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Tomgram: Nick Turse, What the U.S. Military Doesn't Know (and Neither Do You)

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

It hardly matters where you look. There are the nearly million-and-a-half weapons that the Pentagon shipped to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. As a recent study shows, it evidently lost complete track of hundreds of thousands of them, many of which seem to have simply gone on the open market in countries where buyers are unlikely to be the crew of our dreams. Or there's the $6.5 trillion (that is not a misprint) that the accountants for a single service, the U.S. Army, seem to have lost track of in 2015. Or there's the simple fact that the Pentagon is utterly incapable of conducting a successful audit of itself or, on a minor note, that its officials can't even keep track of which of their underlings go to strip clubs, "adult entertainment establishments," and casinos on the taxpayer dollar. You could say that, though it swallows up at least $600 billion-plus a year of our money, it's an organization that seems remarkably comfortable knowing remarkably little about itself (which means of course that you know next to nothing about it).

This should, of course, be unacceptable in a democracy. But coverage of the Pentagon and its stupendously wasteful ways, not to speak of oversight of its financial dealings, is in remarkably short supply in our world. That should be surprising, given this country's 800 military bases around the world, the planet it largely arms, and the fact that its special operations forces have been active in up to 135 countries a year. What it does, and where and how it does it, given its reach and its power, plays a not-insignificant role in determining what transpires on this conflicted planet of ours.

This is why I regularly find it amazing, even unnerving, that, in a world of monster media organizations, covering what the U.S. military does in Africa -- and it does more and more there -- has largely been left to Nick Turse of TomDispatch. He's been reporting on that military's "pivot" to Africa for years now and, with the rarest of exceptions, he's done so in a remarkably lonely fashion. How can this be? It obviously matters what our military is doing -- especially in a world where, it seems, the more it enters a region, the more terror outfits spread and flourish in that same region. Call it happenstance if you wish, but as for me, I would prefer that Americans knew regularly and in some detail what exactly was being done in our name in the world. Tom

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Mission Impossible
Keeping Track of U.S. Special Ops in Africa
By Nick Turse

Sometimes the real news is in the details -- or even in the discrepancies. Take, for instance, missions by America's most elite troops in Africa.

It was September 2014. The sky was bright and clear and ice blue as the camouflage-clad men walked to the open door and tumbled out into nothing. One moment members of the U.S. 19th Special Forces Group and Moroccan paratroopers were flying high above North Africa in a rumbling C-130 aircraft; the next, they were silhouetted against the cloudless sky, translucent green parachutes filling with air, as they began to drift back to earth.

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Those soldiers were taking part in a Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET mission, conducted under the auspices of Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa out of Camp Ram Ram, Morocco. It was the first time in several years that American and Moroccan troops had engaged in airborne training together, but just one of many JCET missions in 2014 that allowed America's best-equipped, best-trained forces to hone their skills while forging ties with African allies.

A key way the U.S. military has deepened its involvement on the continent, JCETs have been carried out in an increasing number of African countries in recent years, according to documents recently obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). When it comes to U.S. troops involved, foreign forces taking part, and U.S. tax dollars spent, the numbers have all been on the rise. From 2013 to 2014, as those recently released files reveal, the price tag almost doubled, from $3.3 million to $6.2 million.

These increases offer a window into the rising importance of such missions by U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) around the world, including their increasingly conspicuous roles in conflicts from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Afghanistan. On any given day, 10,000 special operators are "deployed" or "forward stationed" conducting overseas missions "from behind-the-scenes information-gathering and partner-building to high-end dynamic strike operations" -- so General Joseph Votel, at the time chief of Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

Through such figures, the growing importance of the U.S. military's pivot to Africa becomes apparent. The number of elite forces deployed there, for example, has been steadily on the rise. In 2006, the percentage of forward-stationed special operators on the continent hovered at 1%. In 2014, that number hit 10% -- a jump of 900% in less than a decade. While JCETs make up only a small fraction of the hundreds of military-to-military engagements carried out by U.S. forces in Africa each year, they play an outsized role in the pivot there, allowing U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to deepen its ties with a variety of African partners through the efforts of America's most secretive and least scrutinized troops.

Exactly how many JCETs have been conducted in Africa is, however, murky at best. The documents obtained from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) via FOIA present one number; AFRICOM offers another. It's possible that no one actually knows the true figure. One thing is certain, however, according to a study by RAND, America's premier think tank for evaluating the military: the program consistently produces poor results.

The Gray Zone

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According to SOCOM, Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) is, on average, "routinely engaged" in about half of Africa's 54 countries, "working with and through our African counterparts." For his part, SOCAFRICA commander Brigadier General Donald Bolduc has said that his team of 1,700 personnel is "busy year-round in 22 partner nations."

The 2014 SOCOM documents TomDispatch obtained note that, in addition to conducting JCETs, U.S. Special Operations forces took part in the annual Flintlock training exercise, involving 22 nations, and four named operations: Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging effort, formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara, aimed at Northwest Africa; Juniper Micron, a U.S.-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali (following a coup there by a U.S.-trained officer) that has been grinding on since 2013; Octave Shield, an even longer-suffering mission against militants in East Africa; and Observant Compass, a similarly long-running effort aimed at Joseph Kony's murderous Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa (that recently retired AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez derided as an expensive and strategically unimportant burden).

America's most elite forces in Africa operate in what Bolduc calls "the gray zone, between traditional war and peace." In layman's terms, its missions are expanding in the shadows on a continent the United States sees as increasingly insecure, unstable, and riven by terror groups.

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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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