Whether you’re reading this with your morning coffee, just after lunch, or on the late shift in the wee small hours of the morning, it’s 100 seconds to midnight. That’s just over a minute and a half. And that should be completely unnerving. It’s the closest to that witching hour we’ve ever been.
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has adjusted its Doomsday Clock to provide humanity with an expert estimate of just how close all of us are to an apocalyptic “midnight” — that is, nuclear annihilation. A century ago, there was, of course, no need for such a measure. Back then, the largest explosion ever caused by humans had likely occurred in Halifax, Canada, in 1917, when a munitions ship collided with another vessel, in that city’s harbor. That tragic blast killed nearly 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 6,000 homeless, but it didn’t imperil the planet. The largest explosions after that occurred on July 16, 1945, in a test of a new type of weapon, an atomic bomb, in New Mexico and then on August 6, 1945, when the United States unleashed such a bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Since then, our species has been precariously perched at the edge of auto-extermination.
No one knows precisely how many people were killed by the world’s first nuclear attack. Around 70,000, nearly all of them civilians, were vaporized, crushed, burned, or irradiated to death almost immediately. Another 50,000 probably died soon after. As many as 280,000 were dead, many of radiation sickness, by the end of the year. (An atomic strike on the city of Nagasaki, three days later, is thought to have killed as many as 70,000.) In the wake of the first nuclear attack, little was clear. “What happened at Hiroshima is not yet known,” the New York Times reported that August 7th and the U.S. government sought to keep it that way, portraying nuclear weapons as nothing more than super-charged conventional munitions, while downplaying the horrifying effects of radiation. Despite the heroic efforts of several reporters just after the blast, it wasn’t until a year later that Americans — and then the rest of the world — began to truly grasp the effects of such new weaponry and what it would mean for humanity from that moment onward.
We know about what happened at Hiroshima largely thanks to one man, John Hersey. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and former correspondent for TIME and LIFE magazines. He had covered World War II in Europe and the Pacific, where he was commended by the secretary of the Navy for helping evacuate wounded American troops on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal. And we now know just how Hersey got the story of Hiroshima — a 30,000-word reportorial masterpiece that appeared in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker magazine, describing the experiences of six survivors of that atomic blast — thanks to a meticulously researched and elegantly written new book by Lesley Blume, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.
Only the Essentials
When I pack up my bags for a war zone, I carry what I consider to be the essentials for someone reporting on an armed conflict. A water bottle with a built-in filter. Trauma packs with a blood-clotting agent. A first-aid kit. A multitool. A satellite phone. Sometimes I forgo one or more of these items, but there’s always been a single, solitary staple, a necessity whose appearance has changed over the years, but whose presence in my rucksack has not.
Once, this item was intact, almost pristine. But after the better part of a decade covering conflicts in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, and Burkina Faso, it’s a complete wreck. Still, I carry it. In part, it’s become (and I’m only slightly embarrassed to say it) something of a talisman for me. But mostly, it’s because what’s between the figurative covers of that now-coverless, thoroughly mutilated copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima — the New Yorker article in paperback form — is as terrifyingly brilliant as the day I bought it at the Strand bookstore in New York City for 48 cents.
I know Hiroshima well. I’ve read it cover-to-cover dozens of times. Or sometimes on a plane or a helicopter or a river barge, in a hotel room or sitting by the side of a road, I’ll flip it open and take in a random 10 or 20 pages. I always marveled at how skillfully Hersey constructed the narrative with overlapping personal accounts that make the horrific handiwork of that weapon with the power of the gods accessible on a human level; how he explained something new to this world, atomic terror, in terms that readers could immediately grasp; how he translated destruction on a previously unimaginable scale into a cautionary tale as old as the genre itself, but with an urgency that hasn’t faded or been matched. I simply never knew how he did it until Lesley Blume pulled back the curtain.
Fallout, which was published last month — the 75th anniversary of America’s attack on Hiroshima — offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of just how Hersey and William Shawn, then the managing editor of the New Yorker, were able to truly break the story of an attack that had been covered on the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers a year earlier and, in the process, produced one of the all-time great pieces of journalism. It’s an important reminder that the biggest stories may be hiding in plain sight; that breaking news coverage is essential but may not convey the full magnitude of an event; and that a writer may be far better served by laying out a detailed, chronological account in spartan prose, even when the story is so horrific it seems to demand a polemic.
Hersey begins Hiroshima in an understated fashion, noting exactly what each of the six survivors he chronicles was doing at the moment their lives changed forever. “Not everyone could comprehend how the atomic bomb worked or visualize an all-out, end-of-days nuclear world war,” Blume observes. “But practically anyone could comprehend a story about a handful of regular people — mothers, fathers, grade school children, doctors, clerks — going about their daily routines when catastrophe struck.”
As she points out, Hersey’s authorial voice is never raised and so the atomic horrors — victims whose eyeballs had melted and run down their cheeks, others whose skin hung from their bodies or slipped off their hands like gloves — speak for themselves. It’s a feat made all the more astonishing when one considers, as Blume reveals, that its author, who had witnessed combat and widespread devastation from conventional bombing during World War II, was so terrified and tormented by what he saw in Hiroshima months after the attack that he feared he would be unable to complete his assignment.
Incredibly, Hersey got the story of Hiroshima with official sanction, reporting under the scrutiny of the office of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, the head of the American occupation of defeated Japan. His prior reportage on the U.S. military, including a book focused on MacArthur that he later called “too adulatory,” helped secure his access. More amazing still, the New Yorker — fearing possible repercussions under the recently passed Atomic Energy Act — submitted a final draft of the article for review to Lieutenant General Lesley Groves, who had overseen the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, served as its chief booster, and went so far as to claim that radiation poisoning “is a very pleasant way to die.”
Whatever concessions the New Yorker may have made to him have been lost in the sands of time, but Groves did sign off on the article, overlooking, as Blume notes, “Hersey’s most unsettling revelations: the fact that the United States had unleashed destruction and suffering upon a largely civilian population on a scale unprecedented in human history and then tried to cover up the human cost of its new weapon.”
The impact on the U.S. government would be swift. The article was a sensation and immediately lauded as the best reporting to come out of World War II. It quickly became one of the most reprinted news pieces of all time and led to widespread reappraisals by newspapers and readers alike of just what America had done to Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also managed to shine a remarkably bright light on the perils of nuclear weapons, writ large. “Hersey’s story,” as Blume astutely notes, “was the first truly effective, internationally heeded warning about the existential threat that nuclear arms posed to civilization.”
Wanted: A Hersey for Our Time
It’s been 74 years since Hiroshima hit the newsstands. A Cold War and nuclear arms race followed as those weapons spread across the planet. And this January, as a devastating pandemic was beginning to follow suit, all of us found ourselves just 100 seconds away from total annihilation due to the plethora of nuclear weapons on this earth, failures of U.S.-Russian cooperation on arms control and disarmament, the Trump administration’s trashing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and America’s efforts to develop and deploy yet more advanced nukes, as well as two other factors that have sped up that apocalyptic Doomsday Clock: climate change and cyber-based disinformation.
The latter, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is corrupting our “information ecosphere,” undermining democracy as well as trust among nations, and so creating hair-trigger conditions in international relations. The former is transforming the planet’s actual ecosystem and placing humanity in another kind of ultimate peril. “Dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder,” former California Governor Jerry Brown, the executive chair of the Bulletin, said earlier this year. “Climate change just compounds the crisis. If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”
Over the last three-plus years, however, President Donald Trump has seemingly threatened at least three nations with nuclear annihilation, including a U.S. ally. In addition to menacing North Korea with the possibility of unleashing “fire and fury” and his talk of ushering in “the end” of Iran, he even claimed to have “plans” to exterminate most of the population of Afghanistan. The “method of war” he suggested employing could kill an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians. John Hersey, who died in 1993 at the age of 78, wouldn’t have had a moment’s doubt about what he meant.
Trump’s nuclear threats may never come to fruition, but his administration, while putting significant effort into deep-sixing nuclear pacts, has also more than done its part to accelerate climate change, thinning rules designed to keep the planet as habitable as possible for humans. A recent New York Times analysis, for example, tallied almost 70 environmental rules and regulations — governing planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane emissions, clean air, water, and toxic chemicals — that have been rescinded, reversed, or revoked, with more than 30 additional rollbacks still in progress.
President Trump has not, however, been a total outlier when it comes to promoting environmental degradation. American presidents have been presiding over the destruction of the natural environment since the founding of the republic. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act, for instance, transformed countless American lives, providing free land for the masses. But it also transferred 270 million acres of wilderness, or 10% of the United States, into private hands for “improvements.”
More recently, Ronald Reagan launched attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency through deregulation and budget cuts, while George W. Bush’s administration worked to undermine science-based policies, specifically through the denial of anthropogenic climate change. The difference, of course, was that Lincoln couldn’t have conceptualized the effects of global warming (even if the first study of the “greenhouse effect” was published during his lifetime), whereas the science was already clear enough in the Reagan and Bush years, and brutally self-apparent in the age of Trump, as each of them pursued policies that would push us precious seconds closer to Armageddon.
The tale of how John Hersey got his story is a great triumph of Lesley Blume’s Fallout, but what came after may be an even more compelling facet of the book. Hersey gave the United States an image problem — and far worse. “The transition from global savior to genocidal superpower was an unwelcome reversal,” she observes. Worse yet for the U.S. government, the article left many Americans reevaluating their country and themselves. It’s beyond rare for a journalist to prompt true soul-searching or provide a moral mirror for a nation. In an interview in his later years, Hersey, who generally avoided publicity, suggested that the testimony of survivors of the atomic blasts — like those he spotlighted — had helped to prevent nuclear war.
“We know what an atomic apocalypse would look like because John Hersey showed us,” writes Blume. Unfortunately, while there have been many noteworthy, powerful works on climate change, we’re still waiting for the one that packs the punch of “Hiroshima.” And so, humanity awaits that once-in-a-century article, as nuclear weapons, climate change, and cyber-based disinformation keep us just 100 clicks short of doomsday.
Hersey provided a template. Blume has lifted the veil on how he did it. Now someone needs to step up and write the world-changing piece of reportage that will shock our consciences and provide a little more breathing room between this vanishing moment and our ever-looming midnight.
This Vanishing Moment and Our Vanishing Future
Last October, a group of eight Apache attack and CH-47 Chinook helicopters carrying U.S. commandos roared out of an airfield in Iraq. They raced through Turkish airspace and across the Syrian border, coming in low as they approached a village just north of Idlib Province where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his bodyguards, and some of his children were spending the night. The helicopters opened up with their machine guns, while military jets circled above and 50 to 70 members of the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force stormed into a compound just outside the village of Barisha. When it was all over, Baghdadi’s home was rubble, an unknown number of people living in the area, including civilians, had been killed, and he and two of his children were dead — victims of a suicide vest worn by the ISIS chief.
That commando raid in Syria was the highest profile U.S. Special Operations mission of 2019, but it was just one of countless efforts conducted by America’s most elite troops. They also fought and died in Afghanistan and Iraq while carrying out missions, conducting training exercises, or advising and assisting local forces from Bulgaria to Romania, Burkina Faso to Somalia, Chile to Guatemala, the Philippines to South Korea.
Last year, members of the Special Operations forces — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and Marine Raiders among them — operated in 141 countries, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In other words, they deployed to roughly 72% of the nations on this planet. While down from a 2017 high of 149 countries, this still represents a 135% rise from the late 2000s when America’s commandos were reportedly operating in only 60 nations.
As General Richard Clarke, chief of Special Operations Command, told members of the House Appropriations Committee last year:
“Our worldwide access and placement, our networks and partnerships, and our flexible global posture enable the Department [of Defense]… to respond across the spectrum of competition, especially below the threshold of armed conflict where our competitors — particularly Russia and China — continue to hone their skills and advance their strategic objectives.”
This near-record level of global deployment came as questions swirled about mounting malfeasance by some of America’s most elite troops and was accompanied by handwringing from leaders at Special Operations Command over possible ethical failings and criminal behavior among their troops. “Recent incidents have called our culture and ethics into question and threaten the trust placed in us,” Clarke wrote in an August 2019 memo. Those “incidents,” ranging from drug use to rape to murder, have spanned the globe from Afghanistan to Colombia to Mali, drawing additional attention to what actually happens in the shadows where America’s commandos operate.
Special Operations Forces Deployed to 82 Countries Weekly
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has leaned ever more heavily on its most elite troops. While U.S. Special Operations forces (USSOF or SOF) make up just 3% of American military personnel, they have absorbed more than 40% of the casualties of these years, mainly in America’s conflicts across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa.
During this period, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has grown in every way imaginable — from its budget and size to the pace and the geographic sweep of its missions. For example, “Special Operations-specific funding,” which stood at $3.1 billion in 2001, has, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw, increased to approximately $13 billion today.
There were roughly 45,000 SOF personnel in 2001. Today, about 73,000 members of Special Operations Command — military personnel and civilians — are carrying out a broad range of activities that include counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, security force assistance, and unconventional warfare. In 2001, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed overseas in any given week. That number now stands at 6,700, says SOCOM’s Ken McGraw.
According to statistics provided to TomDispatch by Special Operations Command, more than 62% of those special operators deployed overseas in 2019 were sent to the Greater Middle East, far outpacing any other region of the world. This represented a rebound for special operators in the Central Command, or CENTCOM, area of operations. While more than 80% of America’s commandos deployed overseas at the beginning of the decade were stationed there, that number had dropped to just over 50% by 2017 before beginning to rise again.
The remainder of America’s forward-deployed special operators were scattered across the globe with just over 14% active in Africa, more than 10% in Europe, 8.5% in the Indo-Pacific region, and 3.75% in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. During any given week, commandos are deployed in about 82 nations.
Traditionally, America’s elite forces have placed a heavy emphasis on “security cooperation” and “building partner capacity”; that is, the training, advising, and assisting of indigenous troops. In testimony to members of Congress last April, for instance, SOCOM commander General Richard Clarke asserted that, “for developing countries, security cooperation activities are key tools for strengthening relationships and attracting new partners while enabling them to tackle threats and challenges of common concern.”
Common concerns are not, however, always of the utmost importance to the United States. In that same testimony, Clarke made special mention of so-called 127e (“127-echo”) programs, named for the budgetary authority that allows U.S. Special Operations forces to use certain local troops as proxies in counterterrorism missions, especially those directed at “high-value targets.”
“It allows,” said Clarke, “small-footprint USSOF elements to take advantage of the skills and unique attributes of indigenous regular and irregular forces — local area knowledge, ethnicity, and language skills — to achieve effects that are critical to our mission objectives while mitigating risk to U.S. forces. This is especially true in remote or politically sensitive areas where larger U.S. formations are infeasible and/or the enemy leverages safe havens that are otherwise inaccessible to USSOF.”
Used extensively across Africa and the Middle East, 127e programs can be run either by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive organization that controls the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Army’s Delta Force, and other special mission units, or by more generic “theater special operations forces.” In Africa, these programs typically involve small numbers of U.S. special operators working with 80 to 120 specially trained and equipped indigenous personnel. “The use of 127e authority has directly resulted in the capture or killing of thousands of terrorists,” Clarke claimed.
So-called direct action missions have led to the deaths of Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and countless other supposedly high-value targets, but some experts question the utility of these many attacks. Retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who served 10 tours in Afghanistan, including as the combined joint special operations component commander there, as well as the chief of Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017, is one of them. Now running for the Senate in New Hampshire, he is critical of what he sees as an obsessive focus on killing one leader after another while not putting in the hard work of training local forces to achieve actual security and stability without U.S. technology and assistance. “You just can’t kill your way to victory,” Bolduc told TomDispatch.
In addition to questions about the efficacy of their tactics and strategy, Special Operations forces have recently been plagued by scandal and reports of criminal activity. “After several incidents of misconduct and unethical behavior threatened public trust and caused leaders to question Special Operations forces culture and ethics, USSOCOM initiated a Comprehensive Review,” reads the executive summary of a January report on the subject. But that review is itself a bit of a puzzle.
SOCOM commanders have repeatedly called out wrongdoing by America’s elite forces. In November 2018, then-SOCOM chief General Raymond Thomas co-authored an ethics memorandum for his troops. A month later, he also sent an email to them in which he wrote: “A survey of allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year indicates that USSOCOM faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the team and the individual in our SOF culture.”
In February 2019, SOCOM underwent an ethics review followed by a 90-day “focus period on ethics.” Not long after, Thomas’s successor also decried moral turpitude within the command. “In the recent past, members of our SOF units have been accused of violating that trust and failing to meet our high standards of ethical conduct this command demands,” SOCOM commander General Richard Clarke told members of the House Appropriations Committee in April 2019. “We understand that criminal misconduct erodes the very trust that enables our success.” Clarke, in fact, inherited self-assessments of SOCOM components ordered by Thomas and used them as the basis for that Comprehensive Review issued in January.
“This is a very detailed review that takes a hard look at ourselves,” Clarke wrote in a letter to the SOF community released with the report. But despite employing a 12-person advisory team and an 18-person review team, despite their “55 engagements” and canvassing of more than “2,000 personnel across the SOF enterprise,” there’s no evidence of the review being “detailed” or the look all that “hard.” In fact, the 69-page report fails to offer even an inkling of what “misconduct and unethical behavior” it was examining.
In 2019 alone, however, many examples came to light that could have been included in just such a review. For instance, a Marine Raider, Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell, Jr., pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in military prison for his role in the killing of Staff Sergeant Logan Melgar, an Army Green Beret, in Mali in 2017. Navy SEAL Adam Matthews was also sentenced to a year’s confinement and a bad conduct discharge after pleading guilty to conspiracy, unlawful entry, hazing, obstruction of justice, and assault with battery, among other charges, in the attack on Melgar by fellow special operators. (It was meant to be a sexual assault, but led to the Green Beret’s strangulation and death.) Another Navy SEAL and a Marine Raider accused in Melgar’s death both face life in prison.
Last July, reports emerged that not only had members of SEAL Team 10 been caught using cocaine, but that commandos had long been cheating on urinalysis screenings. That same month, an entire platoon of Navy SEALs from SEAL Team 7 was removed from Iraq following reports of serious misconduct, including the rape of a female service member attached to the unit. Meanwhile, there have been rumors about even more serious misbehavior involving another SEAL Team 7 detachment in Yemen. In September 2019, three senior leaders of SEAL Team 7 were fired for failures in leadership that led to a breakdown of good order and discipline.
That same month, a complaint filed with the Department of Defense Inspector General accused Naval Special Warfare commander Rear Admiral Collin Green of “duplicitous actions” that were “done in an attempt to bolster his own reputation and protect his own career.” A month later, four members of the Naval Special Warfare Command were arrested in Okinawa on various charges related to unruly behavior.
Accounts of rampant drug use among SEALs also emerged in the court martial of SEAL Edward Gallagher who, in a circus-like case, was acquitted of charges that he had killed noncombatants in Iraq, but convicted of posing for photographs with the corpse of a teenager he was accused of murdering. (After Navy officials sought to discipline Gallagher, potentially stripping him of the Trident pin that signifies membership in the SEALs, President Donald Trump intervened to reverse the decision.)
And all of this followed a string of black eyes for elite troops in recent years, including allegations of massacres, unjustified killings, murder, prisoner abuse, child rape, child sexual abuse, mutilations, and other crimes, as well as drug trafficking and the theft of government property by Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Air Force special operators, and Marine Raiders.
Despite this startling record of malfeasance, SOCOM’s Comprehensive Review came to an unstartling conclusion. The review team (whose members were almost exclusively connected to the Special Operations community) largely absolved the command and its commandos of responsibility for much of anything. The team claimed that special operators had only been involved in “several” incidents of misconduct and unethical behavior instead of a laundry list of criminality. The review appeared to conclude that, instead of criminal activity, Special Operations Command’s greatest failing was actually its insistence on not failing — what it termed (11 times in 69 pages) a culture focused on “mission accomplishment.” And the report ultimately concluded that SOCOM did not have a “systemic ethics problem.”
With thousands of commandos operating — with little visibility — in scores of countries on any given day, it’s little wonder that discipline has eroded to a point where the command could neither fully gloss over nor cover it up. “I am forming an implementation team that will follow through on these findings and recommendations, assess results, and refine our policies accordingly,” Clarke announced following the release of the Comprehensive Review.
But can an organization producing a report that avoids outside oversight, reads like a whitewash, and won’t even name all the countries it operates in be counted on to be honest with the American people? Special Operations Command still has an opportunity to, as their report promises, “ensure transparent accountability.” If they’re serious about such outside oversight, they should feel free to contact me.
America’s Commandos Deployed to 141 Countries
On February 4, 2002, a Predator drone circled over Afghanistan’s Paktia province, near the city of Khost. Below was al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden — or at least someone in the CIA thought so — and he was marked for death. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it later, both awkwardly and passively: “A decision was made to fire the Hellfire missile. It was fired.” That air-to-ground, laser-guided missile — designed to obliterate tanks, bunkers, helicopters, and people — did exactly what it was meant to do.
As it happened, though (and not for the first time in its history either), the CIA got it wrong. It wasn’t Osama bin Laden on the receiving end of that strike, or a member of al-Qaeda, or even of the Taliban. The dead, local witnesses reported, were civilians out collecting scrap metal, ordinary people going about their daily work just as thousands of Americans had been doing at the World Trade Center only months earlier when terror struck from the skies.
In the years since, those Afghan scrap collectors have been joined by more than 157,000 war dead in that embattled land. That’s a heavy toll, but represents just a fraction of the body count from America’s post-9/11 wars. According to a study by the Costs of War Project of Brown University’s Watson Institute, as many as 801,000 people, combatants and noncombatants alike, have been killed in those conflicts. That’s a staggering number, the equivalent of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But if President Donald Trump is to be believed, the United States has “plans” that could bury that grim count in staggering numbers of dead. The “method of war” he suggested employing could produce more than 20 times that number in a single country — an estimated 20 million or more Afghans, almost all of them civilians.
It’s a strange fact of our moment that President Trump has claimed to have “plans” (or “a method”) for annihilating millions of innocent people, possibly most of the population of Afghanistan. Yet those comments of his barely made the news, disappearing within days. Even for a president who threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and usher in “the end” of Iran, hinting at the possibility of wiping out most of the civilian population of an ally represented something new.
After all, America’s commander-in-chief does have the authority, at his sole discretion, to order the launch of weapons from the vast U.S. nuclear arsenal. So it was no small thing last year when President Trump suggested that he might unleash a “method of war” that would kill at least 54% of the roughly 37 million inhabitants of Afghanistan.
And yet almost no one — in Washington or Kabul — wanted to touch such presidential comments. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department all demurred. So did the chief spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. One high-ranking Afghan official apologized to me for being unable to respond honestly to President Trump’s comments. A current American official expressed worry that reacting to the president’s Afghan threats might provoke a presidential tweet storm against him and refused to comment on the record.
Experts, however, weren’t shy about weighing in on what such “plans,” if real and utilized, would actually mean. Employing such a method (to use the president’s term), they say, would constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, and possibly a genocide.
A Trumpian Crime Against Humanity
“Massive Soviet military forces have invaded the small, nonaligned sovereign nation of Afghanistan,” President Jimmy Carter announced on January 4, 1980. “Fifty thousand heavily armed Soviet troops have crossed the border and are now dispersed throughout Afghanistan, attempting to conquer the fiercely independent Muslim people of that country.” Nine years later, the Red Army would finally limp out of that land in the wake of a war that killed an estimated 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers. As has been the norm in conflicts since World War I, however, civilians suffered the heaviest toll. Around one million were estimated to have been killed.
In the 18-plus years since U.S. forces invaded that same country in October 2001, the death toll has been far lower. Around 7,300 U.S. military personnel, contractors, and allied foreign forces have died there, as have 64,000 American-allied Afghans, 42,000 opposition fighters, and 43,000 civilians, according to the Costs of War Project. If President Trump is to be believed, however, this body count is low only due to American restraint.
“I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone,” the president remarked prior to a July 2019 meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.” In September, he ramped up the rhetoric — and the death toll — further. “We’ve been very effective in Afghanistan,” he said. “And if we wanted to do a certain method of war, we would win that very quickly, but many, many, really, tens of millions of people would be killed.”
If America’s commander-in-chief is to be believed, plans and methods are already in place for a mass killing whose death toll could, at a minimum, exceed those of the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Hundred Years’ War, and the American Revolution combined — and all in a country where the Pentagon believes there are only 40,000 to 80,000 Taliban fighters and fewer than 2,000 Islamic State militants.
President Trump claims he’d prefer not to use such methods, but if he did, say experts, his Senate impeachment trial could theoretically be followed by a more consequential one in front of an international tribunal. “Of course, any ‘method of war’ that would kill ‘10 million people’ or ‘tens of millions’ of people in a country where the fighting force consists of 40,000 to 80,000 would be a blatant violation of the laws of war and would render President Trump a war criminal,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, told TomDispatch.
Max Pensky, the co-director of the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention at the State University of New York at Binghamton, agreed. “Carrying out such a plan would certainly be a war crime because of the context of the armed conflict in Afghanistan,” he said. “And it would absolutely be a crime against humanity.” He noted that it might also constitute a genocide depending on the intent behind it.
The United States has, of course, been a pioneer when it comes to both the conduct and the constraint of warfare. For example, “General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field,” issued by President Abraham Lincoln on April 24, 1863, represents the first modern codification of the laws of war. “The principle has been more and more acknowledged that the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor as much as the exigencies of war will admit,” reads the 157-year-old code. “All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, all destruction of property not commanded by the authorized officer, all robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense.”
More recently, however, the United States has set the rules of the road when it comes to borderless assassination. In asserting the right of the military and the CIA to use armed drones to kill people from Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia to Libya, through quasi-secret and opaque processes, while ignoring previous American norms against “targeted killing,” questions about national sovereignty, and existing international law, the U.S. has created a ready framework for other nations to mimic. In October 2019, for example, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that he would assassinate Mazloum Kobani, the head of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. “Some countries eliminate terrorists whom they consider as a threat to their national security, wherever they are,” Erdogan said. “Therefore, this means those countries accept that Turkey has the same right.”
Historically, the United States has also pioneered the use of weapons of mass destruction. While a White House spokesperson would not address the question of whether President Trump was alluding to the use of nuclear weapons when he claimed that “Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth,” it’s notable that the United States is the only country to have used such weaponry in an actual war.
The first nuclear attack, the U.S. strike on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, left that city “uniformly and extensively devastated,” according to a study carried out in the wake of the attacks by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. “The surprise, the collapse of many buildings, and the conflagration contributed to an unprecedented casualty rate.” Between 60,000 and 80,000 people were killed instantly. The final death toll, including those who later perished from the long-term effects of radiation sickness, was estimated at 135,000 to 150,000. An atomic attack on Nagasaki, carried out three days later, was calculated to have killed another 50,000 to 75,000 people.
Theoretical War Crimes and Real Civilian Deaths
Just days before mentioning the possibility of annihilating tens of millions of Afghans, President Trump took the Taliban to task for killing 12 people, including 10 Afghan civilians and one American soldier, in a car bombing while peace talks with the militant group were underway. At the time, he tweeted: “What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” Weeks later, he would clear three military service members of war crimes, one of them convicted of murdering two Afghan civilians, another charged with the murder of an Afghan man.
Amnesty’s Daphne Eviatar believes that the president’s “disregard toward the lives of civilians” may have led to less precise American attacks in recent years. “We’ve seen a dramatic rise in civilian casualties from U.S. military operations since Trump took office, including in Afghanistan,” she told TomDispatch.
An October report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), analyzing the war from July to the end of September 2019, documented the highest number of civilian casualties it had recorded in a single quarter since it began systematically doing so in 2009. During the first nine months of last year, in fact, UNAMA tallied the deaths of 2,563 civilians and the wounding of 5,676 more — the majority by “anti-government” forces, including the Taliban and ISIS. UNAMA found, however, that “pro-government forces,” including the U.S. military, killed 1,149 people and injured 1,199 others in that period, a 26% increase from the corresponding timeframe in 2018.
Of course, such numbers would be dwarfed were Donald Trump to decide to “win” the Afghan War in the fashion he hinted at twice last year, even as peace talks with the Taliban were underway. Johnny Walsh, a senior expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace and a former lead adviser for the State Department on the Afghan peace process, chalked Trump’s purported plans up to a “rhetorical flourish” and doubts they actually exist. “I am not at all aware of any plan to escalate the conflict or use nuclear weapons,” he told TomDispatch.
Whether or not such plans are real, civilian casualties in Afghanistan continue to rise, prompting experts to call for additional scrutiny of U.S. military operations. “It’s tempting to dismiss some of the President’s more provocative statements,” said Amnesty’s Daphne Eviatar, “but we do need to take very seriously the exponential increase in civilian casualties from U.S. military operations since 2017 and ensure every one is thoroughly and independently investigated, and the results made public, so we can know if they’re the result of an unlawful Trump administration policy or practice.”
As 2020 begins, with America’s Afghan war in its 19th year and “progress” as nonexistent as ever, a beleaguered president continues to mull over just how to end America’s “endless wars” (while seemingly expanding them further). Under the circumstances, who knows what might happen in Afghanistan? Will 2020 be the year of peace or of Armageddon there — or will it simply bring more of the same? With a president for whom “plans” may be more figurative than literal, all of this and the fate of perhaps 20 million or more Afghans remain among the great “unknown unknowns” of our time.
Trump Threatens Afghan Armageddon
They called it Castle Black, an obvious homage to the famed frozen citadel from the HBO series Game of Thrones. In the fantasy world of GoT, it’s the stronghold of the Night’s Watch, the French Foreign Legion-esque guardians of the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms.
This Castle Black, however, was all too real and occupied by U.S. Special Operations forces, America’s most elite troops. In its location, at least, it was nearly as remote as its namesake, even if in far warmer climes — not on the northern fringe of Westeros but at the far edge of eastern Syria.
Today, the real Castle Black and most of the archipelago of U.S. outposts only recently arrayed across the Syrian frontier are emptying out, sit abandoned, or are occupied by Russian and Syrian troops. At least one — located at the Lafarge Cement Factory — lies in partial ruins after two U.S. Air Force F-15 jets conducted an airstrike on it. The purpose, according to Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the U.S.-led military coalition fighting ISIS, was to “destroy an ammunition cache, and reduce the facility’s military usefulness.”
“Only yesterday they were here and now we are here,” a Russian journalist announced after taking selfies at the abandoned base at Manbij where U.S. forces had served since 2015 alongside allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters. “It appears as though the U.S. servicemen fled in their armored vehicles,” said another reporter with RT’s Arabic service, as she walked in front of American tents and equipment at the hastily abandoned outpost. Photographs show that when U.S. troops bugged out, they also left behind other standard stuff from American bases abroad: “crude dick drawings,” a football, fridges stocked with Coca-Cola, an open package of animal crackers, a can of Pringles, and a paperback copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
“I see a big problem with it. And it shows just how unplanned and half-assed this ‘withdrawal’ is,” U.S. Marine veteran Anderson Bryant, who — in 2016 — fought alongside the SDF after leaving the Corps, told Military Times. “Though ISIS doesn’t have the infrastructure to take and hold territory or bases anymore, just leaving equipment to be taken after a retreat looks bad for sure.”
Bryant was just one of many to decry the abandonment of most of Washington’s Syrian outposts. “U.S. troops and their allies feel humiliated after abandoning their bases in Syria to be taken over by gleeful Russians,” read the headline of a Business Insider article, while a New York Times piece put it this way: “Pullback Leaves Green Berets Feeling ‘Ashamed,’ and Kurdish Allies Describing ‘Betrayal.’”
A Base by Any Other Name…
After President Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Syria earlier this month, a Turkish military incursion into the area those troops had previously occupied set off a humanitarian catastrophe — sending nearly 200,000 civilians fleeing from the Syrian frontier, about one third of them children. President Trump implied the troops were coming “back home,” but his secretary of defense promptly contradicted him and indicated they would simply be redeployed in the region. After being abandoned by their U.S. allies, the SDF struck a deal with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Syrian and allied Russian troops moved into the area as well. In the chaos, some Islamic State prisoners escaped from SDF prisons.
Back in the United States, rare bipartisan outrage erupted as members of Congress lambasted the president for his decision. Vice President Mike Pence was then dispatched to Turkey to try to mitigate what was widely hailed by the Washington establishment as a foreign policy disaster. Then, in the wake of a Pence-negotiated “ceasefire” that Turkey didn’t agree to and that failed to fully materialize, President Trump took a victory lap after which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “crush” the heads of America’s abandoned Kurdish allies if they didn’t ethnically cleanse themselves from the area. In the end, the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. military personnel turned out to be largely illusory, as an influx of new forces to a different part of Syria left troop levels almost unchanged.
In the midst of this chaos, however, something strange occurred. Just as America’s Syrian bases, including its two main headquarters — Advanced Operational Base West and Advanced Operational Base East — the Lafarge Cement Factory, and a facility at Manbij were being abandoned, in another sense entirely they suddenly came to exist (at least in news reports anyway). This is something that Castle Black, in its relatively brief life, never officially did. When I asked about its status in late August, for example, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve refused to even acknowledge the existence of such a base. Now, the outpost and its status are no secret at all. “Castle Black is closed,” CJTF-OIR’s media team told TomDispatch more recently.
According to the Pentagon’s official inventory of bases, the Department of Defense (DoD) “manages a worldwide real property portfolio” that spans 45 foreign countries. All told, there are 514 official “DoD sites” overseas, the majority of them in Germany (194 sites), Japan (121 sites), and South Korea (83 sites). This list, however, has never included mention of even one base in Syria — or, for that matter, any of the well-known U.S. garrisons, large and small, in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The common estimate of foreign U.S. military bases is actually around 800. Such a count is little more than an educated guess because of the cloak of secrecy the Pentagon has thrown over the subject. To obfuscate things further, the military employs a plethora of euphemisms to avoid calling U.S. military outposts like Castle Black precisely what they are.
Officially, Castle Black was never a base. It was, instead, a “Mission Support Site” or MSS. And while U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees United States military operations in the Middle East, acknowledges the existence of MSSes, it won’t provide even a basic count of them, let alone more detailed information about such outposts, significant numbers of which exist across the region. The media operations staff of CJTF-OIR responded in an email to a TomDispatch request on the subject this way: “Due to operational security reasons, a total number and locations of the various mission support sites are not available.”
And keep in mind that such Military Support Sites only begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the Pentagon’s inventory of non-base outposts. So when else is a military base not a military base? When, for example, it’s an Initial Contingency Location, which, according to a Pentagon “Contingency Basing” manual, is characterized by austere infrastructure and limited services. Or when it’s a Temporary Contingency Location, which provides “near-term support for a contingency operation” and is characterized by “expedient infrastructure.” Or even when it’s a Semipermanent Contingency Location, which provides support for prolonged contingency operations and is characterized by “enhanced infrastructure.” Or when it’s a full-fledged Contingency Location — a “non-enduring location outside of the United States that supports and sustains operations during contingencies or other operations.”
Such U.S. non-bases also include Forward Operating Sites (FOSes), which are officially defined as “scalable” locations intended for “rotational use by operating forces.” While “rotational use” might make such a place sound like a distinctly temporary location, possibly one abandoned for long stretches, that’s hardly the case. Camp Lemonnier in the sun-bleached Horn-of-Africa nation of Djibouti, for example, is not only an FOS, but also America’s largest base on the African continent and the headquarters for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which includes soldiers, sailors, and airmen, some of them members of the Special Operations forces. The camp — which also supports CENTCOM — couldn’t be less temporary, having expanded from 88 acres to 600 acres, while the number of troops stationed there has jumped by more than 500%, to 5,500, since 2002.
Another type of outpost is a cooperative security location, or CSL, which is supposedly neither “a U.S. facility or base.” According to the Pentagon’s official definition, it has “little or no permanent United States presence” and “is maintained by periodic Service, contractor, or host nation support.” This, too, is completely disingenuous. A CSL in the remote smuggling hub of Agadez, Niger, for example, is the premier U.S. military outpost in West Africa. That drone non-base, located at Nigerien Air Base 201, not only boasts a $100 million-plus construction price tag but, with operating expenses, is expected to cost U.S. taxpayers more than a quarter of a billion dollars by 2024 when the 10-year agreement for its use ends.
The primary types of places that the Pentagon will actually call “bases” are huge World War II and Cold War legacy sites like Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, and Camp Humphreys in South Korea. These they call “Main Operating Bases.” Humphreys, for example, began its existence in 1919 as Pyeongtaek Airfield, a product of the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea. Since the Korean War (1950-1953), the U.S. military has occupied the site, transforming it into America’s largest overseas military base. The Pentagon refers to Forward Operating Sites, Cooperative Security Locations, and Main Operating Bases as “enduring locations” which are meant to afford “strategic access” to American forces and support Washington’s security interests for the “foreseeable future.”
Despite these and other euphemisms for bases that appear in the Defense Department’s 2019 edition of Joint Publication 4-04 “Contingency Basing” and its most recent “Base Structure Report,” many other types of smaller baselets get scant attention — including Combat Outposts and Fire Support Bases. Even more types are noted in various official publications and military news releases, often with conflicting definitions. The Army’s Ranger Handbook, for instance, defines a “patrol base” as a “security perimeter” set up when a squad or platoon is “conducting a patrol,” but notes that it should “not be occupied for more than a 24-hour period (except in an emergency).” An Army counterinsurgency manual, on the other hand, states that a “patrol base can be permanent or temporary.” And a 2008 CENTCOM news release mentioned that soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment had been stationed at Iraq’s Patrol Base Copper for seven months.
While Mission Support Sites are mentioned in a few Pentagon publications, they are also poorly defined. When asked just what an MSS actually is, an official at CENTCOM offered this none-too-illuminating response: “Mission support sites, or bases, are sites that temporarily exist to provide support for as long as a mission requires.” That same official went on to note that the U.S. and its allies had “opened and closed numerous bases throughout the campaign in Syria and Iraq,” but refused to provide details or even a simple count of how many bases had been closed, let alone opened. The CJTF-OIR media team was a bit more forthcoming, explaining that a mission support site is “comparable to an initial contingency location (ICL) or a patrol base” and that such facilities support up to 200 personnel for a “total duration of operations lasting less than six months.”
Winter Is Coming for U.S. Military
Castle Black is now officially shuttered. Despite its closing and that of its sister outposts, as part of Donald Trump’s “withdrawal” from Syria, American troops remain in that country. “CJTF-OIR continues to maintain a presence in Syria and Iraq as part of our mission to achieve the enduring defeat of Daesh,” spokesperson Col. Myles Caggins III told TomDispatch, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesperson, was even more specific. “U.S. forces continue a deliberate, phased, and orderly withdrawal from Syria, with the exception of the al-Tanf garrison,” he told TomDispatch. While Robertson refused to “discuss operational details such as numbers or timelines,” it has been widely reported that al-Tanf, a small base in the south of Syria, is still home to about 150 U.S. forces. (It, in turn, is supported from across the Jordanian border by a quick reaction force, additional troops, and artillery.) The CJTF-OIR media team also added that the “Kobani Landing Zone and other sites remain open to facilitate the additional movement of troops and equipment outside of Syria.” Reports now indicate that U.S. troop levels will stabilize at around 900, just 100 troops less than before the announced withdrawal.
The abandonment of about a dozen outposts across northeastern Syria likely constitutes the largest mass closure of military bases of the Trump presidency. (Since the Pentagon refuses to provide an accurate count of overseas outposts, however, there’s no way to make certain of that.) Still, while this reduction of outposts in Syria is significant, it hardly constitutes a substantial drawdown of U.S. forces in the region (especially at a moment when President Trump may be sending tanks and armored vehicles, with all the necessary supporting forces, into the area around Syria’s oil fields). With the president either reshuffling troops in Syria or merely relocating them elsewhere in the Middle East and a new contingent of American forces deploying to Saudi Arabia, there will actually be a net gain in U.S. troops in the region at this moment of supposed reduction.
Perhaps the only true end result of the drawdown in Syria — given that the finale of Game of Thrones ran earlier this year — is the likely demise of U.S. military outposts named for that HBO show’s fictional redoubts. With the real Castle Black gone and the fictional one consigned to the dustbin of pay-for-play streaming services, tomorrow’s bases will undoubtedly be named for emerging cultural touchstones, not last season’s leavings.
Still, given Washington’s penchant for Middle Eastern military missions, the likelihood of yet more U.S. bases across the region (whatever their official designations), and talk of several Game of Thrones prequels still to come, there may be ample opportunities for the next set of off-the-books military bases to carry the names of even more ancient Seven Kingdoms castles, keeps, and citadels.
Winter Is Coming
GOMA, North Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo — The boy was sitting next to his father, as he so often did. He mimicked his dad in every way. He wanted to be just like him, but Muhindo Maronga Godfroid, then a 31-year-old primary school teacher and farmer, had bigger plans for his two-and-a-half-year-old son. He would go to university one day. He would become a “big name” — not just in their village of Kibirizi, but in North Kivu Province, maybe the entire Democratic Republic of Congo. The boy was exceedingly smart. He was, Godfroid said, “amazing.” He could grow up to be a leader in a country in desperate need of them.
Kahindo Jeonnette was just putting dinner on the table when someone began pounding on the front door. “Open! Open! Open!” a man yelled in Swahili. Jeonnette was startled.
The 24-year-old mother of two looked at her husband. Godfroid shook his head. “I can’t open the door unless you say who you are,” she called out.
“I’m looking for your husband. I’m his friend,” came the response.
“It’s too late now. My husband can’t come out. Come back tomorrow,” she replied.
The man shouted, “Then I’m going to open it!” and pumped several bullets into the door. One tore through Godfroid’s left hand, leaving him with just a thumb and two-and-a-half fingers. For a moment, he was stunned. The pain had yet to hit him and he couldn’t quite piece together what had happened. Then he turned his head and saw his tiny son splayed out on the floor.
The grieving parents can’t even bring themselves to utter their late son’s name. “I’ll never forget seeing my baby lying there,” Jeonnette told me, her eyes red and glassy, as we sat in the kitchen of her two-room, clapboard home in a tumbledown area of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. “I close my eyes and that’s all I can see.”
No one knows who exactly killed Jeonnette and Godfroid’s son. No one knows exactly why. His death was just one more murder in an endless tally; a killing somehow tied to a war started decades before he breathed his first breath; a homicide abetted by an accident of birth — the bad luck of being born in a region roiled by a conflict as interminable as it is ignored.
Lightning Fast Lava, an Exploding Lake, and “the Most Dangerous City in the World”
The attack on Jeonnette and Godfroid’s home, the violence they endured, was no anomaly, but another painful incident in one of the most enduring catastrophes on the planet. A new report, “Congo, Forgotten: The Numbers Behind Africa’s Longest Humanitarian Crisis” by Human Rights Watch and the New York University-based Congo Research Group, finds that between June 1, 2017 and June 26, 2019, there were at least 3,015 violent incidents — including killings, mass rapes, and kidnappings — involving 6,555 victims in the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu.
An average of 8.38 civilians were killed per 100,000 people in those two provinces alone, a number that exceeds even the 2018 death rate of 6.87 civilians in Borno, Nigeria, the state most affected by the terror group Boko Haram. It’s more than double the rate — 4.13 — in all of civil-war-torn Yemen, where Houthi rebels and civilians have, for years, been under a relentless assault by a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
“The fighting in recent years shows that peace and stability in eastern Congo are elusive,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group. “A comprehensive approach is needed, including an invigorated demobilization program and deep-seated reforms at every level of the state to counter impunity.”
The chances of that happening anytime soon are, however, remote. Violence has stalked the Congo’s far east since at least the nineteenth century, when slave raiders plied their trade here and local mutineers from a Belgian colonial expedition rampaged through the region. And since the end of the last century, North Kivu has been an epicenter of conflict.
For its part, Goma — home to two million people — has been called “cursed,” labeled a “magnet of misery,” and identified as “the most dangerous city in the world.” While it might not sit directly over hell, beneath the volcano that looms over it, Mount Nyiragongo, is a burning lake of lava — an estimated 2.3 billion gallons worth. At the same time, Lake Kivu, the body of water on whose shores Goma sits, could potentially asphyxiate millions in the event of an earthquake, thanks to gases building up beneath its surface. Then again, Lake Kivu itself might just explode — as it does about once every thousand years.
Goma is, to put it mildly, a tough town and, in recent times, it’s endured some genuine tough luck as well. In 1977, Mount Nyiragongo erupted, sending lava racing through the outskirts of the city at the fastest rate ever recorded, around 62 miles per hour, just shy of the speed of a cheetah running at full tilt. Several outlying villages were obliterated and almost 300 people burned alive.
In 1994, after the overthrow of a Hutu-led regime that had committed a genocide on the Tutsis of neighboring Rwanda, more than a million refugees, mostly Hutus, swamped Goma, prompting aid agencies to set up camps for them. Those camps, in turn, became bases for the ousted genocidaires to launch cross-border raids into Rwanda. In addition, cholera ravaged those refugee camps and Tutsis who had also fled the genocide were soon being attacked in Goma just as they had been in their native Rwanda.
The aftermath of that genocide birthed what came to be known as Africa’s World War, a conflict that raged from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s and saw Goma become a rebel capital controlled by a military elite, while more than five million people in the region died of violence or its fallout: hunger, starvation, and illness. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, in 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted again, sending more than 14 million cubic meters of lava flowing down its southern flank. Two raging rivers of molten rock tore through the center of Goma, destroying 15% of the city, killing at least 170 people, leaving 120,000 homeless, and sending 300,000 others streaming into Rwanda.
Despite a regional peace deal that same year, Goma became the target of a Tutsi group that evolved into the March 23 Movement, or M23, a militia that would then battle the Congolese army for the better part of a decade, leading to yet another influx of displaced people settling into yet more camps and slums on Goma’s peripheries. Worse still, in 2012, the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels briefly seized and sacked the city, while carrying out an assassination campaign in and around it.
Today, Goma is officially at peace, but it’s never really peaceful. “Since the start of 2019, a series of murders, violent robberies, and kidnappings have taken place in peripheral neighborhoods of Goma,” reads a report released this spring by the Rift Valley Institute, which investigates conflict and its costs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An armed robbery described in the report bears an eerie resemblance to the attack on Jeonnette and Godfroid’s home in Kibirizi. One of the victims explained how bandits carried out that home invasion in a neighborhood on the edge of Goma:
”I was sleeping downstairs with my wife and the baby. They entered the front door by shooting through it. We fled our room to take the stairs to go inside. Downstairs, they forced one of our daughters to show them the rooms upstairs. We locked ourselves in the room. The bandits shot through the door, hurting our baby, right above her eye and in her arm. We fled to the shower. The baby was bleeding very much. They came in and I started to give them everything they wanted from us… It was very traumatizing. My wife, who was pregnant, gave birth too early, but the baby is more or less OK. While locked in the bathroom, I called the chef de quartier and the colonel I know but they started to talk about fuel, [more specifically, the lack of fuel, which prevented them from intervening] so no one came to help.”
In the face of such violence, most Congolese are left with few options but to endure or flee. Last year, 1.8 million people — more than two percent of Congo’s population of 81 million — were internally displaced, second only to Ethiopia. All told, there are currently 5.6 million displaced Congolese and it’s estimated that 99% were made homeless due to violence.
Conflict Minerals Trumped by Conflict Alone
From the 1990s through the first years of the present century, an estimated 40 armed groups operated in the eastern Congo. Today, more than 130 such groups are active just in North and South Kivu Provinces.
With at least $24 trillion in gold, diamonds, tin, coltan, copper, cobalt, and other natural resources beneath the ground, it’s often assumed that Congo’s violence is intimately connected with the desire to control its mineral wealth. The Congo Research Group’s Kivu Security Tracker data, however, indicates that there is “no systematic correlation between violence and mining areas.” Instead, that land’s conflicts have become their own revenue stream. A “military bourgeoisie” has used the country’s complex set of conflicts-within-conflicts for career advancement, financing their private wars through kidnapping, the taxation of commodities and the movement of people, poaching, and protection rackets of every sort. Violence has become just another resource in the eastern Congo, a commodity whose value can be measured in both pain and Congolese francs.
Between June 2017 and June 2019, about 11% of the killings and 17% of all clashes in the Kivus occurred in the Fizi and Uvira territories of South Kivu and yet the epicenter of the violence in the region remains Beni territory in North Kivu (also a hotspot in the current and widening Ebola outbreak that even powerful new vaccines are unable to stem). Thirty-one percent of all the civilian killings in the Kivus took place in or around Beni, according to the Human Rights Watch report, “Congo, Forgotten,” with most of the bloodshed attributed to conflict between the Congolese armed forces and the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, a decades-old group that only recently rebranded itself as an Islamic State franchise.
Nearby Rutshuru territory experienced 35% of all the kidnappings in the two provinces, according to “Congo, Forgotten.” Recently, Sylvestre Mudacumura, a leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed group founded by Hutu genocidaires in 2000, was killed there by the Congolese army. Rutshuru and neighboring Lubero territory are also home to two loose coalitions of opposing militias — the Nyatura and the Mai-Mai Mazembe — that draw from and nominally defend different ethnic groups in the region.
And so it goes in one of the most persistent bloodlettings on this planet, which is likely to continue taking a terrible toll in the years to come as the world turns a blind eye to it all.
Muhindo Maronga Godfroid and Kahindo Jeonnette, both from the Nande ethnic group, hail from Rutshuru. While they don’t know for certain who attacked their home on November 24, 2017, they suspect that Nyatura, a Congolese Hutu militia, was behind it.
When the couple returned from the hospital following the shooting, they found their home completely looted. Fearing for their lives, they fled to Goma, where I met them, with their five-year-old daughter Eliane. All three now live in a two-room shack in a rough part of town where dirt and volcanic rock serve as the floors of most homes.
With his injured hand, Godfroid has been unable to find work. The family survives on the money Jeonnette makes by selling lotoko, a potent local moonshine.
Wearing blue jeans and a red Liverpool soccer jersey, Godfroid continued to talk with me about their son until Jeonnette walked over and waved her hand as if to say, No more. The conversation had left her shaken and she didn’t want to hear about or talk about or think about that horrible night for one second more. Jeonnette said that she needed a drink. Would I like to join her? After an hour of my questions about the violence that had upended her world, about the death of a son whose name she couldn’t bring herself to utter, how could I not?
Jeonnette can’t forget that night, the sight of her son, the moment her life fell apart, but the world has forgotten the humanitarian crisis in Congo — to the extent that it was ever aware of it in the first place. After several decades of conflict, after a “World War” most people on this planet don’t even know happened (let alone killed millions), after rebel raids and village massacres, after countless attacks and uncounted murders, Congo’s constellation of crises remains largely ignored. It’s a burning reservoir of pain for which — the yeoman efforts of Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Group aside — there is neither an accounting nor accountability.
Retreating to the back room, Jeonnette emerged with a metal cannister of crystal-clear liquor and poured a bit for each of us. As we toasted the memory of her son and I savored the slow burn of the lotoko, Jeonnette took a deep breath and leaned toward me. “This trauma lives in my heart. I can’t escape it,” she said, her eyes brimming with hurt. “This country keeps pulling us back. We just can’t move forward.”
The Forgotten Trauma of a Forgotten War
Do you remember July 8, 2011? Where you were? What you did? Whom you talked to? Anything at all?
I couldn’t pin down one single thing for that day. I couldn’t even locate an email I had sent or a photo I might have taken. It’s all evidently lost in the ether, known only to tech and telecom firms. But maybe, unlike me, you have a diary or save your calendars or just happen to have fantastic recall. Maybe you remember it because it was the day NASA launched the Space Shuttle on its 135th and final mission.
Unlike me, Abdul Hamid Frefer recalls every detail of that eighth of July. It was a Friday and he remembers exactly where he was, who he was with, what he saw, what he heard, even what he said. It’s tattooed on his brain, but more than that, it’s written on his body — only not in a conventional sense. Writing isn’t just words. IfItWereJustWordsThisWouldBeEasyToRead. Writing doesn’t exist without the blank spaces between the words. It’s these blank spaces that are especially integral to Frefer’s story because his is a tale of absence, one that’s been retold — and that he’s been reminded of — every day since.
For Frefer, there was life before July 8, 2011, and life after; life, that is, before the moment his world changed forever and then what followed. The last thing he heard before that unforgettable moment was “Run!”
“But there was nowhere to run,” he told me.
After all, no man can outrun a rocket.
When that rocket hit, the shockwave burst his eardrums and he was knocked to the ground. White noise dissolved into unbearable pain. When he tried to lift his left leg, he watched his shoe fall off — with his foot still in it. Only skin held his right leg below the knee to the top of that limb.
“Go!” he remembers screaming at his friends. “I’m dead anyway! Save yourself!” They did go. They saved themselves. But not before saving him. They wrapped Frefer in a blanket, hoisted him up and took off running.
I met Abdul Hamid Frefer in the coastal city of Misrata earlier this year while on assignment in Libya. Bald with lively brown eyes and a bristly, close-cropped white beard, he was dressed in a loose-fitting, baby-blue ensemble that resembled silk pajamas. I noticed his black metal crutches immediately, but didn’t initially grasp that he was missing his left foot and his right leg below the knee.
Eight years before, at age 39, Frefer’s heart had been touched by fire. To be exact, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller pushed past the brink by corruption and police brutality. On December 17, 2010, a policewoman confiscated his cart and wares, slapped him, and spit in his face. Humiliated, stripped of his livelihood, and deeply in debt, he went to the governor’s office. “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself,” he reportedly said. The governor refused to meet him and Bouazizi was true to his word.
When he lit that match, the blaze that erupted would become known as the Arab Spring. When it set Libya alight in February 2011, dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s draconian response to the demonstrations touched off an uprising that soon became a revolution, transforming ordinary Libyan civilians into soldiers overnight.
“In 2011, we fought a war to dispatch a dictator” was how Frefer put it. “We struggled to build a free country. A democratic country with basic rights and free speech.”
On the morning of July 8, 2011, he was sitting in an abandoned home in Dafnia, a town about 40 miles from Misrata on the road to the country’s capital, Tripoli. The battlefront was fast becoming a charnel house for the under-armed citizen-soldiers of the revolution, as Gaddafi’s forces pressed closer to the rebel stronghold.
After cleaning and loading their rifles, Frefer and his comrades stacked the remaining ammunition in pickup trucks, 20 of which began rolling toward Gaddafi’s forces, while about 25 infantrymen, including him, followed. The previous night, however, Gaddafi’s forces had evidently advanced further than Frefer and his compatriots realized. “They must have watched us with binoculars. They saw us, but we didn’t see them,” he told me. Soon, a barrage of rockets was screaming toward them.
“Run!” someone yelled, but there was nowhere to run. His friend Mustafa and a neighbor from Misrata were both killed by the strike. For a while, they believed that a third man, also from the neighborhood, had bolted and never stopped running. Later, his comrades determined that he had, in fact, been nearly obliterated by a rocket. In all, Frefer told me, 36 revolutionaries died at Dafnia that day.
With the trucks involved in the battle and no way for a car to come forward, Frefer’s comrades began carrying — and soon dragging — him for the better part of half an hour before they could stop and tie tourniquets on both legs. Then they set off for a field hospital.
It’s common to lose consciousness from the physiological shock of traumatic injuries, or from blood loss, or both. But for that first mile, as his friends pulled him along the hard ground, Abdul Hamid Frefer remained fully conscious — and in burning agony. It was the same for the second mile. And the third. “I was conscious the whole time,” he told me. “And when I finally got to the hospital and they put me on an IV with a painkiller, the anesthesia didn’t work.”
It took him three years to recover. After one, he was using a wheelchair. After two more, he could finally move about with prostheses and crutches.
Men Without Legs and One-Eyed Women
In my line of work, I meet more amputees, war victims who are missing body parts, and terribly scarred individuals than the average American. There was the woman with bright white hair who survived a massacre by South Korean troops. Her left foot was nothing but a stump. No toes. Hardly a sole. Mostly just a heel. Her right foot was missing entirely. In its place, she had the functional equivalent of a tin can with a rubber disk at the bottom.
Then there was the six-year-old Congolese girl whose arm had been hacked off by a machete-wielding militiaman. And her aunt who lost both hands to the same attackers. And her great-aunt who lost several fingers.
In the same part of Congo, I met toddlers whose faces had been split by machetes. I met an elderly woman with a shattered arm who had been shot in the face with an arrow. And there was that man missing a chunk of his calf, which, he said, enraged militiamen had tried to force him to eat.
There was the South Sudanese man who had lost a leg after being shot by soldiers. And another who had lost an eye.
All of these people were civilians in the wrong place — home — at the wrong time. Abdul Hamid Frefer was not. At least, not entirely. A civilian at the dawn of 2011, by July he was a soldier of the revolution. Given the tremendous price paid by Libya’s rebels, he’s lucky to be alive.
Today, Libya is again — or rather, still — a country at war. For months now, Tripoli has been menaced by the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord General Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia (who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call). Just as in Frefer’s war, the city of Misrata is still hemorrhaging young men. Its militias make up the bulk of the armed forces protecting the capital and the Government of National Accord, the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. (Two years ago, Mistrata’s militiamen also engaged in house-to-house fighting with Islamic State militants in the city of Sirte, as American drones and manned aircraft hunted those ISIS fighters from the skies.)
Frefer and I first ran into each other at his place of business, Misrata’s municipal offices. A member of the city council, he’s very much a man of his town. And both he and it bear the grim scars of that revolution. While the city itself hasn’t seen war since 2011, so much of it still bears battle scars. High-rise apartments pockmarked by thousands of machine-gun bullets sit empty. Other buildings still bear gaping holes from mortars and rockets. A warehouse remains largely roofless thanks to a NATO airstrike, in support of the revolutionaries, on a Gaddafi regime tank that had been parked inside. Almost a decade later, such urban landscapes like Abdul Hamid Frefer’s body, serve as an ongoing testament to war’s long legacy of destruction.
The Medium Is the Message
Since 2001, more than 1,500 U.S. military personnel have lost limbs to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross alone has supplied 109,303 prostheses to replace Afghan arms and legs.
Giles Duley lost limbs in Afghanistan. Three of them. But he wasn’t an American, nor an Afghan. He wasn’t even a soldier. And to say that he was a civilian doesn’t quite capture his story.
For 10 years, Duley was a music and fashion photographer, shooting the likes of Oasis, Marilyn Manson, and Lenny Kravitz for GQ, Esquire, Vogue, and other publications. Then he threw his camera out a window, burned his film, and resolved never to shoot a photo again. But that decision didn’t last. Instead, he followed a circuitous path back into photography, one that led him into conflict and crisis zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Lebanon.
In 2011, while on patrol with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he stepped on an improvised explosive device that nearly killed him and left him with just one intact limb, his right arm. “At first, I was devastated by what had happened, obviously,” he said in a 2012 TED talk.
“I thought my work was over, I thought — everything didn’t make sense to me. And then I realized: I never set out to Congo, to Angola, to Bangladesh to take photographs. I went to those places because I wanted to make some kind of change, and photography happened to be my tool. And then I became aware that my body was, in many ways, a living example of what war does to somebody. And I realized I could use my own experience, my own body, to tell that story.”
War stories like Duley’s have been written on so many bodies. They have been written on the faces of one-eyed women and men whose features were melted by incendiary agents. They are told in the very existence of one-armed children and legless men.
As Abdul Hamid Frefer recounted detail after detail of that distant July 8th, a smile slowly crept across his face. “I was just about dead when I got to the field hospital,” he told me. “The doctors were amazed that I was still alive — and conscious.” He felt lucky, or rather blessed, he said, to be alive. “It’s all God’s will” was a phrase he kept repeating.
For him, that July day eight years ago is always present — as similar days are for so many other victims of armed conflict. Frefer’s body tells a story of one war, one day, one rocket, three miles of being dragged, three years of becoming mobile again. His is the story of one life built on the corporeal wreckage of war. But it says something larger, something more universal, too.
“I’m never going to be well. I still have pain,” Abdul Hamid Frefer told me as he rubbed what’s left of his right leg. His is a war story written on his own body in both absence and trauma. That limb, what remains of it, and its phantom half most certainly tell, as Duley put it, “what war does to somebody.” But Abdul Hamid Frefer’s body, just like Duley’s, says something more. It tells not just a story but perhaps the story of war. “My legs are gone,” said Frefer wincing and gritting his teeth, “but the pain remains.”
“The Pain Remains”
TRIPOLI, Libya — Sometimes war sounds like the harsh crack of gunfire and sometimes like the whisper of the wind. This early morning — in al-Yarmouk on the southern edge of Libya’s capital, Tripoli — it was a mix of both.
All around, shops were shuttered and homes emptied, except for those in the hands of the militiamen who make up the army of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. The war had slept in this morning and all was quiet until the rattle of a machine gun suddenly broke the calm.
A day earlier, I had spent hours on the roof of my hotel, listening to the basso profundo echo of artillery as dark torrents of smoke rose from explosions in this and several other outlying neighborhoods. The GNA was doing battle with the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia, who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call. Watching the war from this perch brought me back to another time in my life when I wrote about war from a far greater distance — of both time and space — a war I covered decades after the fact, the one that Americans still call “Vietnam” but the Vietnamese know as “the American War.”
During the early years of U.S. involvement there, watching the war from the hotels of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was a rite of passage for American journalists and the signature line of unfortunate articles that often said far more about the state of war reporting than the state of the war. “On clear days patrons lunching in the ninth-floor restaurant in the Caravelle Hotel can watch Government planes dropping napalm on guerrillas across the Saigon River,” Hedrick Smith wrote in a December 1963 New York Times article.
As that war ground on, the pastime of hotel war-watching never seemed to end, despite a recognition of the practice for what it was. Musing about the spring of 1968 in his fever dream memoir, Dispatches, Esquire’s correspondent in Vietnam, Michael Herr, wrote:
“In the early evenings we’d do exactly what the correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965, we’d stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the airstrikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights, at least as detached about it as that even though many of us had been caught under those things from time to time.”
“It Has Been Said That There Was a Woman Killed There by Our Guns”
Today, few know much about Borodino — unless they remember it as the white-hot heart of the war sections of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace — a Napoleonic victory that proved so pyrrhic it would have been regarded as the French Emperor’s Waterloo, if the actual battle of that name hadn’t finally felled him. Still, even for those who don’t know Borodino from Bora Bora, Herr’s passage points to a grand tradition of detached war-watching. (Or, in the case of Ernest Hemingway’s famed Spanish Civil War coverage, war-listening: “The window of the hotel is open and, as you lie in bed, you hear the firing in the front line seventeen blocks away.”)
In fact, the classic American instance of war-as-spectator-sport occurred in 1861 in the initial major land battle of the Civil War, Bull Run (or, for those reading this below the Mason-Dixon line, the first battle of Manassas). “On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex,” wrote William Howard Russell who covered the battle for the London Times. “The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood — ‘That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond tomorrow.’”
That woman would be sorely disappointed. U.S. forces not only failed to defeat their Confederate foes and press on toward the capital of the secessionist South but fled, pell-mell, in ignominious retreat toward Washington. It was a rout of the first order. Still, not one of the many spectators on the scene, including Congressman Alfred Ely of New York, taken prisoner by the 8th South Carolina Infantry, was killed.
But that isn’t to say that there were no civilian casualties at Bull Run.
Judith Carter Henry was as old as the imperiled republic at the time of the battle. Born in 1776, the widow of a U.S. Navy officer, she was an invalid, confined to her bed, living with her daughter, Ellen, and a leased, enslaved woman named Lucy Griffith when Confederate snipers stormed her hilltop home and took up positions on the second floor.
“We ascended the hill near the Henry house, which was at that time filled with sharpshooters. I had scarcely gotten to the battery before I saw some of my horses fall and some of my men wounded by sharpshooters,” Captain James Ricketts, commander of Battery 1, First U.S. Artillery, wrote in his official report. “I turned my guns on that house and literally riddled it. It has been said that there was a woman killed there by our guns.” Indeed, a 10-pound shell crashed through Judith Henry’s bedroom and tore off her foot. She died later that day, the first civilian death of America’s Civil War.
No one knows how many civilians died in the war between the states. No one thought to count. Maybe 50,000, including those who died from war-related disease, starvation, crossfire, riots, and other mishaps. By comparison, around 620,000 to 750,000 American soldiers died in the conflict — close to 1,000 of them at that initial battle at Bull Run.
“What You Saw Was Them Shelling My Home.”
A century later, U.S. troops had traded their blue coats for olive fatigues and the wartime death tolls were inverted. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. Estimates of the Vietnamese civilian toll, on the other hand, hover around two million. Of course, we’ll never know the actual number, just as we’ll never know how many died in air strikes as reporters watched from the rooftop bar of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel, just as I’ll never know how many — if any — lives were snuffed out as I scanned the southern edge of Tripoli and watched smoke from artillery shells and rockets billow into the sky.
That same afternoon in Libya’s capital, while taking a break from war watching, I met Salah Isaid and his two children. They were, like me, guests at the Victoria Hotel, although we were lodged there for very different reasons. When I mentioned having spent the previous hour on the roof as a suburb was being shelled hard, a glimmer of recognition flashed across Isaid’s face. “That’s Khalat Furjan,” he replied with a sad smile. “What you saw was them shelling my home.”
Isaid, his wife, and his two boys had found it difficult to escape the war zone, but finally made it to the safer north side of Tripoli, to this very hotel, in fact, a few weeks earlier. Worried that his house had been looted or destroyed, he tried several times to investigate only to be turned away at militia checkpoints. Now, he was homeless, jobless, and — even with the hotel’s special displaced-persons’ rate — rapidly burning through his savings. “I sold real estate, but who wants to buy a house in a war zone?” Isaid asked me with a wry smile that faded into a grimace.
My own experience as a reporter, in country after country, has more than confirmed his assessment. The “real estate” I saw in Tripoli’s war-ravaged suburbs was spectral, the civilian population having fled. Other than a car that had been hit by an air strike, the only vehicles were tanks or “technicals” — pickup trucks with machine guns or anti-aircraft weapons mounted in their beds. Many buildings had been peppered with machine-gun fire or battered by heavier ordnance. The sole residents now were GNA militiamen who had appropriated homes and shops as barracks and command posts.
Real estate, as Isaid well knows, is a losing proposition on a battlefront. After Judith Carter Henry’s hilltop home in Manassas Junction, Virginia, was blasted by artillery, its remains were either demolished by Confederate soldiers or burned down during the Second Battle of Bull Run, another staggering U.S. defeat with even heavier casualties in August 1862. A photograph of Henry’s home, possibly taken in March 1862, months before that battle, already shows the house to be a crumpled ruin. (It wouldn’t be rebuilt until 1870.) Judith Henry was buried in a small plot next to her devastated home. “The Grave of Our Dear Mother Judith Henry” reads the tombstone there, which notes that she was 85 years old when “the explosion of shells in her dwelling” killed her.
One hundred and fifty years after Henry became the first civilian casualty of the Civil War, Libyans began dying in their own civil strife as revolutionaries, backed by U.S. and NATO airpower, ended the 42-year rule of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Before the year was out, that war had already cost an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 lives. And the killing never ended as the country slid into permanent near-failed-state status. The current conflict, raging on Tripoli’s doorstep since April, has left more than 4,700 people dead or wounded, including at least 176 confirmed civilian casualties (which experts believe to be lower than the actual figure). All told, according to the United Nations, around 1.5 million people — roughly 24% of the country’s population — have been affected by the almost three-month-old conflict.
“Heavy shelling and airstrikes have become all too common since early April,” said Danielle Hannon-Burt, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s office in Tripoli. “Fierce fighting in parts of Tripoli includes direct or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and their property. It also includes attacks against key electricity, water, and medical infrastructure essential for the survival of the civilian population, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk.”
In this century, it’s a story that has occurred repeatedly, each time with its own individual horrors, as the American war on terror spread from Afghanistan to Iraq and then on to other countries; as Russia fought in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere; as bloodlettings have bloomed from the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Sudan, from Myanmar to Kashmir. War watchers like me and like those reporters atop the Caravelle decades ago are, of course, the lucky ones. We can sit on the rooftops of hotels and listen to the low rumble of homes being chewed up by artillery. We can make targeted runs into no-go zones to glimpse the destruction. We can visit schools transformed into shelters. We can speak to real estate agents who have morphed into war victims. Some of us, like Hedrick Smith, Michael Herr, or me, will then write about it — often from a safe distance and with the knowledge that, unlike Salah Isaid and most other civilian victims of such wars, we can always find an even safer place.
War has an all-consuming quality to it, which is at least part of what can make it so addictive for those blessed with the ability to escape it and so devastating to those trapped in it. A month of war had clearly worn Isaid down. He was slowly being crushed by it.
In the middle of our conversation, he pulled me aside and whispered so his boys couldn’t hear him, “When I go to bed at night, all I can think is ‘What is going on? What does war have to do with me?’” He shook his head disbelievingly. Some days, he told me, he gets into his car and weaves his way through the traffic on the side of the capital untouched by shelling but increasingly affected by the war. “I drive by myself. I don’t know where I’m going and don’t have any place to go. My life has stopped. This is the only way to keep moving, but I’m not going anywhere.”
I kept moving and left, of course. Isaid and his family remain in Tripoli — homeless, their lives upended, their futures uncertain — pinned under the heavy weight of war.
“What Does War Have to Do With Me?”
The U.S. military is finally withdrawing (or not) from its base at al-Tanf. You know, the place that the Syrian government long claimed was a training ground for Islamic State (ISIS) fighters; the land corridor just inside Syria, near both the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, that Russia has called a terrorist hotbed (while floating the idea of jointly administering it with the United States); the location of a camp where hundreds of U.S. Marines joined Special Operations forces last year; an outpost that U.S. officials claimed was the key not only to defeating ISIS, but also, according to General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, to countering “the malign activities that Iran and their various proxies and surrogates would like to pursue.” You know, that al-Tanf.
Within hours of President Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, equipment at that base was already being inventoried for removal. And just like that, arguably the most important American garrison in Syria was (maybe) being struck from the Pentagon’s books — except, as it happens, al-Tanf was never actually on the Pentagon’s books. Opened in 2015 and, until recently, home to hundreds of U.S. troops, it was one of the many military bases that exist somewhere between light and shadow, an acknowledged foreign outpost that somehow never actually made it onto the Pentagon’s official inventory of bases.
Officially, the Department of Defense (DoD) maintains 4,775 “sites,” spread across all 50 states, eight U.S. territories, and 45 foreign countries. A total of 514 of these outposts are located overseas, according to the Pentagon’s worldwide property portfolio. Just to start down a long list, these include bases on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, as well as in Peru and Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. But the most recent version of that portfolio, issued in early 2018 and known as the Base Structure Report (BSR), doesn’t include any mention of al-Tanf. Or, for that matter, any other base in Syria. Or Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or Niger. Or Tunisia. Or Cameroon. Or Somalia. Or any number of locales where such military outposts are known to exist and even, unlike in Syria, to be expanding.
According to David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, there could be hundreds of similar off-the-books bases around the world. “The missing sites are a reflection of the lack of transparency involved in the system of what I still estimate to be around 800 U.S. bases outside the 50 states and Washington, D.C., that have been encircling the globe since World War II,” says Vine, who is also a founding member of the recently established Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition, a group of military analysts from across the ideological spectrum who advocate shrinking the U.S. military’s global “footprint.”
Such off-the-books bases are off the books for a reason. The Pentagon doesn’t want to talk about them. “I spoke to the press officer who is responsible for the Base Structure Report and she has nothing to add and no one available to discuss further at this time,” Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza told TomDispatch when asked about the Defense Department’s many mystery bases.
“Undocumented bases are immune to oversight by the public and often even Congress,” Vine explains. “Bases are a physical manifestation of U.S. foreign and military policy, so off-the-books bases mean the military and executive branch are deciding such policy without public debate, frequently spending hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and potentially getting the U.S. involved in wars and conflicts about which most of the country knows nothing.”
Where Are They?
The Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition notes that the United States possesses up to 95% of the world’s foreign military bases, while countries like France, Russia, and the United Kingdom have perhaps 10-20 foreign outposts each. China has just one.
The Department of Defense even boasts that its “locations” include 164 countries. Put another way, it has a military presence of some sort in approximately 84% of the nations on this planet — or at least the DoD briefly claimed this. After TomDispatch inquired about the number on a new webpage designed to tell the Pentagon’s “story” to the general public, it was quickly changed. “We appreciate your diligence in getting to the bottom of this,” said Lieutenant Colonel Baldanza. “Thanks to your observations, we have updated defense.gov to say ‘more than 160.’”
What the Pentagon still doesn’t say is how it defines a “location.” The number 164 does roughly track with the Department of Defense’s current manpower statistics, which show personnel deployments of varying sizes in 166 “overseas” locales — including some nations with token numbers of U.S. military personnel and others, like Iraq and Syria, where the size of the force was obviously far larger, even if unlisted at the time of the assessment. (The Pentagon recently claimed that there were 5,200 troops in Iraq and at least 2,000 troops in Syria although that number should now markedly shrink.) The Defense Department’s “overseas” tally, however, also lists troops in U.S. territories like American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Wake Island. Dozens of soldiers, according to the Pentagon, are also deployed to the country of “Akrotiri” (which is actually a village on the island of Santorini in Greece) and thousands more are based in “unknown” locations.
In the latest report, the number of those “unknown” troops exceeds 44,000.
The annual cost of deploying U.S. military personnel overseas, as well as maintaining and running those foreign bases, tops out at an estimated $150 billion annually, according to the Overseas Bases Realignment and Closure Coalition. The price tag for the outposts alone adds up to about one-third of that total. “U.S. bases abroad cost upwards of $50 billion per year to build and maintain, which is money that could be used to address pressing needs at home in education, health care, housing, and infrastructure,” Vine points out.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Pentagon is also somewhat fuzzy about just where its troops are stationed. The new Defense Department website, for instance, offered a count of “4,800+ defense sites” around the world. After TomDispatch inquired about this total and how it related to the official count of 4,775 sites listed in the BSR, the website was changed to read “approximately 4,800 Defense Sites.”
“Thank you for pointing out the discrepancy. As we transition to the new site, we are working on updating information,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Baldanza. “Please refer to the Base Structure Report which has the latest numbers.”
In the most literal sense, the Base Structure Report does indeed have the latest numbers — but their accuracy is another matter. “The number of bases listed in the BSR has long born little relation to the actual number of U.S. bases outside the United States,” says Vine. “Many, many well-known and secretive bases have long been left off the list.”
One prime example is the constellation of outposts that the U.S. has built across Africa. The official BSR inventory lists only a handful of sites there — on Ascension Island as well as in Djibouti, Egypt, and Kenya. In reality, though, there are many more outposts in many more African countries.
A recent investigation by the Intercept, based on documents obtained from U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) via the Freedom of Information Act, revealed a network of 34 bases heavily clustered in the north and west of that continent as well as in the Horn of Africa. AFRICOM’s “strategic posture” consists of larger “enduring” outposts, including two forward operating sites (FOSes), 12 cooperative security locations (CSLs), and 20 more austere sites known as contingency locations (CLs).
The Pentagon’s official inventory does include the two FOSes: Ascension Island and the crown jewel of Washington’s African bases, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which expanded from 88 acres in the early 2000s to nearly 600 acres today. The Base Structure Report is, however, missing a CSL in that same country, Chabelley Airfield, a lower-profile outpost located about 10 kilometers away that has served as a drone hub for operations in Africa and the Middle East.
The official Pentagon tally also mentions a site that goes by the confusing moniker of “NSA Bahrain-Kenya.” AFRICOM had previously described it as a collection of warehouses built in the 1980s at the airport and seaport of Mombasa, Kenya, but it now appears on that command’s 2018 list as a CSL. Missing, however, is another Kenyan base, Camp Simba, mentioned in a 2013 internal Pentagon study of secret drone operations in Somalia and Yemen. At least two manned surveillance aircraft were based there at the time. Simba, a longtime Navy-run facility, is currently operated by the Air Force’s 475th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron, part of the 435th Air Expeditionary Wing.
Personnel from that same air wing can be found at yet another outpost that doesn’t appear in the Base Structure Report, this one on the opposite side of the continent. The BSR states that it doesn’t list specific information on “non-U.S. locations” not at least 10 acres in size or worth at least $10 million. However, the base in question — Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger — already has a $100 million construction price tag, a sum soon to be eclipsed by the cost of operating the facility: about $30 million a year. By 2024, when the present 10-year agreement for use of the base ends, its construction and operating costs will have reached about $280 million.
Also missing from the BSR are outposts in nearby Cameroon, including a longtime base in Douala, a drone airfield in the remote town of Garoua, and a facility known as Salak. That site, according to a 2017 investigation by the Intercept, the research firm Forensic Architecture, and Amnesty International, has been used by U.S. personnel and private contractors for drone surveillance and training missions and by allied Cameroonian forces for illegal imprisonment and torture.
According to Vine, keeping America’s African bases secret is advantageous to Washington. It protects allies on that continent from possible domestic opposition to the presence of American troops, he points out, while helping to ensure that there will be no domestic debate in the U.S. over such spending and the military commitments involved. “It’s important for U.S. citizens to know where their troops are based in Africa and elsewhere around the world,” he told TomDispatch, “because that troop presence costs the U.S. billions of dollars every year and because the U.S. is involved, or potentially involved, in wars and conflicts that could spiral out of control.”
Those Missing Bases
Africa is hardly the only place where the Pentagon’s official list doesn’t match up well with reality. For close to two decades, the Base Structure Report has ignored bases of all sorts in America’s active war zones. At the height of the American occupation of Iraq, for instance, the United States had 505 bases there, ranging from small outposts to mega-sized facilities. None appeared on the Pentagon’s official rolls.
In Afghanistan, the numbers were even higher. As TomDispatch reported in 2012, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had about 550 bases in that country. If you had added ISAF checkpoints — small baselets used to secure roads and villages — to the count of mega-bases, forward operating bases, combat outposts, and patrol bases, the number reached an astounding 750. And counting all foreign military installations of every type — including logistical, administrative, and support facilities — hiked ISAF Joint Command’s official count to 1,500 sites. America’s significant share of them was, however, also mysteriously absent from the Defense Department’s official tally.
There are now far fewer such facilities in Afghanistan — and the numbers may drop further in the months ahead as troop levels decrease. But the existence of Camp Morehead, Forward Operating Base Fenty, Tarin Kowt Airfield, Camp Dahlke West, and Bost Airfield, as well as Camp Shorab, a small installation occupying what was once the site of much larger twin bases known as Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion, is indisputable. Yet none of them has ever appeared in the Base Structure Report.
Similarly, while there are no longer 500-plus U.S. bases in Iraq, in recent years, as American troops returned to that country, some garrisons have either been reconstituted or built from scratch. These include the Besmaya Range Complex, Firebase Sakheem, Firebase Um Jorais, and Al Asad Air Base, as well as Qayyarah Airfield West — a base 40 miles south of Mosul that’s better known as “Q-West.” Again, you won’t find any of them listed in the Pentagon’s official count.
These days, it’s even difficult to obtain accurate manpower numbers for the military personnel in America’s war zones, let alone the number of bases in each of them. As Vine explains, “The military keeps the figures secret to some extent to hide the base presence from its adversaries. Because it is probably not hard to spot these bases in places like Syria and Iraq, however, the secrecy is mostly to prevent domestic debate about the money, danger, and death involved, as well as to avoid diplomatic tensions and international inquiries.”
If stifling domestic debate through information control is the Pentagon’s aim, it’s been doing a fine job for years of deflecting questions about its global posture, or what the late TomDispatch regular Chalmers Johnson called America’s “empire of bases.”
In mid-October, TomDispatch asked Heather Babb, another Pentagon spokesperson, for details about the outposts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria that were absent from the Base Structure Report, as well as about those missing African bases. Among the other questions put to Babb: Could the Pentagon offer a simple count — if not a list — of all its outposts? Did it have a true count of overseas facilities, even if it hadn’t been released to the public — a list, that is, which actually did what the Base Structure Report only purports to do? October and November passed without answers.
In December, in response to follow-up requests for information, Babb responded in a fashion firmly in line with the Pentagon’s well-worn policy of keeping American taxpayers in the dark about the bases they pay for — no matter the theoretical difficulty of denying the existence of outposts that stretch from Agadez in Niger to Mosul in Iraq. “I have nothing to add,” she explained, “to the information and criteria that is included in the report.”
President Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria means that the 2019 Base Structure Report will likely be the most accurate in years. For the first time since 2015, the Pentagon’s inventory of outposts will no longer be missing the al-Tanf garrison (or then again, maybe it will). But that still potentially leaves hundreds of off-the-books bases absent from the official rolls. Consider it one outpost down and who knows how many to go.
Bases, Bases, Everywhere…
4,000,000,029,057. Remember that number. It’s going to come up again later.
But let’s begin with another number entirely: 145,000 — as in, 145,000 uniformed soldiers striding down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the number of troops who marched down that very street in May 1865 after the United States defeated the Confederate States of America. Similar legions of rifle-toting troops did the same after World War I ended with the defeat of Germany and its allies in 1918. And Sherman tanks rolling through the urban canyons of midtown Manhattan? That followed the triumph over the Axis in 1945. That’s what winning used to look like in America — star-spangled, soldier-clogged streets and victory parades.
Enthralled by a martial Bastille Day celebration while visiting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July 2017, President Trump called for just such a parade in Washington. After its estimated cost reportedly ballooned from $10 million to as much as $92 million, the American Legion weighed in. That veterans association, which boasts 2.4 million members, issued an August statement suggesting that the planned parade should be put on hold “until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home.” Soon after, the president announced that he had canceled the parade and blamed local Washington officials for driving up the costs (even though he was evidently never briefed by the Pentagon on what its price tag might be).
The American Legion focused on the fiscal irresponsibility of Trump’s proposed march, but its postponement should have raised an even more significant question: What would “victory” in the war on terror even look like? What, in fact, constitutes an American military victory in the world today? Would it in any way resemble the end of the Civil War, or of the war to end all wars, or of the war that made that moniker obsolete? And here’s another question: Is victory a necessary prerequisite for a military parade?
The easiest of those questions to resolve is the last one and the American Legion should already know the answer. Members of that veterans group played key roles in a mammoth “We Support Our Boys in Vietnam” parade in New York City in 1967 and in a 1973 parade in that same city honoring veterans of that war. Then, 10 years after the last U.S. troops snuck out of South Vietnam — abandoning their allies and scrambling aboard helicopters as Saigon fell — the Big Apple would host yet another parade honoring Vietnam veterans, reportedly the largest such celebration in the city’s history. So, quite obviously, winning a war isn’t a prerequisite for a winning parade.
And that’s only one of many lessons the disastrous American War in Vietnam still offers us. More salient perhaps are those that highlight the limits of military might and destructive force on this planet or that focus on the ability of North Vietnam, a “little fourth-rate” country — to quote Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor of that moment — to best a superpower that had previously (with much assistance) defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan at the same time. The Vietnam War — and Kissinger — provide a useful lens through which to examine the remaining questions about victory and what it means today, but more on that later.
For the moment, just remember: 4,000,000,029,057, Vietnam War, Kissinger.
Peace in Our Time… or Some Time… or No Time
Now, let’s take a moment to consider the ur-conflict of the war on terror, Afghanistan, where the U.S. began battling the Taliban in October 2001. America’s victory there came with lightning speed. The next year, President George W. Bush announced that the group had been “defeated.” In 2004, the commander-in-chief reported that the Taliban was “no longer in existence.” Yet, somehow, they were. By 2011, General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, claimed that his troops had “reversed the momentum of the Taliban.” Two years later, then-commander General Joseph Dunford spoke of “the inevitability of our success” there.
Last August, President Trump unveiled his “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia.” Its “core pillar” was “a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions”; in other words, the “arbitrary timetables” for withdrawal of the Obama years were out. “We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts,” President Trump decreed. “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.”
The president also announced that he was putting that war squarely in the hands of the military. “Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles,” he announced. “They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.” The man given that authority was General John Nicholson who had, in fact, been running the American war there since 2016. The general was jubilant and within months agreed that the conflict had “turned the corner” (something, by the way, that Obama-era Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also claimed — in 2012).
Today, almost 17 years after the war began, two years after Nicholson took the reins, one year after Trump articulated his new plan, victory in any traditional sense is nowhere in sight. Despite spending around $900 billion in Afghanistan, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction determined earlier this year, “between 2001 and 2017, U.S. government efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed.” According to a July 30, 2018, report by that same inspector general, the Taliban was by then contesting control of or controlled about 44% of that country, while Afghan government control and influence over districts had declined by about 16% since Nicholson’s predecessor, General John Campbell, was in command.
And that was before, last month, the Taliban launched a large-scale attack on a provincial capital, Ghazni, a strategically important city, and held it for five days, while taking control of much of the province itself. Finally driven from the city, the Taliban promptly overran a military base in Baghlan Province during its withdrawal. And that was just one day after taking another Afghan military base. In fact, for the previous two months, the Taliban had overrun government checkpoints and outposts on a near-daily basis. And keep in mind that the Taliban is now only a fraction of the story. The U.S. set out to defeat it and al-Qaeda in 2001. Today, Washington faces exponentially more terror groups in Afghanistan — 21 in all, including an imported franchise from the Iraq War front, ISIS, that grew larger during Nicholson’s tenure.
Given this seemingly dismal state of affairs, you might wonder what happened to Nicholson. Was he cashiered? Fired, Apprentice-style? Quietly ushered out of Afghanistan in disgrace? Hardly. Like the 15 U.S. commanders who preceded him, the four-star general simply rotated out and, at his final press conference from the war zone late last month, was nothing if not upbeat.
“I believe the South Asia Strategy is the right approach. And now we see that approach delivering progress on reconciliation that we had not seen previously,” he announced. “We’ve also seen a clear progression in the Taliban’s public statements, from their 14 February letter to the American people to the recent Eid al-Adha message, where [Taliban leader] Emir Hibatullah acknowledged for the first time that negotiations will, quote, ‘ensure an end to the war,’ end quote.”
In the event that you missed those statements from a chastened Taliban on the threshold of begging for peace, let me quote from the opening of the latter missive, issued late last month:
“This year Eid al-Adha approaches us as our Jihadi struggle against the American occupation is on the threshold of victory due to the help of Allah Almighty. The infidel invading forces have lost all will of combat, their strategy has failed, advanced technology and military equipment rendered useless, [the] sedition and corruption-sowing group defeated, and the arrogant American generals have been compelled to bow to the Jihadic greatness of the Afghan nation.”
And those conciliatory statements of peace and reconciliation touted by Nicholson? The Taliban says that in order to end “this long war” the “lone option is to end the occupation of Afghanistan and nothing more.”
In June, the 17th American nominated to take command of the war, Lieutenant General Scott Miller, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee where Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) grilled him on what he would do differently in order to bring the conflict to a conclusion. “I cannot guarantee you a timeline or an end date,” was Miller’s confident reply.
Did the senators then send him packing? Hardly. He was, in fact, easily confirmed and starts work this month. Nor is there any chance Congress will use its power of the purse to end the war. The 2019 budget request for U.S. operations in Afghanistan — topping out at $46.3 billion — will certainly be approved.
All of this seeming futility brings us back to the Vietnam War, Kissinger, and that magic number, 4,000,000,029,057 — as well as the question of what an American military victory would look like today. It might surprise you, but it turns out that winning wars is still possible and, perhaps even more surprising, the U.S. military seems to be doing just that.
Let me explain.
In Vietnam, that military aimed to “out-guerrilla the guerrilla.” It never did and the United States suffered a crushing defeat. Henry Kissinger — who presided over the last years of that conflict as national security advisor and then secretary of state — provided his own concise take on one of the core tenets of asymmetric warfare: “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.” Perhaps because that eternally well-regarded but hapless statesman articulated it, that formula was bound — like so much else he touched — to crash and burn.
In this century, the United States has found a way to turn Kissinger’s martial maxim on its head and so rewrite the axioms of armed conflict. This redefinition can be proved by a simple equation:
0 + 1,000,000,000,000 + 17 +17 + 23,744 + 3,000,000,000,000 + 5 + 5,200 + 74 = 4,000,000,029,057
Expressed differently, the United States has not won a major conflict since 1945; has a trillion-dollar national security budget; has had 17 military commanders in the last 17 years in Afghanistan, a country plagued by 23,744 “security incidents” (the most ever recorded) in 2017 alone; has spent around $3 trillion, primarily on that war and the rest of the war on terror, including the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld swore, in 2002, would be over in only “five days or five weeks or five months,” but where approximately 5,000 U.S. troops remain today; and yet 74% of the American people still express high confidence in the U.S. military.
Let the math and the implications wash over you for a moment. Such a calculus definitively disproves the notion that “the conventional army loses if it does not win.” It also helps answer the question of victory in the war on terror. It turns out that the U.S. military, whose budget and influence in Washington have only grown in these years, now wins simply by not losing — a multi-trillion-dollar conventional army held to the standards of success once applied only to under-armed, under-funded guerilla groups.
Unlike in the Vietnam War years, three presidents and the Pentagon, unbothered by fiscal constraints, substantive congressional opposition, or a significant antiwar movement, have been effectively pursuing this strategy, which requires nothing more than a steady supply of troops, contractors, and other assorted camp followers; an endless parade of Senate-sanctioned commanders; and an annual outlay of hundreds of billions of dollars. By these standards, Donald Trump’s open-ended, timetable-free “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” may prove to be the winningest war plan ever. As he described it:
“From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”
Think about that for a moment. Victory’s definition begins with “attacking our enemies” and ends with the prevention of possible terror attacks. Let me reiterate: “victory” is defined as “attacking our enemies.” Under President Trump’s strategy, it seems, every time the U.S. bombs or shells or shoots at a member of one of those 20-plus terror groups in Afghanistan, the U.S. is winning or, perhaps, has won. And this strategy is not specifically Afghan-centric. It can easily be applied to American warzones in the Middle East and Africa — anywhere, really.
Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military has finally solved the conundrum of how to “out-guerrilla the guerrilla.” And it couldn’t have been simpler. You just adopt the same definition of victory. As a result, a conventional army — at least the U.S. military — now loses only if it stops fighting. So long as unaccountable commanders wage benchmark-free wars without congressional constraint, the United States simply cannot lose. You can’t argue with the math. Call it the rule of 4,000,000,029,057.
That calculus and that sum also prove, quite clearly, that America’s beleaguered commander-in-chief has gotten a raw deal on his victory parade. With apologies to the American Legion, the U.S. military is now — under the new rules of warfare — triumphant and deserves the type of celebration proposed by President Trump. After almost two decades of warfare, the armed forces have lowered the bar for victory to the level of their enemy, the Taliban. What was once the mark of failure for a conventional army is now the benchmark for success. It’s a remarkable feat and deserving, at the very least, of furious flag-waving, ticker tape, and all the age-old trappings of victory.
The U.S. Military is Winning. No, Really, It Is!
Early last month, at a tiny military post near the tumbledown town of Jamaame in Somalia, small arms fire began to ring out as mortar shells crashed down. When the attack was over, one Somali soldier had been wounded — and had that been the extent of the casualties, you undoubtedly would never have heard about it.
As it happened, however, American commandos were also operating from that outpost and four of them were wounded, three badly enough to be evacuated for further medical care. Another special operator, Staff Sergeant Alexander Conrad, assigned to the U.S. Army’s Special Forces (also known as the Green Berets), was killed.
If the story sounds vaguely familiar — combat by U.S. commandos in African wars that America is technically not fighting — it should. Last December, Green Berets operating alongside local forces in Niger killed 11 Islamic State militants in a firefight. Two months earlier, in October, an ambush by an Islamic State terror group in that same country, where few Americans (including members of Congress) even knew U.S. special operators were stationed, left four U.S. soldiers dead — Green Berets among them. (The military first described that mission as providing “advice and assistance” to local forces, then as a “reconnaissance patrol” as part of a broader “train, advise, and assist” mission, before it was finally exposed as a kill or capture operation.) Last May, a Navy SEAL was killed and two other U.S. personnel were wounded in a raid in Somalia that the Pentagon described as an “advise, assist, and accompany” mission. And a month earlier, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal militia that has terrorized parts of Central Africa for decades.
And there had been, as the New York Times noted in March, at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017. Little wonder since, for at least five years, as Politico recently reported, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other commandos, operating under a little-understood legal authority known as Section 127e, have been involved in reconnaissance and “direct action” combat raids with African special operators in Somalia, Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia.
None of this should be surprising, since in Africa and across the rest of the planet America’s Special Operations forces (SOF) are regularly engaged in a wide-ranging set of missions including special reconnaissance and small-scale offensive actions, unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and security force assistance (that is, organizing, training, equipping, and advising foreign troops). And every day, almost everywhere, U.S. commandos are involved in various kinds of training.
Unless they end in disaster, most missions remain in the shadows, unknown to all but a few Americans. And yet last year alone, U.S. commandos deployed to 149 countries — about 75% of the nations on the planet. At the halfway mark of this year, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM), America’s most elite troops have already carried out missions in 133 countries. That’s nearly as many deployments as occurred during the last year of the Obama administration and more than double those of the final days of George W. Bush’s White House.
“USSOCOM plays an integral role in opposing today’s threats to our nation, to protecting the American people, to securing our homeland, and in maintaining favorable regional balances of power,” General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, told members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year. “However, as we focus on today’s operations we must be equally focused on required future transformation. SOF must adapt, develop, procure, and field new capabilities in the interest of continuing to be a unique, lethal, and agile part of the Joint Force of tomorrow.”
Special Operations forces have actually been in a state of transformation ever since September 11, 2001. In the years since, they have grown in every possible way — from their budget to their size, to their pace of operations, to the geographic sweep of their missions. In 2001, for example, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed overseas in any given week. That number has now soared to 8,300, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. At the same time, the number of “authorized military positions” — the active-duty troops, reservists, and National Guardsmen that are part of SOCOM — has jumped from 42,800 in 2001 to 63,500 today. While each of the military service branches — the so-called parent services — provides funding, including pay, benefits, and some equipment to their elite forces, “Special Operations-specific funding,” at $3.1 billion in 2001, is now at $12.3 billion. (The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps also provide their special operations units with about $8 billion annually.)
All this means that, on any given day, more than 8,000 exceptionally well-equipped and well-funded special operators from a command numbering roughly 70,000 active-duty personnel, reservists, and National Guardsmen as well as civilians are deployed in approximately 90 countries. Most of those troops are Green Berets, Rangers, or other Army Special Operations personnel. According to Lieutenant General Kenneth Tovo, head of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command until his retirement last month, that branch provides more than 51% of all Special Operations forces and accounts for more than 60% of their overseas deployments. On any given day, just the Army’s elite soldiers are operating in around 70 countries.
In February, for instance, Army Rangers carried out several weeks of winter warfare training in Germany, while Green Berets practiced missions involving snowmobiles in Sweden. In April, Green Berets took part in the annual Flintlock multinational Special Operations forces training exercise conducted in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Senegal that involved Nigerien, Burkinabe, Malian, Polish, Spanish, and Portuguese troops, among others.
While most missions involve training, instruction, or war games, Special Forces soldiers are also regularly involved in combat operations across America’s expansive global war zones. A month after Flintlock, for example, Green Berets accompanied local commandos on a nighttime air assault raid in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, during which a senior ISIS operative was reportedly “eliminated.” In May, a post-deployment awards ceremony for members of the 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, who had just returned from six months advising and assisting Afghan commandos, offered some indication of the kinds of missions being undertaken in that country. Those Green Berets received more than 60 decorations for valor — including 20 Bronze Star Medals and four Silver Star Medals (the third-highest military combat decoration).
For its part, the Navy, according to Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski, chief of Naval Special Warfare Command, has about 1,000 SEALs or other personnel deployed to more than 35 countries each day. In February, Naval Special Warfare forces and soldiers from Army Special Operations Aviation Command conducted training aboard a French amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Gulf. That same month, Navy SEALs joined elite U.S. Air Force personnel in training alongside Royal Thai Naval Special Warfare operators during Cobra Gold, an annual exercise in Thailand.
The troops from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, deploy primarily to the Middle East, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific regions on six-month rotations. At any time, on average, about 400 “Raiders” are engaged in missions across 18 countries.
Air Force Special Operations Command, which fields a force of 19,500 active, reserve, and civilian personnel, conducted 78 joint-training exercises and events with partner nations in 2017, according to Lieutenant General Marshall Webb, chief of Air Force Special Operations Command. In February, for example, Air Force commandos conducted Arctic training — ski maneuvers and free-fall air operations — in Sweden, but such training missions are only part of the story. Air Force special operators were, for instance, recently deployed to aid the attempt to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped deep inside a cave in Thailand. The Air Force also has three active duty special operations wings assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command, including the 24th Special Operations Wing, a “special tactics” unit that integrates air and ground forces for “precision-strike” and personnel-recovery missions. At a change of command ceremony in March, it was noted that its personnel had conducted almost 2,900 combat missions over the last two years.
Addition Through Subtraction
For years, U.S. Special Operations forces have been in a state of seemingly unrestrained expansion. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Africa. In 2006, just 1% of all American commandos deployed overseas were operating on that continent. By 2016, that number had jumped above 17%. By then, there were more special operations personnel devoted to Africa — 1,700 special operators spread out across 20 countries — than anywhere else except the Middle East.
Recently, however, the New York Times reported that a “sweeping Pentagon review” of special ops missions on that continent may soon result in drastic cuts in the number of commandos operating there. (“We do not comment on what tasks the secretary of defense or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may or may not have given USSOCOM,” spokesman Ken McGraw told me when I inquired about the review.) U.S. Africa Command has apparently been asked to consider what effect cutting commandos there by 25% over 18 months and 50% over three years would have on its counterterrorism missions. In the end, only about 700 elite troops — roughly the same number as were stationed in Africa in 2014 — would be left there.
Coming on the heels of the October 2017 debacle in Niger that left those four Americans dead and apparent orders from the commander of United States Special Operations forces in Africa that its commandos “plan missions to stay out of direct combat or do not go,” a number of experts suggested that such a review signaled a reappraisal of military engagement on the continent. The proposed cuts also seemed to fit with the Pentagon’s latest national defense strategy that highlighted a coming shift from a focus on counterterrorism to the threats of near-peer competitors like Russia and China. “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis in January, “but great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
A wide range of analysts questioned or criticized the proposed troop reduction. Mu Xiaoming, from China’s National Defense University of the People’s Liberation Army, likened such a reduction in elite U.S. forces to the Obama administration’s drawdown of troops in Afghanistan in 2014 and noted the possibility of “terrorism making a comeback in Africa.” A former chief of U.S. commandos on the continent, Donald Bolduc, unsurprisingly echoed these same fears. “Without the presence that we have there now,” he told Voice of America, “we’re just going to increase the effectiveness of the violent extremist organizations over time and we are going to lose trust and credibility in this area and destabilize it even further.” David Meijer, a security analyst based in Amsterdam, lamented that, as Africa was growing in geostrategic importance and China is strengthening its ties there, “it’s ironic that Washington is set to reduce its already minimal engagement on the continent.”
This is hardly a foregone conclusion, however. For years, members of SOCOM, as well as supporters in Congress, at think tanks, and elsewhere, have been loudly complaining about the soaring operations tempo for America’s elite troops and the resulting strains on them. “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” General Thomas, the SOCOM chief, told members of Congress last spring. “Despite growing demand for SOF, we must prioritize the sourcing of these demands as we face a rapidly changing security environment.” Given how much clout SOCOM wields, such incessant gripes were certain to lead to changes in policy.
Last year, in fact, Secretary of Defense Mattis noted that the lines between U.S. Special Operations forces and conventional troops were blurring and that the latter would likely be taking on missions previously shouldered by the commandos, particularly in Africa. “So the general purpose forces can do a lot of the kind of work that you see going on and, in fact, are now,” he said. “By and large, for example in Trans-Sahel [in northwest Africa], many of those forces down there supporting the French-led effort are not Special Forces. So we’ll continue to expand the general purpose forces where it’s appropriate. I would… anticipate more use of them.”
Earlier this year, Owen West, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, referred to Mattis’s comments while telling members of the House Armed Services Committee about the “need to look at the line that separates conventional operating forces from SOF and seek to take greater advantage of the ‘common capabilities’ of our exceptional conventional forces.” He particularly highlighted the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigades, recently created to conduct advise-and-assist missions. This spring, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recommended that one of those units be dedicated to Africa.
Substituting forces in this way is precisely what Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, an Iraq War veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, has also been advocating. Late last year, in fact, her press secretary, Leigh Claffey, told TomDispatch that the senator believed “instead of such heavy reliance on Special Forces, we should also be engaging our conventional forces to take over missions when appropriate, as well as turning over operations to capable indigenous forces.” Chances are that U.S. commandos will continue carrying out their shadowy Section 127e raids alongside local forces across the African continent while leaving more conventional training and advising tasks to rank-and-file troops. In other words, the number of commandos in Africa may be cut, but the total number of American troops may not — with covert combat operations possibly continuing at the present pace.
If anything, U.S. Special Operations forces are likely to expand, not contract, next year. SOCOM’s 2019 budget request calls for adding about 1,000 personnel to what would then be a force of 71,000. In April, at a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities chaired by Ernst, New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich noted that SOCOM was on track to “grow by approximately 2,000 personnel” in the coming years. The command is also poised to make 2018 another historic year in global reach. If Washington’s special operators deploy to just 17 more countries by the end of the fiscal year, they will exceed last year’s record-breaking total.
“USSOCOM continues to recruit, assess, and select the very best. We then train and empower our teammates to solve the most daunting national security problems,” SOCOM commander General Thomas told the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities earlier this year. Why Green Berets and Navy SEALs need to solve national security problems — strategic issues that ought to be addressed by policymakers — is a question that has long gone unanswered. It may be one of the reasons why, since Green Berets “liberated” Afghanistan in 2001, the United States has been involved in combat there and, as the years have passed, a plethora of other forever-war fronts including Cameroon, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.
“The creativity, initiative and spirit of the people who comprise the Special Operations Force cannot be overstated. They are our greatest asset,” said Thomas. And it’s likely that such assets will grow in 2019.
Commandos Sans Frontières
2017 was a year of investigations for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). There was the investigation of the two-star commander of U.S. Army Africa who allegedly sent racy texts to an enlisted man’s wife. There was the investigation into the alleged killing of a Special Forces soldier by Navy SEALs in Mali. There was the inquiry into reports of torture and killings on a remote base in Cameroon that was also used by American forces. There was the investigation of an alleged massacre of civilians by American special operators in Somalia. And don’t forget the inquiry into the killing of four Special Forces soldiers by Islamic State militants in Niger.
And then there was the investigation that hardly anyone heard about, that didn’t spark a single headline. And still, the question remains: Whatever became of that $500 million?
To be fair, this particular scandal isn’t AFRICOM’s alone, nor did that sizeable sum belong only to that one command. And unlike the possibly tens of thousands of dollars in cash that reportedly went missing in connection with the strangulation of the Green Beret in Mali, that $500 million didn’t simply vanish. Still, a report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General (IG), released into the news wasteland of the day after Christmas 2017, does raise questions about a combatant command with a history of scandals, including significant failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting projects across the African continent, as well as the effectiveness of U.S. assistance efforts there.
From fiscal years 2014 through 2016, AFRICOM and Central Command (CENTCOM), the umbrella organization for U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East, received a combined $496 million to conduct counternarcotics (CN) activities. That substantial sum was used by the respective commands to fund myriad projects from the construction of border outposts in allied nations to training personnel in policing skills like evidence collection. Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be used. According to the IG, neither AFRICOM nor CENTCOM “maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of training, equipping, and construction activities.” That means no one — not the IG investigators, not AFRICOM, not CENTCOM personnel — seems to have any idea how much of that money was spent, what it was spent on, whether the funded projects were ever completed, or whether any of it made a difference in the fight against illegal drugs in Africa and the Middle East.
“U.S. Central and U.S. Africa Commands did not provide effective oversight of [fiscal years] 2014 through 2016 counternarcotics activities,” wrote Michael Roark, an assistant inspector general, in a memorandum sent to the chiefs of both commands as well as to Pentagon officials in December 2017. “Specifically, neither U.S. Central nor U.S. Africa Command maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of counternarcotics training, equipping, and construction activities.” What is clear is that large sums of taxpayer dollars allotted to such training activities were inconsistently tracked or accounted for, including — according to Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General — $73 million in AFRICOM counternarcotics funding.
TomDispatch repeatedly contacted Africa Command for comment about the IG’s report. According to digital receipts, AFRICOM read the emailed questions but failed to respond prior to the publication of this piece.
The War on Drugs
Since 9/11, U.S. military activity on the African continent has grown at an exponential rate. U.S. troops are now conducting about 3,500 exercises, programs, and activities per year, an average of nearly 10 missions a day. Meanwhile, America’s most elite troops — including Navy SEALs and Green Berets — deployed to no fewer than 33 of the 54 African countries last year.
Many of the command’s missions focus on training local allies and proxies. “AFRICOM’s Theater Security Cooperation programs remain the cornerstone of our sustained security engagement with African partners,” reads its “What We Do” credo. “Conditions for success of our security cooperation programs and activities on the continent are established through hundreds of engagements supporting a wide range of activities.” These include not only foreign military aid and training, but also counternarcotics assistance.
By 2012, U.S. Africa Command’s Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch was already providing about $20 million in aid per year to various partner nations. In doing so, it relied on special legislation that allows the military to work not only with other armed forces but with interagency partners like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, as well as local law enforcement agencies and the justice, customs, and interior ministries of various African countries.
The command’s African partners often suffer, however, from their own drug problems. “On the governance front, the proceeds of drug trafficking and other forms of illicit trafficking are fueling a dramatic increase in corruption among the very institutions responsible for fighting crime,” observed David Luna of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs last year in a speech on combating organized crime in Africa. “The collusion and complicity of some government officials with criminal networks have helped carve out an illicit trafficking corridor that stretches from the West African coast to the Horn of Africa, from North Africa south to the Gulf of Guinea.”
But corrupt allies, as the Pentagon’s Inspector General points out, are only one of the problems facing U.S. counternarcotics efforts there. AFRICOM itself is another.
The Wisdom of the Crowd vs. a Simple Spreadsheet
In 2014, Coast Guard captain Ted St. Pierre, the division chief of AFRICOM’s Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch, turned to the consulting firm Wikistrat to design and conduct a “scenario-driven simulation” to aid the command in developing strategies to combat drug trafficking in northwest Africa. That simulation was sold as a crowd-sourced, futuristic approach to a twenty-first-century problem. “The idea is that this technology leverages the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ just as averaging the guesses of the crowd at the county fair will come very close to the amount of jelly beans in a jar,” said Tim Haffner, a program analyst for AFRICOM’s Counter Narcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch and its point man for the simulation project. As it turned out, AFRICOM’s counternarcotics officials could have benefited from far lower-tech assistance — like help in maintaining accurate spreadsheets.
Take the radio equipment that the command procured to help Senegal battle narcotics trafficking. According to a spreadsheet provided to the Inspector General by AFRICOM, $1.1 million was budgeted for that in 2014. Leaving aside whether such equipment is helpful in curtailing drug trafficking, it was at least clear how much money was spent on those radios. Until, that is, IG investigators consulted another spreadsheet also provided by AFRICOM. Its data indicated that nearly triple that sum — $3.1 million — had been budgeted for and spent on those radios. The question was: Did Senegalese forces receive $1 million worth of radios or three times that figure? No one at AFRICOM knew.
In fact, those two spreadsheets told radically different stories about the larger U.S. counternarcotics campaign on the continent in 2014. One indicated that taxpayers had funded 55 different projects budgeted at $15 million; the other, 134 activities to the tune of $24 million. Investigators were especially troubled by the second spreadsheet in which the “budgeted, obligated, and expended amounts… were identical for each activity causing the team to question the reliability of the data.” So which spreadsheet was right? How many projects were really carried out? How many millions of dollars were actually spent? The IG’s office concluded that AFRICOM counternarcotics officials didn’t know and so “could not verify which set of data was complete and accurate.”
Or take Cameroon in 2016. That year, according to AFRICOM officials, the United States budgeted $143,493 for training that country’s forces in “evidence collection.” (This was at a moment when AFRICOM officials seemed oblivious to copious evidence that civilian detainees were being tortured, sometimes even killed, on a Cameroonian base used by American forces.) Yet a 2016 spreadsheet examined by the Inspector General’s investigators indicated that only $94,620 had actually been budgeted for such training, while $165,078 had been “obligated” — that is, an agreement was made to pay that sum for services rendered — for the same activities. In the end, according to the IG’s December 2017 report, AFRICOM counternarcotics personnel couldn’t say how much money had actually been spent on training Cameroonians in evidence collection because of “a law enforcement agency error in tracking funding.”
Records of construction activities were in a similar state of disarray. While counternarcotics officials provided IG personnel with a spreadsheet specifically devoted to such projects, its information proved inconsistent with other AFRICOM documents. In reading the IG’s account of this, I was reminded of an interview I conducted several years ago with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers Africa about construction projects for Special Operations Command Africa. “I’ll be totally frank with you,” he told me, “as far as the scopes of these projects go, I don’t have good insights.” I then asked if some projects had been funded with counter-narco-terrorism funds. “No, actually there was not,” he assured me, which led me to ask him about Niger. I knew that the U.S. was devoting significant resources to such projects there, specifically in the towns of Arlit and Tahoua. When I explained that I had already uncovered that information, he promptly located the right paperwork, adding, “Oh, okay, I’m sorry. You’re right, we have two of them… Both were actually awarded to construction.”
That construction began — at least on paper — in 2013. It seems that, in the time since, little has changed when it comes to record-keeping. When IG investigators looked into more recent construction efforts in Niger for their report, they found, for example, a phantom counternarcotics project — a classroom somehow integral to the fight against drugs in that West African country. When they requested documentation for the 2015 construction of this classroom, the investigators were told by AFRICOM officials that the project had been terminated. The classroom was actually never built. Yet none of the data in any of the spreadsheets previously provided by the command indicated that the construction had been canceled.
Both AFRICOM and CENTCOM also left substantial funds on the table, monies that were apparently never spent and might have been used for other counternarcotics activities, had they not been lost, according to the IG report. For example, a “law enforcement agency” conducted 20 counternarcotics training classes over two years in an unspecified African nation (or nations), leaving an estimated excess of $805,000 in funding untouched, at least based on the officially budgeted costs for such instruction. As it turned out, however, AFRICOM officials had no idea that all of the funds hadn’t been spent. The report, in its typical bureaucratic prose, summed up the situation this way: “[T]he amount unused could be higher or lower because USAFRICOM does not know how much was actually expended for the trainings executed.”
In all, faulty accounting seems to have resulted in at least $128 million worth of CENTCOM and AFRICOM counternarcotics funding for 2014-2016 going unspent.
Prior Bad Acts
This is hardly the first time that Africa Command has run into trouble accounting for work performed and dollars spent. In 2014, TomDispatch revealed the results of an Inspector General’s report (“Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa Needed Better Guidance and Systems to Adequately Manage Civil-Military Operations”) that was never publicly released. It uncovered failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting humanitarian projects by AFRICOM’s subordinate Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).
At the time, the IG found record-keeping so faulty that CJTF-HOA officials “did not have an effective system to manage or report community relations and low-cost activities.” A spreadsheet tracking such projects was so incomplete that 43% of those efforts went unmentioned. Nonetheless, the IG did manage to review 49 of CJTF-HOA’s 137 identified humanitarian assistance and civic assistance projects, which cost U.S. taxpayers about $9 million, and found that the military officials overseeing the projects “did not adequately plan or execute” them in accordance with AFRICOM’s objectives. Examining 66 community relations and low-cost activities (like the distribution of sports equipment and seminars on solar panel maintenance), investigators discovered that its officials had failed to accurately identify their strategic objectives for, or maintained limited documentation on, 62% of them.
In some cases, they failed to explain how their efforts supported AFRICOM’s objectives on the continent; in others, financial documentation was missing; in yet more, personnel failed to ensure that local populations were equipped to keep the projects running once U.S. forces moved on. The risk, the report suggested, was that projects like American-built wells, water fountains, and cisterns would quickly fall into disrepair and become what one official called “monuments to U.S. failure.”
After years of failing to maintain reliable data about and effective oversight of its counternarcotics activities, Africa Command has, according to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, finally taken corrective measures. “USAFRICOM officials developed standard operating procedures that fully addressed the recommendation” of the December 2017 IG report, Bruce Anderson of the Office of the Inspector General told TomDispatch. “They also provided their [fiscal year] 2018 Spend Plan as evidence of some of the processes being implemented.” Whether these new measures will be effective and other types of assistance will also be comprehensively tracked remains to be seen.
While AFRICOM may be cleaning up its act, the same cannot be said of CENTCOM, which, according to Anderson, apparently wasted or didn’t adequately track almost $423 million in counternarcotics funds between 2014 and 2016. Like AFRICOM, Central Command failed to provide answers to TomDispatch’s questions prior to publication, although the command did respond to email messages. More than a month after the December 2017 report was issued, CENTCOM would not say if it had implemented the IG’s recommendations. “As you know, this is a complex issue, and it needs to be coordinated within the chain of command,” spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown wrote in an email. Bruce Anderson of the IG’s office was, however, able to shed further light on the matter. “The two recommendations to USCENTCOM remain unresolved,” he told TomDispatch. “USCENTCOM implemented some corrective actions, but the actions only partially addressed the recommendations.”
More troubling than the findings in the IG’s report or CENTCOM’s apparent refusal to heed its recommendations may be the actual trajectory of the drug trade in the two commands’ areas of responsibility: Africa and the Greater Middle East. Last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted that while West Africa “has long been a transit zone for cocaine and heroin trafficking, it has now turned into a production zone for illicit substances such as amphetamines and precursors” and that drug use “is also a growing issue at the local level.” Meanwhile, heroin trafficking has been on the rise in East Africa, along with personal use of the drug.
Even the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies is sounding an alarm. “Drug trafficking is a major transnational threat in Africa that converges with other illicit activities ranging from money laundering to human trafficking and terrorism,” it warned last November. “According to the 2017 U.N. World Drug Report, two-thirds of the cocaine smuggled between South America and Europe passes through West Africa, specifically Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo. Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania are among the countries that have seen the highest traffic in opiates passing from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Western destinations.” As badly as this may reflect on AFRICOM’s efforts to bolster the counter-drug-trafficking prowess of key allies like Kenya, Mali, and Nigeria, it reflects even more dismally on CENTCOM, which oversees Washington’s long-running war in Afghanistan and its seemingly ceaseless counternarcotics mission there.
In the spring of 2001, American experts concluded that a ban on opium-poppy cultivation by Afghanistan’s Taliban government had wiped out the world’s largest heroin-producing crop. Later that year, the U.S. military invaded and, since 2002, America has pumped $8.7 billion in counternarcotics funding into that country. A report issued late last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction detailed the results of anti-drug efforts during CENTCOM’s 16-year-old war: “Afghanistan’s total area under opium cultivation and opium production reached an all-time high in 2017,” it reads in part. “Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer and exporter, producing an estimated 80% of the world’s opium.”
In many ways, these outcomes mirror those of the larger counterterror efforts of which these anti-drug campaigns are just a part. In 2001, for example, U.S. forces were fighting just two enemy forces in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, according to a recent Pentagon report, they’re battling more than 10 times that number. In Africa, an official count of five prime terror groups in 2012 has expanded, depending on the Pentagon source, to more than 20 or even closer to 50.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but given the outcomes of significant counternarcotics assistance from Africa Command and Central Command — including some $500 million over just three recent years — there’s little evidence to suggest that better record-keeping can solve the problems plaguing the military’s anti-drug efforts in the greater Middle East or Africa. While AFRICOM and, to a lesser extent, CENTCOM have made changes in how they track counternarcotics aid, both seemingly remain hooked on pouring money into efforts that have produced few successes. More effective use of spreadsheets won’t solve the underlying problems of America’s wars or cure an addiction to policies that continue to fail.
Drug Wars, Missing Money, and a Phantom $500 Million
At around 11 o’clock that night, four Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talons, turboprop Special Operations aircraft, were flying through a moonless sky from Pakistani into Afghan airspace. On board were 199 Army Rangers with orders to seize an airstrip. One hundred miles to the northeast, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters cruised through the darkness toward Kandahar, carrying Army Delta Force operators and yet more Rangers, heading for a second site. It was October 19, 2001. The war in Afghanistan had just begun and U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were the tip of the American spear.
Those Rangers parachuted into and then swarmed the airfield, engaging the enemy — a single armed fighter, as it turned out — and killing him. At that second site, the residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the special operators apparently encountered no resistance at all, even though several Americans were wounded due to friendly fire and a helicopter crash.
In 2001, U.S. special operators were targeting just two enemy forces: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2010, his first full year in office, President Barack Obama informed Congress that U.S. forces were still “actively pursuing and engaging remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.” According to a recent Pentagon report to Congress, American troops are battling more than 10 times that number of militant groups, including the still-undefeated Taliban, the Haqqani network, an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, and various “other insurgent networks.”
After more than 16 years of combat, U.S. Special Operations forces remain the tip of the spear in Afghanistan, where they continue to carry out counterterrorism missions. In fact, from June 1st to November 24th last year, according to that Pentagon report, members of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan conducted 2,175 ground operations “in which they enabled or advised” Afghan commandos.
“During the Obama administration the use of Special Operations forces increased dramatically, as if their use was a sort of magical, all-purpose solution for fighting terrorism,” William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, pointed out. “The ensuing years have proven this assumption to be false. There are many impressive, highly skilled personnel involved in special operations on behalf of the United States, but the problems they are being asked to solve often do not have military solutions. Despite this fact, the Trump administration is doubling down on this approach in Afghanistan, even though the strategy has not prevented the spread of terrorist organizations and may in fact be counterproductive.”
Since U.S. commandos went to war in 2001, the size of Special Operations Command has doubled from about 33,000 personnel to 70,000 today. As their numbers have grown, so has their global reach. As TomDispatch revealed last month, they were deployed to 149 nations in 2017, or about 75% of the countries on the planet, a record-setting year. It topped 2016’s 138 nations under the Obama administration and dwarfed the numbers from the final years of the Bush administration. As the scope of deployments has expanded, special operators also came to be spread ever more equally across the planet.
In October 2001, Afghanistan was the sole focus of commando combat missions. On March 19, 2003, special operators fired the first shots in the invasion of Iraq as their helicopter teams attacked Iraqi border posts near Jordan and Saudi Arabia. By 2006, as the war in Afghanistan ground on and the conflict in Iraq continued to morph into a raging set of insurgencies, 85% of U.S. commandos were being deployed to the Greater Middle East.
As this decade dawned in 2010, the numbers hadn’t changed appreciably: 81% of all special operators abroad were still in that region.
Eight years later, however, the situation is markedly different, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. Despite claims that the Islamic State has been defeated, the U.S. remains embroiled in wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Afghanistan and Yemen, yet only 54% of special operators deployed overseas were sent to the Greater Middle East in 2017. In fact, since 2006, deployments have been on the rise across the rest of the world. In Latin America, the figure crept up from 3% to 4.39%. In the Pacific region, from 7% to 7.99%. But the striking increases have been in Europe and Africa.
In 2006, just 3% of all commandos deployed overseas were operating in Europe. Last year, that number was just north of 16%. “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, told TomDispatch. “The persistent presence of U.S. SOF alongside our allies sends a clear message of U.S. commitment to our allies and the defense of our NATO alliance.” For the past two years, in fact, the U.S. has maintained a Special Operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border. As Special Operations Command chief General Raymond Thomas put it last year, “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country — every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats.”
Africa, however, has seen the most significant increase in special ops deployments. In 2006, the figure for that continent was just 1%; as 2017 ended, it stood at 16.61%. In other words, more commandos are operating there than in any region except the Middle East. As I recently reported at Vice News, Special Operations forces were active in at least 33 nations across that continent last year.
The situation in one of those nations, Somalia, in many ways mirrors in microcosm the 16-plus years of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Not long after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official suggested that the Afghan invasion might drive militants out of that country and into African nations. “Terrorists associated with al-Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” he said. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities.”
When pressed about actual transnational dangers, that official pointed to Somali militants, only to eventually admit that even the most extreme Islamists there “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” Similarly, when questioned about connections between Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda group and African extremists, he offered only the most tenuous links, like bin Laden’s “salute” to Somali militants who killed U.S. troops during the infamous 1993 Black Hawk Down incident.
Nonetheless, U.S. commandos reportedly began operating in Somalia in 2001, air attacks by AC-130 gunships followed in 2007, and 2011 saw the beginning of U.S. drone strikes aimed at militants from al-Shabaab, a terror group that didn’t even exist until 2006. According to figures compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. carried out between 32 and 36 drone strikes and at least 9 to 13 ground attacks in Somalia between 2001 and 2016.
Last spring, President Donald Trump loosened Obama-era restrictions on offensive operations in that country. Allowing U.S. forces more discretion in conducting missions there, he opened up the possibility of more frequent airstrikes and commando raids. The 2017 numbers reflect just that. The U.S. carried out 34 drone strikes, at least equaling if not exceeding the cumulative number of attacks over the previous 15 years. (And it took the United States only a day to resume such strikes this year.)
“President Trump’s decision to make parts of southern Somalia an ‘area of active hostilities’ gave [U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM] the leeway to carry out strikes at an increased rate because it no longer had to run their proposed operations through the White House national security bureaucratic process,” said Jack Serle, an expert on U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia. He was quick to point out that AFRICOM claims the uptick in operations is due to more targets presenting themselves, but he suspects that AFRICOM may be attempting to cripple al-Shabaab before an African Union peacekeeping force is withdrawn and Somalia’s untested military is left to fight the militants without thousands of additional African troops.
In addition to the 30-plus airstrikes in 2017, there were at least three U.S. ground attacks. In one of the latter, described by AFRICOM as “an advise-and-assist operation alongside members of the Somali National Army,” Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two U.S. personnel were injured during a firefight with al-Shabaab militants. In another ground operation in August, according to an investigation by the Daily Beast, Special Operations forces took part in a massacre of 10 Somali civilians. (The U.S. military is now investigating.)
As in Afghanistan, the U.S. has been militarily engaged in Somalia since 2001 and, as in Afghanistan, despite more than a decade and a half of operations, the number of militant groups being targeted has only increased. U.S. commandos are now battling at least two terror groups — al-Shabaab and a local Islamic State affiliate — as drone strikes spiked in the last year and Somalia became an ever-hotter war zone. Today, according to AFRICOM, militants operate “training camps” and possess “safe havens throughout Somalia [and] the region.”
“The under-reported, 16-year U.S. intervention in Somalia has followed a similar pattern to the larger U.S. war in Afghanistan: an influx of special forces and a steady increase in air strikes has not only failed to stop terrorism, but both al-Shabaab and a local affiliate of ISIS have grown during this time period,” said William Hartung of the Center for International Policy. “It’s another case of failing to learn the lessons of the United States’ policy of endless war: that military action is as likely or more likely to spark terrorist action as to reduce or prevent it.”
Somalia is no anomaly. Across the continent, despite escalating operations by commandos as well as conventional American forces and their local allies and proxies, Washington’s enemies continue to proliferate. As Vice News reported, a 2012 Special Operations Command strategic planning document listed five prime terror groups on the continent. An October 2016 update counted seven by name — the Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and al-Shabaab — in addition to “other violent extremist organizations.” The Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies now offers a tally of 21 “active militant Islamist groups” on the continent. In fact, as reported at The Intercept, the full number of terrorist organizations and other “illicit groups” may already have been closer to 50 by 2015.
Saving SOF through Proxy War?
As wars and interventions have multiplied, as U.S. commandos have spread across the planet, and as terror groups have proliferated, the tempo of operations has jumped dramatically. This, in turn, has raised fears among think-tank experts, special ops supporters, and members of Congress about the effects on those elite troops of such constant deployments and growing pressure for more of them. “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” General Thomas told members of Congress last spring. “Despite growing demand for SOF, we must prioritize the sourcing of these demands as we face a rapidly changing security environment.” Yet the number of countries with special ops deployments hit a new record last year.
At a November 2017 conference on special operations held in Washington, influential members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees acknowledged growing strains on the force. For Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the solution is, as he put it, “to increase numbers and resources.”
While Republican Senator Joni Ernst did not foreclose the possibility of adding to already war-swollen levels of commandos, she much prefers to farm out some operations to other forces: “A lot of the missions we see, especially if you… look at Afghanistan, where we have the train, advise, and assist missions, if we can move some of those into conventional forces and away from SOF, I think that’s what we need to do.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis has already indicated that such moves are planned. Leigh Claffey, Ernst’s press secretary, told TomDispatch that the senator also favors “turning over operations to capable indigenous forces.”
Ernst’s proxies approach has, in fact, already been applied across the planet, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in Syria in 2017. There, SOCOM’s Thomas noted, U.S. proxies, including both Syrian Arabs and Kurds, “a surrogate force of 50,000 people… are working for us and doing our bidding.” They were indeed the ones who carried out the bulk of the fighting and dying during the campaign against the Islamic State and the capture of its capital, Raqqa.
However, that campaign, which took back almost all the territory ISIS held in Syria, was exceptional. U.S. proxies elsewhere have fared far worse in recent years. That 50,000-strong Syrian surrogate army had to be raised, in fact, after the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, built during the 2003-2011 American occupation of that country, collapsed in the face of relatively small numbers of Islamic State militants in 2014. In Mali, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Honduras, and elsewhere, U.S.-trained officers have carried out coups, overthrowing their respective governments. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where special ops forces have been working with local allies for more than 15 years, even elite security forces are still largely incapable of operating on their own. According to the Pentagon’s 2017 semi-annual report to Congress, Afghan commandos needed U.S. support for an overwhelming number of their missions, independently carrying out only 17% of their 2,628 operations between June 1, 2017, and November 24, 2017.
Indeed, with Special Operations forces acting, in the words of SOCOM’s Thomas, as “the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. [violent extremist organization]-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America,” it’s unlikely that foreign proxies or conventional American forces will shoulder enough of the load to relieve the strain on the commandos.
Bulking up Special Operations Command is not, however, a solution, according to the Center for International Policy’s Hartung. “There is no persuasive security rationale for having U.S. Special Operations forces involved in an astonishing 149 countries, given that the results of these missions are just as likely to provoke greater conflict as they are to reduce it, in large part because a U.S. military presence is too often used as a recruiting tool by local terrorist organizations,” he told TomDispatch. “The solution to the problem of the high operational tempo of U.S. Special Operations forces is not to recruit and train more Special Operations forces. It is to rethink why they are being used so intensively in the first place.”
Special Ops at War
“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in October. That was in the wake of the combat deaths of four members of the Special Operations forces in the West African nation of Niger. Graham and other senators expressed shock about the deployment, but the global sweep of America’s most elite forces is, at best, an open secret.
Earlier this year before that same Senate committee — though Graham was not in attendance — General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), offered some clues about the planetwide reach of America’s most elite troops. “We operate and fight in every corner of the world,” he boasted. “Rather than a mere ‘break-glass-in-case-of-war’ force, we are now proactively engaged across the ‘battle space’ of the Geographic Combatant Commands… providing key integrating and enabling capabilities to support their campaigns and operations.”
In 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, deployed to 149 countries around the world, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. That’s about 75% of the nations on the planet and represents a jump from the 138 countries that saw such deployments in 2016 under the Obama administration. It’s also a jump of nearly 150% from the last days of George W. Bush’s White House. This record-setting number of deployments comes as American commandos are battling a plethora of terror groups in quasi-wars that stretch from Africa and the Middle East to Asia.
“Most Americans would be amazed to learn that U.S. Special Operations Forces have been deployed to three quarters of the nations on the planet,” observes William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “There is little or no transparency as to what they are doing in these countries and whether their efforts are promoting security or provoking further tension and conflict.”
America’s elite troops were deployed to 149 nations in 2017, according to U.S. Special Operations Command. The map above displays the locations of 132 of those countries; 129 locations (in blue) were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command; 3 locations (in red) — Syria, Yemen and Somalia — were derived from open-source information. (Nick Turse)
“Since 9/11, we expanded the size of our force by almost 75% in order to take on mission-sets that are likely to endure,” SOCOM’s Thomas told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May. Since 2001, from the pace of operations to their geographic sweep, the activities of U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) have, in fact, grown in every conceivable way. On any given day, about 8,000 special operators — from a command numbering roughly 70,000 — are deployed in approximately 80 countries.
“The increase in the use of Special Forces since 9/11 was part of what was then referred to as the Global War on Terror as a way to keep the United States active militarily in areas beyond its two main wars, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hartung told TomDispatch. “The even heavier reliance on Special Forces during the Obama years was part of a strategy of what I think of as ‘politically sustainable warfare,’ in which the deployment of tens of thousands of troops to a few key theaters of war was replaced by a ‘lighter footprint’ in more places, using drones, arms sales and training, and Special Forces.”
The Trump White House has attacked Barack Obama’s legacy on nearly all fronts. It has undercut, renounced, or reversed actions of his ranging from trade pacts to financial and environmental regulations to rules that shielded transgender employees from workplace discrimination. When it comes to Special Operations forces, however, the Trump administration has embraced their use in the style of the former president, while upping the ante even further. President Trump has also provided military commanders greater authority to launch attacks in quasi-war zones like Yemen and Somalia. According to Micah Zenko, a national security expert and Whitehead Senior Fellow at the think tank Chatham House, those forces conducted five times as many lethal counterterrorism missions in such non-battlefield countries in the Trump administration’s first six months in office as they did during Obama’s final six months.
A Wide World of War
U.S. commandos specialize in 12 core skills, from “unconventional warfare” (helping to stoke insurgencies and regime change) to “foreign internal defense” (supporting allies’ efforts to guard themselves against terrorism, insurgencies, and coups). Counterterrorism — fighting what SOCOM calls violent extremist organizations or VEOs — is, however, the specialty America’s commandos have become best known for in the post-9/11 era.
In the spring of 2002, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, SOCOM chief General Charles Holland touted efforts to “improve SOF capabilities to prosecute unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense programs to better support friends and allies. The value of these programs, demonstrated in the Afghanistan campaign,” he said, “can be particularly useful in stabilizing countries and regions vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.”
Over the last decade and a half, however, there’s been little evidence America’s commandos have excelled at “stabilizing countries and regions vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.” This was reflected in General Thomas’s May testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The threat posed by VEOs remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort,” he explained.
However, unlike Holland who highlighted only one country — Afghanistan — where special operators were battling militants in 2002, Thomas listed a panoply of terrorist hot spots bedeviling America’s commandos a decade and a half later. “Special Operations Forces,” he said, “are the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America — essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found.”
Officially, there are about 5,300 U.S. troops in Iraq. (The real figure is thought to be higher.) Significant numbers of them are special operators training and advising Iraqi government forces and Kurdish troops. Elite U.S. forces have also played a crucial role in Iraq’s recent offensive against the militants of the Islamic State, providing artillery and airpower, including SOCOM’s AC-130W Stinger II gunships with 105mm cannons that allow them to serve as flying howitzers. In that campaign, Special Operations forces were “thrust into a new role of coordinating fire support,” wrote Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who spent seven weeks in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries earlier this year. “This fire support is even more important to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a far more lightly armed irregular force which constitutes the major ground force fighting ISIS in Syria.”
Special Operations forces have, in fact, played a key role in the war effort in Syria, too. While American commandos have been killed in battle there, Kurdish and Arab proxies — known as the Syrian Democratic Forces — have done the lion’s share of the fighting and dying to take back much of the territory once held by the Islamic State. SOCOM’s Thomas spoke about this in surprisingly frank terms at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, this summer. “We’re right now inside the capital of [ISIS’s] caliphate at Raqqa [Syria]. We’ll have that back soon with our proxies, a surrogate force of 50,000 people that are working for us and doing our bidding,” he said. “So two and a half years of fighting this fight with our surrogates, they’ve lost thousands, we’ve only lost two service members. Two is too many, but it’s, you know, a relief that we haven’t had the kind of losses that we’ve had elsewhere.”
This year, U.S. special operators were killed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahelian nations of Niger and Mali (although reports indicate that a Green Beret who died in that country was likely strangled by U.S. Navy SEALs). In Libya, SEALs recently kidnapped a suspect in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. In the Philippines, U.S. Special Forces joined the months-long battle to recapture Marawi City after it was taken by Islamist militants earlier this year.
And even this growing list of counterterror hotspots is only a fraction of the story. In Africa, the countries singled out by Thomas — Somalia, Libya, and those in the Sahel — are just a handful of the nations to which American commandos were deployed in 2017. As recently reported at Vice News, U.S. Special Operations forces were active in at least 33 nations across the continent, with troops heavily concentrated in and around countries now home to a growing number of what the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies calls “active militant Islamist groups.” While Defense Department spokeswoman Major Audricia Harris would not provide details on the range of operations being carried out by the elite forces, it’s known that they run the gamut from conducting security assessments at U.S. embassies to combat operations.
Data provided by SOCOM also reveals a special ops presence in 33 European countries this year. “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, told TomDispatch.
For the past two years, in fact, the U.S. has maintained a Special Operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border. “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country — every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats,” said SOCOM’s Thomas, mentioning the Baltic states as well as Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia by name. These activities represent, in the words of General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now the senior mentor to the Army War College, “undeclared campaigns” by commandos. Weisman, however, balked at that particular language. “U.S. Special Operations forces have been deployed persistently and at the invitation of our allies in the Baltic States and Poland since 2014 as part of the broader U.S. European Command and Department of Defense European Deterrence Initiative,” he told TomDispatch. “The persistent presence of U.S. SOF alongside our Allies sends a clear message of U.S. commitment to our allies and the defense of our NATO Alliance.”
Asia is also a crucial region for America’s elite forces. In addition to Iran and Russia, SOCOM’s Thomas singled out China and North Korea as nations that are “becoming more aggressive in challenging U.S. interests and partners through the use of asymmetric means that often fall below the threshold of conventional conflict.” He went on to say that the “ability of our special operators to conduct low-visibility special warfare operations in politically sensitive environments make them uniquely suited to counter the malign activities of our adversaries in this domain.”
U.S.-North Korean saber rattling has brought increased attention to Special Forces Detachment Korea (SFDK), the longest serving U.S. Special Forces unit in the world. It would, of course, be called into action should a war ever break out on the peninsula. In such a conflict, U.S. and South Korean elite forces would unite under the umbrella of the Combined Unconventional Warfare Task Force. In March, commandos — including, according to some reports, members of the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 — took part in Foal Eagle, a training exercise, alongside conventional U.S. forces and their South Korean counterparts.
U.S. special operators also were involved in training exercises and operations elsewhere across Asia and the Pacific. In June, in Okinawa, Japan, for example, airmen from the 17th Special Operations Squadron (17th SOS) carried out their annual (and oddly spelled) “Day of the Jakal,” the launch of five Air Force Special Operations MC-130J Commando II aircraft to practice, according to a military news release, “airdrops, aircraft landings, and rapid infiltration and exfiltration of equipment.” According to Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Dube of the 17th SOS, “It shows how we can meet the emerging mission sets for both SOCKOR [Special Operations Command Korea] and SOCPAC [Special Operations Command Pacific] out here in the Pacific theater.”
At about the same time, members of the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group carried out Teak Jet, a joint combined exchange training, or JCET, mission meant to improve military coordination between U.S. and Japanese forces. In June and July, intelligence analysts from the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group took part in Talisman Saber, a biennial military training exercise conducted in various locations across Australia.
More for War
The steady rise in the number of elite operators, missions, and foreign deployments since 9/11 appears in no danger of ending, despite years of worries by think-tank experts and special ops supporters about the effects of such a high operations tempo on these troops. “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” General Thomas said earlier this year. “Despite growing demand for SOF, we must prioritize the sourcing of these demands as we face a rapidly changing security environment.” Yet the number of deployments still grew to a record 149 nations in 2017. (During the Obama years, deployments reached 147 in 2015.)
At a recent conference on special operations held in Washington, D.C., influential members of the Senate and House armed services committees acknowledged that there were growing strains on the force. “I do worry about overuse of SOF,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Republican. One solution offered by both Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a combat veteran who served in Iraq, was to bulk up Special Operations Command yet more. “We have to increase numbers and resources,” Reed insisted.
This desire to expand Special Operations further comes at a moment when senators like Lindsey Graham continue to acknowledge how remarkably clueless they are about where those elite forces are deployed and what exactly they are doing in far-flung corners of the globe. Experts point out just how dangerous further expansion could be, given the proliferation of terror groups and battle zones since 9/11 and the dangers of unforeseen blowback as a result of low-profile special ops missions.
“Almost by definition, the dizzying number of deployments undertaken by U.S. Special Operations forces in recent years would be hard to track. But few in Congress seem to be even making the effort,” said William Hartung. “This is a colossal mistake if one is concerned about reining in the globe-spanning U.S. military strategy of the post-9/11 era, which has caused more harm than good and done little to curb terrorism.”
However, with special ops deployments rising above Bush and Obama administration levels to record-setting heights and the Trump administration embracing the use of commandos in quasi-wars in places like Somalia and Yemen, there appears to be little interest in the White House or on Capitol Hill in reining in the geographic scope and sweep of America’s most secretive troops. And the results, say experts, may be dire. “While the retreat from large ‘boots on the ground’ wars like the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq is welcome,” said Hartung, “the proliferation of Special Operations forces is a dangerous alternative, given the prospects of getting the United States further embroiled in complex overseas conflicts.”
Donald Trump’s First Year Sets Record for U.S. Special Ops
“They are very concerned about their adversary next door,” said General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, in July. “They make no bones about it.”
The “they” in question were various Eastern European and Baltic nations. “Their adversary”? Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Thomas, the commander of America’s most elite troops — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — went on to raise fears about an upcoming Russian military training event, a wargame, known as “Zapad” or “West,” involving 10 Russian Navy ships, 70 jets and helicopters, and 250 tanks. “The point of concern for most of these eastern Europeans right now is they’re about to do an exercise in Belarus… that’s going to entail up to 100,000 Russian troops moving into that country.” And he added, “The great concern is they’re not going to leave, and… that’s not paranoia…”
Over the last two decades, relations between the United States and Russia have increasingly soured, with Moscow casting blame on the United States for encouraging the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine a year later. Washington has, in turn, expressed its anger over the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Russo-Georgian War of 2008; the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine after pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was chased from power; and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There have been recriminations on both sides over the other nation’s military adventurism in Syria, the sanctions Washington imposed on Moscow in reaction to Crimea, Ukraine, and human rights issues, and tit-for-tat diplomatic penalties that have repeatedly ramped up tensions.
While Zapad, which took place last month, is an annual strategic exercise that rotates among four regions, American officials nonetheless viewed this year’s event as provocative. “People are worried this is a Trojan horse,” Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who commands U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Reuters. “[The Russians] say, ‘We’re just doing an exercise,’ and then all of a sudden they’ve moved all these people and capabilities somewhere.”
Russia is not, however, the only military power with “people and capabilities” in the region. In passing, SOCOM’s Thomas also mentioned the presence of other forces; troops that he readily admitted the public might not be aware of. Those soldiers were — just as he feared of the Russian troops involved in Zapad — not going anywhere. And it wasn’t just a matter of speculation. After all, they wear the same uniform he does.
For the past two years, the U.S. has maintained a special operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border. “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country — every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats,” said Thomas, mentioning the Baltics as well as Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia by name.
Commandos and Their Comrades
Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) have grown in every conceivable way from funding to manpower, the pace of operations to geographic sweep. On any given day, about 8,000 special operators — from a command numbering roughly 70,000 in total — are deployed in around 80 countries. Over the course of a year, they operate in about 70% of the world’s nations.
According to Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, elite U.S. forces have deployed to 21 European countries in 2017 and conducted exercises with an even larger number of nations. “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” he told TomDispatch.
The number of commandos in Europe has also expanded exponentially in recent years. In 2006, 3% of special operators deployed overseas were sent to the continent. Last year, the number topped 12% — a jump of more than 300%. Only Africa has seen a larger increase in deployments over the same time span.
This special-ops surge is also reflected in the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, overseas missions designed to prepare American commandos in a variety of warfighting skills while also strengthening relations with foreign forces. In 2012, special operators conducted 29 JCETs on that continent. Last year, the number reached 37, including six in Bulgaria, three in Estonia, three in Latvia, three in Poland, and three in Moldova.
The United States has devoted significant resources to building and bolstering allied special ops forces across the region. “Our current focus consists of assuring our allies through building partner capacity efforts to counter and resist various types of Russian aggression, as well as enhance their resilience,” SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year. “We are working relentlessly with our partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”
This year, U.S. commandos could be found in nations all along Russia’s borders. In March, for example, Green Berets took to snowmobiles for a cold-weather JCET alongside local troops in Lapland, Finland. In May, Navy SEALs teamed up with Lithuanian forces as part of Flaming Sword 17, a training exercise in that country. In June, members of the U.S. 10th Special Forces Group and Polish commandos carried out air assault and casualty evacuation training near Lubliniec, Poland. In July, Naval Special Warfare operators took part in Sea Breeze, a two decade-old annual military exercise in Ukraine. In August, airmen from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron transformed a rural highway in Jägala, Estonia, into an airstrip for tank-killing A-10 Thunderbolts as part of a military drill. That same month, U.S. special operators advised host-nation commandos taking part in Exercise Noble Partner in the Republic of Georgia.
“Working with the GSOF [Republic of Georgia’s Special Operations forces] was awesome,” said Captain Christopher Pulliam, the commander of the Georgia Army National Guard’s Company H (Long-Range Surveillance), 121st Infantry Regiment. (That, of course, is a unit from the American state of Georgia.) “Our mission set requires that we work in small teams that gather specific intel in the area of operations. The GSOF understand this and can use our intel to create a better understanding of the situation on the ground and react accordingly.”
Special Warriors and Special Warfare
The United States isn’t alone in fielding a large contingent of special operations forces. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that Russia’s Spetsnaz (“special purpose”) troops number around 30,000, a sizeable force, although less than half the size of America’s contingent of commandos. Russia, SOCOM’s Thomas told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, is “particularly adept at leveraging unconventional approaches to advancing their interests and it is clear they are pursuing a wide range of audacious approaches to competition — SOF [special operations forces] often present a very natural unconventional response.”
Indeed, just like the United States and myriad militaries around the world, Russia has devoted significant resources to developing its doctrine and capabilities in covert, clandestine, and unconventional forms of warfare. In a seminal 2013 article in the Russian Academy of Military Science’s journal Military-Industrial Courier, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov explained the nature of modern hybrid warfare, including the use of elite troops, this way:
“In the twenty-first century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template… The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness… [t]he broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures… is supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces.”
Spetsnaz troops have indeed played a role in all of Russia’s armed interventions since 2001, including in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. During that same span, U.S. Special Operations forces have been employed in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Niger, and the Central African Republic. They have also had a presence in Jordan, Kenya, Djibouti, and Cameroon, among other countries to which, according to President Trump, U.S. combat-equipped forces are currently deployed.
In an interview late last year, retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now the Senior Mentor to the Army War College, discussed the shortcomings of the senior military leadership in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “bad national policy decisions… that shaped U.S. campaigns in those theaters,” and a reliance on a brand of conventional war-fighting with limited effectiveness in achieving political goals. “[I]t is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort,” he added, “because its use also highlights why the U.S. continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns — Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ [al-Qaeda] and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine — none of which fits the U.S. model for traditional war.”
U.S. Special Operations Command Europe failed to answer TomDispatch’s questions about those “undeclared campaigns” on Russia’s doorstep, but more public and conventional efforts have been in wide evidence. In January, for example, tanks, trucks, and other equipment began arriving in Germany, before being sent on to Poland, to support Operation Atlantic Resolve. That effort, “designed to reassure NATO allies and partners… in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine,” according to the Congressional Research Service, began with a nine-month rotation of about 3,500 soldiers from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, who were replaced in September by 3,300 personnel and 1,500 vehicles from the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which would be deployed to five countries. Earlier this month, Russia’s Defense Ministry complained that the size of the U.S. contingent in the Baltics violates a Russian-NATO agreement.
Red Dawn in the Gray Zone
Late last year, a group of active-duty and retired senior military officers, former ambassadors, academics, and researchers gathered for a symposium at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C., titled “Russian Engagement in the Gray Zone.” Conducted via Chatham House rules — that is, in accounts of the meeting, statements could not be attributed to any specific speaker — the Americans proceeded to vilify Russia both for its bellicosity and its underhanded methods. Among the assessments: “Russia is always at a natural state of war and it prioritizes contactless war”; “Russia de-emphasizes kinetic activities and emphasizes the indirect/non-lethal approach”; and “Russia places a priority on subversion.”
The experts at NDU called for a comprehensive campaign to undermine Russia through sanctions, by courting “disenfranchised personnel” and “alienated persons” within that country, by developing enhanced cyber-capabilities, by utilizing psychological operations and “strategic messaging” to enhance “tactical actions,” and by conducting a special ops shadow war — which General Charles Cleveland seems to suggest might be already underway. “[T]he United States should learn from the Chechnya rebels’ reaction. The rebels used decentralized operations and started building pockets of resistance (to include solo jihadists),” reads a synopsis of the symposium.
“SOCOM actions will need,” the NDU experts asserted, “to be unconventional and irregular in order to compete with Russian modern warfare tactics.” In other words, they were advocating an anti-Russian campaign that seemed to emphasize the very approach they were excoriating Russia for — the “indirect/non-lethal approach” with a “priority on subversion.”
In the end, Russia’s much-feared “West” war game, in which Spetsnaz troops did participate, concluded with a whimper, not a bang. “After all the anxiety, Russia’s Zapad exercise ends without provocation,” read the headline in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes on September 20th.
For months, while Russia insisted its war game would involve fewer than 13,000 soldiers, the U.S. and its allies had warned that, in reality, up to 100,000 troops would flood into Belarus. Of those Russian troop levels, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Möller, a Swedish military observer who attended Zapad, said, “We reported about 12,400.” Of such exercises, he added, “This is normal military business as we do in all countries with armed forces. This is not training for attacking anyone. You meet the enemy, you stop the enemy, you defeat the enemy with a counterattack. We are doing the same thing in Sweden.”
Indeed, just as Möller suggested, more than 20,000 troops — including U.S. Special Operations forces and soldiers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden — had gathered in his country during the Zapad exercise for Aurora 2017. And Sweden was hardly unique. At the same time, troops from the U.S., Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom were carrying out Rapid Trident, an annual military exercise, in neighboring Ukraine.
What message was the U.S. sending to Russia by conducting training exercises on its borders, Catherine Herridge of Fox News asked General Raymond Thomas in Aspen? “That’s a fascinating question because I am — I try to appreciate the adversary’s optic to — I realize that a way to gauge a metric if you will for how well we’re doing,” the SOCOM chief replied somewhat incoherently.
Herridge was, of course, asking Thomas to view the world through the eyes of his adversary, to imagine something akin to Russia and its ally Syria conducting war games in Mexico or Canada or in both countries; to contemplate Spetsnaz troops spread throughout the Western hemisphere on an enduring basis just as America’s elite troops are now a fixture in the Baltics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
In the end, Thomas’s take was understated in a way that undoubtedly wouldn’t have been the case had the roles been reversed. “I am curious what Putin and his leadership are thinking,” the special ops chief mused. “I think it was a little unnerving.”
From America With Love
We were already roaring down the road when the young man called to me over his shoulder. There was a woman seated between us on the motorbike and with the distance, his accent, the rushing air, and the engine noise, it took a moment for me to decipher what he had just said: We might have enough gas to get to Bamurye and back.
I had spent the previous hour attempting to convince someone to take me on this ride while simultaneously weighing the ethics of the expedition, putting together a makeshift security plan, and negotiating a price. Other motorbike drivers warned that it would be a one-way trip. “If you go, you don’t come back,” more than one of them told me. I insisted we turn around immediately.
Once, I believed journalists roamed the world reporting stories on their own. Presumably, somebody edited the articles, but a lone byline meant that the foreign correspondent was the sole author of the reporting. Then I became a journalist and quickly learned the truth. Foreign correspondents are almost never alone in our work. We’re almost always dependent on locals, often many of them, if we want to have any hope of getting the story. It was never truer for me than on that day when I was attempting to cover an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign in South Sudan.
As the motorbike driver was topping off the tank with gasoline from a plastic water bottle, I had a final chance to think things over. We were going to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan so I could gather evidence of a murder by government troops in a village garrisoned by those same soldiers. The driver hailed from one of the ethnic groups being targeted by South Sudan’s army. If we were found by soldiers, he would likely be the first of us killed. The woman, Salina Sunday, was my guide. She was confident that she would be safe and didn’t show an ounce of fear, even though women were being raped and killed as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign churning through the southlands of South Sudan, including her home village, Bamurye.
Within minutes we were off again to find, if we were fortunate, the mutilated body of the murder victim; if we were unfortunate, his killers as well. I had met Sunday barely more than an hour earlier. I had laid eyes on the driver for the first time only minutes before we left. They were strangers and I was risking their lives for my work, for “my” story.
The Fix is In
When it comes to overseas newsgathering, it’s the “fixers,” those resourceful, wired-in locals who know all the right people, who often make it possible. Then there are the generous local reporters, translators, guides, drivers, sources, informants of every sort, local friends, friends of friends, and sometimes — as in that trip of mine to Bamurye (recently recounted in full in the Columbia Journalism Review) — courageous strangers, too. Those women and men are the true, if unsung, heroes behind the bylines of so many foreign correspondents. They’re the ones who ensure that, however imperfectly, we at least have a glimpse of what’s happening in far-off, sometimes perilous places about which we would otherwise be clueless.
So when the great Iona Craig dons a black abaya and niqab, inserts her “brown tinted contact lenses to cover [her] green foreigner eyes,” and blows the lid off a botched U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that killed at least six women and 10 children, she does it with the aid of fixer-friends. They are the ones who make the arrangements; who drive and translate; who, in short, risk their lives for her, for the story — and for you. When Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Daniel Berehulak produces an instantly iconic New York Times exposé of the brutal war on drugs launched by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, veteran journalist and uber-fixer Rica Concepcion is also behind it.
If you read the reporting of the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, Leila Fadel (then of the Washington Post), or Nancy Youssef (then of McClatchy) on Libya, you likely benefited from the work of fixer Suliman Ali Zway. Eyder Peralta’s powerful report on a doctor’s strike at Kenya’s Kiambu County Hospital that you heard earlier this year? The late Jacque Ooko, a veteran journalist who worked as National Public Radio’s bureau assistant in Nairobi, got Peralta in the door. And that August 19, 2017, front-page tour de force by Ellen Barry of the New York Times about a murder in a village in India? You can thank her colleague Suhasini for it, too.
Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell is no different. Like so many foreign correspondents, she’s also leaned on fixers. Unlike most of us in the trade, however, she’s written a beautiful book-length love letter to one of them — her vivid, captivating A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War. Campbell’s award-winning memoir-and-more offers a unique window into the life and work of foreign correspondents and the relationships they forge with those they rely on to help them do their jobs.
Unlike the New York Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, whose recent Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival oddly fixates on both his ardor for his girlfriend-turned-wife and his infidelity — “As we tumbled into bed, a firefight erupted… We didn’t stop” — the love in Campbell’s book has nothing to do with eros. Nor is it an obsession with place, though Campbell’s affection for the beauty she finds in Syria is evident. Instead, what drives A Disappearance in Damascus is the story of the deep bonds of friendship that formed between Campbell and her fixer in Syria, a remarkable Iraqi refugee named Ahlam. While Gettleman’s book is sold as “a tale of passion,” the burning desire in Campbell’s pages is most felt when, in the second half of the book, she launches a relentless search for her fixer and friend after Ahlam disappears without a trace.
Campbell, a self-described “immersive journalist,” traveled to Damascus in 2007 to cover the deluge of Iraqis flooding into Syria as a result of the American invasion of their country and the carnage that followed. There, she found the resilient Ahlam, elevated to a position of leadership in the Iraqi refugee community by popular acclaim. She was a charismatic figure who exuded confidence, knew all the right people, and got the job done — the very qualities that make for a top-flight fixer. While supporting her husband and two children, fixing for Campbell and other journalists, and solving the problems of beleaguered refugees, Ahlam even managed to set up a school for displaced girls. It’s little wonder that Campbell took to her and that those two strong, driven women became close friends.
The power of their personal bond, the blessing of their friendship, however, turned out to be a curse as well. When Ahlam was suddenly disappeared by the Syrian regime, Campbell became convinced that she had been targeted because of their work together. Ahlam had, in fact, aided journalists from al Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and other media outlets, worked for multiple foreign aid groups, and even the U.S. military (in Iraq), which meant that there were myriad reasons why the Syrian government might have arrested her. Still, Campbell couldn’t shake a deep-seated feeling that she was at fault.
In a profession typified by countless anxieties, fear for your fixer (or driver or source) is a special one that may manifest itself in an acidic churn deep in your gut or racing thoughts that you can’t slow down as you stare up through your mosquito net at a wobbling ceiling fan. Have you endangered the people who devoted themselves to helping you do your job? Have you potentially sacrificed their welfare, perhaps their lives, for a story? As Campbell puts it:
“I could accept the knowledge that nothing I wrote or would ever write would change a thing and that the world would continue to create and destroy and create and destroy as it always did. I could accept living without a relationship. I would still be okay. What I could not accept was Ahlam being gone. It was unthinkable that she had been missing for almost seven weeks. Unthinkable that she could be lost and never heard from again. Unthinkable that I could do nothing.
It called to my mind a time when a driver-turned-friend of mine was smacked around and taken away by angry government officials. I’ve never forgotten my fear for him and the abject sense of powerlessness that went with it. It’s a special type of anxiety that, I suspect, many foreign correspondents have experienced. (My driver was luckily released a short time later, a far different outcome than Ahlam’s arrest.)
Campbell responds to her friend’s disappearance by utilizing the very skills that make her a great journalist and begins to investigate just what happened. At times, it turns her book into a first-class detective story and, for that very reason, provides a useful primer on how reporters practice their craft.
For those who know anything about the sparse literature on the subject, A Disappearance in Damascus calls to mind perhaps the most iconic tale of this type — another story rooted in platonic love, deep affection, and the sense of responsibility that grows between a journalist and a fixer (even if that fixer was officially a “stringer”).
“I began the search for my friend Dith Pran in April of 1975. Unable to protect him when the Khmer Rouge troops ordered Cambodians to evacuate their cities, I had watched him disappear into the interior of Cambodia, which would become a death camp for millions,” wrote New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg. “Pran had saved my life the day of the occupation, and the shadow of my failure to keep him safe — to do what he had done for me — was to follow me for four and a half years.”
That magazine-article-turned-book — both titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” — and the movie adaptation, The Killing Fields, chronicled Pran’s long journey as he navigated and survived the unthinkable horror of the Cambodian autogenocide and also stands as a testament to his enduring friendship with Schanberg. A Disappearance in Damascus brings to mind some of the same themes of friendship and responsibility, raises some of the same questions about duty and loyalty, and evokes some of the same emotions, though I won’t give away whether Ahlam, like Pran, makes it out alive. In war — or even its shadow — nothing is certain. (At least until you read the book.)
Someone Has to Open the Door
When they meet again in 1979, after Pran has survived the unimaginable and trekked through Cambodia’s killing fields to safety beyond the Thai border, Schanberg asks his friend if he can ever forgive him. “Nothing to forgive,” Pran replies, offering him something like complete absolution.
Not all relationships with fixers, of course, blossom into Schanberg-Pran, Campbell-Ahlam love stories. And not all fixers are fantastic and fearless. There are the incompetent ones and the lazy ones and those allergic to schedules. Others come to see you as a bottomless wallet — and who can blame them, given our privilege and relative riches? But this can lead to unrealistic expectations, as it once did for me, when I received an email from a fixer I’d worked with many times asking for a stipend of $500 per month in (more or less) perpetuity. And that, in turn, can result in hurt feelings when you explain that you simply can’t do it. These are, thankfully, the exceptions.
While largely unknown to the public, fixers might finally be getting some much-deserved recognition — albeit in small ways. A Disappearance in Damascus is a shining example. These days, foreign correspondents seem to be acknowledging those who helped them more openly, offering warm tributes to and remembrances of their fixers. Perhaps this is evidence, as reporter Aaron Schachter put it, of a greater willingness to admit the “dirty little secret of foreign correspondents: We don’t do our own stunts.” Late last year, Roads & Kingdoms, a digital magazine “publishing longform dispatches, interviews, and global ephemera,” began a series called “Unbylined” in which fixers from Mexico to Haiti, Afghanistan to Libya, get their say through thoughtful interviews focused on their craft.
Still, even fixers are just part of the story. Where would foreign correspondents be without great drivers? Probably stranded on some wretched stretch of road. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stayed too long doing interviews, leaving my driver to try to make up the time to the river before the last ferry departs for the day or get off a dangerous road before dark. These are the guys who know all the shortcuts, the complex language of car horns, and how to make good time on bad roads. Along with them, depending on where you travel, there are the motorbike drivers and the men and women who pilot boats, as well as those who fly the puddle jumpers and helicopters that get you where you’re going. And that’s just to begin a list.
There are precious few Africans (or Afghans or Iraqis, for that matter) of much depth in Jeffrey Gettleman’s Love, Africa — another in a list of reasons the book has been panned by many and excoriated in his own newspaper’s book review. But in his discussion of “Commander Peacock” (the man’s own nom de guerre), an Ethiopian who is treated as a person and not simply a prop, Gettleman offers up important insights into what he calls “the transitive property of trust.” He observes:
“Reporters deposit their lives in it all the time. People I’d trusted had hooked me up with people they’d trusted who hooked me up with people they’d trusted. Peacock and I were simply two terminal points on a long line drawn by trust.”
This form of faith — based on a sequence of relationships — is often key to overseas reporting, but it isn’t the only type of journalistic trust to be found out there. There’s trust of another sort, trust that’s earned, like that between Schanberg and Pran or Campbell and Ahlam. And then there’s the trust that’s freely given, a faith that you can only hope someday to be worthy of.
That’s the trust of the Salina Sundays of this world, of those ordinary people who exhibit extraordinary courage, place their confidence in you, and even risk their lives because they believe in what you’re doing, in the stories you hope to tell.
When I met Sunday — a gimlet-eyed, middle-aged woman with a strong bearing — on what she reckoned was a somewhat safer road, she was setting off into South Sudan on a difficult journey to try to salvage a few of her belongings for what she expected would be a long exile in Uganda. She was in desperate circumstances, homeless, a woman without a country. Still, she took the time to stop and speak with a stranger. And she told me about a friend who had been murdered by rampaging South Sudanese troops, a man whose corpse she had only recently seen by the side of the road.
I asked if she would guide me to him and she readily agreed. In the midst of an unfolding tragedy, that is, she upended her plans and decided without hesitation to lead a foreigner she had just met down a more dangerous path, literally and figuratively. She didn’t know a thing about me — not whether I could get a story published or had any hope of doing justice to this particular horror or would even bother to write about it. But she made a leap of faith and put her life on the line for the sake of my story — and so for me as well.
I tried to live up to her confidence, to make the risk she took worthwhile. I think this is a common experience for many journalists. You feel a deep responsibility to the people you interview and to your fixers, drivers, and translators — to everyone, that is, who sacrifices and takes chances to make your work possible.
I don’t know what Salina Sunday would think about the stories I’ve written, but I hope she would approve. She wanted the world to know just what had happened in Bamurye, what South Sudan’s soldiers had done to her friend. She wanted people overseas to grasp the grim nature of the war in her homeland. It’s exactly what drove Ahlam in her work for Deborah Campbell, the reason she took risks to tell stories that could turn her into a target. “Someone,” the Iraqi-refugee-turned-fixer said, “has to open the door and show the world what is happening.”