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Tomgram: Nick Turse, The U.S. Military's Drug of Choice

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

Donald Trump has, it seems, finally offered his plan for dealing with the opioid crisis in America. He did so during his State of the Union address to Congress, filled with Republican applause (none louder than The Donald's), introducing the country to an Albuquerque policeman who had decided to adopt the future baby -- now named "Hope" -- of a homeless, pregnant heroin addict he found preparing to shoot up behind a convenience store. Previously, the president had directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid epidemic to be a "national emergency." He didn't, however, come up with an extra cent of federal money to make it so. As a result, his response to the present national crisis of addiction turns out to be a nod of approval to the possibility of police officers adopting the babies of opioid addicts.

And that's the closest his administration has come to forward thinking on the issue of drug wars in his first year in office. The president has, in fact, been a major enabler of what may be the leading addiction crisis in America. I'm thinking about the Pentagon and its drug of choice: money. At a time when, from infrastructure to health care, money is desperately needed and seldom found, only the Pentagon is still mainlining dollars as if there were no tomorrow. It's shooting up in full view of the world and Donald Trump is aiding and abetting the process, eternally calling for yet more money to pump up that military (as well as the U.S. nuclear arsenal).

Today, TomDispatch regular Nick Turse offers a tale about just where such an addiction can lead -- not just when it comes to those proliferating "drug" wars (the ones the U.S. military is so addicted to from Afghanistan to Somalia and just can't stop fighting) but to the squandering of taxpayer dollars in staggering sums across much of the planet. In the cases of U.S. Africa Command and Central Command, that includes what passes for actual counternarcotics activities in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Let Turse tell you a true-life story of squandered money and drug wars that catches the essence of what may be the true opioid crisis of twenty-first-century America. Tom

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Drug Wars, Missing Money, and a Phantom $500 Million
Pentagon Watchdog Calls Out Two Commands for Financial Malfeasance
By Nick Turse

2017 was a year of investigations for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). There was the investigation of the two-star commander of U.S. Army Africa who allegedly sent racy texts to an enlisted man's wife. There was the investigation into the alleged killing of a Special Forces soldier by Navy SEALs in Mali. There was the inquiry into reports of torture and killings on a remote base in Cameroon that was also used by American forces. There was the investigation of an alleged massacre of civilians by American special operators in Somalia. And don't forget the inquiry into the killing of four Special Forces soldiers by Islamic State militants in Niger.

And then there was the investigation that hardly anyone heard about, that didn't spark a single headline. And still, the question remains: Whatever became of that $500 million?

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To be fair, this particular scandal isn't AFRICOM's alone, nor did that sizeable sum belong only to that one command. And unlike the possibly tens of thousands of dollars in cash that reportedly went missing in connection with the strangulation of the Green Beret in Mali, that $500 million didn't simply vanish. Still, a report by the Defense Department's Inspector General (IG), released into the news wasteland of the day after Christmas 2017, does raise questions about a combatant command with a history of scandals, including significant failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting projects across the African continent, as well as the effectiveness of U.S. assistance efforts there.

From fiscal years 2014 through 2016, AFRICOM and Central Command (CENTCOM), the umbrella organization for U.S. military activities in the Greater Middle East, received a combined $496 million to conduct counternarcotics (CN) activities. That substantial sum was used by the respective commands to fund myriad projects from the construction of border outposts in allied nations to training personnel in policing skills like evidence collection. Or at least, that's how it was supposed to be used. According to the IG, neither AFRICOM nor CENTCOM "maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of training, equipping, and construction activities." That means no one -- not the IG investigators, not AFRICOM, not CENTCOM personnel -- seems to have any idea how much of that money was spent, what it was spent on, whether the funded projects were ever completed, or whether any of it made a difference in the fight against illegal drugs in Africa and the Middle East.

"U.S. Central and U.S. Africa Commands did not provide effective oversight of [fiscal years] 2014 through 2016 counternarcotics activities," wrote Michael Roark, an assistant inspector general, in a memorandum sent to the chiefs of both commands as well as to Pentagon officials in December 2017. "Specifically, neither U.S. Central nor U.S. Africa Command maintained reliable data for the completion status and funding of counternarcotics training, equipping, and construction activities." What is clear is that large sums of taxpayer dollars allotted to such training activities were inconsistently tracked or accounted for, including -- according to Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General -- $73 million in AFRICOM counternarcotics funding.

TomDispatch repeatedly contacted Africa Command for comment about the IG's report. According to digital receipts, AFRICOM read the emailed questions but failed to respond prior to the publication of this piece.

The War on Drugs

Since 9/11, U.S. military activity on the African continent has grown at an exponential rate. U.S. troops are now conducting about 3,500 exercises, programs, and activities per year, an average of nearly 10 missions a day. Meanwhile, America's most elite troops -- including Navy SEALs and Green Berets -- deployed to no fewer than 33 of the 54 African countries last year.

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Many of the command's missions focus on training local allies and proxies. "AFRICOM's Theater Security Cooperation programs remain the cornerstone of our sustained security engagement with African partners," reads its "What We Do" credo. "Conditions for success of our security cooperation programs and activities on the continent are established through hundreds of engagements supporting a wide range of activities." These include not only foreign military aid and training, but also counternarcotics assistance.

By 2012, U.S. Africa Command's Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Assistance branch was already providing about $20 million in aid per year to various partner nations. In doing so, it relied on special legislation that allows the military to work not only with other armed forces but with interagency partners like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, as well as local law enforcement agencies and the justice, customs, and interior ministries of various African countries.

The command's African partners often suffer, however, from their own drug problems. "On the governance front, the proceeds of drug trafficking and other forms of illicit trafficking are fueling a dramatic increase in corruption among the very institutions responsible for fighting crime," observed David Luna of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs last year in a speech on combating organized crime in Africa. "The collusion and complicity of some government officials with criminal networks have helped carve out an illicit trafficking corridor that stretches from the West African coast to the Horn of Africa, from North Africa south to the Gulf of Guinea."

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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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