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Tomgram: Nick Turse, The Commandos of Everywhere

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If you want a number, try 194. That's how many countries there are on planet Earth (give or take one or two). Today, Nick Turse reports a related number that should boggle your mind: at least 137 of those countries, or 70% of them, already have something in common for 2017 and the year's not even half over. They share the experience of having American Special Operations forces deployed to their territory. Assumedly, those numbers don't include Russia, China, Iran, Andorra, or Monaco (unless guarding global casinos is a new national priority for our casino capitalist president). Still, they're evidence of the great bet American casino militarism has made in these years -- that elite special ops troops could do what the rest of the U.S. military couldn't: actually achieve victory in a conflict or two.

Think of the Special Operations Command (or SOCOM) as having won the lottery in these years. From thousands of elite troops in the 1980s, their numbers have ballooned to about 70,000 at present -- a force larger, that is, than the armies of many nations, with at least 8,000 of them raiding, training, and advising abroad at any given moment. In fact, these days it's a reasonable bet that if American war is intensifying anywhere, they're front and center. A year ago in Syria, for instance, there were perhaps 50 special operators helping anti-ISIS forces of various sorts. Now, as the battle for the Islamic State's "capital," Raqqa, intensifies, that number has soared to 500 and is evidently still rising. (Something similar is true for Iraq and undoubtedly, after the Pentagon dispatches its latest mini-surge of personnel to Afghanistan in the coming months, that country, too.)

As for money, SOCOM has certainly won the Pentagon's version of roulette. (Of course, in that version, everybody wins, even if some are more triumphant than others.) Between 2001 and 2014, the special ops budget increased by a not-so-modest 213%, and its budget has continued to grow since.

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There's only one category in which the special ops bet has turned out to be anything but a winning hand and that's the subject of TomDispatch regular Nick Turse's latest report on the operations of SOCOM globally. I'm talking about actual victories, not exactly a winner of a category for the U.S. military in the twenty-first century. And by the way, given the astronomical growth and uses of America's Special Operations Forces and their centrality to the U.S. military story over the last nearly 16 years, aren't you just a little surprised that the best reportage on the phenomenon can't be found in the mainstream media, but in Turse's reports at TomDispatch? Tom

A Wide World of Winless War
Globe-Trotting U.S. Special Ops Forces Already Deployed to 137 Nations in 2017
By Nick Turse

The tabs on their shoulders read "Special Forces," "Ranger," "Airborne." And soon their guidon -- the "colors" of Company B, 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army's 7th Special Forces Group -- would be adorned with the "Bandera de Guerra," a Colombian combat decoration.

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"Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade's hard work against drug trafficking," said Army Colonel Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military's Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December. America's most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000. Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade. Now, they were being honored for it.

Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special ops efforts in Colombia are a much ballyhooed American success story. A 2015 RAND Corporation study found that the program "represents an enduring SOF partnership effort that managed to help foster a relatively professional and capable special operations force." And for a time, coca production in that country plummeted. Indeed, this was the ultimate promise of America's "Plan Colombia" and efforts that followed from it. "Over the longer haul, we can expect to see more effective drug eradication and increased interdiction of illicit drug shipments," President Bill Clinton predicted in January 2000.

Today, however, more than 460,000 acres of the Colombian countryside are blanketed with coca plants, more than during the 1980s heyday of the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. U.S. cocaine overdose deaths are also at a 10-year high and first-time cocaine use among young adults has spiked 61% since 2013. "Recent findings suggest that cocaine use may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States," wrote researchers from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a study published in December 2016 -- just after the Green Berets attended that ceremony in Colombia. Cocaine, the study's authors write, "may be making a comeback."

Colombia is hardly an anomaly when it comes to U.S. special ops deployments -- or the results that flow from them. For all their abilities, tactical skills, training prowess, and battlefield accomplishments, the capacity of U.S. Special Operations forces to achieve decisive and enduring successes -- strategic victories that serve U.S. national interests -- have proved to be exceptionally limited, a reality laid bare from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to the Philippines.

The fault for this lies not with the troops themselves, but with a political and military establishment that often appears bereft of strategic vision and hasn't won a major war since the 1940s. Into this breach, elite U.S. forces are deployed again and again. While special ops commanders may raise concerns about the tempo of operations and strains on the force, they have failed to grapple with larger questions about the raison d'être of SOF, while Washington's oversight establishment, notably the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, have consistently failed to so much as ask hard questions about the strategic utility of America's Special Operations forces.

Special Ops at War

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"We operate and fight in every corner of the world," boasts General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM). "On a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80-plus countries. They are conducting the entire range of SOF missions in both combat and non-combat situations." Those numbers, however, only hint at the true size and scope of this global special ops effort. Last year, America's most elite forces conducted missions in 138 countries -- roughly 70% of the nations on the planet, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. Halfway through 2017, U.S. commandos have already been deployed to an astonishing 137 countries, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw.

Special Operations Command is tasked with carrying out 12 core missions, ranging from counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare to hostage rescue and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Counterterrorism -- fighting what the command calls violent extremist organizations (VEOs) -- may, however, be what America's elite forces have become best known for in the post-9/11 era. "The threat posed by VEOs remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort," says Thomas.

"Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America -- essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found..."

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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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