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Tomgram: Nick Turse, Washington's America-First Commandos in Africa

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

When Donald Trump enters the Oval Office, awaiting him will not only be his own private air assassination corps (those CIA drones that take out terror suspects globally from a White House "kill list"), but his own private and remarkably secret military. Ever since John F. Kennedy first made the Green Berets into figures of military glamour, there's always been something alluring to presidents about the U.S. military's elite special ops forces.

Still, that was then, this is now. In the twenty-first century, the Special Operations Command, which oversees those elite forces cocooned within the regular military, has gained ever more power to act in ever more independent and secretive ways. In those same years, the country's elite troops, including those Green Berets, the Navy SEALs, and the Army's Delta Force, have grown to staggering proportions, while ever more money has poured into their coffers. There are now an estimated 70,000 of them -- a crew larger than the actual armies of some reasonably sizeable countries -- and from trainers to raiders, advisers to hunter-killers, they now operate yearly in an overwhelming majority of the nations on this planet. Moreover, they generally do so in remarkable secrecy and (as once might have been said of the CIA) their most secretive part, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden, is in essence the president's private army.

In these last years, President Obama, who gained a reputation for being chary of war, has nonetheless taken on with evident relish both those special ops forces and the drone assassins, while embracing what Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently termed the role of "covert commander in chief." Now, in these last weeks of his presidency, his administration has given JSOC new powers to "track, plan, and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe" and to do so "outside conventional conflict zones" and via "a new multiagency intelligence and action force." As a result, whatever this new task force may do, it won't, as in the past, have to deal with regional military commands and their commanders at all. Its only responsibility will be to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and assumedly the White House; even within the military, that is, it will gain a new patina of secrecy and power (while evidently poaching on territory that once was considered the CIA's alone, no small thing at a moment when President-elect Trump is not exactly enamored with that agency).

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One of the strangest aspects of the growth of America's special ops forces and their global missions is how little attention those special operators get in the media (unless they want the publicity). The very growth of an enormous secret military, a remarkable development in our American world and a particularly ominous one for the Trumpian years to come, is seldom discussed (no less debated). And all of this, the firepower now available to a president and the potential ability of a commander in chief to wage a global campaign of assassination and make war just about anywhere on Earth, personally and privately, will now be inherited by a man to whom such powers are likely to have real appeal.

In this context, I admit to a certain pride that, thanks to Nick Turse, the exception to the above has been TomDispatch. In these years, due to Turse's work at this website, you could follow, up close and personal, the growing power and operational abilities of America's special operations forces. This was especially true, as with his piece today, of how they have moved, big time, onto a continent that may indeed, in the military's own phrase, be tomorrow's battlefield and yet that we hear next to nothing about. Tom

Commandos Without Borders
America's Elite Troops Partner with African Forces But Pursue U.S. Aims
By Nick Turse

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Al-Qaeda doesn't care about borders. Neither does the Islamic State or Boko Haram. Brigadier General Donald Bolduc thinks the same way.

"[T]errorists, criminals, and non-state actors aren't bound by arbitrary borders," the commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) told an interviewer early this fall. "That said, everything we do is not organized around recognizing traditional borders. In fact, our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multi-national, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach."

A SOCAFRICA planning document obtained by TomDispatch offers a window onto the scope of these "multi-national, collective actions" carried out by America's most elite troops in Africa. The declassified but heavily redacted secret report, covering the years 2012-2017 and acquired via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), details nearly 20 programs and activities -- from training exercises to security cooperation engagements -- utilized by SOCAFRICA across the continent. This wide array of low-profile missions, in addition to named operations and quasi-wars, attests to the growing influence and sprawling nature of U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) in Africa.

How U.S. military engagement will proceed under the Trump administration remains to be seen. The president-elect has said or tweeted little about Africa in recent years (aside from long trading in baseless claims that the current president was born there). Given his choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn -- a former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command who believes that the United States is in a "world war" with Islamic militants -- there is good reason to believe that Special Operations Command Africa will continue its border-busting missions across that continent. That, in turn, means that Africa is likely to remain crucial to America's nameless global war on terror.

Publicly, the command claims that it conducts its operations to "promote regional stability and prosperity," while Bolduc emphasizes that its missions are geared toward serving the needs of African allies. The FOIA files make clear, however, that U.S. interests are the command's principal and primary concern -- a policy in keeping with the America First mindset and mandate of incoming commander-in-chief Donald J. Trump -- and that support to "partner nations" is prioritized to suit American, not African, needs and policy goals.

Shades of Gray

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Bolduc is fond of saying that his troops -- Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, among others -- operate in the "gray zone," or what he calls "the spectrum of conflict between war and peace." Another of his favored stock phrases is: "In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution" -- that is, not pulling triggers and dropping bombs. He also regularly takes pains to say that "we are not at war in Africa -- but our African partners certainly are."

That is not entirely true.

Earlier this month, in fact, a White House report made it clear, for instance, that "the United States is currently using military force" in Somalia. At about the same moment, the New York Times revealed an imminent Obama administration plan to deem al-Shabab "to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials," strengthening President-elect Donald Trump's authority to carry out missions there in 2017 and beyond.

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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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