If you throw a dart at a world map and do not hit water, Nick Turse reported for TomDispatch, the odds are that US Special Operations Forces “have been there sometime in 2015.” According to a spokesperson for Special Operations Command (SOCOM), in 2015 Special Operations Forces (SOF) deployed in 147 of the world’s 195 recognized nations, an increase of eighty percent since 2010. “The global growth of SOF missions has been breathtaking,” Turse wrote.
As SOCOM commander General Joseph Votel told the audience of the Aspen Security Forum in July 2015, more SOF troops are deployed to more locations and are conducting more operations than at the height of the Afghan and Iraq wars. In Turse’s words, “Everyday, in around 80 or more countries that Special Operations Command will not name, they undertake missions the command refuses to talk about.”
Calculated in 2014 constant dollars, the SOCOM budget has more than tripled since 2001, when funding totaled three billion dollars. By 2015, SOCOM funding had risen to nearly ten billion dollars. That figure, Turse noted, did not include additional funding from specific military branches, which SOCOM estimated to amount to another eight billion dollars annually, or other undisclosed sums that were not available to the Government Accountability Office.
Every day, Turse wrote, “America’s most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations.” The majority of these are training missions, “designed to tutor proxies and forge stronger ties with allies.” Training missions focus on everything from basic rifle marksmanship and land navigation to small unit tactics and counterterrorism operations. For example, between 2012–2014, Special Operations Forces carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as sixty-seven countries per year. Officially, JCETs are devoted to training US forces, but according to a SOCOM official interviewed by Turse, these missions also “foster key military partnerships with foreign militaries” and “build interoperability between U.S. SOF and partner-nation forces.” JCETs, Turse wrote, “are just a fraction of the story” when it comes to multinational overseas training operations. In 2014, Special Operations Forces organized seventy-five training operations in thirty countries, a figure projected to increase to ninety-eight exercises by the end of 2015, according to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense.
In addition to training, Special Operations Forces also engage in “direct action.” Counterterrorism missions, including what Turse described as “low-profile drone assassinations and kill/capture raids by muscled-up, high-octane operators,” are the specific domains of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces, such as the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force.
Africa has seen the greatest increase in SOCOM deployments since 2006. In that year, just 1 percent of special operators deployed overseas went to Africa. As of 2014, that figure had risen to 10 percent. In the Intercept, Turse reported on the development by US forces of the Chabelley Airfield in the east African nation of Djibouti. “Unbeknownst to most Americans and without any apparent public announcement,” Turse wrote in October 2015, “the U.S. has recently taken steps to transform this tiny, out-of-the-way outpost into an ‘enduring’ base, a key hub for its secret war, run by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), in Africa and the Middle East.” Chabelley, he reported, has become “essential” to secret US drone operations over Yemen, southwest Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and parts of Ethiopia and southern Egypt. Aerial images of Chabelley taken between April 2013 and March 2015 testify to the significant expansion of the base and the presence of drones, though officials refused to respond to questions about the number and types of drones based there. As Turse summarized, “The startling transformation of this little-known garrison in this little-known country is in line with U.S. military activity in Africa, where, largely under the radar, the number of missions, special operations deployments, and outposts has grown rapidly and with little outside scrutiny.” (For previous Project Censored coverage of US military operations in Africa, see Brian Martin Murphy, “The ‘New’ American Imperialism in Africa: Secret Sahara Wars and AFRICOM,” in Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times.)
If, as Turse reported, SOCOM has “grown in every conceivable way from funding and personnel to global reach and deployments” since 9/11, has its expansion resulted in significant success? In an October 2015 report for the Nation, Turse reported skepticism from a number of experts in response to this question. According to Sean Naylor, the author of Relentless Strike, a history of Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC operations are “a tool in the policymaker’s toolkit,” not a “substitute for strategy.” JSOC may have had an impact on the history of Iraq—where its forces captured Saddam Hussein, killed Uday and Qusay Hussein, and “eviscerated” Al Qaeda in Iraq—but, as Turse wrote, impacts are not the same as successes. Similarly, Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, told Turse, “As far back as Vietnam … the United States military has tended to confuse inputs with outcomes. Effort, as measured by operations conducted, bomb tonnage dropped, or bodies counted, is taken as evidence of progress made. Today, tallying up the number of countries in which Special Operations forces are present repeats this error.”
Corporate media have not covered the massive expansion of Special Operations Forces around the globe, much less raised critical questions about whether these missions result in meaningful accomplishments. The increase that has taken place over the past five to ten years is not “breaking” news, and so it has gone all but completely unreported by the corporate press. Instead, the global presence of US military personnel is typically treated as the unspoken background for more dramatic reports of specific military operations or policy decisions. Thus, for example, in October 2015, Time magazine ran a graphic documenting “places with some of the most significant number” of US military personnel stationed “in over 150 countries across the world.” However, the Time map of the world featured just nine points—none of which were located in Africa—and the entire graphic ran as a sidebar to the primary story, about President Obama’s announcement to maintain the current number of troops in Afghanistan through most of 2016, which reversed his earlier plan to withdraw most military personnel by the end of his presidency.
Nick Turse, “A Secret War in 135 Countries,” TomDispatch, September 24, 2015, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176048/.
Nick Turse, “The Stealth Expansion of a Secret US Drone Base in Africa,” Intercept, October 21, 2015, https://theintercept.com/2015/10/21/stealth-expansion-of-secret-us-drone-base-in-africa/.
Nick Turse, “American Special Operations Forces Have a Very Funny Definition of Success,” Nation, October 26, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/american-special-operations-forces-have-a-very-funny-definition-of-success/.
Student Researchers: Scott Arrow (Sonoma State University) and Bri Silva (College of Marin)
Faculty Evaluators: Robert McNamara (Sonoma State University) and Susan Rahman (College of Marin)