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Nick Turse: Did the Pentagon Help Strangle the Arab Spring?

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Of all American military training programs around the world, the most publicized in recent years has been the one building up a local security force to replace U.S. (and NATO) troops as they ever so slowly withdraw from Afghanistan.  By 2014, that country is supposed to possess an army and police force of at least 350,000.  At staggering expense, their recruitment and training has been a Washington priority for years.  But here's the twist: just about every year the training program has been operating, reports have appeared on its striking lack of success.  These almost always mention the same problems: massive desertion rates (with "ghost soldiers" still being paid), heavy drug use, illiteracy, an unwillingness to fight, corruption, an inability of Afghan units to act independently of the U.S. military, and so on.  Year after year, Washington's response to such problems has been no less repetitive.  It has decided to pour yet more money into the program (over $29 billion through 2010).  Again repetitively, with each new infusion of money come claims of "progress" and "improvement" -- until, of course, the next dismal report arrives.

In 2011, the U.S. will spend almost $12 billion on the further training and upgrading of those security forces, with approximately $11 billion more promised for 2012.  So here's a shock: the latest reports on the program are now appearing and the news is not exactly upbeat.  A recent summary of them described the situation this way: "According to U.S. government sources, only one of the Afghan National Army's 161 units is capable of operating independently; this represents a regression from the four units that were rated as independent in June. No units of the police are capable of functioning without direct coalition assistance, and no sections of the ministries of Interior and Defense (which will soon be charged with managing the security situation) are capable of autonomous action... One in seven soldiers and police desert each month, and for every 10 soldiers trained another 13 trainees drop out."  

According to Steve Coll of the New Yorker magazine, the U.S. intelligence community is just completing a new national intelligence estimate on Afghanistan which reaches gloomy conclusions about the post-2014 fate of a force that impoverished country couldn't possibly afford and that will cost the U.S. $10 billion or more a year to maintain into the distant future.  It is, by the way, nothing short of remarkable that the U.S. military trainers have proven quite so unsuccessful in a country famed for its martial tradition where, over more than three decades, war has become a way of life and the Taliban seems to have little trouble motivating its fighters to operate independently, despite lacking billions of dollars and foreign trainers.

Of course, Afghanistan is just a single pitstop (quagmire?) for globe-spanning, if little noted, Pentagon programs in which the U.S. military performs training missions with scads of other militaries.  As he has recently with U.S. special operations forces deployments and the locations of drone bases worldwide, TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse turns his attention to an aspect of the U.S. military's global operations that Americans know next to nothing about, this time highlighting previously shadowy Pentagon training exercises in the Greater Middle East.  These pieces are part of a new "Changing Face of Empire" series he's writing, which will be an ongoing focus for this website in 2012. Tom

Making Repression Our Business
The Pentagon's Secret Training Missions in the Middle East

By Nick Turse

As the Arab Spring blossomed and President Obama hesitated about whether to speak out in favor of protesters seeking democratic change in the Greater Middle East, the Pentagon acted decisively.  It forged ever deeper ties with some of the most repressive regimes in the region, building up military bases and brokering weapons sales and transfers to despots from Bahrain to Yemen

As state security forces across the region cracked down on democratic dissent, the Pentagon also repeatedly dispatched American troops on training missions to allied militaries there.  During more than 40 such operations with names like Eager Lion and Friendship Two that sometimes lasted for weeks or months at a time, they taught Middle Eastern security forces the finer points of counterinsurgency, small unit tactics, intelligence gathering, and information operations -- skills crucial to defeating popular uprisings.

These recurrent joint-training exercises, seldom reported in the media and rarely mentioned outside the military, constitute the core of an elaborate, longstanding system that binds the Pentagon to the militaries of repressive regimes across the Middle East.  Although the Pentagon shrouds these exercises in secrecy, refusing to answer basic questions about their scale, scope, or cost, an investigation by TomDispatch reveals the outlines of a region-wide training program whose ambitions are large and wholly at odds with Washington's professed aims of supporting democratic reforms in the Greater Middle East.

Lions, Marines, and Moroccans -- Oh My!

On May 19th, President Obama finally addressed the Arab Spring in earnest.  He was unambiguous about standing with the protesters and against repressive governments, asserting that "America's interests are not hostile to people's hopes; they're essential to them." 

Four days earlier, the very demonstrators the president sided with had marched in Temara, Morocco.  They were heading for a facility suspected of housing a secret government interrogation facility to press for political reforms.  It was then that the kingdom's security forces attacked.

"I was in a group of about 11 protesters, pursued by police in their cars," Oussama el-Khlifi, a 23-year-old protester from the capital, Rabat, told Human Rights Watch (HRW).  "They forced me to say, "Long live the king,' and they hit me on my shoulder. When I didn't fall, they clubbed me on the head and I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I found myself at the hospital, with a broken nose and an injured shoulder."  

About a five-hour drive south, another gathering was taking place under far more hospitable circumstances.  In the seaside city of Agadir, a ceremony marking a transfer of military command was underway.  "We're here to support... bilateral engagement with one of our most important allies in the region," said Colonel John Caldwell of the U.S. Marine Corps at a gathering to mark the beginning of the second phase of African Lion, an annual joint-training exercise with Morocco's armed forces.

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Pentagon's regional military headquarters that oversees operations in Africa, has planned 13 such major joint-training exercises in 2011 alone from Uganda to South Africa, Senegal to Ghana, including African Lion.  Most U.S. training missions in the Greater Middle East are, however, carried out by Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees wars and other military activities in 20 countries in the Greater Middle East. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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