bases have long been essential, for instance, to Washington’s ongoing shadow war in Yemen, which has seen a significant increase in drone strikes under the Trump administration. They have also been integral to operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where a substantial (and deadly) uptick in U.S. airpower (and civilian casualties) has been evident in recent months.
In 2015, AFRICOM spokesman Anthony Falvo noted that the command’s “strategic posture and presence are premised on the concept of a tailored, flexible, light footprint that leverages and supports the posture and presence of partners and is supported by expeditionary infrastructure.” The declassified secret documents explicitly state that America’s network of African bases is neither insignificant nor provisional. “USAFRICOM’s posture requires a network of enduring and non-enduring locations across the continent,” say the 2015 plans. “A developed network of FOSes, CSLs, and non-enduring CLs in key countries… is necessary to support the command’s operations and engagements.”
According to the files, AFRICOM’s two forward operating sites are Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier and a base on the United Kingdom’s Ascension Island off the west coast of Africa. Described as “enduring locations” with a sustained troop presence and “U.S.-owned real property,” they serve as hubs for staging missions across the continent and for supplying the growing network of outposts there.
Lemonnier, the crown jewel of America’s African bases, has expanded from 88 acres to about 600 acres since 2002, and in those years, the number of personnel there has increased exponentially as well. “Camp Lemonnier serves as a hub for multiple operations and security cooperation activities,” reads AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement. “This base is essential to U.S. efforts in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.” Indeed, the formerly secret documents note that the base supports “U.S operations in Somalia CT [counterterrorism], Yemen CT, Gulf of Aden (counter-piracy), and a wide range of Security Assistance activities and programs throughout the region.”
In 2015, when he announced the increase in cooperative security locations, then-AFRICOM chief David Rodriguez mentioned Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon as staging areas for the command’s rapid reaction forces. Last June, outgoing U.S. Army Africa commander Major General Darryl Williams drew attention to a CSL in Uganda and one being set up in Botswana, adding, “We have very austere, lean, lily pads, if you will, all over Africa now.”
CSL Entebbe in Uganda has, for example, long been an important air base for American forces in Africa, serving as a hub for surveillance aircraft. It also proved integral to Operation Oaken Steel, the July 2016 rapid deployment of troops to the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as that failed state (and failed U.S. nation-building effort) sank into yet more violence.
Libreville, Gabon, is listed in the documents as a “proposed CSL,” but was actually used in 2014 and 2015 as a key base for Operation Echo Casemate, the joint U.S.-French-African military response to unrest in the Central African Republic.
AFRICOM’s 2015 plan also lists cooperative security locations in Accra, Ghana; Gaborone, Botswana; Dakar, Senegal; Douala, Cameroon; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Mombasa, Kenya. While officially defined by the military as temporary locales capable of being scaled up for larger operations, any of these CSLs in Africa “may also function as a major logistics hub,” according to the documents.
The formerly secret AFRICOM files note that the command has designated five contingency locations as “semi-permanent,” 13 as “temporary,” and four as “initial.” These include a number of sites that have never previously been disclosed, including outposts in several countries that were actually at war when the documents were created. Listed among the CLs, for instance, is one in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, already in the midst of an ongoing civil war in 2014; one in Bangui, the capital of the periodically unstable Central African Republic; and another in Al-Wigh, a Saharan airfield in southern Libya located near that country’s borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria.
Officially classified as “non-enduring” locations, CLs are nonetheless among the most integral sites for U.S. operations on the continent. Today, according to AFRICOM’s Prichard, the 31 contingency locations provide “access to support partners, counter threats, and protect U.S. interests in East, North, and West Africa.”
AFRICOM did not provide the specific locations of the current crop of CLs, stating only that they “strive to increase access in crucial areas.” The 2015 plans, however, provide ample detail on the areas that were most important to the command at that time. One such site is Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, also mentioned in a 2013 internal Pentagon study on secret drone operations in Somalia and Yemen. At least two manned surveillance aircraft were based there at the time.
Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti is also mentioned in AFRICOM’s 2015 plan. Once a spartan French Foreign Legion post, it has undergone substantial expansion in recent years as U.S. drone operations in that country were moved from Camp Lemonnier to this more remote location. It soon became a regional hub for unmanned aircraft not just for Africa but also for the Middle East. By the beginning of October 2015, for example, drones flown from Chabelley had already logged more than 24,000 hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions and were also, according to the Air Force, “responsible for the neutralization of 69 enemy fighters, including five high-valued individuals” in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
AFRICOM’s inventory of CLs also includes sites in Nzara, South Sudan; Arlit, Niger; both Bamako and Gao, Mali; Kasenyi, Uganda; Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles; Monrovia, Liberia; Ouassa and Nema, Mauritania; Faya Largeau, Chad; Bujumbura, Burundi; Lakipia, the site of a Kenyan Air Force base; and another Kenyan airfield at Wajir that was upgraded and expanded by the U.S. Navy earlier in this decade, as well as an outpost in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, that was reportedly shuttered in 2015 after nearly five years of operation.
A longtime contingency location in Niamey, the capital of Niger, has seen marked growth in recent years as has a more remote location, a Nigerien military base at Agadez, listed among the “proposed” CSLs in the AFRICOM documents. The U.S. is, in fact, pouring $100 million into building up the base, according to a 2016 investigation by the Intercept. N’Djamena, Chad, the site of yet another “proposed CSL,” has actually been used by the U.S. military for years. Troops and a drone were dispatched there in 2014 to aid in operations against Boko Haram and “base camp facilities” were constructed there, too.
The list of proposed CLs also includes sites in Berbera, a town in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, and in Mogadishu, the capital of neighboring Somalia (another locale used by American troops for years), as well as the towns of Baidoa and Bosaso. These or other outposts are likely to play increasingly important roles as the Trump administration ramps up its military activities in Somalia, the long-failed state that saw 18 U.S. personnel killed in the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” mission of 1993. Last month, for instance, President Trump relaxed rules aimed at preventing civilian casualties when the U.S. conducts drone strikes and commando raids in that country and so laid the foundation for a future escalation of the war against al-Shabaab there. This month, AFRICOM confirmed that dozens of soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, a storied light infantry unit, would be deployed to that same country in order to train local forces to, as a spokesperson put it, “better fight” al-Shabaab.
Many other sites previously identified as U.S. outposts or staging areas are not listed in AFRICOM’s 2015 plans, such as bases in Djema, Sam Ouandja, and Obo in the Central African Republic that were revealed, in recent years, by the Washington Post. Also missing is a newer drone base in Garoua, Cameroon, not to mention that Tunisian air base where the U.S. has been flying drones, according to AFRICOM’s Waldhauser, “for quite some time.”
Some bases may have been shuttered, while others may not yet have been put in service when the documents were produced. Ultimately, the reasons that these and many other previously identified bases are not included in the redacted secret files are unclear due to AFRICOM’s refusal to offer comment, clarification, or additional information on the locations of its bases.
“Just as the U.S. pursues strategic interests in Africa, international competitors, including China and Russia, are doing the same,” laments AFRICOM in its 2017 posture statement. “We continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency.”
Since it was established as an independent command in 2008, however, AFRICOM itself has been anything but transparent about its activities on the continent. The command’s physical footprint may, in fact, have been its most jealously guarded secret. Today, thanks to AFRICOM’s own internal documents, that secret is out and with AFRICOM’s admission that it currently maintains “15 enduring locations,” the long-peddled fiction of a combatant command with just one base in its area of operations has been laid to rest.
“Because of the size of Africa, because of the time and space and the distances, when it comes to special crisis-response-type activities, we need access in various places on the continent,” said AFRICOM chief Waldhauser during his March press conference. These “various places” have also been integral to escalating American shadow wars, including a full-scale air campaign against the Islamic State in Libya, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, which ended late last year, and ongoing intelligence-gathering missions and a continued U.S. troop presence in that country; drone assassinations and increased troop deployments in Somalia to counter al-Shabaab; and increasing engagement in a proxy war against Boko Haram militants in the Lake Chad region of Central Africa. For these and many more barely noticed U.S. military missions, America’s sprawling, ever-expanding network of bases provides the crucial infrastructure for cross-continental combat by U.S. and allied forces, a low-profile support system for war-making in Africa and beyond.
Without its wide-ranging constellation of bases, it would be nearly impossible for the U.S. to carry out ceaseless low-profile military activities across the continent. As a result, AFRICOM continues to prefer shadows to sunlight. While the command provided figures on the total number of U.S. military bases, outposts, and staging areas in Africa, its spokespeople failed to respond to repeated requests to provide locations for any of the 46 current sites. While the whereabouts of the new outposts may still be secret, there’s little doubt as to the trajectory of America’s African footprint, which has increased by 10 locations — a 28% jump — in just over two years.
America’s “enduring” African bases “give the United States options in the event of crisis and enable partner capacity building,” according to AFRICOM’s Chuck Prichard. They have also played a vital role in conflicts from Yemen to Iraq, Nigeria to Somalia. With the Trump administration escalating its wars in Africa and the Middle East, and the potential for more crises — from catastrophic famines to spreading wars — on the horizon, there’s every reason to believe the U.S. military’s footprint on the continent will continue to evolve, expand, and enlarge in the years ahead, outpost by outpost and base by base.
America’s War-Fighting Footprint in Africa
They could be found on the outskirts of Sirte, Libya, supporting local militia fighters, and in Mukalla, Yemen, backing troops from the United Arab Emirates. At Saakow, a remote outpost in southern Somalia, they assisted local commandos in killing several members of the terror group al-Shabab. Around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai in northern Syria, they partnered with both Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias, while also embedding with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Across the border in Iraq, still others joined the fight to liberate the city of Mosul. And in Afghanistan, they assisted indigenous forces in various missions, just as they have every year since 2001.
For America, 2016 may have been the year of the commando. In one conflict zone after another across the northern tier of Africa and the Greater Middle East, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) waged their particular brand of low-profile warfare. “Winning the current fight, including against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other areas where SOF is engaged in conflict and instability, is an immediate challenge,” the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General Raymond Thomas, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
SOCOM’s shadow wars against terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) may, ironically, be its most visible operations. Shrouded in even more secrecy are its activities — from counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts to seemingly endless training and advising missions — outside acknowledged conflict zones across the globe. These are conducted with little fanfare, press coverage, or oversight in scores of nations every single day. From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America’s most elite forces — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — were deployed to 138 countries in 2016, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. This total, one of the highest of Barack Obama’s presidency, typifies what has become the golden age of, in SOF-speak, the “gray zone” — a phrase used to describe the murky twilight between war and peace. The coming year is likely to signal whether this era ends with Obama or continues under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
America’s most elite troops deployed to 138 nations in 2016, according to U.S. Special Operations Command. The map above displays the locations of 132 of those countries; 129 locations (blue) were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command; 3 locations (red) — Syria, Yemen and Somalia — were derived from open-source information. (Nick Turse)
“In just the past few years, we have witnessed a varied and evolving threat environment consisting of: the emergence of a militarily expansionist China; an increasingly unpredictable North Korea; a revanchist Russia threatening our interests in both Europe and Asia; and an Iran which continues to expand its influence across the Middle East, fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict,” General Thomas wrote last month in PRISM, the official journal of the Pentagon’s Center for Complex Operations. “Nonstate actors further confuse this landscape by employing terrorist, criminal, and insurgent networks that erode governance in all but the strongest states… Special operations forces provide asymmetric capability and responses to these challenges.”
In 2016, according to data provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, the U.S. deployed special operators to China (specifically Hong Kong), in addition to eleven countries surrounding it — Taiwan (which China considers a breakaway province), Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Laos, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. Special Operations Command does not acknowledge sending commandos into Iran, North Korea, or Russia, but it does deploy troops to many nations that ring them.
SOCOM is willing to name only 129 of the 138 countries its forces deployed to in 2016. “Almost all Special Operations forces deployments are classified,” spokesman Ken McGraw told TomDispatch. “If a deployment to a specific country has not been declassified, we do not release information about the deployment.”
SOCOM does not, for instance, acknowledge sending troops to the war zones of Somalia, Syria, or Yemen, despite overwhelming evidence of a U.S. special ops presence in all three countries, as well as a White House report, issued last month, that notes “the United States is currently using military force in” Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, and specifically states that “U.S. special operations forces have deployed to Syria.”
According to Special Operations Command, 55.29% of special operators deployed overseas in 2016 were sent to the Greater Middle East, a drop of 35% since 2006. Over the same span, deployments to Africa skyrocketed by more than 1600% — from just 1% of special operators dispatched outside the U.S. in 2006 to 17.26% last year. Those two regions were followed by areas served by European Command (12.67%), Pacific Command (9.19%), Southern Command (4.89%), and Northern Command (0.69%), which is in charge of “homeland defense.” On any given day, around 8,000 of Thomas’s commandos can be found in more than 90 countries worldwide.
U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 138 nations in 2016. Locations in blue were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command. Those in red were derived from open-source information. Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia are not among those nations named or identified, but all are at least partially surrounded by nations visited by America’s most elite troops last year. (Nick Turse)
“Special Operations forces are playing a critical role in gathering intelligence — intelligence that’s supporting operations against ISIL and helping to combat the flow of foreign fighters to and from Syria and Iraq,” said Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, in remarks at the International Special Operations Forces Convention last year. Such intelligence operations are “conducted in direct support of special operations missions,” SOCOM’s Thomas explained in 2016. “The preponderance of special operations intelligence assets are dedicated to locating individuals, illuminating enemy networks, understanding environments, and supporting partners.”
Signals intelligence from computers and cellphones supplied by foreign allies or intercepted by surveillance drones and manned aircraft, as well as human intelligence provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has been integral to targeting individuals for kill/capture missions by SOCOM’s most elite forces. The highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), for example, carries out such counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes, raids, and assassinations in places like Iraq and Libya. Last year, before he exchanged command of JSOC for that of its parent, SOCOM, General Thomas noted that members of Joint Special Operations Command were operating in “all the countries where ISIL currently resides.” (This may indicate a special ops deployment to Pakistan, another country absent from SOCOM’s 2016 list.)
“[W]e have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering ISIL’s external operations. And we have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing ISIL leaders from the battlefield,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted in a relatively rare official mention of JSOC’s operations at an October press conference.
A month earlier, he offered even more detail in a statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee:
”We’re systematically eliminating ISIL’s leadership: the coalition has taken out seven members of the ISIL Senior Shura… We also removed key ISIL leaders in both Libya and Afghanistan… And we’ve removed from the battlefield more than 20 of ISIL’s external operators and plotters… We have entrusted this aspect of our campaign to one of [the Department of Defense’s] most lethal, capable, and experienced commands, our Joint Special Operations Command, which helped deliver justice not only to Osama Bin Laden, but also to the man who founded the organization that became ISIL, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi.”
Asked for details on exactly how many ISIL “external operators” were targeted and how many were “removed” from the battlefield by JSOC in 2016, SOCOM’s Ken McGraw replied: “We do not and will not have anything for you.”
When he was commander of JSOC in 2015, General Thomas spoke of his and his unit’s “frustrations” with limitations placed on them. “I’m told ‘no’ more than ‘go’ on a magnitude of about ten to one on almost a daily basis,” he said. Last November, however, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was granting a JSOC task force “expanded power to track, plan and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe.” That Counter-External Operations Task Force (also known as “Ex-Ops”) has been “designed to take JSOC’s targeting model… and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West.”
SOCOM disputes portions of the Post story. “Neither SOCOM nor any of its subordinate elements have… been given any expanded powers (authorities),” SOCOM’s Ken McGraw told TomDispatch by email. “Any potential operation must still be approved by the GCC [Geographic Combatant Command] commander [and], if required, approved by the Secretary of Defense or [the president].”
“U.S. officials” (who spoke only on the condition that they be identified in that vague way) explained that SOCOM’s response was a matter of perspective. Its powers weren’t recently expanded as much as institutionalized and put “in writing,” TomDispatch was told. “Frankly, the decision made months ago was to codify current practice, not create something new.” Special Operations Command refused to confirm this but Colonel Thomas Davis, another SOCOM spokesman, noted: “Nowhere did we say that there was no codification.”
With Ex-Ops, General Thomas is a “decision-maker when it comes to going after threats under the task force’s purview,” according to the Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe. “The task force would essentially turn Thomas into the leading authority when it comes to sending Special Operations units after threats.” Others claim Thomas has only expanded influence, allowing him to directly recommend a plan of action, such as striking a target, to the Secretary of Defense, allowing for shortened approval time. (SOCOM’s McGraw says that Thomas “will not be commanding forces or be the decision maker for SOF operating in any GCC’s [area of operations].”)
Last November, Defense Secretary Carter offered an indication of the frequency of offensive operations following a visit to Florida’s Hurlburt Field, the headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command. He noted that “today we were looking at a number of the Special Operations forces’ assault capabilities. This is a kind of capability that we use nearly every day somewhere in the world… And it’s particularly relevant to the counter-ISIL campaign that we’re conducting today.”
In Afghanistan, alone, Special Operations forces conducted 350 raids targeting al-Qaeda and Islamic State operatives last year, averaging about one per day, and capturing or killing nearly 50 “leaders” as well as 200 “members” of the terror groups, according to General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in that country. Some sources also suggest that while JSOC and CIA drones flew roughly the same number of missions in 2016, the military launched more than 20,000 strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, compared to less than a dozen by the Agency. This may reflect an Obama administration decision to implement a long-considered plan to put JSOC in charge of lethal operations and shift the CIA back to its traditional intelligence duties.
World of Warcraft
“[I]t is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort, because its use also highlights why the U.S. continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns — Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine — none of which fits the U.S. model for traditional war,” said retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now a senior mentor to the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. Asserting that, amid the larger problems of these conflicts, the ability of America’s elite forces to conduct kill/capture missions and train local allies has proven especially useful, he added, “SOF is at its best when its indigenous and direct-action capabilities work in support of each other. Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing CT [counterterrrorism] efforts elsewhere, SOF continues to work with partner nations in counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”
SOCOM acknowledges deployments to approximately 70% of the world’s nations, including all but three Central and South American countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela being the exceptions). Its operatives also blanket Asia, while conducting missions in about 60% of the countries in Africa.
A SOF overseas deployment can be as small as one special operator participating in a language immersion program or a three-person team conducting a “survey” for the U.S. embassy. It may also have nothing to do with a host nation’s government or military. Most Special Operations forces, however, work with local partners, conducting training exercises and engaging in what the military calls “building partner capacity” (BPC) and “security cooperation” (SC). Often, this means America’s most elite troops are sent to countries with security forces that are regularly cited for human rights abuses by the U.S. State Department. Last year in Africa, where Special Operations forces utilize nearly 20 different programs and activities — from training exercises to security cooperation engagements — these included Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, among others.
In 2014, for example, more than 4,800 elite troops took part in just one type of such activities — Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions — around the world. At a cost of more than $56 million, Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and other special operators carried out 176 individual JCETs in 87 countries. A 2013 RAND Corporation study of the areas covered by Africa Command, Pacific Command, and Southern Command found “moderately low” effectiveness for JCETs in all three regions. A 2014 RAND analysis of U.S. security cooperation, which also examined the implications of “low-footprint Special Operations forces efforts,” found that there “was no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.” And in a 2015 report for Joint Special Operations University, Harry Yarger, a senior fellow at the school, noted that “BPC has in the past consumed vast resources for little return.”
Despite these results and larger strategic failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the Obama years have been the golden age of the gray zone. The 138 nations visited by U.S. special operators in 2016, for example, represent a jump of 130% since the waning days of the Bush administration. Although they also represent a 6% drop compared to last year’s total, 2016 remains in the upper range of the Obama years, which saw deployments to 75 nations in 2010, 120 in 2011, 134 in 2013, and 133 in 2014, before peaking at 147 countries in 2015. Asked about the reason for the modest decline, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw replied, “We provide SOF to meet the geographic combatant commands’ requirements for support to their theater security cooperation plans. Apparently, there were nine fewer countries [where] the GCCs had a requirement for SOF to deploy to in [Fiscal Year 20]16.”
The increase in deployments between 2009 and 2016 — from about 60 countries to more than double that — mirrors a similar rise in SOCOM’s total personnel (from approximately 56,000 to about 70,000) and in its baseline budget (from $9 billion to $11 billion). It’s no secret that the tempo of operations has also increased dramatically, although the command refused to address questions from TomDispatch on the subject.
“SOF have shouldered a heavy burden in carrying out these missions, suffering a high number of casualties over the last eight years and maintaining a high operational tempo (OPTEMPO) that has increasingly strained special operators and their families,” reads an October 2016 report released by the Virginia-based think tank CNA. (That report emerged from a conference attended by six former special operations commanders, a former assistant secretary of defense, and dozens of active-duty special operators.)
A closer look at the areas of the “undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine” mentioned by retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland. Locations in blue were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command. The one in red was derived from open-source information. (Nick Turse)
The American Age of the Commando
Last month, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shawn Brimley, former director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and now an executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security, echoed the worried conclusions of the CNA report. At a hearing on “emerging U.S. defense challenges and worldwide threats,” Brimley said “SOF have been deployed at unprecedented rates, placing immense strain on the force” and called on the Trump administration to “craft a more sustainable long-term counterterrorism strategy.” In a paper published in December, Kristen Hajduk, a former adviser for Special Operations and Irregular Warfare in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called for a decrease in the deployment rates for Special Operations forces.
While Donald Trump has claimed that the U.S. military as a whole is “depleted” and has called for increasing the size of the Army and Marines, he has offered no indication about whether he plans to support a further increase in the size of special ops forces. And while he did recently nominate a former Navy SEAL to serve as his secretary of the interior, Trump has offered few indications of how he might employ special operators who are currently serving.
“Drone strikes,” he announced in one of his rare detailed references to special ops missions, “will remain part of our strategy, but we will also seek to capture high-value targets to gain needed information to dismantle their organizations.” More recently, at a North Carolina victory rally, Trump made specific references to the elite troops soon to be under his command. “Our Special Forces at Fort Bragg have been the tip of the spear in fighting terrorism. The motto of our Army Special Forces is ‘to free the oppressed,’ and that is exactly what they have been doing and will continue to do. At this very moment, soldiers from Fort Bragg are deployed in 90 countries around the world,” he told the crowd.
After seeming to signal his support for continued wide-ranging, free-the-oppressed special ops missions, Trump appeared to change course, adding, “We don’t want to have a depleted military because we’re all over the place fighting in areas that just we shouldn’t be fighting in… This destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally, folks, come to an end.” At the same time, however, he pledged that the U.S. would soon “defeat the forces of terrorism.” To that end, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a former director of intelligence for JSOC whom the president-elect tapped to serve as his national security adviser, has promised that the new administration would reassess the military’s powers to battle the Islamic State — potentially providing more latitude in battlefield decision-making. To this end, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon is crafting proposals to reduce “White House oversight of operational decisions” while “moving some tactical authority back to the Pentagon.”
Last month, President Obama traveled to Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base, the home of Special Operations Command, to deliver his capstone counterterrorism speech. “For eight years that I’ve been in office, there has not been a day when a terrorist organization or some radicalized individual was not plotting to kill Americans,” he told a crowd packed with troops. At the same time, there likely wasn’t a day when the most elite forces under his command were not deployed in 60 or more countries around the world.
“I will become the first president of the United States to serve two full terms during a time of war,” Obama added. “Democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war. That’s not good for our military, it’s not good for our democracy.” The results of his permanent-war presidency have, in fact, been dismal, according to Special Operations Command. Of eight conflicts waged during the Obama years, according to a 2015 briefing slide from the command’s intelligence directorate, America’s record stands at zero wins, two losses, and six ties.
The Obama era has indeed proven to be the “age of the commando.” However, as Special Operations forces have kept up a frenetic operational tempo, waging war in and out of acknowledged conflict zones, training local allies, advising indigenous proxies, kicking down doors, and carrying out assassinations, terror movements have spread across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
President-elect Donald Trump appears poised to obliterate much of the Obama legacy, from the president’s signature healthcare law to his environmental regulations, not to mention changing course when it comes to foreign policy, including in relations with China, Iran, Israel, and Russia. Whether he will heed advice to decrease Obama-level SOF deployment rates remains to be seen. The year ahead will, however, offer clues as to whether Obama’s long war in the shadows, the golden age of the gray zone, survives.
The Year of the Commando
Al-Qaeda doesn’t care about borders. Neither does the Islamic State or Boko Haram. Brigadier General Donald Bolduc thinks the same way.
“[T]errorists, criminals, and non-state actors aren’t bound by arbitrary borders,” the commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) told an interviewer early this fall. “That said, everything we do is not organized around recognizing traditional borders. In fact, our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multi-national, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach.”
A SOCAFRICA planning document obtained by TomDispatch offers a window onto the scope of these “multi-national, collective actions” carried out by America’s most elite troops in Africa. The declassified but heavily redacted secret report, covering the years 2012-2017 and acquired via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), details nearly 20 programs and activities — from training exercises to security cooperation engagements — utilized by SOCAFRICA across the continent. This wide array of low-profile missions, in addition to named operations and quasi-wars, attests to the growing influence and sprawling nature of U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) in Africa.
How U.S. military engagement will proceed under the Trump administration remains to be seen. The president-elect has said or tweeted little about Africa in recent years (aside from long trading in baseless claims that the current president was born there). Given his choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn — a former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command who believes that the United States is in a “world war” with Islamic militants — there is good reason to believe that Special Operations Command Africa will continue its border-busting missions across that continent. That, in turn, means that Africa is likely to remain crucial to America’s nameless global war on terror.
Publicly, the command claims that it conducts its operations to “promote regional stability and prosperity,” while Bolduc emphasizes that its missions are geared toward serving the needs of African allies. The FOIA files make clear, however, that U.S. interests are the command’s principal and primary concern — a policy in keeping with the America First mindset and mandate of incoming commander-in-chief Donald J. Trump — and that support to “partner nations” is prioritized to suit American, not African, needs and policy goals.
Shades of Gray
Bolduc is fond of saying that his troops — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, among others — operate in the “gray zone,” or what he calls “the spectrum of conflict between war and peace.” Another of his favored stock phrases is: “In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution” — that is, not pulling triggers and dropping bombs. He also regularly takes pains to say that “we are not at war in Africa — but our African partners certainly are.”
That is not entirely true.
Earlier this month, in fact, a White House report made it clear, for instance, that “the United States is currently using military force” in Somalia. At about the same moment, the New York Times revealed an imminent Obama administration plan to deem al-Shabab “to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials,” strengthening President-elect Donald Trump’s authority to carry out missions there in 2017 and beyond.
As part of its long-fought shadow war against al-Shabab militants, the U.S. has carried out commando raids and drone assassinations there (with the latter markedly increasing in 2015-2016). On December 5th, President Obama issued his latest biannual “war powers” letter to Congress which noted that the military had not only “conducted strikes in defense of U.S. forces” there, but also in defense of local allied troops. The president also acknowledged that U.S. personnel “occasionally accompany regional forces, including Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, during counterterrorism operations.”
Obama’s war powers letter also mentioned American deployments in Cameroon, Djibouti, and Niger, efforts aimed at countering Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa, a long-running mission by military observers in Egypt, and a continuing deployment of forces supporting “the security of U.S. citizens and property” in rapidly deteriorating South Sudan.
The president offered only two sentences on U.S. military activities in Libya, although a long-running special ops and drone campaign there has been joined by a full-scale American air war, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, against Islamic State militants, especially those in the city of Sirte. Since August 1st, in fact, the United States has carried out nearly 500 air strikes in Libya, according to figures supplied by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Odyssey Lightning is, in fact, no outlier. While the “primary named operations” involving America’s elite forces in Africa have been redacted from the declassified secret files in TomDispatch’s possession, a November 2015 briefing by Bolduc, obtained via a separate FOIA request, reveals that his command was then involved in seven such operations on the continent. These likely included at least some of the following: Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa, Octave Shield, and/or Juniper Garret, all aimed at East Africa; New Normal, an effort to secure U.S. embassies and assets around the continent; Juniper Micron, a U.S.-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali (following a 2012 coup there by a U.S.-trained officer and the chaos that followed); Observant Compass, the long-running effort to decimate the Lord’s Resistance Army (which recently retired AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez derided as expensive and strategically unimportant); and Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging effort (formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara) aimed at Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. A 2015 briefing document by SOCAFRICA’s parent unit, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), also lists an ongoing “gray zone” conflict in Uganda.
On any given day, between 1,500 and 1,700 American special operators and support personnel are deployed somewhere on the continent. Over the course of a year they conduct missions in more than 20 countries. According to Bolduc’s November 2015 briefing, Special Operations Command Africa carries out 78 separate “mission sets.” These include activities that range from enhancing “partner capability and capacity” to the sharing of intelligence.
Most of what Bolduc’s troops do involves working alongside and mentoring local allies. SOCAFRICA’s showcase effort, for instance, is Flintlock, an annual training exercise in Northwest Africa involving elite American, European, and African forces, which provides the command with a plethora of publicity. More than 1,700 military personnel from 30-plus nations took part in Flintlock 2016. Next year, according to Bolduc, the exercise is expected “to grow to include SOF from more countries, [as well as] more interagency partners.”
While the information has been redacted, the SOCAFRICA strategic planning document — produced in 2012 and scheduled to be fully declassified in 2037 — indicates the existence of one or more other training exercises. Bolduc recently mentioned two: Silent Warrior and Epic Guardian. In the past, the command has also taken part in exercises like Silver Eagle 10 and Eastern Piper 12. (U.S. Africa Command did not respond to requests for comment on these exercises or other questions related to this article.)
Such exercises are, however, just a small part of the SOCAFRICA story. Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions are a larger one. Officially authorized to enable U.S. special operators to “practice skills needed to conduct a variety of missions, including foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism,” JCETs actually serve as a backdoor method of expanding U.S. military influence and contacts in Africa, since they allow for “incidental-training benefits” to “accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost.” As a result, JCETs play an important role in forging and sustaining military relationships across the continent. Just how many of these missions the U.S. conducts in Africa is apparently unknown — even to the military commands involved. As TomDispatch reported earlier this year, according to SOCOM, the U.S. conducted 19 JCETs in 2012, 20 in 2013, and 20, again, in 2014. AFRICOM, however, claims that there were nine JCETs in 2012, 18 in 2013, and 26 in 2014.
Whatever the true number, JCETs are a crucial cog in the SOCAFRICA machine. “During a JCET, exercise or training event, a special forces unit might train a partner force in a particular tactical skill and can quickly ascertain if the training audience has adopted the capability,” explained Brigadier General Bolduc. “Trainers can objectively measure competency, then exercise… that particular skill until it becomes a routine.”
In addition, SOCAFRICA also utilizes a confusing tangle of State Department and Pentagon programs and activities, aimed at local allies that operate under a crazy quilt of funding schemes, monikers, and acronyms. These include deployments of Mobile Training Teams, Joint Planning Advisory Teams, Joint Military Education Teams, Civil Military Support Elements, as well as Military Information Support Teams that engage in what once was called psychological operations, or psyops — that is, programs designed to “inform and influence foreign target audiences as appropriately authorized.”
Special Operations Command Africa also utilizes an almost mind-numbing panoply of “security cooperation programs” and other training activities including Section 1207(n) (also known as the Transitional Authorities for East Africa and Yemen, which provides equipment, training, and other aid to the militaries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen “to conduct counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda affiliates, and al-Shabab” and “enhance the capacity of national military forces participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia”); the Global Security Contingency Fund (designed to enhance the “capabilities of a country’s national military forces, and other national security forces that conduct border and maritime security, internal defense, and counterterrorism operations”); the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (or PREACT, designed to build counterterror capacities and foster military and law enforcement efforts in East African countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda); and, among others, the Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Partnership, the Global Peace Operations Initiative, the Special Operations to Combat Terrorism, the Combatting Terrorism Fellowship, and another known as Counter-Narcotic Terrorism.
Like Africa’s terror groups and Bolduc’s special ops troops, the almost 20 initiatives utilized by SOCAFRICA — a sprawling mass of programs that overlie and intersect with each other — have a border-busting quality to them. What they don’t have is clear records of success. A 2013 RAND Corporation analysis called such capacity-building programs “a tangled web, with holes, overlaps, and confusions.” A 2014 RAND study analyzing U.S. security cooperation (SC) found that there “was no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.” A 2016 RAND report on “defense institution building” in Africa noted a “poor understanding of partner interests” by the U.S. military.
“We’re supporting African military professionalization and capability-building efforts, we’re supporting development and governance via civil affairs and military information support operations teams,” Bolduc insisted publicly. “[A]ll programs must be useful to the partner nation (not the foreign agenda) and necessary to advance the partner nations’ capabilities. If they don’t pass this simple test… we need to focus on programs that do meet the African partner nation’s needs.”
The 2012 SOCAFRICA strategic planning document obtained by TomDispatch reveals, however, that Special Operations Command Africa’s primary aim is not fostering African development, governance, or military professionalization. “SOCAFRICA’s foremost objective is the prevention of an attack against America or American interests,” according to the declassified secret report. In other words, a “foreign agenda,” not the needs of African partner nations, is what’s driving the elite force’s border-busting missions.
American Aims vs. African Needs
Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw cautioned that because SOCAFRICA and AFRICOM have both changed commanders since the 2012 document was issued, it was likely out of date. “I recommend you contact SOCAFRICA,” he advised. That command failed to respond to multiple requests for information or comment. There are, however, no indications that it has actually altered its “foremost objective,” while Bolduc’s public comments suggest that the U.S. military’s engagement in the region is going strong.
“Our partners and [forward deployed U.S. personnel] recognize the arbitrary nature of borders and understand the only way to combat modern-day threats like ISIS, AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Boko Haram, and myriad others is to leverage the capabilities of SOF professionals working in concert,” said Bolduc. “Borders may be notional and don’t protect a country from the spread of violent extremism… but neither do oceans, mountains… or distance.”
In reality, however, oceans and distance have kept most Americans safe from terrorist organizations like AQIM and Boko Haram. The same cannot be said for those who live in the nations menaced by these groups. In Africa, terrorist organizations and attacks have spiked alongside the increase in U.S. Special Operations missions there. In 2006, the percentage of forward-stationed special operators on the continent hovered at 1% of total globally deployed SOF forces. By 2014, that number had hit 10% — a jump of 900% in less than a decade. During that same span, according to information from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, terror incidents in Africa increased precipitously — from just over 100 per year to nearly 2,400 annually. During the same period, the number of transnational terrorist organizations and illicit groups operating on the continent jumped from one to, according to Bolduc’s reckoning, nearly 50.
Correlation may not equal causation, but SOCAFRICA’s efforts have coincided with significantly worsening terrorist violence and the growth and spread of terror groups. And it shouldn’t be a surprise. While Bolduc publicly talks up the needs of African nations, his border-busting commandos operate under a distinctive America-first mandate and a mindset firmly in keeping with that of the incoming commander-in-chief. “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first,” Donald Trump said earlier this year in a major foreign policy speech. Kicking off his victory tour earlier this month, the president-elect echoed this theme. “From now on, it’s going to be America first. Okay? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first,” he told a crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In Africa, the most elite troops soon to be under his command have, in fact, been operating this way for years. “[W]e will prioritize and focus our operational efforts in those areas where the threat[s] to United States interests are most grave,” says the formerly secret SOCAFRICA document. “Protecting America, Americans, and American interests is our overarching objective and must be reflected in everything we do.”
Commandos Without Borders
High above, somewhere behind the black glass façade, President-elect Donald J. Trump was huddled with his inner circle, plotting just how they would “drain the swamp” and remake Washington, perhaps the world. On the street far below, inside a warren of metal fencing surrounded by hefty concrete barriers with “NYPD” emblazoned on them, two middle-aged women were engaged in a signage skirmish. One held aloft a battered poster that read “Love Trumps Hate”; just a few feet away, the other brandished a smaller slice of cardboard that said “Get Over It.”
I was somewhere in between… and the Secret Service seemed a little unnerved.
Trump Tower is many things — the crown jewel skyscraper in Donald Trump’s real-estate empire, the site of the Trump Organization’s corporate offices, a long-time setting for his reality television show, The Apprentice, and now, as the New York Times describes it, “a 58-story White House in Midtown Manhattan.” It is also, as noted above its front entrance: “OPEN TO THE PUBLIC 8 AM to 10 PM.”
When planning for the tower began in the late 1970s, Trump — like other developers of the era — struck a deal with the city of New York. In order to add extra floors to the building, he agreed to provide amenities for the public, including access to restrooms, an atrium, and two upper-level gardens.
When I arrived at Trump Tower, less than a week after Election Day, the fourth floor garden was roped off, so I proceeded up the glass escalator, made a right, and headed through a door into an outdoor pocket park on the fifth floor terrace. Just as I entered, a group of Japanese tourists was leaving and, suddenly, I was alone, a solitary figure in a secluded urban oasis.
But not for long.
Taking a seat on a silver aluminum chair at a matching table, I listened closely. It had been a zoo down on Fifth Avenue just minutes before: demonstrators chanting “love trumps hate,” Trump supporters shouting back, traffic noise echoing in the urban canyon, the “whooooop” of police sirens, and a bikini-clad woman in body paint singing in front of the main entrance. And yet in this rectangular roof garden, so near to America’s new White House-in-waiting, all was placid and peaceful. There was no hint of the tourist-powered tumult below or of the potentially world-altering political machinations above, just the unrelenting white noise-hum of the HVAC system.
On His Majesty’s Secret Service
The Stars and Stripes flies above the actual White House in Washington, D.C. Inside the Oval Office, it’s joined by another flag — the seal of the president of the United States emblazoned on a dark blue field. Here, however, Old Glory flies side by side with slightly tattered black-and-silver Nike swoosh flags waving lazily above the tony storefronts — Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent, Burberry and Chanel — of Manhattan’s 57th Street, and, of course, Trump Tower-tenant Niketown.
That I was standing beneath those flags gazing down at luxe retailers evidently proved too much to bear for those who had been not-so-subtly surveilling me. Soon a fit, heavily armed man clad in black tactical gear — what looked to my eye like a Kevlar assault suit and ballistic vest — joined me in the garden. “How’s it going?” I asked, but he only nodded, muttered something incomprehensible, and proceeded to eyeball me hard for several minutes as I sat down at a table and scrawled away in my black Moleskine notepad.
My new paramilitary pal fit in perfectly with the armed-camp aesthetic that’s blossomed around Trump Tower. The addition of fences and concrete barriers to already clogged holiday season sidewalks has brought all the joys of the airport security line to Fifth Avenue. The scores of police officers now stationed around the skyscraper give it the air of a military outpost in a hostile land. (All at a bargain basement price of $1 million-plus per day for the city of New York.) Police Commissioner James O’Neill recently reeled off the forces which — in addition to traffic cops, beat cops, and bomb-sniffing dogs — now occupy this posh portion of the city: “specialized units, the critical response command, and the strategic response group, as well as plainclothes officers and counter-surveillance teams working hand-in-hand with our intelligence bureau and our partners in the federal government, specifically the Secret Service.” The armed man in tactical gear who had joined me belonged to the latter agency.
“You one of the reporters from downstairs?” he finally asked.
“Yeah, I’m a reporter,” I replied and then filled the silence that followed by saying, “This has got to be a new one, huh, having a second White House to contend with?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” he answered, and then assured me that most visitors seemed disappointed by this park. “I think everyone comes up thinking there’ll be a little more, but it’s like ‘yeah, okay.’”
Small talk, however, wasn’t the agent’s forte, nor did he seem particularly skilled at intimidation, though it was clear enough that he wasn’t thrilled to have this member of the public in this public space. Luckily for me (and the lost art of conversation), we were soon joined by “Joe.” An aging bald man of not insignificant girth, Joe appeared to have made it onto the Secret Service’s managerial track. He didn’t do commando-chic. He wasn’t decked out in ridiculous SWAT-style regalia, nor did he have myriad accessories affixed to his clothing or a submachine gun strapped to his body. He wore a nondescript blue suit with a silver and blue pin on his left lapel.
I introduced myself as he took a seat across from me and, in response, though working for a federal agency, he promptly began a very NYPD-style interrogation with a very NYPD-style accent.
“What’s going on, Nick?” he inquired.
“Not too much.”
“What are you doing? You’re all by yourself here…”
“Yeah, I’m all by my lonesome.”
“Kinda strange,” he replied in a voice vaguely reminiscent of Robert De Niro eating a salami sandwich.
“I don’t know. What are you doing? Taking notes?” he asked.
I had reflexively flipped my notepad to a fresh page as I laid it between us on the table and Joe was doing his best to get a glimpse of what I’d written.
I explained that I was a reporter. Joe wanted to know for whom I worked, so I reeled off a list of outlets where I’d been published. He followed up by asking where I was from. I told him and asked him the same. Joe said he was from Queens.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked.
“I was just saying to your friend here that it must be a real experience having a second White House to contend with.”
“Yeah, you could call it that,” he replied, sounding vaguely annoyed. Joe brushed aside my further attempts at small talk in favor of his own ideas about where our conversation should go.
“You got some ID on you?” he asked.
“I do,” I replied, offering nothing more than a long silence.
“Can I see it?”
“Do you need to?”
“If you don’t mind,” he said politely. Since I didn’t, I handed him my driver’s license and a business card. Looking at the former, with a photo of a younger man with a much thicker head of hair, Joe asked his most important question yet: “What did you do to your hair?”
“Ah yes,” I replied with a sigh, rubbing my hand over my thinned-out locks. “It’s actually what my hair did to me.”
He gestured to his own follically challenged head and said, “I remember those days.”
Trump Tower’s Public Private Parts
Joe asked if there was anything he could do for me, so I wasn’t bashful. I told him that I wanted to know what his job was like — what it takes to protect President-elect Donald Trump and his soon-to-be second White House. “You do different things. Long hours. Nothing out of the ordinary. Probably the same as you,” he said. I told him I really doubted that and kept up my reverse interrogation. “Other than talking to me, what did you do today?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he responded. “Look around. Security. We’re Secret Service.” It was, he assured me, a boring job.
“Come on,” I said. “There’s got to be a lot of challenges to securing a place like this. You’ve got open public spaces just like this one.”
There are, in fact, more than 500 privately owned public spaces, or POPS, similar to this landscaped terrace, all over the city. By adding the gardens, atrium, and other amenities way back when, Trump was able to add about 20 extra floors to this building, a deal worth at least $500 million today, according to the New York Times. And in the post-election era, Trump Tower now boasts a new, one-of-a-kind amenity. The skies above it have been declared “national defense airspace” by the Federal Aviation Administration. “The United States government may use deadly force against the airborne aircraft, if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat,” the agency warned in a recent notice to pilots.
Back on the fifth floor, a metal plaque mounted on an exterior wall lays out the stipulations of the POPs agreement, namely that this “public garden” is to have nine large trees, four small trees, 148 seats, including 84 moveable chairs, and 21 tables. None of the trees looked particularly large. By my count the terrace was also missing three tables — a type available online starting at $42.99 — and about 20 chairs, though some were stacked out of view and, of course, just two were needed at the moment since Mr. Tactical Gear remained standing, a short distance away, the whole time.
This tiny secluded park seemed a world away from the circus below, the snarl of barricades outside the building, the tourists taking selfies with the big brassy “Trump Tower” sign in the background, and the heavily armed counterterror cops standing guard near the revolving door entrance.
I remarked on this massive NYPD presence on the streets. “It’s their city,” Joe replied and quickly changed topics, asking, “So business is good?”
“No, business is not too good. I should have picked a different profession,” I responded and asked if the Secret Service was hiring. Joe told me they were and explained what they looked for in an agent: a clean record, college degree, “law experience.” It made me reflect upon the not-so-clean record of that agency in the Obama years, a period during which its agents were repeatedly cited for gaffes, as when a fence-jumper made it all the way to the East Room of the White House, and outrageous behavior, including a prostitution scandal involving agents preparing the way for a presidential visit to Colombia.
“What did you do before the Secret Service?” I inquired. Joe told me that he’d been a cop. At that point, he gave his black-clad compatriot the high sign and the younger man left the garden.
“See, I’m no threat,” I assured him. Joe nodded and said he now understood the allure of the tiny park. Sensing that he was eager to end the interrogation I had turned on its head, I began peppering him with another round of questions.
Instead of answering, he said, “Yeah, so anyway, Nick, I’ll leave you here,” and then offered me a piece of parting advice — perhaps one that no Secret Service agent protecting a past president-elect has ever had occasion to utter, perhaps one that suggests he’s on the same wavelength as the incoming commander-in-chief, a man with a penchant for ogling women (to say nothing of bragging about sexually assaulting them). “You should come downstairs,” Joe advised, his eyes widening, a large grin spreading across his face as his voice grew animated for the first time. “There was a lady in a bikini with a painted body!”
Joe walked off and, just like that, I was alone again, listening to the dull hum of the HVAC, seated in the dying light of the late afternoon. A short time later, on my way out of the park, I passed the Secret Service agent in tactical gear. “I think you’re the one that found the most entertainment out here all day,” he said, clearly trying to make sense of why anyone would spend his time sitting in an empty park, scribbling in a notebook. I mentioned something about sketching out the scene, but more than that, I was attempting to soak in the atmosphere, capture a feeling, grapple with the uncertain future taking shape on the chaotic avenue below and high above our heads in Manhattan’s very own gilt White House. I was seeking a preview, you might say, of Donald Trump’s America.
Descending the switchback escalators, I found myself gazing at the lobby where a scrum of reporters stood waiting for golden elevator doors to open, potentially disgorging a Trump family member or some other person hoping to serve at the pleasure of the next president. Behind me water cascaded several stories down a pink marble wall, an overblown monument to a bygone age of excess. Ahead of me, glass cases filled with Trump/Pence 2016 T-shirts, colognes with the monikers “Empire” and “Success,” the iconic red “Make America Great Again” one-size-fits-all baseball cap, stuffed animals, and other tchotchkes stood next to an overflowing gilded garbage can. Heading for the door, I thought about all of this and Joe and his commando-chic colleague and Trump’s deserted private-public park, and the army of cops, the metal barricades, and the circus that awaited me on the street. I felt I’d truly been given some hint of the future, a whisper of what awaits. I also felt certain I’d be returning to Trump Tower — and soon.
The Manhattan White House, the Secret Service, and the Painted Bikini Lady
“So is he going to win?”
The question washed over me as I slumped in my hard plastic chair. I had passed the day walking through a town where most homes lay in ruins and human remains were strewn across a field, a day spent looking over my shoulder for soldiers and melting in the 110-degree heat. My mind was as spent as my body.
Under an inky sky ablaze with stars, the type of night you see only in the rural world, I looked toward the man who asked the question and half-shrugged. Everyone including me, I said, thought Donald Trump was going to flame out long ago. And he hadn’t. So what did I know?
At that point, I couldn’t bear to talk about it anymore, so the two of us sat speechless for a time. Finally, my companion looked back at me and broke his silence. “It can’t happen, can it?” he asked.
I had no answer then — March of this year — sitting in that ruined town in South Sudan.
I do now.
I thought about that March night as the election results rolled in, as the New York Times forecast showed Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency plummet from about 80% to less than 5%, while Trump’s fortunes skyrocketed by the minute.
As Clinton’s future in the Oval Office evaporated, leaving only a whiff of her stale dreams, I saw all the foreign-policy certainties, all the hawkish policies and military interventions, all the would-be bin Laden raids and drone strikes she’d preside over as commander-in-chief similarly vanish into the ether.
With her failed candidacy went the no-fly escalation in Syria that she was sure to pursue as president with the vigor she had applied to the disastrous Libyan intervention of 2011 while secretary of state. So, too, went her continued pursuit of the now-nameless war on terror, the attendant “gray-zone” conflicts — marked by small contingents of U.S. troops, drone strikes, and bombing campaigns — and all those munitions she would ship to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen.
As the life drained from Clinton’s candidacy, I saw her rabid pursuit of a new Cold War start to wither and Russo-phobic comparisons of Putin’s rickety Russian petro-state to Stalin’s Soviet Union begin to die. I saw the end, too, of her Iron Curtain-clouded vision of NATO, of her blind faith in an alliance more in line with 1957 than 2017.
As Clinton’s political fortunes collapsed, so did her Israel-Palestine policy — rooted in the fiction that American and Israeli security interests overlap — and her commitment to what was clearly an unworkable “peace process.” Just as, for domestic considerations, she would blindly support that Middle Eastern nuclear power, so was she likely to follow President Obama’s trillion-dollar path to modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal. All that, along with her sure-to-be-gargantuan military budget requests, were scattered to the winds by her ringing defeat.
The Dismal Tide
As I watched CNN, Twitter, and the Times website, what came to mind was that March night in South Sudan, after that exchange about Donald Trump, when the camp went quiet and I dragged my reeking body from my tent to the “shower” — water in a plastic bucket that I had earlier pumped from a borehole. I picked my way across the camp with a flashlight so tiny it barely illuminated one step at a time. It was like driving at night without headlights, a sojourn into the unknown, a journey into an airless, enveloping darkness.
All that seemed certain suddenly wasn’t. What would come next was a mystery. That March night, I was trying to avoid falling into an open pit that was to serve as a shelter if shooting started near the camp. As election night proceeded, a potentially more dangerous abyss seemed to be opening in the darkness before me.
Clinton’s foreign policy future had been a certainty. Trump’s was another story entirely. He had, for instance, called for a raft of military spending: growing the Army and Marines to a ridiculous size, building a Navy to reach a seemingly arbitrary and budget-busting number of ships, creating a mammoth air armada of fighter jets, pouring money into a missile defense boondoggle, and recruiting a legion of (presumably overweight) hackers to wage cyber war. All of it to be paid for by cutting unnamed waste, ending unspecified “federal programs,” or somehow conjuring up dollars from hither and yon. But was any of it serious? Was any of it true? Would President Trump actually make good on the promises of candidate Trump? Or would he simply bark “Wrong!” when somebody accused him of pledging to field an army of 540,000 active duty soldiers or build a Navy of 350 ships.
Would Trump actually attempt to implement his plan to defeat ISIS — that is, “bomb the shit out of them” and then “take the oil” of Iraq? Or was that just the bellicose bluster of the campaign trail? Would he be the reckless hawk Clinton promised to be, waging wars like the Libyan intervention? Or would he follow the dictum of candidate Trump who said, “The current strategy of toppling regimes, with no plan for what to do the day after, only produces power vacuums that are filled by terrorists.”
Outgoing representative Randy Forbes of Virginia, a contender to be secretary of the Navy in the new administration, recently said that the president elect would employ “an international defense strategy that is driven by the Pentagon and not by the political National Security Council… Because if you look around the globe, over the last eight years, the National Security Council has been writing that. And find one country anywhere that we are better off than we were eight years [ago], you cannot find it.”
Such a plan might actually blunt armed adventurism, since it was war-weary military officials who reportedly pushed back against President Obama’s plans to escalate Iraq War 3.0. According to some Pentagon-watchers, a potentially hostile bureaucracy might also put the brakes on even fielding a national security team in a timely fashion.
While Wall Street investors seemed convinced that the president elect would be good for defense industry giants like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, whose stocks surged in the wake of Trump’s win, it’s unclear whether that indicates a belief in more armed conflicts or simply more bloated military spending.
Under President Obama, the U.S. has waged war in or carried out attacks on at least eight nations — Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. A Clinton presidency promised more, perhaps markedly more, of the same — an attitude summed up in her infamous comment about the late Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” Trump advisor Senator Jeff Sessions said, “Trump does not believe in war. He sees war as bad, destructive, death and a wealth destruction.” Of course, Trump himself said he favors committing war crimes like torture and murder. He’s also suggested that he would risk war over the sort of naval provocations — like Iranian ships sailing close to U.S. vessels — that are currently met with nothing graver than warning shots.
So there’s good reason to assume Trump will be a Clintonesque hawk or even worse, but some reason to believe — due to his propensity for lies, bluster, and backing down — that he could also turn out to be less bellicose.
Given his penchant for running businesses into the ground and for economic proposals expected to rack up trillions of dollars in debt, it’s possible that, in the end, Trump will inadvertently cripple the U.S. military. And given that the government is, in many ways, a national security state bonded with a mass of money and orbited by satellite departments and agencies of far lesser import, Trump could even kneecap the entire government. If so, what could be catastrophic for Americans — a battered, bankrupt United States — might, ironically, bode well for the wider world.
In his victory speech, Trump struck a conciliatory note. “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans,” he intoned. “Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.” This stood at odds with a year and a half of rancid rhetoric that was denounced far and wide as racist, sexist and xenophobic. That said, racism, sexism and xenophobia have long been embraced by American presidents — anti-immigrant presidents, presidents who oppressed, forcibly displaced, imprisoned, or killed their fellow men on the basis of race or ethnicity, presidents who were dismissive when it came to a woman’s right to vote, or even owned women outright.
Such behavior is wired into the DNA of the United States. Indeed, these traits form the bedrock of a land born of the twin evils of settler colonialism and slavery. Progress since — rights movements, strides toward equal protections under the law, even the notion of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice — may not ultimately be linear or even lasting. The high-water mark of the American experiment may well have already been reached. Looking out from this city on a hill, it may soon be possible to glimpse the spot where the wave crested, before it ebbed and headed back out to sea. So much that was fought for with such bravery may be swept away in the dismal tide and drowned in the depths.
Or perhaps not.
What was dragged under may struggle to the surface. Castaways clinging to a lifeboat in the tempest may, one day, find themselves aboard a sea-splitting ship — its sails full, its many-hued flags flying, its decks teeming; its crew poised to thunder ashore, securing a new American beachhead.
We simply cannot know.
It Can Happen Here
That dark, sultry night in South Sudan, I thought a great deal about rights and oppression, about what happens when the worst impulses of men are stoked and sharpened, about what it means when a government turns on its own people. There, in that ruined town, young girls and women had been kidnapped and gang-raped with regularity; men and boys had been locked in a shipping container to wither and die; homes had been razed; corpses abandoned to snarling, scavenging hyenas; and skeletal remains left unburied. It was a horrorscape, a place of suffering almost beyond imagining, one that puts the problems of America’s “forgotten men and women” and their “economic disenfranchisement,” as well as the “rage many white working-class people feel” into perspective.
At the time, I told my questioner just what I thought a Hillary Clinton presidency might mean for America and the world: more saber-rattling, more drone strikes, more military interventions, among other things. Our just-ended election aborted those would-be wars, though Clinton’s legacy can still be seen, among other places, in the rubble of Iraq, the battered remains of Libya, and the faces of South Sudan’s child soldiers. Donald Trump has the opportunity to forge a new path, one that could be marked by bombast instead of bombs. If ever there was a politician with the ability to simply declare victory and go home — regardless of the facts on the ground — it’s him. Why go to war when you can simply say that you did, big league, and you won?
The odds, of course, are against this. The United States has been embroiled in foreign military actions, almost continuously, since its birth and in 64 conflicts, large and small, according to the military, in the last century alone. It’s a country that, since 9/11, has been remarkably content to wage winless, endless wars with little debate or popular outcry. It’s a country in which Barack Obama won election, in large measure, due to dissatisfaction with the prior commander-in-chief’s signature war and then, after winning a Nobel Peace Prize and overseeing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, reengaged in an updated version of that very same war — bequeathing it now to Donald J. Trump.
“This Trump. He’s a crazy man!” the African aid worker insisted to me that March night. “He says some things and you wonder: Are you going to be president? Really?” It turns out the answer is yes.
“It can’t happen, can it?” That question still echoes in my mind.
I know all the things that now can’t happen, Clinton’s wars among them. The Trump era looms ahead like a dark mystery, cold and hard. We may well be witnessing the rebirth of a bitter nation, the fruit of a land poisoned at its root by evils too fundamental to overcome; a country exceptional for its squandered gifts and forsaken providence, its shattered promises and moral squalor.
“It can’t happen, can it?”
Indeed, my friend, it just did.
It Did Happen Here
LEER, South Sudan — There it is again. That sickening smell. I’m standing on the threshold of a ghost of a home. Its footprint is all that’s left. In the ruins sits a bulbous little silver teakettle — metal, softly rounded, charred but otherwise perfect, save for two punctures. Something tore through it and ruined it, just as something tore through this home and ruined it, just as something tore through this town and left it a dusty, wasted ruin.
This, truth be told, is no longer a town, not even a razed one. It’s a killing field, a place where human remains lie unburied, whose residents have long since fled, while its few remaining inhabitants are mostly refugees from similarly ravaged villages.
The world is awash in killing fields, sites of slaughter where armed men have laid waste to the innocent, the defenseless, the unlucky; locales where women and children, old and young men have been suffocated, had their skulls shattered, been left gut-shot and gasping. Or sometimes they’re just the unhallowed grounds where the battered and broken bodies of such unfortunates are dumped without ceremony or prayer or even a moment of solemn reflection. Over the last century, these blood-soaked sites have sprouted across the globe: Cambodia, the Philippines, the Koreas, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — on and on, year after year, country after country.
Chances are, you once heard something about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw up to one million men, women, and children murdered in just 100 days. You may remember the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai. And maybe you recall the images of Saddam Hussein’s 1988 chemical weapons attack on Kurds in Halabja. For years, Sudan contributed to this terrible tally. You might, for instance, remember the attention paid to the slaughter of civilians in Darfur during the 2000s. The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were also massacres farther south in or around towns you’ve probably never heard of like Malakal, Bor, and Leer.
A 2005 peace deal between U.S.-supported rebels in the south of Sudan and the government in the north was supposed to put a stop to such slaughter, but it never quite did. And in some quarters, worse was predicted for the future. “Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing,” said U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in 2010. “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”
In late 2013 and 2014, Malakal, Bor, Leer, and other towns in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, were indeed littered with bodies. And the killing in this country — the result of the third civil war since the 1950s — has only continued.
In 2014, I traveled to Malakal to learn what I could about the destruction of that town and the civilians who perished there. In 2015, I walked among the mass graves of Bor where, a year earlier, a bulldozer had dug huge trenches for hundreds of bodies, some so badly decomposed or mutilated that it was impossible to identify whether they had been men, women, or children. This spring, I find myself in Leer, another battered enclave, as aid groups struggled to reestablish their presence, as armed men still stalked the night, as human skulls gleamed beneath the blazing midday sun.
The nose-curling odor here told me that somewhere, something was burning. The scent had been in my nostrils all day. Sometimes, it was just a faint, if harsh, note carried on the hot breeze, but when the wind shifted it became an acrid, all-encompassing stench — not the comforting smell of a cooking fire, but something far more malign. I looked to the sky, searching for a plume of smoke, but there was only the same opaque glare, blinding and ashen. Wiping my eyes, I muttered a quick curse for this place and moved on to the next ruined shell of a home, and the next, and the next. The devastated wattle-and-daub tukuls and wrecked animal pens stretched on as far as I could see.
This is Leer — or at least what’s left of it.
The Fire Last Time
If you want to learn more about this town, about what happened to it, Leer isn’t the best place to start. You’d be better served by traveling down the road several miles to Thonyor, another town in southern Unity State where so much of Leer’s population fled. It was there that I found Mary Nyalony, a 31-year-old mother of five who, only days before, had given birth to a son.
Leer was her hometown and life there had never been easy. War arrived shortly after fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in December 2013, a rupture that most here call “the crisis.” With civil war came men with guns and, in early 2014, Nyalony was forced to run for her life. For three months, she and her family lived in the bush, before eventually returning to Leer. The International Committee of the Red Cross was airdropping food there, she tells me. In her mind, those were the halcyon days. “There was enough to eat,” she explains. “Now, we have nothing.”
The road to nothing, like the road to Thonyor, began for her in the early morning hours of a day in May 2015. Single gunshots and staccato bursts of gunfire began echoing across Leer, followed by screams and panic. This has been the story of South Sudan’s civil war: few pitched battles between armies, many attacks on civilians by armed men. Often, it’s unclear just who is attacking. Civilians hear gunfire and they begin to run. If they’re lucky they get away with their lives, and often little else.
The war here has regularly been portrayed as a contest between the president, Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, and Riek Machar, a member of the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. Kiir and Machar do indeed have a long history as both allies and enemies and as president and vice president of their new nation. Kiir went on to sack Machar. Months later, the country plunged into civil war. Kiir claimed the violence stemmed from an abortive coup by Machar, but an investigation by an African Union commission found no evidence of that. It did, however, find that “Dinka soldiers, members of Presidential Guard, and other security forces conducted house-to-house searches, killing Nuer soldiers and civilians in and near their homes” and that it was carried out “in furtherance of a State policy.” The civil war that ensued “ended” with an August 2015 peace agreement that saw Machar rejoin the government. But the violence never actually stopped and after a fresh round of killings in the capital in July, he fled the country and has since issued a new call for rebellion.
In truth, though, the war in South Sudan is far more than a battle between two men, two tribes, two armies — Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO). It’s a conflict of shifting alliances involving a plethora of armed actors and ad hoc militias led by a corrupt cast of characters fighting wars within wars. The complexities are mind-boggling: longstanding bad blood, grievances, and feuds intertwined with ethnic enmities tangled, in turn, with internecine tribal and clan animosities, all aided and abetted by the power of modern weaponry and the way the ancient cultural practice of cattle-raiding has morphed into paramilitary raiding. Add in a nation in financial free-fall; the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny, riven elite; the mass availability of weaponry; and so many actors pursuing so many aims that it’s impossible to keep them all straight.
Whatever the complexities of this war, however, the playbooks of its actors remain remarkably uniform. Men armed with AK-47s fall upon undefended communities. They kill, pillage, loot. Younger women and girls are singled-out for exceptional forms of violence: gang rapes and sexual slavery. Some have been forced into so-called rape camps, where they become the “wives” of soldiers; others are sexually assaulted and killed in especially sadistic ways. Along with women, the soldiers often take cattle — the traditional rural currency, source of wealth, and means of sustenance in the region.
In Leer and the surrounding villages of Unity State, last year’s government offensive to take back rebel territory followed exactly this pattern, but with a ferocity that was striking even for this war. More than one expert told me that, at least for a time in 2015, Leer and its surroundings were one of the worst places in the entire world.
Armed youth from Nuer clans allied to the government offered no mercy. Fighting alongside troops from the SPLA and forces loyal to local officials, they carried out a scorched-earth campaign against other ethnic Nuers from spring 2015 though the late fall. Their pay was whatever they could steal and whomever they could rape.
“People in southern Unity State have suffered through some of the most harrowing violence that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has seen in South Sudan — or in almost any other context where we work,” says Pete Buth, Deputy Director of Operations for the aid group. “Over the course of the last two years, and particularly from May to November of 2015, women, men and children have been indiscriminately targeted with extreme and brutal violence. We’ve received reports and testimonies of rape, killings, abductions of women and children and the wholesale destruction of villages. The levels of violence have been absolutely staggering.”
By late last year, almost 600,000 people like Nyalony had been displaced in Unity State alone.
“They came to raid the cattle. They seemed to be allied to the government,” she tells me. Given all she’s been through, given the newborn she’s gently palpitating, her eyes are surprisingly bright, her voice strong. Her recollections, however, are exceptionally grim. Two younger male relatives of hers were shot but survived. Her father-in-law wasn’t so fortunate. He was killed in the attack, she tells me, his body consumed in the same flames that destroyed his home.
The Fire This Time
On the road from Leer to Thonyor I discovered the source of the harsh odor that had been assaulting my senses all day. A large agricultural fire was raging along the winding dirt road between the two towns, the former now in the hands of Kiir’s SPLA, the latter still controlled by Machar’s rebels. A plume of smoke poured skyward from orange flames that leapt maybe 15 feet high as they consumed palm trees, brush, and swampland.
I watched the same inferno on my way back to Leer, thinking about the charred corpse of Nyalony’s father-in-law, about all the others who never made it out of homes that were now nothing but ankle-high rectangles of mud and wood or piles of shattered concrete. On another day, in Leer’s triple digit heat, I walk through some of the charred remains with a young woman from the area. Tall, with close-cropped hair and a relaxed, easy demeanor, she guides me through the ruins. “This one was a very good building,” she says of one of the largest piles of rubble, a home whose exterior walls were a striking and atypical mint green. “They killed the father at this house. He had two wives. One wife had, maybe, six babies.” (I find out later that when she says “babies” she means children.) Pointing to the wrecked shell next to it, what’s left of a more traditional decorated mud wall, she says, “The other wife had five babies.”
We thread our way through the ravaged tukuls, past support beams for thatched roofs that easily went up in flames. In her honeyed voice, my guide narrates the contents of the wreckage. “It’s a bed,” she explains of a scorched metal frame. “Now, it’s no bed,” she adds with a laugh.
She points out another tukul, its mud walls mostly still standing, though its roof is gone and the interior walls scorched. “I know the man who lived here,” she tells me. His large family is gone now. She doesn’t know where. “Maybe Juba. Maybe wherever.”
“They were shooting. They destroyed the house. If the people were inside the house, they shoot them. Then they burn it,” she says. Pointing toward another heavy metal bed frame, she explains the obvious just in case I don’t understand why the ruins are awash in these orphaned pieces of furniture. “If they’re shooting, you don’t care about beds. You run.” She pauses and I watch as her face slackens and her demeanor goes dark. “You might even leave a baby. You don’t want to, but there’s shooting. They’ll shoot you. You’re afraid and you run away.” Then she falls silent.
“What civilians experienced in Leer County was terrible. When the population was forced to flee from their homes, they had to flee with nothing into these swamps in the middle of the night,” says Jonathan Loeb, a human rights investigator who served as a consultant with Amnesty International’s crisis response team in Leer. “And so you had these nightmarish scenarios where parents are abandoning their children, husbands are abandoning their wives, babies are drowning in swamps in the middle of the night. And this is happening repeatedly.”
Nataba, whom I meet in Leer, faces away from me, her legs folded beneath her on the concrete porch. She carefully removes the straps of her dark blue dress from her left shoulder and then her right, letting it fall from the top half of her body so that she can work unimpeded. “I came to Leer some weeks ago. There was lots of shooting in Juong,” she says of her home village. From there she fled with her children to Mayendit, then on to Leer, to this very compound, once evidently a church or religious center. Nataba leans forward, using a rock to grind maize into meal. I watch her back muscles shudder and ripple as she folds her body toward the ground like a supplicant, then pulls back, repeating the motion endlessly. Though hard at work, her voice betrays no hint of exertion. She just faces forward, nude to the waist, her voice clear and matter-of-fact. Five people from her village, including her 15-year-old daughter, she tells me, were shot and killed by armed men from nearby Koch County. “A lot of women were raped,” she adds.
Deborah sits close by with Nataba’s four surviving children draped all over her. I mistake her for a grandmother to the brood, but she’s no relation. She was driven out of Dok village last December, also by militia from Koch who — by her count — killed eight men and two women. She fled into the forest where she had neither food nor protection from the elements. At least here in Leer she’s sharing what meager provisions Nataba has, hoping that aid organizations will soon begin bringing in rations.
Her face is a sun-weathered web of lines etched by adversity, hardship, and want. Her wiry frame is all muscle and bone. In the West, you’d have to live at the gym and be 30 years younger to have arms as defined as hers. She hopes for peace, she tells me, and mentions that she’s a Catholic. “There’s nothing here to eat” is, however, the line that she keeps repeating. As I get up to leave, she grasps my hand. “Shukran. Thank you,” I tell her, not for the first time, and at that she melts to the ground, kneeling at my feet. Taken aback, I freeze, then watch — and feel — as she takes her thumb and makes a sign of the cross on the toe of each of my shoes. “God bless you,” she says.
It’s still early morning, but when I meet Theresa Nyayang Machok she already looks exhausted. It could be that this widow is responsible for 10 children, six girls and four boys; or that she has no other family here; or that her home in the village of Loam was destroyed; or that, as she says, “there’s no work, there’s no food”; or all of it combined. She turns away from time to time to try to persuade several of her children to stop tormenting a tiny puppy with an open wound on one ear.
The youngest child, a boy with a distended belly, won’t leave the puppy alone and breaks into a wail when it snaps at him. To quiet the toddler, an older brother hands him a torn foil package of Plumpy’Sup, a peanut-based nutrition supplement given out by international aid agencies. The toddler licks up the last daubs of the high-protein, high-fat paste.
Men from Koch attacked her village late last year, Machok tells me, taking all the cattle and killing six civilians. When they came to her home, they demanded money that she didn’t have. She gave them clothes instead, then ran with her children in tow. Stranded here in Leer on the outskirts of the government camp, she brews up alcohol when she can get the ingredients and sells it to SPLA soldiers. If peace comes, she wants to go home. Until then, she’ll be here. “There’s nobody in my village. It’s empty,” she explains.
Sarah, a withered woman, lives in Giel, a devastated little hamlet on Leer’s outskirts. To call her home a “wattle hovel” would be generous, since it looks like it might collapse on her family at any moment. “There was fighting here,” she says. “Whenever there’s fighting we run to the river.” For months last year, she lived with her children in a nearby waterlogged swamp, hiding in the tall grass, hoping the armed men she refers to as SPLM — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Kiir’s party — wouldn’t find them. At least five people in Giel were killed, she says, including her sister’s adult son.
She returned home only to be confronted by more armed men who took most of what little she had left. “They said ‘give us clothes or we’ll shoot you,’” she tells me. Sarah’s children, mostly naked, crowd around. A few wear scraps that are little more than rags. Her own black dress is so threadbare that it leaves little to the imagination. Worse yet are her stores of food. She hid some sorghum, but that’s all gone.
I ask what they’re eating. She gets up, walks over to a spot where a battered sheet of metal leans against an empty animal pen, and comes back with two small handfuls of dried water lily bulbs, which she places at my feet. It’s far too little to feed this family. I ask if food is their greatest need. No, she says, gesturing toward her roof — more gaps than thatch. She needs plastic tarps to provide some protection for her children. “The rainy season,” she says, “is coming.”
Nyanet is an elderly man, though he has no idea just how old. His eyes are cloudy and haunted, his hearing poor, so my interpreter shouts my questions at him. “The soldiers come at night,” he responds. ”They have guns. They take clothes; they take food; they take cows,” he says. All the young men of the village are gone. “They killed them.” The armed men, he tells me, also took girls and young women away.
Not far from Nyanet’s tiny home, I meet Nyango. She’s also unsure of her age. “If the SPLM comes, they take cattle. They kill people,” she explains. She also ran to the river and lived there for months. Like the others in this tumbledown village, her family wears rags. Her children fell ill living in the mud and muck and water for so long, and still haven’t recovered.
“People have been hiding in the bush and swamps, terrified for their lives with little or no access to humanitarian assistance for months at a time. That’s been the status quo for much of the last year,” explains MSF’s Pete Buth. “Now, as people gradually leave from their hiding places, we are seeing the aftermath. Children are suffering from fungal infections on their hands and feet, their skin painful and broken as they leave the swamps and then the dirt and heat dry out the wounds.”
I look down at the nude toddler clinging to Nyango’s leg. The child’s eyes are covered in milky white mucus and flies are lining up to dine on it. I’ve seen plenty of children, eyes crawling with flies — the ultimate “African” cliché, the sight that launched a thousand funding appeals, but never have I seen so many tiny flies arranged in such an orderly fashion to sup at a child’s eyes. Nyango keeps talking, my interpreter keeps translating, but I’m fixated on this tiny boy. A pathetic mewing sound escapes his lips and Nyango reaches down, pulls him up, and settles him on her hip.
I force my attention back to her as she explains that the men who devastated this place killed six people she knows of. Another woman in Giel suggests that 50 people died in this small village. The truth is that no one may ever know how many men, women, and children from Giel, Leer, and surrounding areas were slaughtered in the endless rounds of fighting since this war began.
Where the Bodies Are Buried
Nobody seems to want to talk about where all the bodies went either. It’s an awkward question to ask and all I get are noncommittal answers or sometimes blank stares. People are much more willing to talk about killing than to comment on corpses. But there is plenty of tangible proof of atrocities in Leer if you’re willing to look.
In the midday heat, I set out toward the edge of town following simple directions that turn out to be anything but. I walk down a dirt path that quickly fades into an open expanse, while two new paths begin on either side. No one said anything about this. Up ahead, a group of boys are clustered near a broken-down structure. I don’t want to attract attention so I take the path on the right, putting the building between them and me.
I’m in Leer with only quasi-approval from the representative of a government that openly threatens reporters with death, in a nation where the term “press freedom” is often a cruel joke, where journalists are arrested, disappeared, tortured, or even killed, and no one is held accountable. As a white American, I’m probably immune to the treatment meted out to South Sudanese reporters, but I’m not eager to test the proposition. At the very least, I can be detained, my reporting cut short.
I try to maintain a low profile, but as a Caucasian in foreign clothes and a ridiculous boonie hat, it’s impossible for me to blend in here. “Khawaja! [White man!],” the boys yell. It’s what children often say on seeing me. I offer up an embarrassed half wave and keep moving. If they follow, I know this expedition’s over. But they stay put.
I’m worried now that I’ve gone too far, that I should have taken the other path. I’m in an open expanse under the relentless midday sun. In the distance, I see a group of women and decide to move toward a nearby stand of trees. Suddenly, I think I see it, the area I’ve been looking for, the area that some around here have taken to calling “the killing field.”
Killing Fields: Then
The world is awash in “killing fields” and I’ve visited my fair share of them. The term originally comes from the terrible autogenocide of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and was coined by Dith Pran, whose story was chronicled by his New York Times colleague Sydney Schanberg in a magazine article, a book, and finally an Academy-Award-winning film aptly titled The Killing Fields.
“I saw with my eyes that there are many, many killing fields… there’s all the skulls and the bones piled up, some in the wells,” Pran explained after traveling from town to town across Cambodia during his escape to Thailand in 1979. Near Siem Reap, now a popular tourist haunt, Pran visited two sites littered with remains — each holding around four to five thousand bodies covered with a thin layer of dirt. Fertilized by death, the grass grew far taller and greener where the bodies were buried.
There’s a monument to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, a site of mass graves just outside of Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Although the Cambodian slaughter ended with the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, when I visited decades later, there were still bones jutting up from the bottom of a pit and shards of a long bone, maybe a femur, embedded in a path I took.
Then there are the skulls. A Buddhist stupa on the site is filled with thousands of them, piled high, attesting to the sheer scale of the slaughter. Millions of Cambodians — two million, three million, no one knows how many — died at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Similarly, no one knows how many South Sudanese have been slaughtered in the current round of fighting, let alone in the civil wars that preceded it. The war between southern rebels and the Sudanese government, which raged from 1955 to 1972, reportedly cost more than 500,000 lives. Reignited in 1983, it churned on for another 20-plus years, leaving around two million dead from violence, starvation, and disease.
A rigorous survey by the U.N.’s Office of the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, released earlier this year, estimated that last year in just one area of Unity State — 24 communities, including Leer — 7,165 persons were killed in violence and another 829 drowned while fleeing. Add to those nearly 8,000 deaths another 1,243 people “lost” — generally thought to have been killed but without confirmation — while fleeing and 890 persons who were abducted, and you have a toll of suffering that exceeds 10,000.
To put the figures in perspective, those 8,000 dead in and around Leer are more than double the number of civilians — men, women, children — killed in the war in Afghanistan in 2015, and more than double the number of all civilians killed in the conflict in Yemen last year. Even a low-end estimate — 50,000 South Sudanese civilian deaths in roughly two years of civil war from December 2013 through December 2015 — exceeds the numbers of civilians estimated killed in Syria over the same span. Some experts say the number of South Sudanese dead is closer to 300,000.
Killing Fields: Now
Leer’s “killing field” is an expanse of sun-desiccated dirt covered in a carpet of crunchy golden leaves and dried grasses. Even the weeds have been scorched and strangled by the sun, though the area is also dotted with sturdy neem trees casting welcome shade. From the branches above me, bird calls ring out, filling the air with chaotic, incongruous melodies.
Riek Machar was born and bred in Leer. This very spot was his family compound. The big trees once cast shade on tukuls and fences. It was a garden spot. People used to picnic here. But that was a long, long time ago.
Today, a stripped and battered white four-wheel-drive SUV sits in the field. Not so far away, without tires, seats, or a windshield is one of those three-wheeled vehicles known around the world as a Lambretta or a tuck-tuck. And then there’s the clothes. I find a desert camouflage shirt, its pattern typically called “chocolate chip.” A short way off, there’s a rumpled pair of gray pants, beyond it a soiled blue tee-shirt sporting the words “Bird Game” and graphics resembling those of the video game “Angry Birds.”
And then there’s a spinal column.
A human one.
And a pelvis. And a rib cage. A femur and another piece of a spinal column. To my left, a gleaming white skull. I turn slightly and glimpse another one. A few paces on and there’s another. And then another.
Human remains are scattered across this area.
Leer is, in fact, littered with bones. I see them everywhere. Most of the time, they’re the sun-bleached skeletal remains of animals. A few times I stop to scrutinize an orphaned bone lying amid the wreckage. But I’m no expert, so I chalk up those I can’t identify to cattle or goats. But here, in this killing field, there’s no question. The skulls, undoubtedly picked clean by vultures and hyenas, tell the story. Or rather, these white orbs, staring blankly in the midday glare, tell part of it.
There’s a folk tale from South Sudan’s Murle tribe about a young man, tending cattle in a pasture, who comes across a strikingly handsome skull. “Oh my god, but why are you killing such beautiful people?” he asks. The next day he asks again and this time the skull responds. “Oh my dear,” it says, “I died because of lies!” Frightened, he returns to his village and later tells the chief and his soldiers about what happened. None of them believes him. He implores them to witness it firsthand. If you’re lying, the chief asks, what shall we do with you? And the young man promptly replies, “You have to kill me.”
He then leads the soldiers to the skull and poses his question. This time, the skull stays silent. For his lies, the soldiers insist, they must kill him and they do just that. As they are about to return to the village, a voice calls out, “This is what I told you, young man, and now you have also died as I died.” The soldiers agree not to tell the king about the exchange. Returning to the village, they say only that the man had lied and so they killed him as ordered.
In South Sudan, soldiers murder and they get away with it, while skulls tell truths that the living are afraid to utter.
“There Might Be Some Mistakes”
No one knows for certain whose mortal remains litter Leer’s killing field. The best guess: some of the more than 60 men and boys suspected of rebel sympathies who were locked in an unventilated shipping container by government forces last October and left to wither in Leer’s relentless heat. According to a March report by Amnesty International, when the door was opened the next day, only one survivor, a 12-year-old boy, staggered out alive. At least some of the crumpled corpses were dumped on the edge of town in two pits where animals began devouring them. Government forces may eventually have burned some of the bodies to conceal evidence of the crime.
After visiting Leer, I took the findings of the report and my own observations to President Salva Kiir’s press secretary, Ateny Wek Ateny. “They always copy and paste,” he said, implying that human rights organizations often just reproduced each other’s generally erroneous allegations. It was, I respond, an exceptionally rigorous investigation, relying on more than 40 interviews, including 23 eyewitnesses, that left no doubt an atrocity had taken place.
Those witness statements, he assures me, are the fatal flaw of the Amnesty report. South Sudanese can’t be trusted, since they will invariably lie to cast a pall over rival tribes. In the case of Leer, the witnesses offered up a “concocted sequence of events” to disparage Kiir and his government. “Americans and Europeans,” he protests, “don’t understand this.”
It’s impossible, he adds, that the government could be responsible for violence in Leer blamed in part on militias, because, as he put it, “We have no militia. Militias are not part of the government.” What about alleged involvement by uniformed SPLA? Lots of armed men, he claims, wear SPLA uniforms without being part of the army. “It is not a government policy to kill civilians,” he insists, then concedes: “There might be some mistakes.”
“Bullets Aren’t Enough. We’ll Use Rape”
“They come at any time… They even take children and throw them into the burning homes,” says Sarah Nyanang. Her house in Leer was destroyed last year and, more recently, armed men came in the night and took what little her family had left. “We have no blanket, no mosquito net, no fishing hook, and even now they steal from us.”
Michael lives close by. His neighbors push him forward. His eyes seem to swim with fear. His voice is like wet gravel. The armed men came one night earlier this year and beat him. He shows me a nasty looking wound fast becoming a scar on his scalp, then turns his head to reveal another extending down his jaw line. They took almost all his possessions and something far more precious, his wife. Sarah Nyanang interjects that women abducted here may be raped by as many as 10 men. She saw a neighbor being raped in the midst of an attack. The implication is that this is what happened to Michael’s wife.
She’s still alive, he says, and is living in Thonyor, but he hasn’t seen her since the night she was taken away. He doesn’t tell me why.
When a team from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigated late last year, they found that rape and sexual slavery were one way members of youth militias who carried out attacks alongside the SPLA were paid. Among others, they interviewed a mother of four who encountered a group of soldiers and armed civilians. “The men,” the report recounts, “proceeded to strip her naked and five soldiers raped her at the roadside in front of her children. She was then dragged into the bush by two other soldiers who raped her and left her there. When she eventually returned to the roadside, her children, aged between two and seven, were missing.
A woman from a nearby village in Koch County told the investigators that, in October 2015, “after killing her husband, the SPLA soldiers tied her to a tree and forced her to watch as her fifteen year old daughter was raped by at least ten soldiers. The soldiers told her, ‘You are a rebel wife so we can kill you.’” Another mother reported “that she witnessed her 11-year old daughter and the daughter’s 9-year old friend being gang-raped by three soldiers during an attack in Koch in May 2015.”
“The magnitude of the sexual violence was pretty startling even given the extraordinarily high level throughout the conflict in South Sudan,” Jonathan Loeb of Amnesty International’s crisis response team tells me. “Many women were raped repeatedly often by multiple men, many of them were used as sex slaves, and in some cases are still missing.”
According to Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization that promotes human rights in South Sudan, “rape has gone beyond a weapon of war.” He tells me that it’s become part of military culture. “Sexual violence has been used as a strategy to wipe out populations from areas where they may have given support to their opponents. I think it’s the first time in the history of Africa that high-level directives have been put forth to use rape as a way to wipe out populations, the first time leaders said ‘bullets aren’t enough, we’ll use rape.’”
Apocalypse Then, Now, Always
In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard is sent on a mission that takes him deep into the heart of darkness, a compound in Cambodia from which a rogue American general is waging a private war. “I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet,” says Willard who finds his own killing field there.
The remains of one of the many victims of violence in Leer, South Sudan. The town has been repeatedly razed over the years and civilians have been mercilessly attacked. No one has ever been held accountable for the atrocities.
I thought about that line as I flew into Leer, looking down on the marshes and malarial swamps where so many hid from killers and rapists. Multiple people told me that Leer was one of the worst places in the world — and that’s nothing new.
In 1990, during the Sudanese civil war, Leer was bombed by the northern government’s Soviet-made Antonov aircraft. Nobody may know exactly how many died. Eight years later, Nuer militias opposed to Riek Machar raided Leer three times, looting and burning homes, destroying crops, slaughtering and stealing tens of thousands of cattle. “Over the past months thousands of people have fled without food or belongings. They’ve been forced to hide for days in the surrounding swamps and outlying villages, living in constant fear and surviving on just water lilies and fish. Their own villages have been burned down and their grain stores have been looted,” said a representative of the World Food Program at the time. Leer was completely razed.
In 2003, attacks on civilians by Sudanese forces and allied militia emptied Leer again. In January 2014, during the opening weeks of the current civil war, the SPLA and partner militias attacked Leer and surrounding towns. Civilians were killed, survivors ran for the swamps, and the attackers burned to the ground some 1,556 residential structures according to satellite imagery. And then, of course, came last year’s raids.
Since American soldiers departed Vietnam in the 1970s, there have been no further massacres at My Lai. Nor have there been mass killings near Oradour-sur-Glane, France, where the Nazis slaughtered 642 civilians in June 1944. Both ruined villages have, in fact, been preserved as memorials to the dead. And although Iraq was turned into a charnel house following the 2003 U.S. invasion and neighboring Syria has seen chemical weapons attacks in recent years, there have been no new victims of poison gas in Halabja since Saddam Hussein’s 1988 attack.
Cambodia, too, has seen none of the wholesale bloodletting of the 1970s since the Khmer Rouge was driven from power. And while periodic fears of impending genocide have lurked in the neighborhood, and Rwanda has experienced arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings of government opponents and critics, it has had nothing like a repeat of 1994.
In Leer, however, those killed in the bombing of 1990, in the razing of the town of 1998, in the attacks of 2003, in the sack of the town in 2014, and in the waves of attacks of 2015, have been joined by still others unfortunate enough to call this town home. Those in the area have been trapped by geography and circumstances beyond their control in what can only be called an inter-generational killing field.
The violence of 2015 never actually ended. It’s just continued at a somewhat reduced level. A couple of weeks before I arrived in Leer, an attack by armed men led locals to shelter at the Médecins Sans Frontières compound. On the day I arrived in town, armed youths from the rebel-held territory surrounding Leer carried out a series of attacks on government forces, killing nine.
In July, violence again flared in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. With it came reports of renewed attacks around Leer. In late August, an SPLA-IO spokesman reported a raid by government forces on a town 25 kilometers from Leer that ended with two killed, 15 women raped, and 50 cows stolen. In September, around 700 families from Leer County fled to a U.N. camp due to fighting between the SPLA and the IO. Earlier this October, civilians were killed and families again fled to the swamps around Leer due to gun battles and artillery fire between the two forces.
No one has ever been held accountable for any of this violence, any of the atrocities, any of the deaths. And there’s little reason to believe they ever will — or even that the violence will end. Unlike My Lai or Oradour-sur-Glane, Leer seems destined to be a perpetually active killing field, a place where bodies pile up, massacre after massacre, generation after generation — a town trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.
Almost a year after fleeing Leer, Mary Nyalony is still living out in the open on water lilies and in a state of limbo. “I’m worried because the government is still there,” she says of her ravaged hometown. When I ask about the future, she tells me that she fears “the same thing is going to happen again.”
Peace pacts and the optimism they generate come and go, but decades of history suggest that Mary Nyalony will eventually be proved right. Peace deals aren’t the same as peace. Southern Sudan has seen plenty of the former, but little of the latter. “We need peace,” she says more than once. “If there’s no peace, all of this is just going to continue.”
The Worst Place on Earth
Americans expect to be number one. First Lady Michelle Obama recently called the United States the “greatest country on Earth.” (Take that, world public opinion, and your choice of Germany!) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went even further, touting America as “the greatest country that has ever been created.” Her rival, Donald Trump, who for political gain badmouths the country that made him rich and famous, does so in the hope of returning America to supposedly halcyon days of unparalleled greatness. He’s predicted that his presidency might lead to an actual winning overload. “We’re going to win so much,” he told supporters. “You’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please, Mr. President… don’t win so much’… And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again… We’re gonna keep winning.’”
As Trump well knows, Americans take winning very seriously. Look no further than the U.S. gold medal count at the recent Rio Olympics: 46. The next highest total? Great Britain’s 27, almost 20 fewer than those of the country whose upstart rebels bested them in the eighteenth century, the nation’s ur-victory. The young United States then beat back the Brits in the early 1800s, and twice bailed them out in victorious world wars during the twentieth century.
In the intervening years, the U.S. built up a gaudy military record — slaughtering native tribes, punishing Mexico, pummeling Spain — but the best was yet to come. “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” boasted President Barack Obama in this year’s State of the Union address. In this he echoed his predecessor, George W. Bush, who, in May 2001, declared that “America today has the finest [military] the world has ever seen.”
In the years between those two moments of high-flown rhetoric, the United States military fought in nine conflicts, according to a 2015 briefing produced by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the umbrella organization for America’s most elite forces including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets. The record of the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, according to SOCOM: zero wins, two losses, and seven ties.
This dismal record is catalogued in a briefing slide produced by SOCOM’s Intelligence Directorate last September and obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act. “A Century of War and Gray Zone Challenges” — a timeline of conflicts ranked as wins, losses, and ties — examines the last 100 years of America’s wars and interventions.
“Gray zone” is an increasingly popular term of the trade for operations conducted somewhere on the continuum between war and peace. “Traditional war is the paradigm,” the briefing slide asserts. “Gray zone conflict is the norm.”
While he finds a great deal to fault in SOCOM’s analysis, retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, believes its assessment of post-9/11 conflicts “is quite accurate.” Although American politicians like Hillary Clinton regularly insist that the U.S. possesses “the greatest military” on the planet, they avoid addressing the question of what the country’s armed interventions have actually accomplished when it comes to policy goals — the true measure of success in war. “We have not shown an ability to achieve our stated political aims in a conclusive way at an acceptable cost,” Bacevich says. “That’s simply a fact.”
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The Greatest Journeyman Military in History?
Twelve wins and nine losses. In baseball, it’s the annual record of a journeyman pitcher like Bill Caudill of the Seattle Mariners in 1982, Dave LaPoint of the Saint Louis Cardinals in 1983, or Norm Charlton of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, to mention just three examples. It’s certainly not the record of an ace.
Likewise, 12 victories and nine losses is a far-from-dazzling stat when it comes to warfare, especially for a nation that prides itself on its martial prowess. But that was the SOCOM Intelligence Directorate’s assessment of the last century of American war: 12 and 9 with a mind-boggling 43 “ties.”
Among those 64 conflicts, the command counts just five full-fledged wars in which the U.S. has come up with three wins (World War I, World War II, and Desert Storm), one loss (Vietnam), and one tie (Korea). In the gray zone — what SOCOM calls “the norm” when it comes to conflict — the record is far bleaker, the barest of winning percentages at 9 victories, 8 losses, and 42 draws.
“If you accept the terms of analysis, that things can be reduced to win, loss, and tie, then this record is not very good,” Bacevich says. “While there aren’t many losses — according to how they code — there’s a hell of a lot of ties, which would beg the question of why, based on these criteria, U.S. policy has seemingly been so ineffective.”
The assessments of, and in some instances the very inclusion of, numerous operations, missions, and interventions by SOCOM are dubious. Bacevich, for example, questions its decision to include pre-World War II U.S. military missions in China (a draw according to the command). “I don’t know on what basis one would say ‘China, 1912 to 1941’ qualifies as a tie,” he adds, noting on the other hand that a good case could be made for classifying two of SOCOM’S gray zone “ties” — in Haiti and Nicaragua — during the same era as wins instead of draws based on the achievement of policy aims alone.
It’s even harder to imagine why, for example, limited assistance to Chad in its conflict with Libya and indigenous rebels in 1983 or military assistance in evacuating U.S. personnel from Albania in 1997 should make the list. Meanwhile, America’s so-called longest war, in Afghanistan, inexplicably ends in 2014 on SOCOM’S timeline. (That was, of course, the year that the Obama administration formally ended the “combat mission” in that country, but it would assuredly be news to the 8,400 troops, including special operators, still conducting missions there today.) Beyond that, for reasons unexplained, SOCOM doesn’t even classify Afghanistan as a “war.” Instead, it’s considered one of 59 gray-zone challenges, on a par with the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift or small-scale deployments to the restive Congo in the 1960s. No less bizarre, the command categorizes America’s 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq in a similar fashion. “It deserves to be in the same category as Korea and Vietnam,” says Bacevich, the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.
Killing People and Breaking Things
Can the post-9/11 U.S. military simultaneously be the finest fighting force in history and unable to win wars or quasi-wars? It may depend on our understanding of what exactly the Department of Defense and its military services are meant to do.
While the 1789 act that established its precursor, the Department of War, is sparse on details about its raison d’être, the very name suggests its purpose — presumably preparing for, fighting, and winning wars. The 1947 legislation creating its successor, the “National Military Establishment” was similarly light on specifics concerning the ultimate aims of the organization, as were the amendments of 1949 that recast it as the Department of Defense (DoD).
During a Republican primary debate earlier this year, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee offered his own definition. He asserted that the “purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” Some in the armed forces took umbrage at that, though the military has, in fact, done both to great effect in a great many places for a very long time. For its part, the DoD sees its purpose quite differently: “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.”
If, in SOCOM’s accounting, the U.S. has engaged in relatively few actual wars, don’t credit “deterrence.” Instead, the command has done its best to simply redefine war out of existence, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, in favor of those “gray zone challenges.” If one accepts that quasi-wars are actually war, then the Defense Department has done little to deter conflict. The United States has, in fact, been involved in some kind of military action — by SOCOM’s definition — in every year since 1980.
Beyond its single sentence mission statement, a DoD directive delineating the “functions of the Department of Defense and its major components” provides slightly more details. The DoD, it states, “shall maintain and use armed forces to:
a. Support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
b. Ensure, by timely and effective military action, the security of the United States, its possessions, and areas vital to its interest.
c. Uphold and advance the national policies and interests of the United States.”
Since the Department of Defense came into existence, the U.S. has — as the SOCOM briefing slide notes — carried out deployments, interventions, and other undertakings in Lebanon (1958), Congo (1964 and 1967), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1975), Iran (1980), El Salvador (1980-1992), Grenada (1983), Chad (1983), Libya (1986), the Persian Gulf (1987-1988), Honduras (1988), Panama (1989), Somalia (1992-1995), Haiti (1994-1995), and Albania (1997), among other countries.
You may have no memory of some (perhaps many) of these interventions, no less a sense of why they occurred or their results — and that might be the most salient take-away from SOCOM’s list. So many of these conflicts have, by now, disappeared into the gray zone of American memory.
Were these operations targeting enemies which actually posed a threat to the U.S. Constitution? Did ceaseless operations across the globe actually ensure the safety and security of the United States? Did they truly advance U.S. policy interests and if so, how?
From the above list, according to SOCOM, only El Salvador, Grenada, Libya, and Panama were “wins,” but what, exactly, did America win? Did any of these quasi-wars fully meet the Defense Department’s own criteria? What about the Korean War (tie), the Bay of Pigs (loss), the Vietnam War (loss), or the not-so-secret “secret war” in Laos (loss)? And have any of SOCOM’s eight losses or ties in the post-9/11 era accomplished the Defense Department’s stated mission?
“I have killed people and broken things in war, but, as a military officer, that was never the end. There was a purpose, a reason, a goal,” wrote Major Matt Cavanaugh, a U.S. Army strategist, in response to Huckabee’s comment. He then drew attention to the fact that “Joint Publication 1: Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States” asserts that “military power is integrated with other instruments of national power to advance and defend U.S. values, interests, and objectives.”
Did the wars in Vietnam or Laos defend those same values? What about the war waged in Iraq by the “finest fighting force” in world history?
In March 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laid out U.S aims for that conflict. “Our goal is to defend the American people, and to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and to liberate the Iraqi people,” he said, before offering even more specific objectives, such as having U.S. troops “search for, capture, [and] drive out terrorists who have found safe harbor in Iraq.” Of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq would turn that country into a terrorist magnet, leading to the ultimate safe harbor; a terror caliphate extending over swaths of that country and neighboring Syria. The elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction would prove impossible for obvious reasons. The “liberation” of its people would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands; the forced displacement of millions; and a country divided along sectarian lines, where up to 50% of its 33 million inhabitants may suffer from the effects of trauma brought on by the last few decades of war. And what about the defense of the American people? They certainly don’t feel defended. According to recent polling, more Americans fear terrorism today than just after 9/11. And the particular threat Americans fear most? The terror groupborn and bred in America’s Iraqi prison camps: ISIS.
This record seems to matter little to the presidential candidate who, as a senator, voted for the invasion of Iraq. Regarding that war and other military missions, Hillary Clinton, as Bacevich notes, continues to avoid asking the most obvious question: “Is the use of the American military conclusively, and at reasonable costs, achieving our political objectives?”
Trump’s perspective seems to better fit SOCOM’s assessment when it comes to America’s warfighting prowess in these years. “We don’t win. We can’t beat ISIS. Can you imagine General Douglas MacArthur or General Patton? Can [you] imagine they are spinning in their grave right now when they see the way we fight,” he recently told FOX News’s Bill O’Reilly, invoking the names of those military luminaries who both served in a “draw” in Mexico in the 1910s and U.S. victories in World Wars I and II, and in the case of MacArthur a stalemate in Korea as well.
Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns responded to TomDispatch’s requests for comment. SOCOM similarly failed to respond before publication to questions about the conclusions to be drawn from its timeline, but its figures alone — especially regarding post-9/11 conflicts — speak volumes.
“In order to evaluate our recent military history and the gap between the rhetoric and the results,” says Andrew Bacevich, “the angle of analysis must be one that acknowledges our capacity to break things and kill people, indeed that acknowledges that U.S. forces have performed brilliantly at breaking things and killing people, whether it be breaking a building — by putting a precision missile through the window — or breaking countries by invading them and producing chaos as a consequence.”
SOCOM’s briefing slide seems to recognize this fact. The U.S. has carried out a century of conflict, killing people from Nicaragua and Haiti to Germany and Japan; battering countries from the Koreas and Vietnams to Iraq and Afghanistan; fighting on a constant basis since 1980. All that death and devastation, however, led to few victories. Worse yet for the armed forces, the win-loss record of this highly professionalized, technologically sophisticated, and exceptionally well-funded military has, since assuming the mantle of the finest fighting force in the history of the world, plummeted precipitously, as SOCOM’s Intelligence Directorate points out.
An American century of carnage and combat has yielded many lessons learned, but not, it seems, the most important one when it comes to military conflict. “We can kill people, we can break things,” Bacevich observes, “but we don’t accomplish our political goals.”
Win, Lose, or Draw
Sometimes the real news is in the details — or even in the discrepancies. Take, for instance, missions by America’s most elite troops in Africa.
It was September 2014. The sky was bright and clear and ice blue as the camouflage-clad men walked to the open door and tumbled out into nothing. One moment members of the U.S. 19th Special Forces Group and Moroccan paratroopers were flying high above North Africa in a rumbling C-130 aircraft; the next, they were silhouetted against the cloudless sky, translucent green parachutes filling with air, as they began to drift back to earth.
Those soldiers were taking part in a Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET mission, conducted under the auspices of Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa out of Camp Ram Ram, Morocco. It was the first time in several years that American and Moroccan troops had engaged in airborne training together, but just one of many JCET missions in 2014 that allowed America’s best-equipped, best-trained forces to hone their skills while forging ties with African allies.
A key way the U.S. military has deepened its involvement on the continent, JCETs have been carried out in an increasing number of African countries in recent years, according to documents recently obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). When it comes to U.S. troops involved, foreign forces taking part, and U.S. tax dollars spent, the numbers have all been on the rise. From 2013 to 2014, as those recently released files reveal, the price tag almost doubled, from $3.3 million to $6.2 million.
These increases offer a window into the rising importance of such missions by U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) around the world, including their increasingly conspicuous roles in conflicts from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Afghanistan. On any given day, 10,000 special operators are “deployed” or “forward stationed” conducting overseas missions “from behind-the-scenes information-gathering and partner-building to high-end dynamic strike operations” — so General Joseph Votel, at the time chief of Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
Through such figures, the growing importance of the U.S. military’s pivot to Africa becomes apparent. The number of elite forces deployed there, for example, has been steadily on the rise. In 2006, the percentage of forward-stationed special operators on the continent hovered at 1%. In 2014, that number hit 10% — a jump of 900% in less than a decade. While JCETs make up only a small fraction of the hundreds of military-to-military engagements carried out by U.S. forces in Africa each year, they play an outsized role in the pivot there, allowing U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to deepen its ties with a variety of African partners through the efforts of America’s most secretive and least scrutinized troops.
Exactly how many JCETs have been conducted in Africa is, however, murky at best. The documents obtained from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) via FOIA present one number; AFRICOM offers another. It’s possible that no one actually knows the true figure. One thing is certain, however, according to a study by RAND, America’s premier think tank for evaluating the military: the program consistently produces poor results.
The Gray Zone
According to SOCOM, Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) is, on average, “routinely engaged” in about half of Africa’s 54 countries, “working with and through our African counterparts.” For his part, SOCAFRICA commander Brigadier General Donald Bolduc has said that his team of 1,700 personnel is “busy year-round in 22 partner nations.”
The 2014 SOCOM documents TomDispatch obtained note that, in addition to conducting JCETs, U.S. Special Operations forces took part in the annual Flintlock training exercise, involving 22 nations, and four named operations: Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging effort, formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara, aimed at Northwest Africa; Juniper Micron, a U.S.-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali (following a coup there by a U.S.-trained officer) that has been grinding on since 2013; Octave Shield, an even longer-suffering mission against militants in East Africa; and Observant Compass, a similarly long-running effort aimed at Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa (that recently retired AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez derided as an expensive and strategically unimportant burden).
America’s most elite forces in Africa operate in what Bolduc calls “the gray zone, between traditional war and peace.” In layman’s terms, its missions are expanding in the shadows on a continent the United States sees as increasingly insecure, unstable, and riven by terror groups.
“Operating in the Gray Zone requires SOCAFRICA to act in a supporting role to a host of other organizations,” he told the CTC Sentinel, the publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “One must understand, in Africa we are not the kinetic solution. If required, partner nations should do those sorts of operations. We do, however, build this capability, share information, provide advice and assistance, and accompany and support with enablers.”
Officially, the Joint Combined Exchange Training program isn’t so much about advice and assistance, support, or training partners, as it is about providing Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other special operators with unique opportunities to hone their craft — specifically, unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense — overseas. “The purpose of JCETs is to foster the training of U.S. SOF in mission-critical skills by training with partner-nation forces in their home countries,” according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. “The program enables U.S. SOF to build their capability to conduct operations with partner-nation military forces in an unfamiliar environment while developing their language skills, and familiarity with local geography and culture.”
Authorization for the JCET program does, however, allow for “incidental-training benefits” to “accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost.” In reality, say experts, this is an overarching goal of JCETs.
U.S. Special Operations forces conducted 20 JCETs in Africa during 2014, according to the documents obtained from SOCOM. These missions were carried out in 10 countries, up from eight a year earlier. Four took place in both Kenya and Uganda; three in Chad; two in both Morocco and Tunisia; and one each in Djibouti, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania. “These events were invaluable training platforms that allowed U.S. SOF to train and sustain in both core and specialized skills, while working hand-in-hand with host nation forces,” say the files. African forces involved numbered 2,770, up from 2,017 in 2013. The number of U.S. special operators increased from 308 to 417.
Impressive as these figures are, the actual numbers may prove higher still. AFRICOM claims it carried out not 20 but 26 JCETs in 2014, according to figures provided last year by spokesman Chuck Prichard. Similar discrepancies can be found in official figures for previous years as well. According to Prichard, special operators conducted “approximately nine JCETs across Africa in Fiscal Year 2012” and 18 in 2013. Documents obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act from the office of the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs indicate, however, that there were 19 JCETs in 2012 and 20 in 2013.
AFRICOM ignored repeated requests for clarification about the discrepancies among these figures. Multiple emails with subject lines indicating questions about JCETs sent to spokesperson Anthony Falvo, were “deleted without being read,” according to automatic return receipts. Asked for an explanation of why AFRICOM and SOCOM can’t agree on the number of JCETs on the continent or if anyone actually knows the real number, Ken McGraw of Special Operations Command demurred. “I don’t know the source of AFRICOM’s information,” he told TomDispatch. “To the best of my knowledge, the information our office provided you was from official reporting.”
In fact, effective oversight of even some relatively pedestrian training efforts is often hard to come by, thanks to the military’s general lack of transparency and the opaque nature of assistance programs, says Colby Goodman, the director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy. “And for JCETs and other Special Operations programs,” he says, “it’s even more difficult.”
Given that the two commands involved with the JCET program can’t even come to a consensus on the number of missions involved raises a simple but sweeping question: Does anyone really know what America’s most elite forces are doing in Africa?
Under the circumstances, it should surprise no one that a military that can’t keep a simple count of one type of mission on one continent would encounter difficulties with larger, more difficult tasks.
More Missions, More Problems
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, the incoming commander of SOCOM, General Raymond Thomas III, laid out a sweeping vision of the “U.S. strategy in Africa.” It included “neutralizing Al-Shabaab in East Africa” and empowering Somalia’s government to do the same; “working with our African partners in North and West Africa to ensure they are willing and capable of containing the instability in Libya, degrading VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] in the Sahel-Maghreb region, and interdicting the flow of illicit material,” as well as working with African allies to contain Boko Haram and empowering Nigeria to suppress the terror group.
“SOF implements this strategy by being a part of [a] global team of national and international partners that conduct persistent, networked, and distributed full spectrum special operations in support of AFRICOM to promote stability and prosperity in Africa,” said Thomas. “The SOCAFRICA end states are to neutralize Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda Affiliates and Adherents in East Africa, contain Libyan instability and Violent Extremist Organizations and other Terrorist organizations in North and West Africa, and degrade Boko Haram.”
Bolduc, SOCAFRICA’s commander, suggested that the U.S. is well on its way toward achieving those goals. “Our security assistance and advise-and-assist efforts in Africa have been effective as we continue to see gradual improvements in the overall security capabilities of African partner nations across the continent,” he said earlier this year. “Clearly, there’s been more progress in certain areas versus others, but the trends I see with these forces are positive.”
Independent assessments suggest just the opposite. Data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland show, for example, that terror attacks have spiked over the last decade, roughly coinciding with AFRICOM’s establishment. Before it became an independent command in 2007, there were fewer than 400 such incidents annually in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, the number reached nearly 2,000.
Similarly, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which uses media reports to monitor violence, shows that “conflict events” have jumped precipitously, from less than 4,000 to more than 15,000 per year, over the same span.
Earlier this year, the Defense Department’s own Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a research institution dedicated to the analysis of security issues on that continent, drew attention to skyrocketing terrorism fatalities there in recent years. It also published a map of “Africa’s Active Militant Islamist Groups” that showed 22 organizations menacing the continent. Bolduc himself has repeatedly cited the far higher figure of nearly 50 terrorist and “malign groups” now operating in Africa, up from just one major threat cited by AFRICOM commander Carter Ham in 2010.
In addition to troubling overall trends in Africa since the U.S. pivot there, JCETs have come under special criticism. A 2013 report by the RAND Corporation on “building partner capacity” (BPC) cited several limitations of the program. “U.S. forces cannot provide support to partner equipment under JCETs and cannot conduct dedicated training in advanced CT [counterterrorism] techniques (and hence cannot conduct planning for BPC),” it noted. Ultimately the RAND study, which was prepared for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, found “moderately low” effectiveness for JCETs conducted in Africa.
In an email, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw said he didn’t have the time to review the results of the RAND study and refused to offer comment on it.
Mum’s the Word
The U.S. military either can’t or won’t come to a consensus on how many missions have been carried out by its most elite troops in Africa. Incredible as it might seem, given that we’re talking about an organization that notoriously can’t keep track of the money it spends or the weapons it sends to allied forces or even audit itself, it’s entirely possible that no one actually knows how many JCETs — and as a result how many special operations missions — have been carried out on the continent, where they occurred, or what transpired during them.
What is known is that a Pentagon-commissioned study by RAND, the largest American think tank and the military’s go-to source for analysis, found that the JCET program had yielded poor results. The command whose troops carried out the training, however, may not even have been aware of the years-old study and won’t offer comment on it. At the same time, the command responsible for the continent where the training takes place won’t even acknowledge questions about the program, let alone offer answers.
With independent analyses showing armed violence and terror attacks on the rise in Africa, the Pentagon’s center for the study of the continent showing terrorism fatalities spiking, and the commander of America’s most elite forces in Africa acknowledging a proliferation of terrorist groups there, perhaps it’s no surprise that the U.S. military isn’t interested in looking too closely at its efforts over the last decade. Experts, however, say that keeping the American people in the dark is both dangerous for democracy and a threat to effective overseas U.S. military engagement.
“There is a serious lack of transparency on this type of training and that inhibits efforts for Congressional staff and the public to provide oversight,” says Colby Goodman of the Center for International Policy. Repeatedly asked about Goodman’s assertion, AFRICOM’s Anthony Falvo offered his typical non-response: Emails to the spokesman seeking comment were “deleted without being read.”
It’s rare to hear one top military commander publicly badmouth another, call attention to his faults, or simply point out his shortcomings. Despite a seemingly endless supply of debacles from strategic setbacks to quagmire conflicts since 9/11, the top brass rarely criticize each other or, even in retirement, utter a word about the failings of their predecessors or successors. Think of it as the camouflage wall of silence. You may loathe him. You may badmouth him behind closed doors. You may have secretly hoped for his career to implode. But publicly point out failures? That’s left to those further down the chain of command.
And yet that’s effectively exactly what newly installed U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) chief, General Thomas Waldhauser, did earlier this year in a statement to the Senate Arms Services Committee (SASC). It’s just that no one, almost certainly including Waldhauser himself, seemed to notice or recognize it for the criticism it was, including the people tasked with oversight of military operations and those in the media.
Over these last years, the number of personnel, missions, dollars spent, and special ops training efforts as well as drone bases and other outposts on the continent have all multiplied. At the same time, incoming AFRICOM commanders have been publicly warning about the escalating perils and challenges from terror groups that menace the command’s area of operations. Almost no one, however — neither those senators nor the media — has raised pointed questions, no less demanded frank answers, about why such crises on the continent have so perfectly mirrored American military expansion.
Asked earlier this year about the difficulties he’d face if confirmed, Waldhauser was blunt: “A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and ISIL in Libya.”
That should have been a déjà vu moment for some of those senators. Three years earlier, the man previously nominated to lead AFRICOM, General David Rodriguez, was asked the same question. His reply was suspiciously similar: “A major challenge is effectively countering violent extremist organizations, especially the growth of Mali as an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb safe haven, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.”
All that had changed between 2013 and 2016, it seemed, was the addition of one more significant threat.
In the midst of Rodriguez’s 2016 victory lap (as he was concluding 40 years of military service), Waldhauser publicly drew attention to just how ineffective his run as AFRICOM chief had been. Some might call it unkind — a slap in the face for a decorated old soldier — but perhaps turnabout is fair play. After all, in 2013, Rodriguez did much the same to his predecessor, General Carter Ham, when he offered his warning about the challenges on the continent.
Three years before that, in 2010, Ham appeared before the same committee and said, “I believe that the extremist threat that’s emerging from East Africa is probably the greatest concern that Africa Command will face in the near future.” Ham expressed no worry about threats posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Boko Haram. ISIL in Libya didn’t even exist. And even that “greatest concern,” al-Shabaab, was, Ham noted, “primarily focused on internal matters in Somalia.”
In other words, over these last years, each incoming AFRICOM commander has offered a more dismal and dire assessment of the situation facing the U.S. military than his predecessor. Ham drew attention to only one major terror threat, Rodriguez to three, and Waldhauser to four.
His Own Worst Critic
That said, Waldhauser isn’t the only AFRICOM chief to point a finger at Rodriguez’s checkered record. Another American general cast an even darker shadow on the outgoing commander’s three-year run overseeing Washington’s shadow war in Africa:
“AFRICOM’s priorities on the continent for the next several years will be… in East Africa to improve stability there. Most of that is built around the threat of al-Shabaab. And then, in the North and West Africa is really built around the challenges from Libya down to northern Mali and that region and that instability there creates many challenges… And then after that is the West Africa, really about the Boko Haram and the problem in Nigeria that is, unfortunately, crossing the boundary into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. So those are the big challenges and then just the normal ones that continue to be a challenge are the Gulf of Guinea… as well as countering the Lord’s Resistance Army…”
That critic was, in fact, General David Rodriguez himself in an AFRICOM promotional video released on multiple social media platforms last month. It was posted on the very day that his command also touted its “more than 30 major exercises and more than 1,000 military to military engagements” between 2013 and 2015. It was hardly a surprise, however, that these two posts and the obvious conclusion to be drawn from them — just how little AFRICOM’S growing set of ambitious continent-wide activities mattered when it came to the spread of terror movements — went unattended and uncommented upon.
Waldhauser and Rodriguez have not, however, been alone in pointing out increased insecurity on the continent. “Terrorism and violent extremism are major sources of instability in Africa,” Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May. “Terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab, Boko Haram (which now calls itself the Islamic State in West Africa), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Murabitoun are conducting asymmetric campaigns that cause significant loss of innocent life and create potentially long-term humanitarian crises.”
National intelligence director James Clapper, who called the continent “a hothouse for the emergence of extremist and rebel groups” in 2014, spoke of the dangers posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabaab, as well as terror threats in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, and Tunisia, and instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Burundi, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year.
And then there’s Brigadier General Donald Bolduc who heads Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), the most elite U.S. troops on the continent. He painted a picture that was grimmer still. Last November, during a closed door presentation at the annual Special Operations Command Africa Commander’s Conference in Garmisch, Germany, the SOCAFRICA chief drew attention not just to the threats of al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, ISIL, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, but also another “43 malign groups” operating in Africa, according to another set of documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
The growth of terror groups from the one named by Ham in 2010 to the 48 mentioned by Bolduc in 2015 is as remarkable as it has been unremarked upon, a record so bleak that it demands a congressional investigation that will, of course, never take place.
Questions Unasked, Questions Unanswered
U.S. Africa Command boasts that it “neutralizes transnational threats” and “prevents and mitigates conflict,” while training local allies and proxies “in order to promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.” Rodriguez’s tenure was, however, marked by the very opposite: increasing numbers of lethal terror attacks across the continent including those in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Tunisia. In fact, data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland shows that attacks have spiked over the last decade, roughly coinciding with AFRICOM’s establishment. In 2007, just before it became an independent command, there were fewer than 400 such incidents annually in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, the number reached nearly 2,000.
While these statistics may be damning, they are no more so than the words of AFRICOM’s own chiefs. Yet the senators who are supposed to provide oversight haven’t seemed to bat an eye, let alone ask the obvious questions about why terror groups and terror attacks are proliferating as U.S. operations, bases, manpower, and engagement across the continent grow. (Note that this is, of course, the same Senate committee that Rodriguez misled, whether purposefully or inadvertently, earlier this year when it came to the number of U.S. military missions in Africa without — again — either apparent notice or any repercussions.)
In an era of too-big-to fail generals, an age in which top commanders from winless wars retire to take prominent posts at influential institutions and cash in with cushy jobs on corporate boards, AFRICOM chiefs have faced neither hard questions nor repercussions for the deteriorating situation. (Similar records — heavy on setbacks, short on victories — have been produced by Washington’s war chiefs in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past 15 years and they, too, have never led to official calls for any sort of accountability.)
Rodriguez is now planning on resting at his northern Virginia home for a few months and, as he told Stars and Stripes, seeing “what comes next.”
U.S. Africa Command failed to respond to multiple requests for an interview with Rodriguez, but if he follows in the footsteps of the marquee names among fellow retired four-stars of his generation, like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, he’ll supplement his six-figure pension with one or more lucrative private sector posts.
What comes next for AFRICOM will play out on the continent and in briefings before the Senate Armed Services Committee for years to come. If history is any guide, the number of terror groups on the continent will not decrease, the senators will fail to ask why this is so, and the media will follow their lead.
During his final days in command, AFRICOM released several more short videos of Rodriguez holding forth on varioius issues. In one of the last of these, the old soldier praised “the whole team” for accomplishing “a tremendous amount over the last several years.” What exactly that was went unsaid, though it certainly wasn’t achieving AFRICOM’s mandate to “neutraliz[e] transnational threats.” But what Rodriguez said next made a lot of sense. He noted that AFRICOM wasn’t alone in it — whatever it was. Washington, D.C., he said, had played a key role, too. In that, he couldn’t have been more on target. The increasingly bleak outlook in Africa can’t simply be laid at the feet of AFRICOM’s commanders. Again and again, they’ve been upfront about the deteriorating situation. Washington has just preferred to look the other way.
Copyright 2016 Nick Turse
Breaking the Camouflage Wall of Silence
I ran into David Petraeus the other night. Or rather, I ran after him.
It’s been more than a year since I first tried to connect with the retired four-star general and ex-CIA director — and no luck yet. On a recent evening, as the sky was turning from a crisp ice blue into a host of Easter-egg hues, I missed him again. Led from a curtained “backstage” area where he had retreated after a midtown Manhattan event, Petraeus moved briskly to a staff-only room, then into a tightly packed elevator, and momentarily out onto the street before being quickly ushered into a waiting late-model, black Mercedes S550.
And then he was gone, whisked into the warm New York night, companions in tow.
For the previous hour, Petraeus had been in conversation with Peter Bergen, a journalist, CNN analyst, and vice president at New America, the think tank sponsoring the event. Looking fit and well-rested in a smart dark-blue suit, the former four-star offered palatable, pat, and — judging from the approving murmurs of the audience — popular answers to a host of questions about national security issues ranging from the fight against the Islamic State to domestic gun control. While voicing support for the Second Amendment, for example, he spoke about implementing “common sense solutions to the availability of weapons,” specifically keeping guns out of the hands of “domestic abusers” and those on the no-fly list. Even as he expressed “great respect” for those who carried out acts of torture in the wake of 9/11, he denounced its use — except in the case of a “ticking time bomb.” In an era when victory hasn’t been a word much used in relation to the American military, he even predicted something close to it on the horizon. “I’ve said from the very beginning, even in the darkest days, the Islamic State would be defeated in Iraq,” he told the appreciative crowd.
I went to the event hoping to ask Petraeus a question or two, but Bergen never called on me during the Q & A portion of the evening. My attendance was not, however, a total loss.
Watching the retired general in action, I was reminded of the peculiarity of this peculiar era — an age of generals whose careers are made in winless wars; years in which such high-ranking, mission-unaccomplished officers rotate through revolving doors that lead not only to top posts with major weapons merchants, but also too-big-to-fail banks, top universities, cutting-edge tech companies, healthcare firms, and other corporate behemoths. Hardly a soul, it seems, cares that these generals and admirals have had leading roles in quagmire wars or even, in two prominent cases, saw their government service cease as a result of career-ending scandal. And Citizen David Petraeus is undoubtedly the epitome of this phenomenon.
Celebrated as the most cerebral of generals, the West Point grad and Princeton Ph.D. rose to stardom during the Iraq War — credited with pacifying the restive city of Mosul before becoming one of the architects of the new Iraqi Army. Petraeus would then return to the United States where he revamped and revived the Army’s failed counterinsurgency doctrine from the Vietnam War, before being tapped to lead “The Surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq — an effort to turn around the foundering conflict. Through it all, Petraeus waged one of the most deft self-promotion campaigns in recent memory, cultivating politicians, academics, and especially fawning journalists who reported on his running stamina, his penchant for push-ups, and even — I kid you not — how he woke a lieutenant from what was thought to be an irreversible coma by shouting the battle cry of his unit.
A series of biographers would lionize the general who, after achieving what to some looked like success in Iraq, went on to head U.S. Central Command, overseeing the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. When the military career of his subordinate General Stanley McChrystal imploded, Petraeus was sent once more unto the breach to spearhead an Afghan War surge and win another quagmire war.
And win Petraeus did. Not in Afghanistan, of course. That war grinds on without end. But the Teflon general somehow emerged from it all with people talking about him as a future presidential contender. Looking back at Petraeus’s successes, one understands just what a feat this was. Statistics show that Petraeus never actually pacified Mosul, which has now been under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) for years. The army Petraeus helped build in Iraq crumbled in the face of that same force which, in some cases, was even supported by Sunni fighters Petraeus had put on the U.S. payroll to make The Surge appear successful.
Indeed, Petraeus had come to New America’s New York headquarters to answer one question in particular: “What will the next president’s national security challenges be?” Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Iraq, Afghanistan: precisely the set of groups he had fought, places he had fought in, or what had resulted from his supposed victories.
Retired Brass, Then and Now
“What can you do with a general, when he stops being a general? Oh, what can you do with a general who retires?”
These are not, however, questions which seem to have plagued David Petraeus. He retired from the Army in 2011 to take a job as director of the CIA, only to resign in disgrace a year later when it was revealed that he had leaked classified information to his biographer and one-time lover Paula Broadwell and then lied about it to the FBI. Thanks to a deal with federal prosecutors, Petraeus pled guilty to just a single misdemeanor and served no jail time, allowing him, as the New York Times reported last year, “to focus on his lucrative post-government career as a partner in a private equity firm and a worldwide speaker on national security issues.”
In the Bing and Berlin era, following back-to-back victories in world wars, things were different. Take George C. Marshall, a five-star general and the most important U.S. military leader during World War II who is best remembered today for the post-war European recovery plan that bore his name. Fellow five-star general and later president Dwight Eisenhower recalled that, during the Second World War, Marshall “did not want to sit in Washington and be a chief of staff. I am sure he wanted a field command, but he wouldn’t even allow his chief [President Franklin Roosevelt] to know what he wanted, because he said, ‘I am here to serve and not to satisfy personal ambition.’” That mindset seemed to remain his guiding directive after he retired in 1945 and went on to serve as a special envoy to China, secretary of state, and secretary of defense.
Marshall reportedly refused a number of lucrative offers to write his memoirs, including the then-princely sum of a million dollars after taxes from Time and Life publisher Henry Luce. He did so on the grounds that it was unethical to profit from service to the United States or to benefit from the sacrifices of the men who had served under him, supposedly telling one publisher “that he had not spent his life serving the government in order to sell his life story to the Saturday Evening Post.” In his last years, he finally cooperated with a biographer and gave his archives to the George C. Marshall Research Foundation on “the condition that no monetary returns from a book or books based on his materials would go to him or his family but would be used for the research program of the Marshall Foundation.” Even his biographer was asked to “waive the right to any royalties from the biography.” Marshall also declined to serve on any corporate boards.
Marshall may have been a paragon of restraint and moral rectitude, but he wasn’t alone. As late as the years 1994-1998, according to an analysis by the Boston Globe, fewer than 50% of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives. By 2004-2008, that number had jumped to 80%. An analysis by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found that it was still at a lofty 70% for the years 2009-2011.
Celebrity generals like Petraeus and fellow former four-star generals Stanley McChrystal (whose military career was also consumed in the flames of scandal) and Ray Odierno (who retired amid controversy), as well as retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, don’t even need to enter the world of arms dealers and defense firms. These days, those jobs may increasingly be left to second-tier military luminaries like Marine Corps general James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now on the board of directors at Raytheon, as well as former Vice Admiral and Director of Naval Intelligence Jack Dorsett, who joined Northrop Grumman.
If, however, you are one of the military’s top stars, the sky is increasingly the limit. You can, for instance, lead a consulting firm (McChrystal and Mullen) or advise or even join the boards of banks and civilian corporations like JPMorgan Chase (Odierno), Jet Blue (McChrystal), and General Motors (Mullen).
For his part, after putting his extramarital affair behind him, Petraeus became a partner at the private equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. L.P. (KKR), where he also serves as the chairman of the KKR Global Institute and, according to his bio, “oversees the institute’s thought leadership platform focused on geopolitical and macro-economic trends, as well as environmental, social, and governance issues.” His lieutenants include a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager for President George W. Bush, as well as a former leading light at Morgan Stanley.
KKR’s portfolio boasts a bit of everything, from Alliant Insurance Services and Panasonic Healthcare to a host of Chinese firms (Rundong Automobile Group and Asia Dairy, among them). There are also defense firms under its umbrella, including TASC, the self-proclaimed “premier provider of advanced systems engineering and integration services across the Intelligence Community, Department of Defense, and civilian agencies of the federal government,” and Airbus Group’s defense electronics business which KKR recently bought for $1.2 billion.
KKR is, however, just where Petraeus’s post-military, post-CIA résumé begins.
A Man for Four Seasons
“Nobody thinks of assigning him, when they stop wining and dining him,” wrote Irving Berlin 68 years ago.
How times do change. When it comes to Petraeus, the wining and dining is evidently unending — as when Financial Times columnist Edward Luce took him to the Four Seasons Restaurant earlier this year for a lunch of tuna tartare, poached salmon, and a bowl of mixed berries with cream.
At the elegant eatery, just a short walk from Petraeus’s Manhattan office, the former CIA chief left Luce momentarily forlorn. “When I inquire what keeps him busy nowadays his answer goes on for so long I half regret asking,” he wrote.
I evidently heard a version of the same well prepared lines when, parrying a question from journalist Fred Kaplan at the New America event I attended, Petraeus produced a wall of words explaining how busy he is. In the process, he shed light on just what it means to be a retired celebrity general from America’s winless wars. “I’ve got a day job with KKR. I teach once a week at the City University of New York — Honors College. I do a week per semester at USC [University of Southern California]. I do several days at Harvard. I’m on the speaking circuit. I do pro bono stuff like this. I’m the co-chairman of the Wilson Institute’s Global Advisory Council, the senior vice president of RUSI [Royal United Services Institute, a research institution focused on military issues]. I’m on three other think tank boards,” he said.
In an era when fellow leakers of government secrets — from National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou to Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning — have ended up in exile or prison, Petraeus’s post-leak life has obviously been quite another matter.
The experience of former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake who shared unclassified information about that agency’s wasteful ways with a reporter is more typical of what leakers should expect. Although the Justice Department eventually dropped the most serious charges against him — he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor — he lost his job and his pension, went bankrupt, and has spent years working at an Apple store after being prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act. “My social contacts are gone, and I’m persona non grata,” he told Defense One last year. “I can’t find any work in government contracting or in the quasi-government space, those who defend whistleblowers won’t touch me.”
Petraeus, on the other hand, shared with his lover and biographer eight highly classified “black books” that the government says included “the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and defendant David Howell Petraeus’s discussions with the President of the United States of America.” Petraeus was prosecuted, pled guilty, and was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $100,000.
Yet it’s Petraeus who today moves in rarified circles and through hallowed halls, with memberships and posts at one influential institution after another. In addition to the positions he mentioned at New America, his CV includes: honorary visiting professor at Exeter University, co-chairman of the Task Force on North America at the Council on Foreign Relations, co-chairman of the Global Advisory Committee at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, member of the Concordia Summit’s Concordia Leadership Council, member of the board of trustees at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, member of the National Security Advisory Council of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, and a seat on the board of directors at the Atlantic Council.
About a year ago, I tried to contact Petraeus through KKR as well as the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, to get a comment on a story. I never received a reply.
I figured he was ducking me — or anyone asking potentially difficult questions — or that his gatekeepers didn’t think I was important enough to respond to. But perhaps he was simply too busy. To be honest, I didn’t realize just how crowded his schedule was. (Of course, FT’s Edward Luce reports that when he sent Petraeus an email invite, the retired general accepted within minutes, so maybe it’s because I wasn’t then holding out the prospect of a meal at the Four Seasons.)
I attended the New America event because I had yet more questions for Petraeus. But I wasn’t as fortunate as Fred Kaplan — author, by the way, of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War — and wasn’t quite speedy or nimble enough to catch the former general before he slipped into the backseat of that luxurious Mercedes sedan.
Irving Berlin’s “What Can You Do With A General?” ends on a somber note that sounds better in Crosby’s dulcimer tones than it reads on the page: “It seems this country never has enjoyed, so many one and two and three and four-star generals, unemployed.”
Today, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retiring after 38 years receives a pension of about $20,000 a month, not exactly a shabby unemployment check for the rest of your life, but one that many in the tight-knit fraternity of top officers are still eager to supplement. Take General Cartwright, who joined Raytheon in 2012 and, according to Morningstar, the investment research firm, receives close to $364,000 per year in compensation from that company while holding more than $1.2 million in its stock.
All of this left me with yet more questions for Petraeus (whose pension is reportedly worth more than $18,000 per month or $220,000 per year) about a mindset that seems light years distant from the one Marshall espoused during his retirement. I was curious, for instance, about his take on why the winning of wars isn’t a prerequisite for cashing in on one’s leadership in them, and why the personal and professional costs of scandal are so incredibly selective.
Today, it seems, a robust Rolodex with the right global roster, a marquee name, and a cultivated geopolitical brand covers a multitude of sins. And that’s precisely the type of firepower that Petraeus brings to the table.
After a year without a reply, I got in touch with KKR again. This time, through an intermediary, Petraeus provided me an answer to a new request for an interview. “Thank you for your interest, Nick, but he respectfully declines at this time,” I was told.
I’m hoping, however, that the retired general changes his mind. For the privilege of asking Petraeus various questions, I’d be more than happy to take him to lunch at the Four Seasons.
With that tony power-lunch spot closing down soon as part of a plan to relocate elsewhere, we’d need to act fast. Getting a table could be tough.
Luckily, I know just the name to drop.
Copyright 2016 Nick Turse
Leaker, Speaker, Soldier, Spy
General David Rodriguez might be a modern military celebrity — if he hadn’t spent his career ducking the spotlight. After graduating from West Point in 1976, he began his long march up the chain of command, serving in Operation Just Cause (the U.S. invasion of Panama) and Operation Desert Storm (Iraq War 1.0) before becoming deputy commander of United States Forces, Afghanistan, and commander of the International Security Assistance Force-Joint Command in 2009.
In 2011, the 6’5” former paratrooper received his fourth star and two years later the coveted helm of one of the Defense Department’s six geographic combatant commands, becoming the third chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Rodriguez has held that post ever since, overseeing a colossal American military expansion on that continent. During his tenure, AFRICOM has grown in every conceivable way, from outposts to manpower. In the process, Africa has become a key hub for shadowy U.S. missions against terror groups from Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to Somalia and Libya. But even as he now prepares to turn over his post to Marine Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, Rodriguez continues to downplay the scope of U.S. operations on the continent, insisting that his has been a kinder, gentler combatant command.
As he prepares to retire, Rodriguez has an additional reason for avoiding attention. His tenure has not only also been marked by an increasing number of terror attacks from Mali and Burkina Faso to, most recently, Côte d’Ivoire, but questions have arisen about his recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Did the outgoing AFRICOM chief lie to the senators about the number of missions being carried out on the continent? Is AFRICOM maintaining two sets of books in an effort to obscure the size and scope of its expanding operations? Is the command relying on a redefinition of terms and massaging its numbers to buck potential oversight?
If Rodriguez knowingly deceived the Senate Armed Services Committee in an effort to downplay the size and scope of his command’s operations, that act would be criminal and punishable by law, experts say. That’s a big “if.” But U.S. Africa Command’s response hardly inspires confidence. AFRICOM has refused to comment on the subject, stonewalling TomDispatch on questions about why Rodriguez has been peddling contradictory figures about his command’s activities to Congress. And this rejection of transparency and accountability is only the latest incident in a long history of AFRICOM personnel ducking questions, rebuffing press inquiries, and preventing Americans from understanding what’s being done in their name and with their tax dollars in Africa.
In March 2015, General David Rodriguez appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to report on the previous year’s military missions in Africa. “In Fiscal Year 2014, we conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 security cooperation activities,” he told the senators. The U.S. had, in other words, carried out a total of 674 military missions across Africa, nearly two per day, up from 546 the year before. Those 674 missions amounted to an almost 300% jump in the number of annual operations, exercises, and military-to-military trainings since U.S. Africa Command was established in 2008.
These missions form the backbone of U.S. military engagement on the continent. “The command’s operations, exercises, and security cooperation assistance programs support U.S. Government foreign policy and do so primarily through military-to-military activities and assistance programs,” according to AFRICOM. “These activities build strong, enduring partnerships with African nations, regional and international organizations, and other states that are committed to improving security in Africa.”
Very little is known about most of these missions due to AFRICOM’s secretive nature. Only a small fraction of them are reported in the command’s press releases with little of substance chronicled. An even tinier number are covered by independent journalists. “Congress and the public need to know about U.S. military operations overseas, regardless of what euphemism is used to describe them,” says William Hartung, a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor which tracks American military aid around the globe. “Calling something a ‘security cooperation activity’ doesn’t change the fact that U.S. troops are working directly with foreign military forces.”
This spring, at his annual appearance before the SASC, Rodriguez provided the senators with an update on these programs. “In fiscal year 2015,” he announced, “we conducted 75 joint operations, 12 major joint exercises, and 400 security cooperation activities.” For the first time ever, it seemed that AFRICOM had carried out fewer missions than the year before — just 487. This 28% drop was noteworthy, if little noticed.
But was it true?
Things started getting hazy when Rodriguez went on to offer a new version of the number of missions AFRICOM had carried out in 2014. To hear him tell it, 2015 hadn’t represented a drop in those missions but a banner year for them. After all, its 75 joint operations, he told the senators, topped the 68 of 2014. Twelve major joint exercises one-upped the 11 of a year earlier. And 400 security cooperation activities beat the 363 of the year before.
I did a double take and reread his 2015 statement. The discrepancy couldn’t have been plainer. His exact words last year: “In Fiscal Year 2014, we conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 security cooperation activities.” And this year he said: “[W]e conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 363 security cooperation activities in fiscal year 2014.” Somehow, between 2015 and 2016, more than 200 missions from 2014 had simply vanished and, months later, AFRICOM has still failed to offer an explanation for what happened, while the Senate Armed Services Committee has, apparently, not even bothered to ask for any clarification.
A discrepancy of 232 security cooperation activities can’t be chalked up to a mere miscount. And since both numbers were presented to the SASC in written statements, the AFRICOM chief can’t simply have misspoken.
Such a discrepancy in the total number of “security cooperation activities” conducted by his command raises questions about what AFRICOM is actually doing on the continent (or whether it even knows what it’s doing). The figure Rodriguez offered this year also contradicts projections laid out in U.S. Army Africa (USARAF) documents obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act in 2014. These refer to more than 400 activities scheduled for Army troops alone in Africa that year.
Despite numerous requests over several weeks, AFRICOM has failed to provide any comment or clarification to TomDispatch. It also failed to respond to requests to interview Rodriguez. A Pentagon spokesperson was able to coax a reply out of the command as to the correct number of security cooperation activities in 2014. According to AFRICOM, that number is indeed 363, directly contradicting Rodriguez’s 2015 testimony and suggesting that, whether purposely or not, the general misled members of Congress. Messages seeking comment from the SASC staff, including Dustin Walker and Chip Unruh — spokespeople, respectively, for U.S. Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, the chairman and the ranking member of the committee — were not returned.
“The fact that General Rodriguez gave such wildly conflicting figures, and that members of Congress aren’t pressing him for an explanation, is just one more example of how U.S. military activities in Africa and beyond have spun out of control,” says Hartung.
Bending the Law — or Breaking It?
With Rodriguez, Africa Command, and the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee staying silent, it’s impossible to know what motives — if any — lay behind the bogus numbers offered by the AFRICOM chief.
The command may, without public announcement, have redefined “security cooperation activities” thanks to an as-yet-unreleased 2014 Defense Department memorandum meant to provide guidance on the so-called Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S from providing assistance to foreign security forces implicated in human rights abuses. Reclassifying certain types of training missions makes it more difficult than ever to track both the dollars spent by AFRICOM and the number of activities it conducted on that continent.
Africa Command, its subordinate units, and partners also have a long history of being unable to effectively track and manage their own efforts. A 2015 study by the Government Accountability Office noted that AFRICOM “identifies and synchronizes security cooperation activities through various planning processes, but the brigades allocated to AFRICOM sometimes lack key information about these activities.” According to officials involved in the process, “the increasing number of activities being conducted in Africa… challenges the ability of the Offices of Security Cooperation to fully coordinate individual activities with the host nation, AFRICOM, USARAF, the other service components, and DOD executing units.”
A 2013 report by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General on AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa found recordkeeping so abysmal that its officials “did not have an effective system to manage or report community relations and low-cost activities.” A spreadsheet supposedly tracking such missions during 2012 and 2013 was, for example, so incomplete that 43% of such efforts went unmentioned.
New definitions, poor recordkeeping, ineffective management, and incompetence aren’t, however, the only possible explanations for the discrepancies. AFRICOM has a history of working to thwart efforts aimed at transparency and accountability and has long been criticized for its atmosphere of secrecy. Beyond spin, the highly selective release of information, the cherry-picking of reporters to cover a tiny fraction of its undertakings, and the issuing of news releases that tell a very limited story about the command, AFRICOM has taken steps to thwart press coverage of its footprint and missions.
After I started asking the command questions about the shifting count of security cooperation activities, Rodriguez told Stars and Stripes that the command had carried out “roughly 430 annual ‘theater security cooperation’ activities” last year, a difference of 30 from the figure he provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. Why he has continued to peddle different numbers at different times is unclear.
Under Section 1623 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, knowingly making contradictory statements in court or a grand jury while under oath can get you five years in prison. While that statute doesn’t cover Rodriguez’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, experts point to Section 1621 of Title 18, which prohibits lying to Congress while under oath and Section 1001 covering testimony given while not under oath, as the operative portions of the U.S. Code. A person convicted of the former faces up to five years in jail and fines of up to $250,000. There is, however, a high burden of proof when it comes to perjury, including clear evidence of intent.
Rodriguez could, for example, have been provided with faulty numbers by subordinates or the command might have altered the way it tracks missions. If, however, Rodriguez intentionally manipulated the numbers to deceive Congress, he broke the law, according to Andrew McBride, who served in the Department of Justice for a decade and is now a partner with the Washington D.C.-based law firm of Wiley Rein. “If he has a reason to do it and he knows what he’s doing, that is perjury. That is willfully lying under oath,” says McBride. And under Section 1001, a person does not even have to be under oath for the federal government to bring a false statements charge. It’s enough for an individual to provide false information with an intent to deceive a federal agent or entity.
There is, as yet, no evidence that Rodriguez violated the law, but should he find himself in hot water, it would not be a first for an AFRICOM chief. Just after Rodriguez was nominated to take the helm of AFRICOM back in 2012, its first commander, General William Ward, was demoted as he was retiring from the military and ordered to repay the government $82,000 for lavish spending on the taxpayers’ dime.
On the eve of his own retirement, Rodriguez now finds himself the subject of scrutiny, with his subordinates stonewalling requests for comment. Numerous emails sent to AFRICOM spokesman Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo — including those with a subject line indicating a request to interview the AFRICOM chief — were, according to automatic return receipts, “deleted without being read.”
At a time when the number of U.S. troops, bases, and — perhaps — missions in Africa are increasing, along with the number of terrorist groups and terror attacks on the continent, hundreds of already murky missions have apparently been disappeared, purged from the command’s rolls and the historical record. As troubling as this may be, the stakes go far beyond numbers, says the Security Assistance Monitor’s William Hartung. Precise figures about foreign military engagements are essential in a world where blowback from military operations is an ever-present reality, but they are only a first step.
“Providing accurate public information on what U.S. troops are doing would at least provide early warning of what might be to come, and allow for scrutiny and accountability,” he points out. “Not only should AFRICOM report the number of activities, but there should be some description of what these activities entail. Arming and training missions can escalate into more substantial military involvement.”
Copyright 2016 Nick Turse
The Numbers Racket
LEER, South Sudan — I’m sitting in the dark, sweating. The blinding white sun has long since set, but it’s still in the high 90s, which is a relief since it was above 110 earlier. Slumped in a blue plastic chair, I’m thinking back on the day, trying to process everything I saw, the people I spoke with: the woman whose home was burned down, the woman whose teenage daughter was shot and killed, the woman with 10 mouths to feed and no money, the glassy-eyed soldier with the AK-47.
Then there were the scorched ruins: the wrecked houses, the traditional wattle-and-daub tukuls without roofs, the spectral footprints of homes set aflame by armed raiders who swept through in successive waves, the remnants of a town that has ceased to exist.
And, of course, there were the human remains: a field of scattered skulls and femurs and ribs and pelvises and spinal columns.
And I’m sitting here — spent, sweaty, stinking — trying to make sense of it all about 10 feet from a sandbagged bunker I’m supposed to jump into if the shooting starts again. “It’s one of the worse places in the world,” someone had assured me before I left South Sudan’s capital, Juba, for this hellscape of burnt-out buildings and unburied bones that goes by the name of Leer.
A lantern on a nearby table casts a dim glow on an approaching aid worker, an African with a deep knowledge of this place. He’s come to fetch his dinner. I’m hoping to corral him and pick his brain about the men who torched this town, burned people alive, beat and murdered civilians, abducted, raped, and enslaved women and children, looted and pillaged and stole.
Before I can say a word, he beats me to the punch with his own set of rapid-fire questions: “This man called Trump — what’s going on with him? Who’s voting for him? Are you voting for him?” He then proceeds to tell me everything he’s heard about the Republican frontrunner — how Trump is tarnishing America’s global image, how he can’t believe the things Trump says about women and immigrants.
Here, where catastrophic food insecurity may tip into starvation at any time, where armed men still arrive in the night to steal and rape. (“They could come any night. You might even hear them tonight. You’ll hear the women screaming,” another aid worker told me earlier in the day.) Here, where horrors abound, this man wants — seemingly needs — to know if Donald Trump could actually be elected president of the United States. “I’m really afraid,” he says of the prospect without a hint of irony.
Of Midwifery and Militias
After decades of effort, the United States “helped midwife the birth” of the Republic of South Sudan, according to then-Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry. In reality, for the South Sudanese to win their independence it took two brutal conflicts with Sudan, the first of which raged from 1955 to 1972, and the second from 1983 to 2005, leaving millions dead and displaced. Still, it is true that for more than 20 years, a bipartisan coalition in Washington and beyond championed the southern rebels, and that, as the new nation broke away from Sudan, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in aid, including hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance.
The world’s youngest nation, South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 and just two and a half years later plunged into civil war. Since then, an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 people have been killed in a conflict pitting President Salva Kiir, a member of the country’s largest tribe, the Dinka, against Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer and the vice president he sacked in July 2013. That December, a fight between Dinka and Nuer troops set off the current crisis, which then turned into a slaughter of Nuers by Kiir’s forces in Juba. Reprisals followed as Machar’s men took their revenge on Dinkas and other non-Nuers in towns like Bor and Bentiu. The conflict soon spread, splintering into local wars within the larger war and birthing other violence that even a peace deal signed last August and Machar’s recent return to the government has been unable to halt.
The signature feature of this civil war has been its preferred target: civilians. It has been marked by massacres, mass rape, sexual slavery, assaults of every sort, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement of local populations, disappearances, abductions, torture, mutilations, the wholesale destruction of villages, pillaging, looting, and a host of other crimes.
Again and again, armed men have fallen upon towns and villages filled with noncombatants. That’s exactly what happened to Leer in 2015. Militias allied with the government, in coordination with Kiir’s troops — the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA — attacked the town and nearby villages again and again. Rebel forces fled in the face of the government onslaught. Fearing execution, many men fled as well. Women stayed behind, caring for children, the sick, and the elderly. There was an assumption that they would be spared. They weren’t. Old men were killed in their homes that were then set ablaze. Women were gang raped. Others were taken away as sex slaves. Whole villages were razed. Survivors were chased into the nearby swamps, tracked down, and executed. Children drowned in the chaos.
Those who lived through it spent months in those waterlogged swamps, eating water lily bulbs. When they returned home, they were confronted yet again by pitiless armed men who, at gunpoint, took what meager belongings they had left, sometimes the very clothes off children’s backs.
This is a story that ought to be told and told and retold. And yet here in Leer, like everywhere I went in South Sudan, I couldn’t get away from Donald Trump. So many — South Sudanese, Americans, Canadians, Europeans — seemed to want to talk about him. Even in this ruined shell of a town, Trump was big news.
The “Endorsement” Heard Round the World
Back in Juba, I settle down in the shade of my hotel’s bar on a Saturday morning to read the Daily Vision. In that newspaper, there’s a story about the dire economic straits the country finds itself in and the violence it’s breeding, as well as one about violations of the 2015 peace pact. And then there’s this gem of a headline: “Nobody Likes Donald Trump. Not Even White Men.”
A fair number of South Sudanese men I ran into, however, did like him. “He mixes it up,” one told me, lauding Trump’s business acumen. “At least he speaks his mind. He’s not afraid to say things that people do not want to hear,” said another. I heard such comments in Juba and beyond. It leaves you with the impression that if his campaign hits rough shoals in the U.S., Trump might still have a political future in South Sudan. After all, this is a country currently led by a brash, cowboy-hat-wearing former guerrilla who mixes it up and is certainly not afraid to speak his mind even when it comes to threatening members of the press with death.
Compared to Kiir, who stands accused by the United Nations of war crimes, Trump looks tame indeed. The Republican candidate has only threatened to weaken First Amendment protections in order to make it easier to sue, not kill, reporters. Still, the two leaders do seem like-minded on a number of issues. Kiir’s government, for example, is implicated in all manner of atrocities, including torture, which Trump has shown an eagerness to employ as a punishment in Washington’s war on terror. Trump has also expressed a willingness to target not only those deemed terrorists, but also their families. Kiir’s forces have done just that, attacking noncombatants suspected of sympathizing with the rebels, as they did during the sack of Leer.
So it didn’t come as a surprise when, in March, the Sudan Tribune — a popular Paris-based website covering South Sudan and Sudan — reported that Salva Kiir had endorsed Trump. It even provided readers with the official statement issued by Kiir’s office after his phone call with the U.S. presidential candidate: “Donald Trump is a true, hard-working, no-nonsense American who, when he becomes president, will support South Sudan in its democratic path and stability. South Sudan, the world newest nations [sic], is also looking forward to Donald Trump’s support and investment in almost all the sectors.” Trump, said the Tribune, “expressed his thanks for the endorsement and said he will send his top aides to the country to discuss further the investment opportunities.”
It turned out, however, that the Tribune had been taken in by a local satirical news site, Saakam — the Onion of South Sudan — whose tagline is “Breaking news like it never happened.” That the Tribune was fooled by the story is not as strange as it might first seem. As journalist Jason Patinkin observed in Quartz, “Kiir’s reputation is such that many Africa watchers and journalists found the story plausible.”
I, for one, hadn’t even bothered to read the Tribune article. The title told me all I needed to know. It sounded like classic Kiir. I almost wondered what had taken him so long to reach out. But South Sudan’s foreign ministry assured Patinkin, “There is no truth to [the story] whatsoever.”
For now, at least.
Will He Win?
There’s a fever-dream, schizophrenic quality to the war in South Sudan. The conflict began in an orgy of violence, then ebbed, only to flare again and again. As the war has ground on, new groups have emerged, and alliances have formed while others broke down. Commanders switch sides, militias change allegiances. In 2014, for example, Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, the rebel army’s spokesman, called out the SPLA for “committing crimes against humanity.” Kiir, he said, had lost control of his forces and had become little more than a puppet of his Ugandan backers. Last year, Lul split from Machar to form the “South Sudan Resistance Movement/Army” — an organization that attracted few followers. This year, he found a new job, as the spokesman for the military he once cast as criminal. “I promise to defend SPLA in Media Warfare until the last drop of blood,” he wrote in a Facebook post after being tapped by Kiir. Of course, Machar himself has just recently returned to Juba to serve as first vice-president to Kiir.
In a country like this, enmeshed in a war like this, it’s hardly surprising that ceasefires have meant little and violence has ground on even after a peace deal was signed last August. Leer was just one of the spots where atrocities continued despite the pact that “ended” the conflict.
More recently, the war — or rather the various sub-conflicts it’s spawned, along with other armed violence — has spread to previously peaceful areas of the country. Cattle-raiding, a long-standing cultural practice, now supercharged by modern weaponry and military-style tactics, has proven increasingly lethal to communities nationwide, and has recently even bled across the border into Ethiopia. A South Sudanese raid into that country’s Gambela region last month killed 208 Ethiopians, and the attackers abducted 108 women and children while stealing more than 2,000 head of cattle.
While in Leer, I do end up talking at length with the Trump-intrigued aid worker about local cattle-raiding, as well as the killings, the rapes, and the widespread looting. I was always, however, aware that, like many other foreign aid workers and locals I meet, what he really wanted was an American take on the man presently dominating U.S. politics, an explanation of the larger-than-life and stranger-than-life figure who, even in South Sudan, has the ability to suck the air out of any room.
“This Trump. He’s a crazy man!” he tells me as we sit together beneath an obsidian sky now thick with stars. He reminds me that he’s not authorized by his employer to speak on the record. I nod. Then he adds incredulously, “He says some things and you wonder: Are you going to be president? Really?!”
A couple of other people are around us now, eating dinner after a long, sweltering day. They, too, join in the conversation, looking to me for answers. I find myself at a loss. Here, in this place of acute hunger ever-teetering on the brink of famine, here, a short walk from homes that are little more than hovels, where children go naked, women wear dresses that are essentially rags, and a mother’s dream is to lay her hands on a sheet of plastic to provide protection from the coming rains, I do my best to explain seething white male anger in America over “economic disenfranchisement,” “losing out,” and being “left behind,” over Donald Trump’s channeling of “America’s economic rage.” I’m disgusted even articulating these sentiments after spending the day speaking to people whose suffering is as unfathomable in America as America’s wealth is unimaginable here.
Some of Leer’s women fled with their children into the nearby swamps when armed men swept in. Imagine running blind, in the black of night, into such a swamp. Imagine tripping, falling, losing your grip on a small child’s hand as shots ring out. Imagine that child stumbling into water too deep for her to stand. Imagine slapping frantically at that water, disoriented, spinning in the darkness, desperate to find a child who can’t swim, who’s slipped beneath the surface, who is suddenly gone.
And now imagine me trying to talk about the worries of Trump supporters “that their kids won’t have a chance to get ahead.”
I really don’t want to say any more. I don’t want to try to make sense of it or try to explain why so many Americans are so enraged at their lot and so enthralled with Donald Trump.
The aid worker lets me off the hook with another assessment of the Republican candidate. “Things he says, they are very awkward. When he says those things, you think: He’s crazy. How can he be a presidential candidate?”
How to respond? I’m at a loss.
“If he wins the election, America will not have the influence it’s had,” he says.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, I counter. Maybe not having such influence would be good for the world.
It’s the truth. It also completely misses the point. Even here, even as I’m revolted by talking about America’s “problems” amid the horrors of Leer, I’m still looking at things from a distinctly American vantage point. I’m talking about theoretically diminished U.S. power and what that might mean for the planet, but come 2017 he’s going to be out in the thick of it, in this or some other desperate place, and he’s obviously worried about what the foreign policy of Donald Trump’s America is going to mean for him, for Africa, for the world.
I go silent. He goes silent. Another aid worker has been listening in, piping up intermittently between mouthfuls of rice and goat meat. “So is he going to win?” he asks me.
I look over at him and half-shrug. Everyone, I say, thought Trump was going to flame out long ago. And I stop there. I’m too spent to talk Trump anymore. I don’t have any answers.
My companion looks back at me and breaks his silence. “It can’t happen, can it?”
Copyright 2016 Nick Turse
Donald Trump in South Sudan
There’s good news coming out of Iraq… again. The efforts of a 65-nation coalition and punishing U.S. airstrikes have helped local ground forces roll back gains by the Islamic State (IS).
Government forces and Shiite militias, for example, recaptured the city of Tikrit, while Kurdish troops ousted IS fighters from the town of Sinjar and other parts of northern Iraq. Last month, Iraqi troops finally pushed Islamic State militants out of most of the city of Ramadi, which the group had held since routing Iraqi forces there last spring.
In the wake of all this, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter touted “the kind of progress that the Iraqi forces are exhibiting in Ramadi, building on that success to… continue the campaign with the important goal of retaking Mosul as soon as possible.” Even more recently, he said those forces were “proving themselves not only motivated but capable.” I encountered the same upbeat tone when I asked Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, about the Iraqi security forces. “The last year has been a process of constructing, rebuilding, and refitting the Iraqi army,” he explained. “While it takes time for training and equipping efforts to take effect, the increasing tactical confidence and competence of the ISF [Iraqi security forces] and their recent battlefield successes indicate that we are on track.”
“Progress.” “Successes.” “On track.” “Increasing tactical confidence and competence.” It all sounded very familiar to me.
By September 2012, after almost a decade at the task, the U.S. had allocated and spent nearly $25 billion on “training, equipping, and sustaining” the Iraqi security forces, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Along the way, a parade of generals, government officials, and Pentagon spokesmen had offered up an almost unending stream of good news about the new Iraqi Army. Near constant reports came in of “remarkable,” “big,” even “enormous” progress for a force that was said to be exuding increasing “confidence,” and whose performance was always improving. In the end, the U.S. claimed to have trained roughly 950,000 members of the “steady,” “solid,” Iraqi security forces.
And yet just two and a half years after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, that same force collapsed in spectacular fashion in the face of assaults by Islamic State militants who, by CIA estimates, numbered no more than 31,000 in all. In June 2014, for example, 30,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi troops abandoned their equipment and in some cases even their uniforms, fleeing as few as 800 Islamic State fighters, allowing IS to capture Mosul, the second largest city in the country.
Blaming the Victim
“When U.S. forces departed Iraq in 2011, it was after helping the Iraqi government create an entirely new Iraqi Security Force following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” Major Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman with U.S. Central Command, explained to me last year. It almost sounded as if the old regime had toppled of its own accord, a new government had arisen, and the U.S. had generously helped build a military for it. In reality, of course, a war of choice — based on trumped up claims of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction — led to a U.S. occupation and the conscious decision to dissolve Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military and create a new army in the American mold. “[T]he Iraqi security forces were a fully functioning element of the Iraq Government,” Kellogg continued, explaining how such an Iraqi military collapse could occur in 2014. “However, the military standards established and left in place were allowed to atrophy following the departure of U.S. troops.”
More recently, Colonel Steve Warren brought up another problem with Iraq’s forces in an email to me. “The Iraqi army that we left in 2011 was an army that had been trained for counterinsurgency. That means route clearance, checkpoint operations, and IED [improvised explosive device] reduction, for example. The Iraqi army that collapsed in 2014 was… not trained and… not ready for a conventional fight — the conventional assault that ISIL brought to Mosul and beyond.”
Both Kellogg and Warren stopped short of saying what seems obvious to many. Kalev Sepp, the adviser to two top American generals in Iraq and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and counterterrorism, shows no such hesitation. “We had 12 years to train the Iraqi Army… We failed. It’s obvious. So when this lightly-armed insurgent group, the so-called Islamic State, invaded the country, the Iraqi army collapsed in front of it.”
It’s taken billions of dollars and a year and a half of air strikes, commando raids, advice, and training to begin to reverse the Islamic State’s gains. According to Warren, the U.S. and its partners have once again trained more than 17,500 ISF troops, with another 2,900 currently in the pipeline. And once again we’re hearing about their successes. Secretary of Defense Carter, for example, called the fight for Ramadi “a significant step forward in the campaign to defeat this barbaric group,” while Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the Islamic State had “suffered a major defeat” there.
Still, the tiny terror group seems to have no difficulty recruiting new troops, is ramping up attacks in the district of Haditha, carrying out complex attacks in Baghdad and the town of Muqdadiya, and continues to hold about 57,000 square miles of Syrian and Iraqi territory, including Mosul. With questions already being raised by Pentagon insiders about just how integral the Iraqi security forces were to the retaking of Ramadi and doubts about their ability to clear cities like Mosul, it’s worth taking a look back at all those upbeat reports of “progress” during the previous U.S. effort to build an Iraqi Army from scratch.
Nothing “Succeeds” Like “Success”
After the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush administration began remaking the battered nation from the ground up. One of the first acts of L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian official in the occupied country, was to dissolve Iraq’s military. His plan: to replace Saddam Hussein’s 350,000-man army with a lightly armed border protection force that would peak at around 40,000 soldiers, supplemented by police and civil defense forces. In an instant, hundreds of thousands of well-trained soldiers were unemployed, providing a ready source of fighters for a future insurgency.
“In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis… Indeed, the progress has been so swift that… it will not be long before [the Iraqi security forces] will… outnumber the U.S. forces,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested in a cheery assessment in October 2003.
Major General Paul Eaton, tasked with rebuilding the Iraqi Army, similarly articulated his upbeat vision for the force. Schooled by Americans in “fundamental soldier and leadership skills” and outfitted with all the accoutrements of modern Western troops, including body armor and night-vision equipment, the new military would be committed to “defend[ing] Iraq and its new-found freedom,” he announced at a Baghdad briefing in January 2004. Soon, Iraqis would even take over the task of instruction. “I would like to emphasize that this will be an Iraqi Army, trained by Iraqis,” he said. “As Iraq is reborn,” he added, “we believe that her armed forces can lead the way in unifying” the country.
“Paul Eaton and his team did an extraordinary amount for the Iraqi Security Force mission,” his successor Lieutenant General David Petraeus would say a couple of years later. “They established a solid foundation on which we were able to build as the effort was expanded very substantially and resourced at a much higher level.”
Retired Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp, who traveled to Iraq as an adviser five times, had a different assessment. “General Eaton was direct in letting me know that he wanted to be remembered as the father of the new Iraqi Army,” he told me. “I thought his approach was conceptually wrong,” Sepp recalled, noting that Eaton “understood his mission was to create an army to defend Iraq from foreign invasion, but he completely overlooked the internal insurgency.” (A request to interview Eaton, sent to the American Security Project, a Washington D.C.-based think tank with which the retired general is affiliated, went unanswered.)
General Eaton would later blame the Bush administration for initial setbacks in the performance of the Iraqi Army, thanks to poor prewar planning and insufficient resources for the job. “We set out to man, train, and equip an army for a country of 25 million — with six men,” General Eaton told the New York Times in 2006. He did, however, accept personal responsibility for the most visible of its early failures, the mutiny of a freshly minted Iraqi battalion en route to its first battle in April 2004.
In the years that followed, America’s Iraq exploded into violence as Sunni and Shiite militants battled each other, the U.S. occupiers, and the U.S.-backed Baghdad government. On the fly, U.S. officials came up with new plans to build a large, conventional, heavily armed force to secure Iraq in the face of sectarian strife, multiple raging insurgencies, and ultimately civil war. “The Iraqi military and police forces expanded rapidly from 2004 to 2006, adapting to the counterinsurgency mission,” according to a report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. As chaos spread and death tolls rose, estimates of the necessary numbers of Iraqi troops, proposals concerning the right types of weapons systems for them, and training stratagems for building the army were amended, adjusted, and revised, again and again. There was, however, one constant: praise.
In September 2005, as violence was surging and more than 1,400 civilians were being killed in attacks across the country, General George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, reported that the security forces were “progressing and continuing to take a more prominent role in defending their country.” He repeatedly emphasized that training efforts were on track — a sentiment seconded by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. “Every single day, the Iraqi security forces are getting bigger and better and better trained and better equipped and more experienced,” he said.
“I think we did a very effective job of training the Iraqi military recruits that were brought to us,” Casey told me last year, reflecting on U.S. efforts during his two and a half years in command. The trouble, he said, was with the Iraqis. “The political situation in Iraq through 2007 and even to this day is such that the leadership of the Iraqi government and the military never could instill the loyalty of the troops in the government.”
At the time, however, American generals emphasized progress over problems. After Petraeus finished his own stint heading the training effort, he was effusive in his praise. “The bottom line up front that I’d like to leave with you today is that there has been enormous progress with the Iraqi security forces over the course of the past 16 months in the face of a brutal insurgency,” he boasted in October 2005, adding that “considerable work” still lay ahead. “Iraqi security force readiness has continued to grow with each passing week. You can take a percentage off every metric that’s out there, whatever you want — training, equipping, infrastructure reconstruction, units in the fight, schools, academies reestablished — you name it — and what has been accomplished… would still be remarkable.” (Messages seeking an interview sent to Petraeus at Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., the investment firm where he serves as chairman of the KKR Global Institute, were not answered.)
In November 2005, President Bush voiced the same sentiments. “As the Iraqi security forces stand up, their confidence is growing,” he told midshipmen at the Naval Academy. “And they’re taking on tougher and more important missions on their own.” By the following February, General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was similarly lauding that military, claiming “the progress that they’ve made over this last year has been enormous.”
The next month, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, who succeeded Petraeus as commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) and later served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, chimed in with glowing praise: “What we’re seeing now is progress on a three-year investment in Iraq’s security forces. It’s been a big investment, and it’s yielding big progress.”
I asked retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, how so many American officials could have seen so much progress from a force that would later collapse so rapidly and spectacularly. “I think there’s a psychological need to see progress and, of course, it’s helpful to parrot the party line. I do think that, psychologically, you need to be able to persuade yourself that your hard-earned efforts — this time spent away from home in lousy conditions — actually produced something positive.”
Kalev Sepp, who traveled all over Iraq talking to the commanders of more than 30 U.S. units while conducting a seminal counterinsurgency study known simply as the “COIN Survey,” told me that when he asked about the progress of the Iraqi units they were working with, U.S. officers invariably linked it to their own tour of duty. “Almost every commander said exactly the same thing. If the commander had six months left in his tour, the Iraqis would be combat-capable in six months. If the commander had four months left, then the Iraqis would be ready in four months. Was a commander going to say ‘I won’t accomplish my mission. I’m not going to be done on time’? All the other units were saying their Iraqis were going to be fully trained. Who was going to be the one commander who said ‘I don’t think my Iraqi unit is really ready’?”
Official praise continued as insurgencies raged across the country and monthly civilian death tolls regularly exceeded 2,000, even topping 3,000 in 2006 and 2007. “The Iraqi security force continues to develop and grow, assisted by embedded transition teams,” Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq, announced to the press in May 2007. “Yes, there are still problems within the Iraqi security forces — some sectarian, some manning, and some to do with equipping. But progress is being made, and it’s steady.” A 2008 Pentagon review also indicated remarkable progress with 102 out of 169 Iraqi battalions being declared “capable of planning, executing, and sustaining counterinsurgency operations with or without Iraqi or coalition support,” up from just 24 battalions in 2005.
Years later, Odierno, still in charge of the command, then known as United States Forces-Iraq, continued to tout improvement. “Clearly there’s still some violence, and we still need to make more progress in Iraq,” he told reporters in July 2010. “But Iraqi security forces have taken responsibility for security throughout Iraq, and they continue to grow and improve every day.”
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, was also upbeat, noting in 2010 that the $21.3 billion already spent to build up the then-660,000-man security force had “begun to pay off significantly.” Don Cooke, head of the State Department’s Iraq assistance office, agreed. “We have built an Iraqi security force which is capable of maintaining internal security in Iraq… And four or five or six years ago, there were people who were saying it was going to take decades.”
In October 2011, as U.S. forces were preparing to end eight years of occupation, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offered up his own mission-accomplished assessment. “You know, the one thing… we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself. We’ve taken out now about a hundred thousand [U.S.] troops [from Iraq], and yet the level of violence has remained relatively low. And I think that’s a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country,” he said of the by then 930,000-man security forces.
Winners and Losers
As the U.S. was training recruits at bases all over Iraq — including Camp Bucca, where Iraqi cadets attended a U.S.-run course for prison guards — another force was also taking shape. For years, U.S.-run prison camps were decried by many as little more than recruiting and training sites for would-be insurgents, with innocents — angered by arbitrary and harsh detentions — housed alongside hardcore militants. But Camp Bucca proved to be even more dangerous than that. It became the incubator not just for an insurgency, but for a proto-state, the would-be caliphate that now lords over significant portions of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Nine top commanders of the Islamic State did prison time at America’s Camp Bucca, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader who spent nearly five years there. “Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America,” Andrew Thompson, an Iraq War veteran, and academic Jeremi Suri wrote in a 2014 New York Times piece. “Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following… The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.”
So how could U.S. officials have so successfully (if inadvertently) fostered the leadership of what would become a truly effective fighting force that would one day best the larger, far more intensively trained, better-armed military they had built to the tune of tens of billions of dollars? “The people we imprisoned didn’t leave with skills when they finally got out of prison, but they did leave with will,” says Andrew Bacevich. “What we were doing was breeding resentment, anger, determination, disgust, which provided the makings of an army that turns out to be more effective than the Iraqi Army.”
General George Casey, who went on to serve as Army Chief of Staff before retiring in 2011, sees the failure of Iraq’s Shiite government to reach out to minority Sunnis as the main driver of the collapse of significant portions of the country’s army in 2014. “You hear all kinds of reasons why the Sunni forces [of the Iraqi military] ran out of Mosul, but it wasn’t a surprise to any of us who had been over there. If your country doesn’t support what you’re doing, there’s no reason to fight for them,” Casey explained in a phone interview last year. “People probably give short shrift to what we in the military call ‘the will to fight.’ When it comes right down to it, that’s what it’s all about. And we can’t instill the will to fight in the heart of a soldier from another country. We just can’t do it.”
“We can talk about how appalling Daesh is,” adds Kalev Sepp, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, “but their fighters believe in what they’re doing and that adds a particular steel to one’s backbone.” Bacevich, who has recently finished writing a military history, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, echoed this sentiment, noting the stark difference between U.S.-trained Iraqi forces and their brutal opponents. “Whatever else we may think of ISIS, their forces appear to be keen to fight and willing to die in order to promote their cause. The same cannot be said of the Iraqi Army.”
And yet, in the wake of the implosion of Iraq’s security forces, the United States — as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, its campaign against IS — began a new advisory and training effort to assist and re-rebuild Iraq’s army. In June 2014, President Obama announced that up to 300 advisors would be sent to Iraq. The size of the U.S. presence has increased steadily ever since to roughly 3,500.
“As per policy we do not disclose specific numbers of troops and their roles,” Colonel Warren, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, explained to me. He did, however, note that there are approximately 5,500 Coalition personnel from 17 partner nations including the United States conducting advise and assist missions and training at “Building Partner Capacity sites.”
Despite the poor results of the prior training effort, even some of its critics are hopeful that the current mission may succeed. “American advisors could have a positive effect,” Sepp, now a senior lecturer in defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me. He explained that a pinpoint mission of training Iraqis to take back a particular city or defend a specific area stands a real chance of success. Casey, his former boss, agreed but insisted that such success would not come easily or quickly. “This is going to take a long time. This is not a short-term thing. People want to see ISIS defeated — whatever that means — quickly. But it’s not going to be ‘quickly’ because the problems are political more than military and that’s going to take the Iraqis some time to come to grips with.”
Doomed to Repeat It?
History suggests that time is no panacea when Washington attempts to prop up, advise, or build armies. In the early 1950s, the U.S. provided extensive support to the French military in Indochina — eventually footing nearly 80% of the cost of its war there — only to see that force defeated by a less advanced, less well-equipped Vietnamese army. Not long after, the U.S. began an expensive process that continued into the mid-1970s of building, advising, equipping, and bankrolling the South Vietnamese military. In those years, it ballooned into a million-man army, only to disintegrate two years after the U.S. ended its own long, unsuccessful combat effort in that country.
“The assumption that we know how to create armies in other parts of the world is a pretty dubious proposition,” Andrew Bacevich, a veteran of that war, told me. “Yes, Vietnam was a vivid demonstration of a failed project to build an effective army, but you don’t even have to cite Vietnam. Iraq obviously is another case. And more generally, the Pentagon exaggerates its ability to create effective fighting forces in parts of the developing world.”
Indeed, recent U.S. training efforts around the globe have been marked by a string of scandals, setbacks, and failures. Last year, for example, the Obama administration scrapped a $500 million program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian rebels. It was supposed to yield 15,000 fighters over three years but instead produced only a few dozen. Then there’s the 13-year, $65 billion effort in Afghanistan that has yielded a force whose rolls are filled with nonexistent “ghost” troops, wracked by desertions, and hobbled by increasing casualties. It has been unable to defeat a small, unpopular, Taliban insurgency now growing in strength and reach. The short-term loss by U.S.-backed Afghan forces of the city of Kunduz late last year and recent Taliban gains in Helmand province have cast a bright light on this slow-motion fiasco.
These efforts have hardly been anomalies. A U.S.-trained Congolese commando battalion was, for example, implicated by the United Nations in mass rapes and other atrocities. One effort to train Libyan militiamen ended up stillborn; another saw militants repeatedly raid a U.S. training camp and loot it of high-tech equipment, including hundreds of weapons; and still another saw advisers run out of the country by a militia soon after touching down. Then there were the U.S.-trained officers who overthrew their governments in coups in Mali in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2014. In fact, a December 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service noted:
“Recent events, particularly the battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban over K[u]nduz, the inability of [Department of Defense]-led efforts to produce more than a ‘handful’ of anti-Assad, anti-Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, and the collapse of U.S.-trained forces in Iraq in the face of the Islamic State, have called into question — including in the Congress — whether these [building partner capacity] programs can ever achieve their desired effects.”
Despite all of this, the Pentagon remains committed to creating another Iraqi Army in the American mold with, as Colonel Warren recently explained to me, “modern American equipment, modern conventional training, and of course, supported by air power.” The U.S. has, he notes, already spent $2.3 billion arming and equipping this new force.
Andrew Bacevich once again sees crucial flaws in the American plan. “Our trainers, I suspect, are probably pretty good at imparting technical skills… I’m sure that they can teach them marksmanship, how to conduct a patrol, how to maintain their weapons, but I can’t imagine that we have much of a facility for imparting fighting spirit, sense of national unity, and that’s where Iraqi forces have been deficient. It’s this will versus skill thing. We can convey skills. I don’t think we can convey will.”
For his part, Secretary of Defense Carter seems singularly focused on the skills side of the equation. “ISIL’s lasting defeat still requires local forces to fight and prevail on the ground. We can and will continue to develop and enable such local forces,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in June 2015. “That’s why [the Department of Defense] seeks to bolster… Iraq’s security forces to be capable of winning back, and then defending and holding the ISIL-controlled portions of the Iraqi state.” Last month, Carter assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was still “urging the Iraqi government to do more to recruit, train, arm, and mobilize Sunni popular mobilization fighters in their communities.”
This presumes, however, that there is a truly functioning Iraqi state in the first place. Andrew Bacevich isn’t so sure. “It may be time to admit that there is no Iraq. We presume to be creating a national army that is willing to fight for the nation of Iraq, but I don’t think it’s self-evident that Iraq exists, except in the most nominal sense. If that’s true, then further efforts — a second decade’s worth of efforts to build an Iraqi army — simply are not likely to pan out.”
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Tomorrow’s Battlefield, as well as Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. He has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nation, and is a contributing writer for the Intercept.
Copyright 2016 Nick Turse
The Pentagon’s Progress
On October 7th, at an “undisclosed location” somewhere in “Southwest Asia,” men wearing different types of camouflage and dun-colored boots gathered before a black backdrop adorned with Arabic script. They were attending a ceremony that mixed solemnity with celebration, the commemoration of a year of combat that left scores of their enemies slain. One of their leaders spoke of comraderie and honor, of forging a family and continuing a legacy.
While this might sound like the description of a scene from an Islamic State (IS) video or a clip from a militia battling them, it was, in fact, a U.S. Air Force “inactivation ceremony.” There, Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Drake handed over to Colonel John Orchard the “colors” of his drone unit as it slipped into an ethereal military limbo. But that doesn’t mean the gathering had no connection to the Islamic State.
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).
Chabelley Airfield, satellite photo, April 2013.
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.
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.
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.
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 Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon,Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South 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.”
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.
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 Djema, Sam 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