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Tomgram: Nick Turse, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

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

Let's take a moment to consider failure and its options in Washington. The U.S. has been warring with the Islamic State (IS) for more than a year now. The centerpiece of that war has been an ongoing campaign of bombings and air strikes in Syria and Iraq, thousands upon thousands of them. The military claims that these have resulted in death tolls high enough to stagger any movement. In Iraq, the Obama administration has also launched a major effort, involving at least 3,400 military personnel, to retrain the American-created Iraqi army that essentially collapsed in June 2014. Impending offensives to retake key IS-held cities are regularly announced. In addition, in Syria there is an ongoing $500 million Pentagon effort to find and train a force of "moderate" Syrian rebels to battle IS militants. Despite such efforts, reports now suggest that the Islamic State is at least as strong now as it was when the U.S. intervened in August 2014. If anything, from Turkish border areas to al-Anbar Province in Iraq, it has expanded its holdings. Only recently, its fighters even began to move into the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

In an era when there has been failure aplenty for the U.S. military, disappointing results like these have become the new norm across the Greater Middle East and Africa, which undoubtedly breeds frustration in Washington. There have been at least four types of responses to such failures. The first -- a more-of-the-same approach -- has involved simply stumbling along in Washington's fog of ignorance when it comes to strange peoples in far off lands. In recent weeks, for instance, an agreement was reached with Turkey to allow U.S. planes access to two key Turkish air bases to attack the Islamic State, while the government of President Recep Erdogan pledged to join the struggle as well. In reality, however, what the Obama administration evidently green-lighted were Turkish air strikes not against IS militants but their own Kurdish rebels with whom they had a fragile truce and who are linked to just about the only effective force the U.S. has found to fight IS, Syrian Kurds. In other words, an additional element of chaos was introduced to the region.

As one wag put it, by attacking the Kurds, the Turks provided the Islamic State with something it previously lacked: an air force. To add insult to injury: according to McClatchy, Turkish intelligence tipped off the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front that the U.S. was about to insert in Syria a tiny group of 54 "moderate" Syrians the Pentagon had vetted from 7,000 applicants and spent a fortune training. Al-Nusra's fighters essentially wiped the unit out on the spot. Talk about a cornucopia of failure!

The Obama administration's frustration over its inability to even dent the Islamic State has led to another version of more-of-the-same. It has now loosed drones from the CIA and U.S. special operations command in an assassination campaign against the IS leadership, the latest version of what Andrew Cockburn has dubbed "the kingpin strategy." Elsewhere this approach has tended to strengthen, not weaken, extremist movements and make them even more brutal.

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As for the second response to failure, call it the "more-plus" approach or finding something spectacularly dumb to do. The most recent example: former surge general, CIA director, and state secrets sharer David Petraeus, a man with a certain following in Washington, has been privately urging the administration that vetted 7,000 Syrians and could hardly find a "moderate" among them to cleave off and arm supposedly "moderate" elements in the al-Nusra Front to fight IS. This proposal instantly joins the ranks of Washington's what-could-possibly-go-wrong schemes.

And here's a third response to failure, reported just a couple of weeks ago: military officials moved to staunch the bad news from Syria in the simplest way possible. They evidently altered their intelligence assessments or pressured "terror analysts" under them to do the same in order to provide "a more optimistic account of progress" in the war against IS. The Pentagon's inspector general is now investigating this possible good-news scam by officials of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the air campaign against the Islamic State. Consider this the equivalent of Senator George Aiken's supposed suggestion during the Vietnam War that the U.S. should simply declare victory and go home. In this case, however, you establish success in the easiest way possible and then stick around to pursue responses one and two.

A fourth response, as Nick Turse suggests today in his remarkable continuing coverage of the U.S. military's "pivot" to Africa, is simply to embrace failure wholeheartedly. Counterintuitive as it might seem, this approach couldn't be more sensible from the Pentagon's point of view. After all, in our present American world, military failures only ensure that, as things worsen eternally, the U.S. military will be called on ever more, not less, which means more, not less, of everything for you-know-who. Tom

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Problem Partners, Ugly Outcomes
U.S. Special Ops Missions in Africa Fail to Stem Rising Tide of Terror Groups, Coups, and Human Rights Abuses
By Nick Turse (with additional reporting by Gabriel Karon)

"Africa is a challenging place today and one that, if left unattended, is likely to be the birthplace of many more challenges in the future," Army Secretary John McHugh said recently. Since 9/11, in fact, the continent has increasingly been viewed by the Pentagon as a place of problems to be remedied by military means. And year after year, as terror groups have multiplied, proxies have foundered, and allies have disappointed, the U.S. has doubled down again and again, with America's most elite troops -- U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) -- leading the way.

The public face of this engagement is a yearly training exercise called Flintlock. Since 2005, it has brought together U.S. special operators and elite European and West African troops to "strengthen security institutions, promote multilateral sharing of information, and develop interoperability among the partner nations of the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP)."

Directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sponsored by SOCAFRICA -- the special operations contingent of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) -- and conducted by Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa, the Flintlock exercises have sought to "develop the capacity of and collaboration among African security forces to protect civilian populations across the Sahel region of Africa." This year, for instance, 1,300 troops representing 28 countries -- including U.S. Army Green Berets -- trained together in the host nation of Chad, as well as in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Tunisia, conducting mock combat patrols and practicing counterterrorism missions.

Flintlock exercises provide AFRICOM with a patina of transparency and a plethora of publicity each year as a cherry-picked group of reporters provide mostly favorable, sometimes breathless cookie-cutter coverage. (The command has, for years, refused my repeated requests to attend.) Spinning tales of tough-talking American commandos barking orders at "raw," "poorly equipped" African troops "under the pewter sun" in the "suffocating heat" and the "fine Saharan sand" on a "dusty training ground" in the "rocky badlands" of West Africa, they dutifully report on one three-week U.S. special ops mission.

What goes on the rest of the year is, however, shrouded in secrecy as the U.S. military "pivots" to Africa and shadowy contingents of Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets shuttle on and off the continent under the auspices of various programs. This includes Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), low-profile missions that lay the groundwork for each year's Flintlock exercise, providing instruction in all manner of combat capabilities, from advanced marksmanship and small unit tactics to training in conducting ambushes and perfecting sniper skills.

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The U.S. military says little about JCET activities in Africa or elsewhere. Special Operations Command, which oversees America's most elite forces, will not even disclose the number of JCETs carried out by American commandos on the continent. AFRICOM, for its part, refuses to reveal the locations of the missions, citing "operational security reasons and host nation sensitivities." And what little information that command will divulge only raises additional questions.

According to AFRICOM, special operators conducted "approximately nine JCETs across Africa in Fiscal Year 2012" and 18 in 2013. Documents obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act from the office of the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs indicate, however, that there were 19 JCETs in 2012 and 20 in 2013. The reports provided by the Pentagon to keep Congress informed of "training of Special Operations forces" show that, from October 2011 to October 2013 (fiscal years 2012 and 2013), there was only one month in which U.S. commandos did not conduct Joint Combined Exchange Training somewhere on the African continent. In all, according to those documents, Special Operations forces spent nearly 2,200 days in 12 countries under the JCET program alongside more than 3,800 African soldiers.

AFRICOM attributes the confusion over the numbers to differing methods of accounting. However one tallies them, such missions increased last year according to figures provided by the command and they seem to be on the rise again this year. In 2014, the number of JCETs jumped to 26. By the end of July, "approximately 22" had already been carried out.

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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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