Runaway Empire: Last Year, U.S. Commandos Were Deployed to 75% of World’s Countries

American Special Operations Forces are expanding globally.

Nick Turse July 17, 2018

Somali soldiers on patrol at Sanguuni military base, where an American special operations soldier was killed by a mortar attack days earlier, about 450 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia, on June 13, 2018. (MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty Images)

Ear­ly last month, at a tiny mil­i­tary post near the tum­ble­down town of Jamaame in Soma­lia, small arms fire began to ring out as mor­tar shells crashed down. When the attack was over, one Soma­li sol­dier had been wound­ed – and had that been the extent of the casu­al­ties, you undoubt­ed­ly would nev­er have heard about it.

Special Operations forces have actually been in a state of transformation ever since September 11, 2001.

As it hap­pened, how­ev­er, Amer­i­can com­man­dos were also oper­at­ing from that out­post and four of them were wound­ed, three bad­ly enough to be evac­u­at­ed for fur­ther med­ical care. Anoth­er spe­cial oper­a­tor, Staff Sergeant Alexan­der Con­rad, a mem­ber of the U.S. Army’s Spe­cial Forces (also known as the Green Berets), was killed.

If the sto­ry sounds vague­ly famil­iar – com­bat by U.S. com­man­dos in African wars that Amer­i­ca is tech­ni­cal­ly not fight­ing – it should. Last Decem­ber, Green Berets oper­at­ing along­side local forces in Niger killed 11 Islam­ic State mil­i­tants in a fire­fight. Two months ear­li­er, in Octo­ber, an ambush by an Islam­ic State ter­ror group in that same coun­try, where few Amer­i­cans (includ­ing mem­bers of Con­gress) even knew U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tors were sta­tioned, left four U.S. sol­diers dead – Green Berets among them. (The mil­i­tary first described that mis­sion as pro­vid­ing advice and assis­tance” to local forces, then as a recon­nais­sance patrol” as part of a broad­er train, advise, and assist” mis­sion, before it was final­ly exposed as a kill or cap­ture oper­a­tion.) Last May, a Navy SEAL was killed and two oth­er U.S. per­son­nel were wound­ed in a raid in Soma­lia that the Pen­ta­gon described as an advise, assist, and accom­pa­ny” mis­sion. And a month ear­li­er, a U.S. com­man­do report­ed­ly killed a mem­ber of the Lord’s Resis­tance Army (LRA), a bru­tal mili­tia that has ter­ror­ized parts of Cen­tral Africa for decades.

And there had been, as the New York Times not­ed in March, at least 10 oth­er pre­vi­ous­ly unre­port­ed attacks on Amer­i­can troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017. Lit­tle won­der since, for at least five years, as Politi­corecent­ly report­ed, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and oth­er com­man­dos, oper­at­ing under a lit­tle-under­stood legal author­i­ty known as Sec­tion 127e, have been involved in recon­nais­sance and direct action” com­bat raids with African spe­cial oper­a­tors in Soma­lia, Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mau­ri­ta­nia, Niger, and Tunisia.

None of this should be sur­pris­ing, since in Africa and across the rest of the plan­et America’s Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces (SOF) are reg­u­lar­ly engaged in a wide-rang­ing set of mis­sions includ­ing spe­cial recon­nais­sance and small-scale offen­sive actions, uncon­ven­tion­al war­fare, coun­tert­er­ror­ism, hostage res­cue, and secu­ri­ty force assis­tance (that is, orga­niz­ing, train­ing, equip­ping, and advis­ing for­eign troops). And every day, almost every­where, U.S. com­man­dos are involved in var­i­ous kinds of training.

Unless they end in dis­as­ter, most mis­sions remain in the shad­ows, unknown to all but a few Amer­i­cans. And yet last year alone, U.S. com­man­dos deployed to 149 coun­tries – about 75% of the nations on the plan­et. At the halfway mark of this year, accord­ing to fig­ures pro­vid­ed to TomDis­patch by U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand (USSO­COM or SOCOM), America’s most elite troops have already car­ried out mis­sions in 133 coun­tries. That’s near­ly as many deploy­ments as occurred dur­ing the last year of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and more than dou­ble those of the final days of George W. Bush’s White House.

Going Com­man­do

USSO­COM plays an inte­gral role in oppos­ing today’s threats to our nation, to pro­tect­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple, to secur­ing our home­land, and in main­tain­ing favor­able region­al bal­ances of pow­er,” Gen­er­al Ray­mond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand, told mem­bers of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee ear­li­er this year. How­ev­er, as we focus on today’s oper­a­tions we must be equal­ly focused on required future trans­for­ma­tion. SOF must adapt, devel­op, pro­cure, and field new capa­bil­i­ties in the inter­est of con­tin­u­ing to be a unique, lethal, and agile part of the Joint Force of tomorrow.”

Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces have actu­al­ly been in a state of trans­for­ma­tion ever since Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. In the years since, they have grown in every pos­si­ble way – from their bud­get to their size, to their pace of oper­a­tions, to the geo­graph­ic sweep of their mis­sions. In 2001, for exam­ple, an aver­age of 2,900 com­man­dos were deployed over­seas in any giv­en week. That num­ber has now soared to 8,300, accord­ing to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. At the same time, the num­ber of autho­rized mil­i­tary posi­tions” – the active-duty troops, reservists, and Nation­al Guards­men that are part of SOCOM – has jumped from 42,800 in 2001 to 63,500 today. While each of the mil­i­tary ser­vice branch­es – the so-called par­ent ser­vices – pro­vides fund­ing, includ­ing pay, ben­e­fits, and some equip­ment to their elite forces, Spe­cial Oper­a­tions-spe­cif­ic fund­ing,” at $3.1 bil­lion in 2001, is now at $12.3 bil­lion. (The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps also pro­vide their spe­cial oper­a­tions units with about $8 bil­lion annually.)

All this means that, on any giv­en day, more than 8,000 excep­tion­al­ly well-equipped and well-fund­ed spe­cial oper­a­tors from a com­mand num­ber­ing rough­ly 70,000 active-duty per­son­nel, reservists, and Nation­al Guards­men as well as civil­ians are deployed in approx­i­mate­ly 90 coun­tries. Most of those troops are Green Berets, Rangers, or oth­er Army Spe­cial Oper­a­tions per­son­nel. Accord­ing to Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Ken­neth Tovo, head of the U.S. Army Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand until his retire­ment last month, that branch pro­vides more than 51% of all Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces and accounts for more than 60% of their over­seas deploy­ments. On any giv­en day, just the Army’s elite sol­diers are oper­at­ing in around 70 countries.

In Feb­ru­ary, for instance, Army Rangers car­ried out sev­er­al weeks of win­ter war­fare train­ing in Ger­many, while Green Berets prac­ticed mis­sions involv­ing snow­mo­biles in Swe­den. In April, Green Berets took part in the annu­al Flint­lock multi­na­tion­al Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces train­ing exer­cise con­duct­ed in Niger, Burk­i­na Faso, and Sene­gal that involved Nige­rien, Burk­in­abe, Malian, Pol­ish, Span­ish, and Por­tuguese troops, among others.

While most mis­sions involve train­ing, instruc­tion, or war games, Spe­cial Forces sol­diers are also reg­u­lar­ly involved in com­bat oper­a­tions across America’s expan­sive glob­al war zones. A month after Flint­lock, for exam­ple, Green Berets accom­pa­nied local com­man­dos on a night­time air assault raid in Nan­garhar province, Afghanistan, dur­ing which a senior ISIS oper­a­tive was report­ed­ly elim­i­nat­ed.” In May, a post-deploy­ment awards cer­e­mo­ny for mem­bers of the 2nd Bat­tal­ion, 10th Spe­cial Forces Group, who had just returned from six months advis­ing and assist­ing Afghan com­man­dos, offeredsome indi­ca­tion of the kinds of mis­sions being under­tak­en in that coun­try. Those Green Berets received more than 60 dec­o­ra­tions for val­or – includ­ing 20 Bronze Star Medals and four Sil­ver Star Medals (the third-high­est mil­i­tary com­bat dec­o­ra­tion).

For its part, the Navy, accord­ing to Rear Admi­ral Tim Szy­man­s­ki, chief of Naval Spe­cial War­fare Com­mand, has about 1,000 SEALs or oth­er per­son­nel deployed to more than 35 coun­tries each day. In Feb­ru­ary, Naval Spe­cial War­fare forces and sol­diers from Army Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Avi­a­tion Com­mand con­duct­ed train­ing aboard a French amphibi­ous assault ship in the Ara­bi­an Gulf. That same month, Navy SEALs joined elite U.S. Air Force per­son­nel in train­ing along­side Roy­al Thai Naval Spe­cial War­fare oper­a­tors dur­ing Cobra Gold, an annu­al exer­cise in Thailand.

The troops from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand, or MAR­SOC, deploy pri­mar­i­ly to the Mid­dle East, Africa, and the Indo-Pacif­ic regions on six-month rota­tions. At any time, on aver­age, about 400 Raiders” are engaged in mis­sions across 18 countries.

Air Force Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand, which fields a force of 19,500 active, reserve, and civil­ian per­son­nel, con­duct­ed 78 joint-train­ing exer­cis­es and events with part­ner nations in 2017, accord­ing to Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Mar­shall Webb, chief of Air Force Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand. In Feb­ru­ary, for exam­ple, Air Force com­man­dos con­duct­ed Arc­tic train­ing – ski maneu­vers and free-fall air oper­a­tions – in Swe­den, but such train­ing mis­sions are only part of the sto­ry. Air Force spe­cial oper­a­tors were, for instance, recent­ly deployed to aid the attempt to res­cue 12 boys and their soc­cer coach trapped deep inside a cave in Thai­land. The Air Force also has three active duty spe­cial oper­a­tions wings assigned to Air Force Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand, includ­ing the 24th Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Wing, a spe­cial tac­tics” unit that inte­grates air and ground forces for pre­ci­sion-strike” and per­son­nel-recov­ery mis­sions. At a change of com­mand cer­e­mo­ny in March, it was not­ed that its per­son­nel had con­duct­ed almost 2,900 com­bat mis­sions over the last two years.

Addi­tion Through Subtraction

For years, U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces have been in a state of seem­ing­ly unre­strained expan­sion. Nowhere has that been more evi­dent than in Africa. In 2006, just 1% of all Amer­i­can com­man­dos deployed over­seas were oper­at­ing on that con­ti­nent. By 2016, that num­ber had jumped above 17%. By then, there were more spe­cial oper­a­tions per­son­nel devot­ed to Africa – 1,700 spe­cial oper­a­tors spread out across 20 coun­tries – than any­where else except the Mid­dle East.

Recent­ly, how­ev­er, the New York Times report­ed that a sweep­ing Pen­ta­gon review” of spe­cial ops mis­sions on that con­ti­nent may soon result in dras­tic cuts in the num­ber of com­man­dos oper­at­ing there. (“We do not com­ment on what tasks the sec­re­tary of defense or chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may or may not have giv­en USSO­COM,” spokesman Ken McGraw told me when I inquired about the review.) U.S. Africa Com­mand has appar­ent­ly been asked to con­sid­er what effect cut­ting com­man­dos there by 25% over 18 months and 50% over three years would have on its coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sions. In the end, only about 700 elite troops – rough­ly the same num­ber as were sta­tioned in Africa in 2014 – would be left there.

Com­ing on the heels of the Octo­ber 2017 deba­cle in Niger that left those four Amer­i­cans dead and appar­ent orders from the com­man­der of Unit­ed States Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces in Africa that its com­man­dos plan mis­sions to stay out of direct com­bat or do not go,” a num­ber of experts sug­gest­ed that such a review sig­naled a reap­praisal of mil­i­tary engage­ment on the con­ti­nent. The pro­posed cuts also seemed to fit with the Pentagon’s lat­est nation­al defense strat­e­gy that high­light­ed a com­ing shift from a focus on coun­tert­er­ror­ism to the threats of near-peer com­peti­tors like Rus­sia and Chi­na. We will con­tin­ue to pros­e­cute the cam­paign against ter­ror­ists,” said Sec­re­tary of Defense James Mat­tis in Jan­u­ary, but great pow­er com­pe­ti­tion – not ter­ror­ism – is now the pri­ma­ry focus of U.S. nation­al security.”

A wide range of ana­lysts ques­tioned or crit­i­cized the pro­posed troop reduc­tion. Mu Xiaom­ing, from China’s Nation­al Defense Uni­ver­si­ty of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army, likened such a reduc­tion in elite U.S. forces to the Oba­ma administration’s draw­down of troops in Afghanistan in 2014 and not­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ter­ror­ism mak­ing a come­back in Africa.” A for­mer chief of U.S. com­man­dos on the con­ti­nent, Don­ald Bolduc, unsur­pris­ing­ly echoed these same fears. With­out the pres­ence that we have there now,” he told Voice of Amer­i­ca, we’re just going to increase the effec­tive­ness of the vio­lent extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tions over time and we are going to lose trust and cred­i­bil­i­ty in this area and desta­bi­lize it even fur­ther.” David Mei­jer, a secu­ri­ty ana­lyst based in Ams­ter­dam, lament­ed that, as Africa was grow­ing in geostrate­gic impor­tance and Chi­na is strength­en­ing its ties there, it’s iron­ic that Wash­ing­ton is set to reduce its already min­i­mal engage­ment on the continent.”

This is hard­ly a fore­gone con­clu­sion, how­ev­er. For years, mem­bers of SOCOM, as well as sup­port­ers in Con­gress, at think tanks, and else­where, have been loud­ly com­plain­ing about the soar­ing oper­a­tions tem­po for America’s elite troops and the result­ing strains on them. Most SOF units are employed to their sus­tain­able lim­it,” Gen­er­al Thomas, the SOCOM chief, told mem­bers of Con­gress last spring. Despite grow­ing demand for SOF, we must pri­or­i­tize the sourc­ing of these demands as we face a rapid­ly chang­ing secu­ri­ty envi­ron­ment.” Giv­en how much clout SOCOM wields, such inces­sant gripes were cer­tain to lead to changes in policy.

Last year, in fact, Sec­re­tary of Defense Mat­tis not­ed that the lines between U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces and con­ven­tion­al troops were blur­ring and that the lat­ter would like­ly be tak­ing on mis­sions pre­vi­ous­ly shoul­dered by the com­man­dos, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Africa. So the gen­er­al pur­pose forces can do a lot of the kind of work that you see going on and, in fact, are now,” he said. By and large, for exam­ple in Trans-Sahel [in north­west Africa], many of those forces down there sup­port­ing the French-led effort are not Spe­cial Forces. So we’ll con­tin­ue to expand the gen­er­al pur­pose forces where it’s appro­pri­ate. I would… antic­i­pate more use of them.”

Ear­li­er this year, Owen West, the assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for spe­cial oper­a­tions and low-inten­si­ty con­flict, referred to Mattis’s com­ments while telling mem­bers of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee about the need to look at the line that sep­a­rates con­ven­tion­al oper­at­ing forces from SOF and seek to take greater advan­tage of the com­mon capa­bil­i­ties’ of our excep­tion­al con­ven­tion­al forces.” He par­tic­u­lar­ly high­light­ed the Army’s Secu­ri­ty Force Assis­tance Brigades, recent­ly cre­at­ed to con­duct advise-and-assist mis­sions. This spring, Okla­homa Sen­a­tor James Inhofe, a senior mem­ber of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, rec­om­mend­ed that one of those units be ded­i­cat­ed to Africa.

Sub­sti­tut­ing forces in this way is pre­cise­ly what Iowa Sen­a­tor Joni Ernst, an Iraq War vet­er­an and mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, has also been advo­cat­ing. Late last year, in fact, her press sec­re­tary, Leigh Claf­fey, told TomDis­patch that the sen­a­tor believed instead of such heavy reliance on Spe­cial Forces, we should also be engag­ing our con­ven­tion­al forces to take over mis­sions when appro­pri­ate, as well as turn­ing over oper­a­tions to capa­ble indige­nous forces.” Chances are that U.S. com­man­dos will con­tin­ue car­ry­ing out their shad­owy Sec­tion 127e raids along­side local forces across the African con­ti­nent while leav­ing more con­ven­tion­al train­ing and advis­ing tasks to rank-and-file troops. In oth­er words, the num­ber of com­man­dos in Africa may be cut, but the total num­ber of Amer­i­can troops may not – with covert com­bat oper­a­tions pos­si­bly con­tin­u­ing at the present pace.

If any­thing, U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces are like­ly to expand, not con­tract, next year. SOCOM’s 2019 bud­get request calls for adding about 1,000 per­son­nel to what would then be a force of 71,000. In April, at a meet­ing of the Sen­ate Sub­com­mit­tee on Emerg­ing Threats and Capa­bil­i­ties chaired by Ernst, New Mex­i­co Sen­a­tor Mar­tin Hein­rich not­ed that SOCOM was on track to grow by approx­i­mate­ly 2,000 per­son­nel” in the com­ing years. The com­mand is also poised to make 2018 anoth­er his­toric year in glob­al reach. If Washington’s spe­cial oper­a­tors deploy to just 17 more coun­tries by the end of the fis­cal year, they will exceed last year’s record-break­ing total.

USSO­COM con­tin­ues to recruit, assess, and select the very best. We then train and empow­er our team­mates to solve the most daunt­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty prob­lems,” SOCOM com­man­der Gen­er­al Thomas told the House Sub­com­mit­tee on Emerg­ing Threats and Capa­bil­i­ties ear­li­er this year. Why Green Berets and Navy SEALs need to solve nation­al secu­ri­ty prob­lems – strate­gic issues that ought to be addressed by pol­i­cy­mak­ers – is a ques­tion that has long gone unan­swered. It may be one of the rea­sons why, since Green Berets lib­er­at­ed” Afghanistan in 2001, the Unit­ed States has been involved in com­bat there and, as the years have passed, a pletho­ra of oth­er for­ev­er-war fronts includ­ing Cameroon, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mau­ri­ta­nia, Mali, Niger, the Philip­pines, Soma­lia, Syr­ia, Tunisia, and Yemen.

The cre­ativ­i­ty, ini­tia­tive and spir­it of the peo­ple who com­prise the Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Force can­not be over­stat­ed. They are our great­est asset,” said Thomas. And it’s like­ly that such assets will grow in 2019.

This piece first appeared on Tom Dis­patch.

Nick Turse, asso­ciate edi­tor of TomDis​patch​.com, is the author of The Com­plex: How the Mil­i­tary Invades Our Every­day Lives (Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books) and a forth­com­ing his­to­ry of U.S. war crimes in Viet­nam, Kill Any­thing That Moves (Metropolitan/​Henry Holt). His web­site is Nick​Turse​.com.
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