Trump’s Covert Wars: Elite Commandos Deployed to a Record 149 Countries in 2017

Trump’s first year set a record for U.S. special ops.

Nick Turse

South Korean marines participate in landing operation referred to as Foal Eagle joint military exercise with US troops Pohang seashore on April 2, 2017 in Pohang, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

This arti­cle first appeared on Tom Dis­patch.

The steady rise in the number of elite operators, missions, and foreign deployments since 9/11 appears in no danger of ending, despite years of worries by think-tank experts and special ops supporters about the effects of such a high operations tempo on these troops.

We don’t know exact­ly where we’re at in the world, mil­i­tar­i­ly, and what we’re doing,” said Sen­a­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham, a mem­ber of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, in Octo­ber. That was in the wake of the com­bat deaths of four mem­bers of the Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces in the West African nation of Niger. Gra­ham and oth­er sen­a­tors expressed shock about the deploy­ment, but the glob­al sweep of America’s most elite forces is, at best, an open secret.

Ear­li­er this year before that same Sen­ate com­mit­tee — though Gra­ham was not in atten­dance — Gen­er­al Ray­mond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand (SOCOM), offered some clues about the plan­etwide reach of America’s most elite troops. We oper­ate and fight in every cor­ner of the world,” he boast­ed. Rather than a mere break-glass-in-case-of-war’ force, we are now proac­tive­ly engaged across the bat­tle space’ of the Geo­graph­ic Com­bat­ant Com­mands… pro­vid­ing key inte­grat­ing and enabling capa­bil­i­ties to sup­port their cam­paigns and operations.” 

In 2017, U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces, includ­ing Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, deployed to 149 coun­tries around the world, accord­ing to fig­ures pro­vid­ed to TomDis­patch by U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand. That’s about 75% of the nations on the plan­et and rep­re­sents a jump from the 138 coun­tries that saw such deploy­ments in 2016 under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. It’s also a jump of near­ly 150% from the last days of George W. Bush’s White House. This record-set­ting num­ber of deploy­ments comes as Amer­i­can com­man­dos are bat­tling a pletho­ra of ter­ror groups in qua­si-wars that stretch from Africa and the Mid­dle East to Asia. 

Most Amer­i­cans would be amazed to learn that U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Forces have been deployed to three quar­ters of the nations on the plan­et,” observes William Har­tung, the direc­tor of the Arms and Secu­ri­ty Project at the Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Pol­i­cy. There is lit­tle or no trans­paren­cy as to what they are doing in these coun­tries and whether their efforts are pro­mot­ing secu­ri­ty or pro­vok­ing fur­ther ten­sion and conflict.” 

Growth Oppor­tu­ni­ty

Since 911, we expand­ed the size of our force by almost 75% in order to take on mis­sion-sets that are like­ly to endure,” SOCOM’s Thomas told the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in May. Since 2001, from the pace of oper­a­tions to their geo­graph­ic sweep, the activ­i­ties of U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces (SOF) have, in fact, grown in every con­ceiv­able way. On any giv­en day, about 8,000 spe­cial oper­a­tors — from a com­mand num­ber­ing rough­ly 70,000 — are deployed in approx­i­mate­ly 80 countries. 

The increase in the use of Spe­cial Forces since 911 was part of what was then referred to as the Glob­al War on Ter­ror as a way to keep the Unit­ed States active mil­i­tar­i­ly in areas beyond its two main wars, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Har­tung told TomDis­patch. The even heav­ier reliance on Spe­cial Forces dur­ing the Oba­ma years was part of a strat­e­gy of what I think of as polit­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able war­fare,’ in which the deploy­ment of tens of thou­sands of troops to a few key the­aters of war was replaced by a lighter foot­print’ in more places, using drones, arms sales and train­ing, and Spe­cial Forces.”

The Trump White House has attacked Barack Obama’s lega­cy on near­ly all fronts. It has under­cut, renounced, or reversed actions of his rang­ing from trade pacts to finan­cial and envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions to rules that shield­ed trans­gen­der employ­ees from work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion. When it comes to Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces, how­ev­er, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has embraced their use in the style of the for­mer pres­i­dent, while upping the ante even fur­ther. Pres­i­dent Trump has also pro­vid­ed mil­i­tary com­man­ders greater author­i­ty to launch attacks in qua­si-war zones like Yemen and Soma­lia. Accord­ing to Mic­ah Zenko, a nation­al secu­ri­ty expert and White­head Senior Fel­low at the think tank Chatham House, those forces con­duct­ed five times as many lethal coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sions in such non-bat­tle­field coun­tries in the Trump administration’s first six months in office as they did dur­ing Obama’s final six months.

A Wide World of War

U.S. com­man­dos spe­cial­ize in 12 core skills, from uncon­ven­tion­al war­fare” (help­ing to stoke insur­gen­cies and régime change) to for­eign inter­nal defense” (sup­port­ing allies’ efforts to guard them­selves against ter­ror­ism, insur­gen­cies, and coups). Coun­tert­er­ror­ism — fight­ing what SOCOM calls vio­lent extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tions or VEOs — is, how­ev­er, the spe­cial­ty America’s com­man­dos have become best known for in the post‑9/​11 era. 

In the spring of 2002, before the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, SOCOM chief Gen­er­al Charles Hol­land tout­ed efforts to improve SOF capa­bil­i­ties to pros­e­cute uncon­ven­tion­al war­fare and for­eign inter­nal defense pro­grams to bet­ter sup­port friends and allies. The val­ue of these pro­grams, demon­strat­ed in the Afghanistan cam­paign,” he said, can be par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful in sta­bi­liz­ing coun­tries and regions vul­ner­a­ble to ter­ror­ist infiltration.” 

Over the last decade and a half, how­ev­er, there’s been lit­tle evi­dence America’s com­man­dos have excelled at sta­bi­liz­ing coun­tries and regions vul­ner­a­ble to ter­ror­ist infil­tra­tion.” This was reflect­ed in Gen­er­al Thomas’s May tes­ti­mo­ny before the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. The threat posed by VEOs remains the high­est pri­or­i­ty for USSO­COM in both focus and effort,” he explained. 

How­ev­er, unlike Hol­land who high­light­ed only one coun­try — Afghanistan — where spe­cial oper­a­tors were bat­tling mil­i­tants in 2002, Thomas list­ed a panoply of ter­ror­ist hot spots bedev­il­ing America’s com­man­dos a decade and a half lat­er. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Forces,” he said, are the main effort, or major sup­port­ing effort for U.S. VEO-focused oper­a­tions in Afghanistan, Syr­ia, Iraq, Yemen, Soma­lia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philip­pines, and Central/​South Amer­i­ca — essen­tial­ly, every­where Al Qae­da (AQ) and the Islam­ic State of Iraq and Syr­ia (ISIS) are to be found.”

Offi­cial­ly, there are about 5,300 U.S. troops in Iraq. (The real fig­ure is thought to be high­er.) Sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of them are spe­cial oper­a­tors train­ing and advis­ing Iraqi gov­ern­ment forces and Kur­dish troops. Elite U.S. forces have also played a cru­cial role in Iraq’s recent offen­sive against the mil­i­tants of the Islam­ic State, pro­vid­ing artillery and air­pow­er, includ­ing SOCOM’s AC-130W Stinger II gun­ships with 105mm can­nons that allow them to serve as fly­ing how­itzers. In that cam­paign, Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces were thrust into a new role of coor­di­nat­ing fire sup­port,” wrote Lin­da Robin­son, a senior inter­na­tion­al pol­i­cy ana­lyst with the RAND Cor­po­ra­tion who spent sev­en weeks in Iraq, Syr­ia, and neigh­bor­ing coun­tries ear­li­er this year. This fire sup­port is even more impor­tant to the Syr­i­an Demo­c­ra­t­ic Forces, a far more light­ly armed irreg­u­lar force which con­sti­tutes the major ground force fight­ing ISIS in Syria.”

Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces have, in fact, played a key role in the war effort in Syr­ia, too. While Amer­i­can com­man­dos have been killed in bat­tle there, Kur­dish and Arab prox­ies — known as the Syr­i­an Demo­c­ra­t­ic Forces—have done the lion’s share of the fight­ing and dying to take back much of the ter­ri­to­ry once held by the Islam­ic State. SOCOM’s Thomas spoke about this in sur­pris­ing­ly frank terms at a secu­ri­ty con­fer­ence in Aspen, Col­orado, this sum­mer. We’re right now inside the cap­i­tal of [ISIS’s] caliphate at Raqqa [Syr­ia]. We’ll have that back soon with our prox­ies, a sur­ro­gate force of 50,000 peo­ple that are work­ing for us and doing our bid­ding,” he said. So two and a half years of fight­ing this fight with our sur­ro­gates, they’ve lost thou­sands, we’ve only lost two ser­vice mem­bers. Two is too many, but it’s, you know, a relief that we haven’t had the kind of loss­es that we’ve had elsewhere.”

This year, U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tors were killed in Iraq, Syr­ia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Soma­lia, and the Sahe­lian nations of Niger and Mali (although reports indi­cate that a Green Beret who died in that coun­try was like­ly stran­gled by U.S. Navy SEALs). In Libya, SEALs recent­ly kid­napped a sus­pect in the 2012 attacks in Beng­hazi that killed four Amer­i­cans, includ­ing Ambas­sador J. Christo­pher Stevens. In the Philip­pines, U.S. Spe­cial Forces joined the months-long bat­tle to recap­ture Marawi City after it was tak­en by Islamist mil­i­tants ear­li­er this year. 

And even this grow­ing list of coun­tert­er­ror hotspots is only a frac­tion of the sto­ry. In Africa, the coun­tries sin­gled out by Thomas — Soma­lia, Libya, and those in the Sahel — are just a hand­ful of the nations to which Amer­i­can com­man­dos were deployed in 2017. As recent­ly report­ed at Vice News, U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces were active in at least 33 nations across the con­ti­nent, with troops heav­i­ly con­cen­trat­ed in and around coun­tries now home to a grow­ing num­ber of what the Pentagon’s Africa Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies calls active mil­i­tant Islamist groups.” While Defense Depart­ment spokes­woman Major Audri­cia Har­ris would not pro­vide details on the range of oper­a­tions being car­ried out by the elite forces, it’s known that they run the gamut from con­duct­ing secu­ri­ty assess­ments at U.S. embassies to com­bat operations. 

Data pro­vid­ed by SOCOM also reveals a spe­cial ops pres­ence in 33 Euro­pean coun­tries this year. Out­side of Rus­sia and Belarus we train with vir­tu­al­ly every coun­try in Europe either bilat­er­al­ly or through var­i­ous multi­na­tion­al events,” Major Michael Weis­man, a spokesman for U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand Europe, told TomDis­patch.

For the past two years, in fact, the U.S. has main­tained a Spe­cial Oper­a­tions con­tin­gent in almost every nation on Russia’s west­ern bor­der. “[W]e’ve had per­sis­tent pres­ence in every coun­try — every NATO coun­try and oth­ers on the bor­der with Rus­sia doing phe­nom­e­nal things with our allies, help­ing them pre­pare for their threats,” said SOCOM’s Thomas, men­tion­ing the Baltic states as well as Roma­nia, Poland, Ukraine, and Geor­gia by name. These activ­i­ties rep­re­sent, in the words of Gen­er­al Charles Cleve­land, chief of U.S. Army Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand from 2012 to 2015 and now the senior men­tor to the Army War Col­lege, unde­clared cam­paigns” by com­man­dos. Weis­man, how­ev­er, balked at that par­tic­u­lar lan­guage. U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces have been deployed per­sis­tent­ly and at the invi­ta­tion of our allies in the Baltic States and Poland since 2014 as part of the broad­er U.S. Euro­pean Com­mand and Depart­ment of Defense Euro­pean Deter­rence Ini­tia­tive,” he told TomDis­patch. The per­sis­tent pres­ence of U.S. SOF along­side our Allies sends a clear mes­sage of U.S. com­mit­ment to our allies and the defense of our NATO Alliance.”

Asia is also a cru­cial region for America’s elite forces. In addi­tion to Iran and Rus­sia, SOCOM’s Thomas sin­gled out Chi­na and North Korea as nations that are becom­ing more aggres­sive in chal­leng­ing U.S. inter­ests and part­ners through the use of asym­met­ric means that often fall below the thresh­old of con­ven­tion­al con­flict.” He went on to say that the abil­i­ty of our spe­cial oper­a­tors to con­duct low-vis­i­bil­i­ty spe­cial war­fare oper­a­tions in polit­i­cal­ly sen­si­tive envi­ron­ments make them unique­ly suit­ed to counter the malign activ­i­ties of our adver­saries in this domain.”

U.S.-North Kore­an saber rat­tling has brought increased atten­tion to Spe­cial Forces Detach­ment Korea (SFDK), the longest serv­ing U.S. Spe­cial Forces unit in the world. It would, of course, be called into action should a war ever break out on the penin­su­la. In such a con­flict, U.S. and South Kore­an elite forces would unite under the umbrel­la of the Com­bined Uncon­ven­tion­al War­fare Task Force. In March, com­man­dos—includ­ing, accord­ing to some reports, mem­bers of the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 — took part in Foal Eagle, a train­ing exer­cise, along­side con­ven­tion­al U.S. forces and their South Kore­an counterparts. 

U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tors also were involved in train­ing exer­cis­es and oper­a­tions else­where across Asia and the Pacif­ic. In June, in Oki­nawa, Japan, for exam­ple, air­men from the 17th Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Squadron (17th SOS) car­ried out their annu­al (and odd­ly spelled) Day of the Jakal,” the launch of five Air Force Spe­cial Oper­a­tions MC-130J Com­man­do II air­craft to prac­tice, accord­ing to a mil­i­tary news release, air­drops, air­craft land­ings, and rapid infil­tra­tion and exfil­tra­tion of equip­ment.” Accord­ing to Air Force Lieu­tenant Colonel Patrick Dube of the 17th SOS, It shows how we can meet the emerg­ing mis­sion sets for both SOCK­OR [Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand Korea] and SOC­PAC [Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand Pacif­ic] out here in the Pacif­ic theater.” 

At about the same time, mem­bers of the Air Force’s 353rd Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Group car­ried out Teak Jet, a joint com­bined exchange train­ing, or JCET, mis­sion meant to improve mil­i­tary coor­di­na­tion between U.S. and Japan­ese forces. In June and July, intel­li­gence ana­lysts from the Air Force’s 353rd Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Group took part in Tal­is­man Saber, a bien­ni­al mil­i­tary train­ing exer­cise con­duct­ed in var­i­ous loca­tions across Australia.

More for War

The steady rise in the num­ber of elite oper­a­tors, mis­sions, and for­eign deploy­ments since 911 appears in no dan­ger of end­ing, despite years of wor­ries by think-tank experts and spe­cial ops sup­port­ers about the effects of such a high oper­a­tions tem­po on these troops. Most SOF units are employed to their sus­tain­able lim­it,” Gen­er­al Thomas said ear­li­er this year. Despite grow­ing demand for SOF, we must pri­or­i­tize the sourc­ing of these demands as we face a rapid­ly chang­ing secu­ri­ty envi­ron­ment.” Yet the num­ber of deploy­ments still grew to a record 149 nations in 2017. (Dur­ing the Oba­ma years, deploy­ments reached 147 in 2015.)

At a recent con­fer­ence on spe­cial oper­a­tions held in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., influ­en­tial mem­bers of the Sen­ate and House armed ser­vices com­mit­tees acknowl­edged that there were grow­ing strains on the force. I do wor­ry about overuse of SOF,” said House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mac Thorn­ber­ry, a Repub­li­can. One solu­tion offered by both Jack Reed, the rank­ing Demo­c­rat on the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Joni Ernst, a com­bat vet­er­an who served in Iraq, was to bulk up Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand yet more. We have to increase num­bers and resources,” Reed insist­ed.

This desire to expand Spe­cial Oper­a­tions fur­ther comes at a moment when sen­a­tors like Lind­sey Gra­ham con­tin­ue to acknowl­edge how remark­ably clue­less they are about where those elite forces are deployed and what exact­ly they are doing in far-flung cor­ners of the globe. Experts point out just how dan­ger­ous fur­ther expan­sion could be, giv­en the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ter­ror groups and bat­tle zones since 911 and the dan­gers of unfore­seen blow­back as a result of low-pro­file spe­cial ops missions.

Almost by def­i­n­i­tion, the dizzy­ing num­ber of deploy­ments under­tak­en by U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces in recent years would be hard to track. But few in Con­gress seem to be even mak­ing the effort,” said William Har­tung. This is a colos­sal mis­take if one is con­cerned about rein­ing in the globe-span­ning U.S. mil­i­tary strat­e­gy of the post‑9/​11 era, which has caused more harm than good and done lit­tle to curb terrorism.” 

How­ev­er, with spe­cial ops deploy­ments ris­ing above Bush and Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion lev­els to record-set­ting heights and the Trump admin­is­tra­tion embrac­ing the use of com­man­dos in qua­si-wars in places like Soma­lia and Yemen, there appears to be lit­tle inter­est in the White House or on Capi­tol Hill in rein­ing in the geo­graph­ic scope and sweep of America’s most secre­tive troops. And the results, say experts, may be dire. While the retreat from large boots on the ground’ wars like the Bush admin­is­tra­tion’s inter­ven­tion in Iraq is wel­come,” said Har­tung, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces is a dan­ger­ous alter­na­tive, giv­en the prospects of get­ting the Unit­ed States fur­ther embroiled in com­plex over­seas conflicts.”

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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