Nick Turse began covering what might be thought of as the secret history of American war in this century -- the rise and spread of American Special Operations forces -- for TomDispatch in 2011. That was the year when he first revealed that special-ops deployments had doubled from 60 countries annually (already a striking enough number) at the end of the Bush administration -- the years of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq -- to about 120 countries or 60% of the nations on this globe of ours.
That was stunning enough and, by then, the personnel in those secretive forces embedded inside the U.S. military had already reached 60,000 -- larger, that is, than the entire militaries of so many other nations. And that, mind you, was just the beginning of the process. Ever since, as Turse has shown over the years, those numbers have only risen, as has the special-ops budget, as have the countries in which they are deployed, whether to fight this country's semi-secret wars, train allies, or do who knows what. They hit 149 in 2017, Donald Trump's first year in the White House, by which time the force itself had risen to about 70,000. As he reports today, at 141 countries, the number for 2019 was similarly staggering, representing as it does 72% of the nations on this planet.
And yes, whether it's SEAL Team 6 that killed Osama bin Laden or the Army's Delta Force that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they are celebrated as heroes in this country. In reality, however, the conflicts they are involved in -- ones that have torn up nations across the Greater Middle East and Africa, displaced record numbers of people, and killed stunning numbers of civilians -- are anything but glorious and they themselves, as Turse suggests today, have often acted in ways that, in any other world than the present American one, would be considered grim indeed and anything but praiseworthy. Tom
America's Commandos Deployed to 141 Countries
And "Criminal Misconduct" Followed
By Nick Turse
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.