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Tomgram: Nick Turse, The Coming Year in Special Ops

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

If you want to know something about life in America these days, consider how New York Time s columnist David Leonhardt began his first piece of the year, "7 Wishes for 2018": "Well, at least it's not 2017 anymore. I expect that future historians will look back on it as one of the darker non-war years in the country's history..."

Think about that for a moment: 2017, a "non-war year"? Tell that to the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Yemenis, the Somalis, or for that matter the parents of the four American Green Berets who died in Niger last October. Still, let's admit it, Leonhardt caught a deeper American reality of 2017, not to speak of the years before that, and undoubtedly this one, too.

Launched in October 2001, what was once called the Global War on Terror -- it even gained the grotesque acronym, GWOT -- has never ended. Instead, it's morphed and spread over large parts of the planet. In all the intervening years, the United States has been in a state of permanent war that shows no sign of concluding in 2018. Its planes continue to drop a staggering tonnage of munitions; its drones continue to Hellfire-missile country after country; and, in recent years, its elite Special Operations forces, now a military-within-the-U.S.-military of about 70,000 personnel, have been deployed, as Nick Turse has long reported at this website, to almost every imaginable country on the planet. They train allied militaries and proxy forces, advise and sometimes fight with those forces in the field, conduct raids, and engage in what certainly looks like war.

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The only catch in all this (and it's surely what led Leonhardt to write those lines of his) is the American people. Long divorced from their all-volunteer military in a draft-less country, we have largely ignored the war on terror and gone about our business just as President George W. Bush urged us to do two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. ("Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.") As those distant conflicts expanded and terror groups spread and multiplied, Washington helped the "non-war" atmosphere along by perfecting a new kind of warfare in which ever fewer Americans would die. Half a century later, its quagmire qualities aside, the war on terror is largely the anti-Vietnam War: no body counts, few body bags, lots of proxy forces, armed robotic vehicles in the skies, and at the tip of the "spear" a vast, ever-more secretive military, those special ops guys. As a result, if you weren't in that all-volunteer military or a family member of someone who was, it wasn't too hard to live as if the country's "forever wars" had nothing to do with us. It's possible that never in our history, one filled with wars, have Americans been more deeply demobilized than in this era. When it comes to the war on terror, there's neither been a wave of support nor, since 2003, a wave of protest.

In a sense, then, David Leonhardt was right on the mark. In so much of the world, 2017 was a grim year of war, displacement, and disaster. Here, however, it was, in so many ways, just another "non-war year." In that context, let Nick Turse guide you into the next "non-war year" and the "non-war" force, America's special operators, who are likely to be at its heart. Tom

Special Ops at War
From Afghanistan to Somalia, Special Ops Achieves Less with More
By Nick Turse

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At around 11 o'clock that night, four Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talons, turboprop Special Operations aircraft, were flying through a moonless sky from Pakistani into Afghan airspace. On board were 199 Army Rangers with orders to seize an airstrip. One hundred miles to the northeast, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters cruised through the darkness toward Kandahar, carrying Army Delta Force operators and yet more Rangers, heading for a second site. It was October 19, 2001. The war in Afghanistan had just begun and U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were the tip of the American spear.

Those Rangers parachuted into and then swarmed the airfield, engaging the enemy -- a single armed fighter, as it turned out -- and killing him. At that second site, the residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the special operators apparently encountered no resistance at all, even though several Americans were wounded due to friendly fire and a helicopter crash.

In 2001, U.S. special operators were targeting just two enemy forces: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2010, his first full year in office, President Barack Obama informed Congress that U.S. forces were still "actively pursuing and engaging remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan." According to a recent Pentagon report to Congress, American troops are battling more than 10 times that number of militant groups, including the still-undefeated Taliban, the Haqqani network, an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, and various "other insurgent networks."

After more than 16 years of combat, U.S. Special Operations forces remain the tip of the spear in Afghanistan, where they continue to carry out counterterrorism missions. In fact, from June 1st to November 24th last year, according to that Pentagon report, members of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan conducted 2,175 ground operations "in which they enabled or advised" Afghan commandos.

"During the Obama administration the use of Special Operations forces increased dramatically, as if their use was a sort of magical, all-purpose solution for fighting terrorism," William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, pointed out. "The ensuing years have proven this assumption to be false. There are many impressive, highly skilled personnel involved in special operations on behalf of the United States, but the problems they are being asked to solve often do not have military solutions. Despite this fact, the Trump administration is doubling down on this approach in Afghanistan, even though the strategy has not prevented the spread of terrorist organizations and may in fact be counterproductive."

Global Commandos

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Since U.S. commandos went to war in 2001, the size of Special Operations Command has doubled from about 33,000 personnel to 70,000 today. As their numbers have grown, so has their global reach. As TomDispatch revealed last month, they were deployed to 149 nations in 2017, or about 75% of the countries on the planet, a record-setting year. It topped 2016's 138 nations under the Obama administration and dwarfed the numbers from the final years of the Bush administration. As the scope of deployments has expanded, special operators also came to be spread ever more equally across the planet.

In October 2001, Afghanistan was the sole focus of commando combat missions. On March 19, 2003, special operators fired the first shots in the invasion of Iraq as their helicopter teams attacked Iraqi border posts near Jordan and Saudi Arabia. By 2006, as the war in Afghanistan ground on and the conflict in Iraq continued to morph into a raging set of insurgencies, 85% of U.S. commandos were being deployed to the Greater Middle East.

As this decade dawned in 2010, the numbers hadn't changed appreciably: 81% of all special operators abroad were still in that region.

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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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