"Training." It sounds so innocuous. It also sounds like something expected of a military. All professional soldiers undergo some sort of basic training. Think: calisthenics, negotiating obstacle courses, and marksmanship. Soldiers require instruction, otherwise they're little more than rabble.
Sometimes soldiers from one country even train the troops of another, imparting skills from the basic to the complex. The U.S. military calls this, among other things, "building partner capacity." Sometimes a foreigner steps in and whips sorry soldiers into shape, as former Prussian army officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben did with George Washington's Continental Army. And sometimes the foreigners, like the modern heirs to the army that Steuben trained, can't even seem to successfully teach their wards, like Iraqis or Afghans, jumping jacks or pushups. (Nor does anyone seem to ask why Americans are teaching jumping jacks or pushups to such trainees in the first place.) And then we wonder why one of those proxy armies folded in the face of a tiny terror force in Iraq in 2014 or why, after almost two decades of assistance, another is taking unsustainable losses, as is the case in Afghanistan now.
Each year, through a vast constellation of global training exercises, operations, facilities, and schools, the United States trains around 200,000 foreign soldiers, police, and other personnel. From 2003 to 2010, for example, the U.S. carried out this training regime at no fewer than 471 locations in 120 countries and on every continent but Antarctica. Most of it goes on behind closed doors, far from public view. And almost all of it escapes independent scrutiny. Is the training effective? Does it achieve the desired results? Is it worth the cost? Does it conform to U.S. laws? It's often difficult to glean basic information about what types of training are taking place, let alone the results.
Recently, for example, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) told Yahoo News -- unequivocally -- that the U.S. does not "conduct exercises with members of the [Saudi-led coalition] to prepare for combat operations in Yemen." While CENTCOM admitted to providing "training" to the coalition, it called that assistance "limited non-combat support." Internal military documents, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, told an entirely different story however. Air Force files state, just as unequivocally, that the United States has trained members of the Saudi-led coalition "for combat operations in Yemen." (Senator Elizabeth Warren has now demanded answers about the discrepancy.)
Yemen is just one of the many countries where the U.S. provides counterterrorism assistance. So where else is the U.S. carrying out these missions? Let TomDispatch regular Stephanie Savell, co-director of the invaluable Costs of War Project, provide the answer by way of a tour of the scores of nations where U.S. military personnel -- from elite Navy SEALs to the weekend warriors of the National Guard -- are conducting counterterrorism training and assistance about which we know little, that sometimes turns deadly, and can be almost indistinguishable from combat. Nick Turse
Mapping the American War on Terror
Now in 80 Countries, It Couldn't Be More Global
By Stephanie Savell
In September 2001, the Bush administration launched the "Global War on Terror." Though "global" has long since been dropped from the name, as it turns out, they weren't kidding.
When I first set out to map all the places in the world where the United States is still fighting terrorism so many years later, I didn't think it would be that hard to do. This was before the 2017 incident in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed on a counterterror mission and Americans were given an inkling of how far-reaching the war on terrorism might really be. I imagined a map that would highlight Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria -- the places many Americans automatically think of in association with the war on terror -- as well as perhaps a dozen less-noticed countries like the Philippines and Somalia. I had no idea that I was embarking on a research odyssey that would, in its second annual update, map U.S. counterterror missions in 80 countries in 2017 and 2018, or 40% of the nations on this planet (a map first featured in Smithsonian magazine).
As co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, I'm all too aware of the costs that accompany such a sprawling overseas presence. Our project's research shows that, since 2001, the U.S. war on terror has resulted in the loss -- conservatively estimated -- of almost half a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. By the end of 2019, we also estimate that Washington's global war will cost American taxpayers no less than $5.9 trillion already spent and in commitments to caring for veterans of the war throughout their lifetimes.
In general, the American public has largely ignored these post-9/11 wars and their costs. But the vastness of Washington's counterterror activities suggests, now more than ever, that it's time to pay attention. Recently, the Trump administration has been talking of withdrawing from Syria and negotiating peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet, unbeknownst to many Americans, the war on terror reaches far beyond such lands and under Trump is actually ramping up in a number of places. That our counterterror missions are so extensive and their costs so staggeringly high should prompt Americans to demand answers to a few obvious and urgent questions: Is this global war truly making Americans safer? Is it reducing violence against civilians in the U.S. and other places? If, as I believe, the answer to both those questions is no, then isn't there a more effective way to accomplish such goals?
Combat or "Training" and "Assisting"?
The major obstacle to creating our database, my research team would discover, was that the U.S. government is often so secretive about its war on terror. The Constitution gives Congress the right and responsibility to declare war, offering the citizens of this country, at least in theory, some means of input. And yet, in the name of operational security, the military classifies most information about its counterterror activities abroad.
(Stephanie Savell, Costs of War Project, originally published in the February issue of Smithsonian magazine)
This is particularly true of missions in which there are American boots on the ground engaging in direct action against militants, a reality, my team and I found, in 14 different countries in the last two years. The list includes Afghanistan and Syria, of course, but also some lesser known and unexpected places like Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Mali, and Kenya. Officially, many of these are labeled "train, advise, and assist" missions, in which the U.S. military ostensibly works to support local militaries fighting groups that Washington labels terrorist organizations. Unofficially, the line between "assistance" and combat turns out to be, at best, blurry.