[Note for TomDispatch Readers in or around New York City: On Friday, January 17th at 7 pm, Nick Turse will be discussing his bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback), with TomDispatch regular Chase Madar at a favorite independent bookstore of mine -- Brooklyn's Book Court. For more details, click here. Tom]
These days, when I check out the latest news on Washington's global war-making, I regularly find at least one story that fits a new category in my mind that I call: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Take last Saturday's Post report by Craig Whitlock on the stationing of less than two dozen U.S. "military advisers" in war-torn Somalia. They've been there for months, it turns out, and their job is "to advise and coordinate operations with African troops fighting to wrest control of the country from the al-Shabab militia." If you leave aside the paramilitarized CIA (which has long had a secret base and prison in that country), those advisers represent the first U.S. military boots on the ground there since the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident of 1993. As soon as I read the piece, I automatically thought: Given the history of the U.S. in Somalia, including the encouragement of a disastrous 2006 Ethiopian invasion of that country, what could possibly go wrong?
Some days when I read the news, I can't help but think of the late Chalmers Johnson; on others, the satirical newspaper the Onion comes to mind. If Washington did it -- and by "it," I mean invade and occupy a country, intervene in a rebellion against an autocrat, intervene in a civil war, launch a drone campaign against a terror outfit, or support and train local forces against some group the U.S. doesn't like -- you already know all you need to know. Any version of the above has repeatedly translated into one debacle or disaster after another. In the classic term of CIA tradecraft that Johnson took for the title of a book -- a post-9/11 bestseller -- send a drone over Yemen with the intent to kill, kick down doors in Afghanistan or Iraq, put U.S. boots back on the ground in Somalia and you're going to be guaranteed "unintended consequences" and undoubtedly some form of "blowback" as well. To use a sports analogy, if since 9/11 Washington has been the globe's cleanup hitter, it not only hasn't managed to knock a single ball out of the park, it's struck out enough times to make those watching dizzy, and it's batting .000.
You would think that someone in the nation's capital might have drawn a lesson or two from such a record, something simple like: Don't do it! But -- here's where the Onion should be able to run riot -- there clearly is no learning curve in Washington. Tactics change, but the ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-fated Global War on Terror (GWOT), which long ago outran its own overblown name, continues without end, and without either successes of any lasting sort or serious reconsideration. In this period, al-Qaeda, a small-scale organization capable of immodest terror acts every couple of years and, despite the fantasies of Homeland and Fox News, without a sleeper cell in the United States, managed, with Washington's help, to turn itself into a global franchise. The more the Bush and Obama administrations went after it, the more al-Qaeda wannabe organizations sprang up across the Greater Middle East and north Africa like mushrooms after a soaking rain.
The earliest GWOTsters, all Onion-style satirists, believed that the U.S. was destined to rule the world till Hell froze over. Their idea of a snappy quip was "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran," and they loved to refer to the Greater Middle East as "the arc of instability." That, mind you, was before they sent in the U.S. military. Today, 12 years later, that long-gone world looks like an arc of stability, while the U.S. has left the Greater Middle East, from North Africa to Syria, from Yemen to Afghanistan, a roiling catastrophe zone of conflict, refugees, death, and destruction. As it happened, the Bush administration's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be the only genuine weapons of mass destruction around, loosing, among other things, what could prove to be the great religious war of modern times.
And the lessons drawn? As TomDispatch regular Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback), suggests in today's post, the Obama administration has overseen the reorganization of the Global War on Terror as a vast secret operation of unrivaled proportions. It now oversees a planetary surveillance network of staggering size and reach (itself leading to historic blowback) and the spread of a secret military spawned inside the U.S. military and now undergoing typically mindless expansion on a gargantuan scale. What could possibly go wrong? Tom
The Special Ops Surge
America's Secret War in 134 Countries
By Nick Turse
They operate in the green glow of night vision in Southwest Asia and stalk through the jungles of South America. They snatch men from their homes in the Maghreb and shoot it out with heavily armed militants in the Horn of Africa. They feel the salty spray while skimming over the tops of waves from the turquoise Caribbean to the deep blue Pacific. They conduct missions in the oppressive heat of Middle Eastern deserts and the deep freeze of Scandinavia. All over the planet, the Obama administration is waging a secret war whose full extent has never been fully revealed -- until now.
Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, from their numbers to their budget. Most telling, however, has been the exponential rise in special ops deployments globally. This presence -- now, in nearly 70% of the world's nations -- provides new evidence of the size and scope of a secret war being waged from Latin America to the backlands of Afghanistan, from training missions with African allies to information operations launched in cyberspace.
In the waning days of the Bush presidency, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world. By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post. In 2011, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120. Today, that figure has risen higher still.
In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs. This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection. Conducted largely in the shadows by America's most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
Formally established in 1987, Special Operations Command has grown steadily in the post-9/11 era. SOCOM is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 personnel in 2014, up from 33,000 in 2001. Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as its baseline budget, $2.3 billion in 2001, hit $6.9 billion in 2013 ($10.4 billion, if you add in supplemental funding). Personnel deployments abroad have skyrocketed, too, from 4,900 "man-years" in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013.
A recent investigation by TomDispatch, using open source government documents and news releases as well as press reports, found evidence that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world in 2012-2013. For more than a month during the preparation of that article, however, SOCOM failed to provide accurate statistics on the total number of countries to which special operators -- Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos, specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, and civil affairs personnel -- were deployed. "We don't just keep it on hand," SOCOM's Bockholt explained in a telephone interview once the article had been filed. "We have to go searching through stuff. It takes a long time to do that." Hours later, just prior to publication, he provided an answer to a question I first asked in November of last year. "SOF [Special Operations forces] were deployed to 134 countries" during fiscal year 2013, Bockholt explained in an email.