Don't think the fad for "draining the swamp" began on the campaign trail with Donald Trump. It didn't, although the "swamp" to be drained in the days after the 9/11 attacks wasn't in Washington; it was a global one. Of course, that's ancient history, more than 15 years old. Who even remembers that moment, though we still live with its fallout -- with the hundreds of thousands dead and the millions of refugees, with Islamophobia and ISIS, with President-elect Trump, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, and so much more?
In the never-ending wake of one of the most disastrous wars in American history, the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, it's hard to imagine any world but the one we have, which makes it easy to forget what the top officials of the Bush administration thought they would accomplish with their "Global War on Terror." Who remembers now just how quickly and enthusiastically they leapt into the project of draining that global swamp of terror groups (while taking out the Taliban and then "decapitating" the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein)? Their grandiose goal: an American imperium in the Greater Middle East (and later assumedly a global Pax Americana). They were, in other words, geopolitical dreamers of the first order.
Barely a week after 9/11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already swearing that the global campaign to come would "drain the swamp they live in." Only a week later, at a NATO meeting, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz insisted that, "while we'll try to find every snake in the swamp, the essence of the strategy is draining the swamp [itself]." By the following June, in a commencement address at West Point, President George W. Bush would speak proudly of his administration's desire to drain that swamp of "terror cells" in a staggering "60 or more countries."
Like Washington for Donald Trump, it proved the most convenient of swamps to imagine draining. For the top officials of the Bush administration launching a global war on terror seemed like the perfect way to change the nature of our world -- and, in a sense, they weren't wrong. As it happened, however, instead of draining swamps with their invasions and occupations, they waded into one. Their war on terror would prove an unending disaster, producing failed or failing states galore and helping to create the perfect atmosphere of chaos and resentment in which Islamic extremist groups, including ISIS, could thrive.
It also changed the nature of the U.S. military in a way that most Americans have yet to come to grips with. Thanks to that permanent war across the Greater Middle East and later Africa, a secretive second military of startling proportions would essentially be fostered inside the existing U.S. military, the still-growing elite forces of Special Operations Command. They were the ones who, at least theoretically, would be the swamp drainers. TomDispatch regular Nick Turse has long been following their development and their increasingly frenetic deployment globally -- from, as he reports today, an already impressive 60 countries a year in 2009 to a staggering 138 countries in 2016. Those special operators would train and advise allied armed forces, while launching raids and drone strikes against terrorists across a significant part of the planet (including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011). In the process, they would be institutionalized in ever more ways, even as the terror groups they were fighting continued to spread.
Perhaps you could say that they didn't so much drain the swamp as swamp the drain. Today, as we approach the new era of Donald Trump, Turse offers his latest report on their rise and possible future. Tom
The Year of the Commando
U.S. Special Operations Forces Deploy to 138 Nations, 70% of the World's Countries
By Nick Turse
They could be found on the outskirts of Sirte, Libya, supporting local militia fighters, and in Mukalla, Yemen, backing troops from the United Arab Emirates. At Saakow, a remote outpost in southern Somalia, they assisted local commandos in killing several members of the terror group al-Shabab. Around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai in northern Syria, they partnered with both Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias, while also embedding with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Across the border in Iraq, still others joined the fight to liberate the city of Mosul. And in Afghanistan, they assisted indigenous forces in various missions, just as they have every year since 2001.
For America, 2016 may have been the year of the commando. In one conflict zone after another across the northern tier of Africa and the Greater Middle East, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) waged their particular brand of low-profile warfare. "Winning the current fight, including against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other areas where SOF is engaged in conflict and instability, is an immediate challenge," the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General Raymond Thomas, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
SOCOM's shadow wars against terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) may, ironically, be its most visible operations. Shrouded in even more secrecy are its activities -- from counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts to seemingly endless training and advising missions -- outside acknowledged conflict zones across the globe. These are conducted with little fanfare, press coverage, or oversight in scores of nations every single day. From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America's most elite forces -- Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them -- were deployed to 138 countries in 2016, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. This total, one of the highest of Barack Obama's presidency, typifies what has become the golden age of, in SOF-speak, the "gray zone" -- a phrase used to describe the murky twilight between war and peace. The coming year is likely to signal whether this era ends with Obama or continues under President-elect Donald Trump's administration.
CLICK TO ENLARGE
America's most elite troops deployed to 138 nations in 2016, according to U.S. Special Operations Command. The map above displays the locations of 132 of those countries; 129 locations (blue) were supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command; 3 locations (red) -- Syria, Yemen and Somalia -- were derived from open-source information. (Nick Turse)
"In just the past few years, we have witnessed a varied and evolving threat environment consisting of: the emergence of a militarily expansionist China; an increasingly unpredictable North Korea; a revanchist Russia threatening our interests in both Europe and Asia; and an Iran which continues to expand its influence across the Middle East, fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict," General Thomas wrote last month in PRISM, the official journal of the Pentagon's Center for Complex Operations. "Nonstate actors further confuse this landscape by employing terrorist, criminal, and insurgent networks that erode governance in all but the strongest states... Special operations forces provide asymmetric capability and responses to these challenges."
In 2016, according to data provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, the U.S. deployed special operators to China (specifically Hong Kong), in addition to eleven countries surrounding it -- Taiwan (which China considers a breakaway province), Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Laos, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. Special Operations Command does not acknowledge sending commandos into Iran, North Korea, or Russia, but it does deploy troops to many nations that ring them.
SOCOM is willing to name only 129 of the 138 countries its forces deployed to in 2016. "Almost all Special Operations forces deployments are classified," spokesman Ken McGraw told TomDispatch. "If a deployment to a specific country has not been declassified, we do not release information about the deployment."