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Tomgram: Nick Turse, Success, Failure, and the "Finest Warriors Who Ever Went Into Combat"

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From flickr.com/photos/35703177@N00/5519277223/: They're highly skilled, smart, and well equipped. They also consider themselves quite successful.
They're highly skilled, smart, and well equipped. They also consider themselves quite successful.
(Image by The U.S. Army)
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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

If journalism was once considered the first rough draft of history, now, when it comes to American military policy at least, it's often the first rough pass at writing a script for " The Daily Show." Take, for example, a little inside-the-paper piece that Eric Schmitt of the New York Times penned recently with this headline: "New Role for General After Failure of Syria Rebel Plan." And here's the first paragraph:

"The Army general in charge of the Pentagon's failed $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels is leaving his job in the next few weeks, but is likely to be promoted and assigned a senior counterterrorism position here, American officials said on Monday."

Yes, you read that right. Major General Michael Nagata is indeed "likely to be promoted." He remains, according to Schmitt, one of "the Army's rising stars" and is "in line to be awarded a third star, to lieutenant general, and take a senior position at the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington." Oh, and one of the reasons for his possible upcoming promotion, other than having overseen a program to produce 15,000 American-backed "moderate" Syrian rebels ready to fight the Islamic State that actually only produced a handful of them who fought no one, is according to "colleagues" his "bureaucratic acumen in counterterrorism jobs at the C.I.A. and the Pentagon."

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Bureaucratic acumen! What better skill could you ask for in the new American national security state built since 9/11 on failure? No kidding, wouldn't you give your right arm to be in an organization that essentially called whatever you did success and promoted you accordingly? As TomDispatch's Nick Turse notes in his latest stunning report on America's Special Operations forces, the secret military within our military that has in recent years grown to monstrous proportions has also gone from "success" to "success"; that is, as an organization, its expansion has been dependent upon Washington's military failures and disasters, especially in the Greater Middle East. One of Bob Dylan's famed cryptic lyrics seems to cover the situation with a certain precision: "She knows there's no success like failure. And that failure's no success at all." Tom

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Special Ops "Successes"
America's Elite Forces Deploy to a Record-Shattering 147 Countries in 2015
By Nick Turse

They're some of the best soldiers in the world: highly trained, well equipped, and experts in weapons, intelligence gathering, and battlefield medicine. They study foreign cultures and learn local languages. They're smart, skillful, wear some very iconic headgear, and their 12-member teams are "capable of conducting the full spectrum of special operations, from building indigenous security forces to identifying and targeting threats to U.S. national interests."

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They're also quite successful. At least they think so.

"In the last decade, Green Berets have deployed into 135 of the 195 recognized countries in the world. Successes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Trans-Sahel Africa, the Philippines, the Andean Ridge, the Caribbean, and Central America have resulted in an increasing demand for [Special Forces] around the globe," reads a statement on the website of U.S. Army Special Forces Command.

The Army's Green Berets are among the best known of America's elite forces, but they're hardly alone. Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, Army Rangers, Marine Corps Raiders, as well as civil affairs personnel, logisticians, administrators, analysts, and planners, among others, make up U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF). They are the men and women who carry out America's most difficult and secret military missions. Since 9/11, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has grown in every conceivable way from funding and personnel to global reach and deployments. In 2015, according to Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to a record-shattering 147 countries -- 75% of the nations on the planet, which represents a jump of 145% since the waning days of the Bush administration. On any day of the year, in fact, America's most elite troops can be found in 70 to 90 nations.

There is, of course, a certain logic to imagining that the increasing global sweep of these deployments is a sign of success. After all, why would you expand your operations into ever-more nations if they weren't successful? So I decided to pursue that record of "success" with a few experts on the subject.

I started by asking Sean Naylor, a man who knows America's most elite troops as few do and the author of Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, about the claims made by Army Special Forces Command. He responded with a hearty laugh. "I'm going to give whoever wrote that the benefit of the doubt that they were referring to successes that Army Special Forces were at least perceived to have achieved in those countries rather than the overall U.S. military effort," he says. As he points out, the first post-9/11 months may represent the zenith of success for those troops. The initial operations in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 -- carried out largely by U.S. Special Forces, the CIA, and the Afghan Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. airpower -- were "probably the high point" in the history of unconventional warfare by Green Berets, according to Naylor. As for the years that followed? "There were all sorts of mistakes, one could argue, that were made after that." He is, however, quick to point out that "the vast majority of the decisions [about operations and the war, in general] were not being made by Army Special Forces soldiers."

For Linda Robinson, author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, the high number of deployments is likely a mistake in itself. "Being in 70 countries... may not be the best use of SOF," she told me. Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, advocates for a "more thoughtful and focused approach to the employment of SOF," citing enduring missions in Colombia and the Philippines as the most successful special ops training efforts in recent years. "It might be better to say 'Let's not sprinkle around the SOF guys like fairy dust.' Let's instead focus on where we think we can have a success... If you want more successes, maybe you need to start reining in how many places you're trying to cover."

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Most of the special ops deployments in those 147 countries are the type Robinson expresses skepticism about -- short-term training missions by "white" operators like Green Berets (as opposed to the "black ops" man-hunting missions by the elite of the elite that captivate Hollywood and video gamers). Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Special Operations forces carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as 67 countries, practicing everything from combat casualty care and marksmanship to small unit tactics and desert warfare alongside local forces. And JCETs only scratch the surface when it comes to special ops missions to train proxies and allies. Special Operations forces, in fact, conduct a variety of training efforts globally.

A recent $500 million program, run by Green Berets, to train a Syrian force of more than 15,000 over several years, for instance, crashed and burned in a very public way, yielding just four or five fighters in the field before being abandoned. This particular failure followed much larger, far more expensive attempts to train the Afghan and Iraqi security forces in which Special Operations troops played a smaller yet still critical role. The results of these efforts recently prompted TomDispatch regular and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich to write that Washington should now assume "when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless."

The Elite Warriors of the Warrior Elite

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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 (more...)
 

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