The South Sudan civil war, which erupted in December 2013, is assuming an increasingly genocidal character, according to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). In the course of the war, both the US-backed government led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and President Salva Kiir, and SPLA opposition faction led by Vice President Riek Machar, have carried out atrocities against civilians.
On February 7, UN experts officially began registering “warning signs for ethnic cleansing” and “indicators for genocide.” The situation is characterized by “massive insecurity” and “large-scale polarization of communities,” the UN found.
The SPLA regime has organized a “scorched earth” campaign and is carrying out “population engineering” through forced relocation of ethnic minorities. Kiir and other top SPLA officials have directly ordered mass killing and property seizures against civilian communities. SPLA members frequently abuse civilians at military checkpoints and during warrantless searches of residential areas.
Barely six years after its secession from the Sudan, a development hailed by Western bourgeois public opinion as a victory for “democracy” and “the self-determination of nations,” South Sudan is experiencing levels of chaos and social breakdown which bring to mind the worst catastrophes of the 20th century.
Three years of civil war have produced widespread famine and a massive refugee crisis. Some 1.5 million South Sudanese have already become refugees, and 2 million have been displaced internally as a result of the war. Some 700,000 are in refugee camps across the border in Uganda. One million South Sudanese are at risk of starving in the coming year.
The crisis in South Sudan is an advanced manifestation of the unviability and breakdown of the nation-state system across Africa and worldwide. The pressure of world imperialism against the oppressed countries finds its sharpest expression in the weakest nations.
South Sudan’s political structure, controlled by a coalition of generals and aspiring dictators cobbled together with US cash and weapons, ruled for only two years before breaking in two. Between 2012-2013, the Kiir leadership pursued policies aimed at driving the Machar faction out of the government. In an effort to tighten his grip over the South Sudanese government, President Kiir ordered the firing of hundreds of military and political officials and reorganized the top committees of the state so as to entrench his own supporters in power. In December 2013, gunfire broke out during meetings of the SPLM’s National Liberation Council amid circumstances that remain unclear. President Kiir seized on the clashes to accuse Machar of planning a coup, and expel him and his supporters from the government.
The state of war between the SPLA factions has since served, to a large extent, as a pretext for the expropriation and murder of ethnic minorities and civilians generally. The UN found that: “Civilians have been deliberately and systematically targeted on the basis of their ethnicity by armed forces and groups, including SPLA and SPLM/A in Opposition, and also by groups aligned with them. Individuals have been targeted for killing, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, sexual slavery and forced marriage. Communities have been subjected to scorched-earth policies that result in the destruction of their homes and means of livelihood. Many of the attacks have been carried out by SPLA soldiers and the militias affiliated with them. Armed groups attack villages, burn homes, kill and rape.”
“Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in horrific attacks, often targeted on the basis of their ethnicity or perceived allegiances,” the UN found.
For all this savagery, the SPLA is merely a local enforcer of the policies and economic interests of the American ruling class. The men organizing the killing from Juba were placed in power as part of a geopolitical operation aimed at opening Sudan’s oil resources to exploitation by American firms. Washington has sought for decades to exploit long-standing conflicts between the Sudan’s northern and southern elites as a means of projecting power against the central Sudanese government in Khartoum, whose ties to China and the Soviet Union threatened to block American companies from accessing Sudan’s oil fields.
Founded in 1983, the SPLA became a favored proxy army of US imperialism, developing close ties with the US political elite and rising, during the 2005-2011 transition process, to assume control of the newly-formed South Sudanese state. The signature black cowboy hat of President Salva Kiir, without which he never appears in public, was a gift from none other than US President George W. Bush, given to Kiir at the White House in July 2006.
While in power, the Kiir and the SPLA have employed ethno-nationalism as an ideological cover for its self-serving collaboration with imperialism. Advertising themselves as leaders of a “liberation” movement, the SPLA’s cadres could be more accurately described as networks of US-backed warlords. They view the South Sudanese state as nothing more than a means of expanding their property and privileges. Despite being expelled from the Juba government, Machar’s opposition forces continue to manage significant business interests and maintain ties to foreign government and corporations. Machar’s militias remain armed and continue to occupy territory and move about the country largely at will. In a telling detail reported by the Sentry, the families of Kiir and Machar, who pose as mortal enemies in public view, live just miles apart in luxurious mansions near Nairobi.
New Kiirs and Machars are being cultivated by American imperialism in countless countries. The historic processes that pushed the United States to support the break-up of the Sudan are active on every continent. They are essentially the same tendencies of development that have defined world politics for 100 years: the domination of finance capital and the economic rivalry between the major nations produces an endless chain of regional wars, military dictators and ethnic slaughters.
The removal of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from the geopolitical landscape has, since 1991, cleared the way for 25 years of relentless economic and military warfare against the former colonial countries. A quarter century of unobstructed capitalist world-rule has produced nothing less then the liquidation of entire sections of world society. Tens of millions are living as homeless refugees, with no social or political rights, as a consequences of the wars and counterrevolutionary economic policies of the world’s capitalist governments.
Last Friday, UN humanitarian leader Stephen O’Brien described the international humanitarian situation as “worse then any time since 1945.” Spreading famine and disease are threatening the lives of 20 million people living in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, O’Brien said.
More South Sudans are being prepared. In every part of the world, the economic and political objectives of the US ruling elite demand not peaceful development and the raising of living standards, but ever greater levels of destruction and robbery. During the epoch of imperialism, as Leon Trotsky wrote, the capitalist organization of world economy becomes its opposite, that is, “barbarous disorganization and chaos.” In lines that could easily have been written yesterday, as an explanation of the broader historical process that has led to the catastrophe in South Sudan, Trotsky wrote:
“The future development of world economy on the capitalistic basis means a ceaseless struggle for new and ever new fields of capitalist exploitation, which must be obtained from one and the same source, the earth. The economic rivalry under the banner of militarism is accompanied by robbery and destruction which violate the elementary principles of human economy.”
The fate of South Sudan, like that of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, shows the future that capitalism and imperialist war have in store for humanity unless stopped by the mobilization of the African and international working class in revolutionary struggle.
An obscure US government agency has provided $315m in taxpayer-supported financing over the past decade to a company that has supplied equipment to African mines accused of slave labor, human rights violations and environmental destruction.
Between 2007 and 2015, the US Export-Import Bank provided 48 insurance policies to the New Jersey-headquartered Connell Company to pursue deals with at least 17 mining companies in seven sub-Saharan countries. These included a $20,000 policy to supply equipment to the Bisha copper mine in Eritrea, which is being investigated by a Canadian court amid accusations of slavery, according to an investigation of the bank by the Guardian and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Energy and Environment Reporting Project.
The bank provides US exporters with financing – in the form of loans, guarantees and insurance policies – to sell goods and services overseas. Bank officials say they create US jobs and fill a financing gap by allowing companies to access funding when private lenders will not.
Obama’s dirty secret: the fossil fuel projects the US littered around the world
But Nevsun Resources, the Canadian mining company that controls Bisha, faces a lawsuit in which 30 plaintiffs allege that the mine engaged two Eritrean state-run contractors and the army to force hundreds of military conscripts to work there under abhorrent conditions.
“The financing that Connell is getting is quite significant,” said Doug Norlen, director of economic policy for Friends of the Earth US. “Whether it’s loans or insurance, the same obligations exist to carry out human rights due diligence. Some of these projects are associated with some pretty serious human rights abuses.”
The bank also insured export deals between Connell and seven mining companies in the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the proximity of mines to villages means thousands of people are exposed to fumes, dust, noise and effluent water, says the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations.
“This happens across the board in the region. It’s very hard to prove whether this or that mine is to blame for the environmental damages. The tests are complicated and expensive and it’s hard to prove environmental damage in connection with a specific mine,” said Esther de Haan, a senior researcher with the Dutch center.
The group says that addressing Katanga’s human rights and environmental violations requires the engagement of all actors in the mineral supply chain, including mining equipment providers and financiers – such as Connell and the US Export-Import Bank.
The Connell Company, an opaque business conglomerate founded in 1926 and managed by four generations of the Connell family, is one the top 40 recipients of the bank’s insurance policies. Commercial banks, such as Wells Fargo and JP Morgan, are the largest recipients – receiving more than $30bn of the more than $50bn the bank authorized in insurance policies between 2007 and 2016.
The government-backed insurance policies protected Connell against buyer non-payment, in effect transferring the risk of doing business in these troubled countries to US taxpayers.
Caroline Scullin, the bank’s senior vice-president for communications, said that short-term insurance deals – like those it provided Connell – were not subject to environmental and social due diligence procedures.
“Short-term insurance does not cover projects per se; rather, it generally covers goods that are not capital in nature or destined for new projects,” she said.
But to critics of the bank, this lack of oversight means the US is potentially financing corrupt and dangerous projects across the globe.
“In the case of a mine, the mining equipment is the most central thing that enables a project to move forward,” said Norlen.
He said the bank’s lack of due diligence violated the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which stipulate that export credit agencies are responsible for investigating projects that could involve human rights abuses before financing.
The bank, instead, follows guidance from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which Norlen says is weaker than the UN’s rules.
The Connell Company, which is privately owned, does not release financial information to the public, but its website describes it as “one of the largest diversified” companies in the United States.
Connell did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Allegations of forced labor in a repressive country
The bank has supplied a safety net of insurance policies for Connell in mineral-rich sub-Saharan countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Eritrea and Mauritania, which have been associated with corruption, political violence and internal instability in recent years, according to organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
For instance, in 2010, the bank approved an insurance deal between Connell and Eritrea’s Bisha mine, which is at the center of a slave labor lawsuit brought by 29 men and one woman who say they were forced to work at the mine.
In affidavits, claimants say they were abducted from their villages and forced to work shifts of over 12 hours, with barely any food or water. These abuses allegedly began in 2003 and continued after 2010.
“The case alleges that military intelligence forces actually operated inside the mine and detained and disappeared people working at Bisha, and that several conscripted laborers were tortured,” said Matt Eisenbrandt, who works as legal director for the Canadian Center for International Justice, and who is part of the legal team representing the claimants.
Nevsun issued a statement in October saying it was considering appealing against the supreme court of British Columbia’s decision to proceed with the case, and that the company complies with “international standards of governance, workplace conditions, health, safety and human rights”.
The company referred all reporters’ questions to the statement.
“Beyond just the issue of forced labor, the bigger picture is that Eritrea is an incredibly repressive country. Any company that is providing funding, or equipment or insurance, has to go in there with its eyes open and do its due diligence,” adds Eisenbrandt.
An ore deposit five times the size of Central Park
Another Connell client in the region that has received scrutiny is Ambatovy, a cobalt and nickel mine in Madagascar operated by the Toronto-based Sherritt International Corporation. Between 2010 and 2012, Connell was provided with about $500,000 worth of insurance policies to supply goods to the mine. The Ambatovy development includes an ore deposit that covers 1,600 hectares (almost 4,000 acres, or a space roughly five times the size of New York’s Central Park), a 220km (137-mile) pipeline (equal to the distance between Los Angeles to San Diego) and a processing plant the size of 250 football fields.
Although Ambatovy has an environmental management program, biologists say this gigantic project has scarred an ecologically unique country whose lush forests are home to hundreds of native animals, including about 100 species of lemurs, as well as the cat-like fossa.
“The Ambatovy mine has destroyed a lot of primary rainforest habitat in Madagascar,” said Chris Raxworthy, a curator-in-charge at the American Museum of Natural History, who has studied reptiles and amphibians in the African island country since 1985. “At the moment, it is not clear what positive offsets the mine development has provided for Madagascar’s biodiversity.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Connell Company donated almost $5.8m to politicians from 1990 to 2016. The company’s founder and CEO, Grover Connell, has contributed almost $800,000 over the past 20 years, mainly to the Democratic party, which has long supported the bank on the grounds that it helps export-oriented companies create jobs.
While regulatory loopholes allow the bank to skip due diligence procedures for many of Connell’s deals, their 40-year relationship was celebrated in 2014, when the company was honored with the bank’s sub-Saharan Africa Exporter of the Year award.
The partnership between the bank and Connell “is bringing new economic opportunity to sub-Saharan Africa, while creating jobs at home”, read a statement released by the bank about the award. “It’s a win-win.”
At least 31 Somali refugees are dead after the boat they were traveling in from Yemen to Sudan was attacked by what might have been a U.S.-made Apache helicopter. International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed “dozens of deaths and many dozens of survivors brought to hospitals.” A local coastguard officer told Reuters that “the refugees, carrying official [United Nations Refugee Agency] documents, were on their way from Yemen to Sudan when they were attacked by an Apache helicopter near the Bab al-Mandeb strait.”
They could be found on the outskirts of Sirte, Libya, supporting local militia fighters, and in Mukalla, Yemen, backing troops from the United Arab Emirates. At Saakow, a remote outpost in southern Somalia, they assisted local commandos in killing several members of the terror group al-Shabab. Around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai in northern Syria, they partnered with both Turkish soldiers and Syrian militias, while also embedding with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Across the border in Iraq, still others joined the fight to liberate the city of Mosul. And in Afghanistan, they assisted indigenous forces in various missions, just as they have every year since 2001.
For America, 2016 may have been the year of the commando. In one conflict zone after another across the northern tier of Africa and the Greater Middle East, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) waged their particular brand of low-profile warfare. “Winning the current fight, including against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other areas where SOF is engaged in conflict and instability, is an immediate challenge,” the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General Raymond Thomas, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
SOCOM’s shadow wars against terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) may, ironically, be its most visible operations. Shrouded in even more secrecy are its activities — from counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts to seemingly endless training and advising missions — outside acknowledged conflict zones across the globe. These are conducted with little fanfare, press coverage, or oversight in scores of nations every single day. From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America’s most elite forces — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them — were deployed to 138 countries in 2016, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. This total, one of the highest of Barack Obama’s presidency, typifies what has become the golden age of, in SOF-speak, the “gray zone” — a phrase used to describe the murky twilight between war and peace. The coming year is likely to signal whether this era ends with Obama or continues under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
“In just the past few years, we have witnessed a varied and evolving threat environment consisting of: the emergence of a militarily expansionist China; an increasingly unpredictable North Korea; a revanchist Russia threatening our interests in both Europe and Asia; and an Iran which continues to expand its influence across the Middle East, fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict,” General Thomas wrote last month in PRISM, the official journal of the Pentagon’s Center for Complex Operations. “Nonstate actors further confuse this landscape by employing terrorist, criminal, and insurgent networks that erode governance in all but the strongest states… Special operations forces provide asymmetric capability and responses to these challenges.”
In 2016, according to data provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, the U.S. deployed special operators to China (specifically Hong Kong), in addition to eleven countries surrounding it — Taiwan (which China considers a breakaway province), Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Laos, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. Special Operations Command does not acknowledge sending commandos into Iran, North Korea, or Russia, but it does deploy troops to many nations that ring them.
SOCOM is willing to name only 129 of the 138 countries its forces deployed to in 2016. “Almost all Special Operations forces deployments are classified,” spokesman Ken McGraw told TomDispatch. “If a deployment to a specific country has not been declassified, we do not release information about the deployment.”
SOCOM does not, for instance, acknowledge sending troops to the war zones of Somalia, Syria, or Yemen, despite overwhelming evidence of a U.S. special ops presence in all three countries, as well as a White House report, issued last month, that notes “the United States is currently using military force in” Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, and specifically states that “U.S. special operations forces have deployed to Syria.”
According to Special Operations Command, 55.29% of special operators deployed overseas in 2016 were sent to the Greater Middle East, a drop of 35% since 2006. Over the same span, deployments to Africa skyrocketed by more than 1600% — from just 1% of special operators dispatched outside the U.S. in 2006 to 17.26% last year. Those two regions were followed by areas served by European Command (12.67%), Pacific Command (9.19%), Southern Command (4.89%), and Northern Command (0.69%), which is in charge of “homeland defense.” On any given day, around 8,000 of Thomas’s commandos can be found in more than 90 countries worldwide.
“Special Operations forces are playing a critical role in gathering intelligence — intelligence that’s supporting operations against ISIL and helping to combat the flow of foreign fighters to and from Syria and Iraq,” said Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, in remarks at the International Special Operations Forces Convention last year. Such intelligence operations are “conducted in direct support of special operations missions,” SOCOM’s Thomas explained in 2016. “The preponderance of special operations intelligence assets are dedicated to locating individuals, illuminating enemy networks, understanding environments, and supporting partners.”
Signals intelligence from computers and cellphones supplied by foreign allies or intercepted by surveillance drones and manned aircraft, as well as human intelligence provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has been integral to targeting individuals for kill/capture missions by SOCOM’s most elite forces. The highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), for example, carries out such counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes, raids, and assassinations in places like Iraq and Libya. Last year, before he exchanged command of JSOC for that of its parent, SOCOM, General Thomas noted that members of Joint Special Operations Command were operating in “all the countries where ISIL currently resides.” (This may indicate a special ops deployment to Pakistan, another country absent from SOCOM’s 2016 list.)
“[W]e have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering ISIL’s external operations. And we have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing ISIL leaders from the battlefield,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted in a relatively rare official mention of JSOC’s operations at an October press conference.
A month earlier, he offered even more detail in a statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee:
”We’re systematically eliminating ISIL’s leadership: the coalition has taken out seven members of the ISIL Senior Shura… We also removed key ISIL leaders in both Libya and Afghanistan… And we’ve removed from the battlefield more than 20 of ISIL’s external operators and plotters… We have entrusted this aspect of our campaign to one of [the Department of Defense’s] most lethal, capable, and experienced commands, our Joint Special Operations Command, which helped deliver justice not only to Osama Bin Laden, but also to the man who founded the organization that became ISIL, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi.”
Asked for details on exactly how many ISIL “external operators” were targeted and how many were “removed” from the battlefield by JSOC in 2016, SOCOM’s Ken McGraw replied: “We do not and will not have anything for you.”
When he was commander of JSOC in 2015, General Thomas spoke of his and his unit’s “frustrations” with limitations placed on them. “I’m told ‘no’ more than ‘go’ on a magnitude of about ten to one on almost a daily basis,” he said. Last November, however, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was granting a JSOC task force “expanded power to track, plan and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe.” That Counter-External Operations Task Force (also known as “Ex-Ops”) has been “designed to take JSOC’s targeting model… and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West.”
SOCOM disputes portions of the Post story. “Neither SOCOM nor any of its subordinate elements have… been given any expanded powers (authorities),” SOCOM’s Ken McGraw told TomDispatch by email. “Any potential operation must still be approved by the GCC [Geographic Combatant Command] commander [and], if required, approved by the Secretary of Defense or [the president].”
“U.S. officials” (who spoke only on the condition that they be identified in that vague way) explained that SOCOM’s response was a matter of perspective. Its powers weren’t recently expanded as much as institutionalized and put “in writing,” TomDispatch was told. “Frankly, the decision made months ago was to codify current practice, not create something new.” Special Operations Command refused to confirm this but Colonel Thomas Davis, another SOCOM spokesman, noted: “Nowhere did we say that there was no codification.”
With Ex-Ops, General Thomas is a “decision-maker when it comes to going after threats under the task force’s purview,” according to the Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe. “The task force would essentially turn Thomas into the leading authority when it comes to sending Special Operations units after threats.” Others claim Thomas has only expanded influence, allowing him to directly recommend a plan of action, such as striking a target, to the Secretary of Defense, allowing for shortened approval time. (SOCOM’s McGraw says that Thomas “will not be commanding forces or be the decision maker for SOF operating in any GCC’s [area of operations].”)
Last November, Defense Secretary Carter offered an indication of the frequency of offensive operations following a visit to Florida’s Hurlburt Field, the headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command. He noted that “today we were looking at a number of the Special Operations forces’ assault capabilities. This is a kind of capability that we use nearly every day somewhere in the world… And it’s particularly relevant to the counter-ISIL campaign that we’re conducting today.”
In Afghanistan, alone, Special Operations forces conducted 350 raids targeting al-Qaeda and Islamic State operatives last year, averaging about one per day, and capturing or killing nearly 50 “leaders” as well as 200 “members” of the terror groups, according to General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in that country. Some sources also suggest that while JSOC and CIA drones flew roughly the same number of missions in 2016, the military launched more than 20,000 strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, compared to less than a dozen by the Agency. This may reflect an Obama administration decision to implement a long-considered plan to put JSOC in charge of lethal operations and shift the CIA back to its traditional intelligence duties.
World of Warcraft
“[I]t is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort, because its use also highlights why the U.S. continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns — Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine — none of which fits the U.S. model for traditional war,” said retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, chief of U.S. Army Special Operations Command from 2012 to 2015 and now a senior mentor to the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. Asserting that, amid the larger problems of these conflicts, the ability of America’s elite forces to conduct kill/capture missions and train local allies has proven especially useful, he added, “SOF is at its best when its indigenous and direct-action capabilities work in support of each other. Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing CT [counterterrrorism] efforts elsewhere, SOF continues to work with partner nations in counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”
SOCOM acknowledges deployments to approximately 70% of the world’s nations, including all but three Central and South American countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela being the exceptions). Its operatives also blanket Asia, while conducting missions in about 60% of the countries in Africa.
A SOF overseas deployment can be as small as one special operator participating in a language immersion program or a three-person team conducting a “survey” for the U.S. embassy. It may also have nothing to do with a host nation’s government or military. Most Special Operations forces, however, work with local partners, conducting training exercises and engaging in what the military calls “building partner capacity” (BPC) and “security cooperation” (SC). Often, this means America’s most elite troops are sent to countries with security forces that are regularly cited for human rights abuses by the U.S. State Department. Last year in Africa, where Special Operations forces utilize nearly 20 different programs and activities — from training exercises to security cooperation engagements — these included Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, among others.
In 2014, for example, more than 4,800 elite troops took part in just one type of such activities — Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions — around the world. At a cost of more than $56 million, Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and other special operators carried out 176 individual JCETs in 87 countries. A 2013 RAND Corporation study of the areas covered by Africa Command, Pacific Command, and Southern Command found “moderately low” effectiveness for JCETs in all three regions. A 2014 RAND analysis of U.S. security cooperation, which also examined the implications of “low-footprint Special Operations forces efforts,” found that there “was no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.” And in a 2015 report for Joint Special Operations University, Harry Yarger, a senior fellow at the school, noted that “BPC has in the past consumed vast resources for little return.”
Despite these results and larger strategic failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the Obama years have been the golden age of the gray zone. The 138 nations visited by U.S. special operators in 2016, for example, represent a jump of 130% since the waning days of the Bush administration. Although they also represent a 6% drop compared to last year’s total, 2016 remains in the upper range of the Obama years, which saw deployments to 75 nations in 2010, 120 in 2011, 134 in 2013, and 133 in 2014, before peaking at 147 countries in 2015. Asked about the reason for the modest decline, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw replied, “We provide SOF to meet the geographic combatant commands’ requirements for support to their theater security cooperation plans. Apparently, there were nine fewer countries [where] the GCCs had a requirement for SOF to deploy to in [Fiscal Year 20]16.”
The increase in deployments between 2009 and 2016 — from about 60 countries to more than double that — mirrors a similar rise in SOCOM’s total personnel (from approximately 56,000 to about 70,000) and in its baseline budget (from $9 billion to $11 billion). It’s no secret that the tempo of operations has also increased dramatically, although the command refused to address questions from TomDispatch on the subject.
“SOF have shouldered a heavy burden in carrying out these missions, suffering a high number of casualties over the last eight years and maintaining a high operational tempo (OPTEMPO) that has increasingly strained special operators and their families,” reads an October 2016 report released by the Virginia-based think tank CNA. (That report emerged from a conference attended by six former special operations commanders, a former assistant secretary of defense, and dozens of active-duty special operators.)
The American Age of the Commando
Last month, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shawn Brimley, former director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and now an executive vice president at the Center for a New American Security, echoed the worried conclusions of the CNA report. At a hearing on “emerging U.S. defense challenges and worldwide threats,” Brimley said “SOF have been deployed at unprecedented rates, placing immense strain on the force” and called on the Trump administration to “craft a more sustainable long-term counterterrorism strategy.” In a paper published in December, Kristen Hajduk, a former adviser for Special Operations and Irregular Warfare in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called for a decrease in the deployment rates for Special Operations forces.
While Donald Trump has claimed that the U.S. military as a whole is “depleted” and has called for increasing the size of the Army and Marines, he has offered no indication about whether he plans to support a further increase in the size of special ops forces. And while he did recently nominate a former Navy SEAL to serve as his secretary of the interior, Trump has offered few indications of how he might employ special operators who are currently serving.
“Drone strikes,” he announced in one of his rare detailed references to special ops missions, “will remain part of our strategy, but we will also seek to capture high-value targets to gain needed information to dismantle their organizations.” More recently, at a North Carolina victory rally, Trump made specific references to the elite troops soon to be under his command. “Our Special Forces at Fort Bragg have been the tip of the spear in fighting terrorism. The motto of our Army Special Forces is ‘to free the oppressed,’ and that is exactly what they have been doing and will continue to do. At this very moment, soldiers from Fort Bragg are deployed in 90 countries around the world,” he told the crowd.
After seeming to signal his support for continued wide-ranging, free-the-oppressed special ops missions, Trump appeared to change course, adding, “We don’t want to have a depleted military because we’re all over the place fighting in areas that just we shouldn’t be fighting in… This destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally, folks, come to an end.” At the same time, however, he pledged that the U.S. would soon “defeat the forces of terrorism.” To that end, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a former director of intelligence for JSOC whom the president-elect tapped to serve as his national security adviser, has promised that the new administration would reassess the military’s powers to battle the Islamic State — potentially providing more latitude in battlefield decision-making. To this end, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon is crafting proposals to reduce “White House oversight of operational decisions” while “moving some tactical authority back to the Pentagon.”
Last month, President Obama traveled to Florida’s MacDill Air Force Base, the home of Special Operations Command, to deliver his capstone counterterrorism speech. “For eight years that I’ve been in office, there has not been a day when a terrorist organization or some radicalized individual was not plotting to kill Americans,” he told a crowd packed with troops. At the same time, there likely wasn’t a day when the most elite forces under his command were not deployed in 60 or more countries around the world.
“I will become the first president of the United States to serve two full terms during a time of war,” Obama added. “Democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war. That’s not good for our military, it’s not good for our democracy.” The results of his permanent-war presidency have, in fact, been dismal, according to Special Operations Command. Of eight conflicts waged during the Obama years, according to a 2015 briefing slide from the command’s intelligence directorate, America’s record stands at zero wins, two losses, and six ties.
The Obama era has indeed proven to be the “age of the commando.” However, as Special Operations forces have kept up a frenetic operational tempo, waging war in and out of acknowledged conflict zones, training local allies, advising indigenous proxies, kicking down doors, and carrying out assassinations, terror movements have spread across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
President-elect Donald Trump appears poised to obliterate much of the Obama legacy, from the president’s signature healthcare law to his environmental regulations, not to mention changing course when it comes to foreign policy, including in relations with China, Iran, Israel, and Russia. Whether he will heed advice to decrease Obama-level SOF deployment rates remains to be seen. The year ahead will, however, offer clues as to whether Obama’s long war in the shadows, the golden age of the gray zone, survives.
U.S. B-2 war planes bombed two camps in Libya overnight that Pentagon officials claim were housing Islamic State (ISIS) militants, concluding President Barack Obama’s time as commander in chief with another slew of deaths. More than 80 people were killed at the camps about 25 miles southeast of Sirte, where ISIS fighters fled from last year after attacks by Libyan fighters backed with American air power.
Obama reportedly authorized the strikes earlier this week, without congressional approval. The president committed to giving Libya air support after the U.S.-backed toppling of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. He later said the military’s lack of an action plan for the day after Gaddafi’s ouster was his “worst mistake” as a president.
When Donald Trump enters the Oval Office, awaiting him will not only be his own private air assassination corps (those CIA drones that take out terror suspects globally from a White House “kill list”), but his own private and remarkably secret military. Ever since John F. Kennedy first made the Green Berets into figures of military glamour, there’s always been something alluring to presidents about the U.S. military’s elite special ops forces.
Still, that was then, this is now. In the twenty-first century, the Special Operations Command, which oversees those elite forces cocooned within the regular military, has gained ever more power to act in ever more independent and secretive ways. In those same years, the country’s elite troops, including those Green Berets, the Navy SEALs, and the Army’s Delta Force, have grown to staggering proportions, while ever more money has poured into their coffers. There are now an estimated 70,000 of them — a crew larger than the actual armies of some reasonably sizeable countries — and from trainers to raiders, advisers to hunter-killers, they now operate yearly in an overwhelming majority of the nations on this planet. Moreover, they generally do so in remarkable secrecy and (as once might have been said of the CIA) their most secretive part, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden, is in essence the president’s private army.
In these last years, President Obama, who gained a reputation for being chary of war, has nonetheless taken on with evident relish both those special ops forces and the drone assassins, while embracing what Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently termed the role of “covert commander in chief.” Now, in these last weeks of his presidency, his administration has given JSOC new powers to “track, plan, and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe” and to do so “outside conventional conflict zones” and via “a new multiagency intelligence and action force.” As a result, whatever this new task force may do, it won’t, as in the past, have to deal with regional military commands and their commanders at all. Its only responsibility will be to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and assumedly the White House; even within the military, that is, it will gain a new patina of secrecy and power (while evidently poaching on territory that once was considered the CIA’s alone, no small thing at a moment when President-elect Trump is not exactly enamored with that agency).
One of the strangest aspects of the growth of America’s special ops forces and their global missions is how little attention those special operators get in the media (unless they want the publicity). The very growth of an enormous secret military, a remarkable development in our American world and a particularly ominous one for the Trumpian years to come, is seldom discussed (no less debated). And all of this, the firepower now available to a president and the potential ability of a commander in chief to wage a global campaign of assassination and make war just about anywhere on Earth, personally and privately, will now be inherited by a man to whom such powers are likely to have real appeal.
In this context, I admit to a certain pride that, thanks to Nick Turse, the exception to the above has been TomDispatch. In these years, due to Turse’s work at this website, you could follow, up close and personal, the growing power and operational abilities of America’s special operations forces. This was especially true, as with his piece today, of how they have moved, big time, onto a continent that may indeed, in the military’s own phrase, be tomorrow’s battlefield and yet that we hear next to nothing about. Tom
Commandos Without Borders
America’s Elite Troops Partner with African Forces But Pursue U.S. Aims
By Nick Turse
Al-Qaeda doesn’t care about borders. Neither does the Islamic State or Boko Haram. Brigadier General Donald Bolduc thinks the same way.
“[T]errorists, criminals, and non-state actors aren’t bound by arbitrary borders,” the commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) told an interviewer early this fall. “That said, everything we do is not organized around recognizing traditional borders. In fact, our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multi-national, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach.”
A SOCAFRICA planning document obtained by TomDispatch offers a window onto the scope of these “multi-national, collective actions” carried out by America’s most elite troops in Africa. The declassified but heavily redacted secret report, covering the years 2012-2017 and acquired via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), details nearly 20 programs and activities — from training exercises to security cooperation engagements — utilized by SOCAFRICA across the continent. This wide array of low-profile missions, in addition to named operations and quasi-wars, attests to the growing influence and sprawling nature of U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) in Africa.
How U.S. military engagement will proceed under the Trump administration remains to be seen. The president-elect has said or tweeted little about Africa in recent years (aside from long trading in baseless claims that the current president was born there). Given his choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn — a former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command who believes that the United States is in a “world war” with Islamic militants — there is good reason to believe that Special Operations Command Africa will continue its border-busting missions across that continent. That, in turn, means that Africa is likely to remain crucial to America’s nameless global war on terror.
Publicly, the command claims that it conducts its operations to “promote regional stability and prosperity,” while Bolduc emphasizes that its missions are geared toward serving the needs of African allies. The FOIA files make clear, however, that U.S. interests are the command’s principal and primary concern — a policy in keeping with the America First mindset and mandate of incoming commander-in-chief Donald J. Trump — and that support to “partner nations” is prioritized to suit American, not African, needs and policy goals.
Shades of Gray
Bolduc is fond of saying that his troops — Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, among others — operate in the “gray zone,” or what he calls “the spectrum of conflict between war and peace.” Another of his favored stock phrases is: “In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution” — that is, not pulling triggers and dropping bombs. He also regularly takes pains to say that “we are not at war in Africa — but our African partners certainly are.”
That is not entirely true.
Earlier this month, in fact, a White House report made it clear, for instance, that “the United States is currently using military force” in Somalia. At about the same moment, the New York Times revealed an imminent Obama administration plan to deem al-Shabab “to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials,” strengthening President-elect Donald Trump’s authority to carry out missions there in 2017 and beyond.
As part of its long-fought shadow war against al-Shabab militants, the U.S. has carried out commando raids and drone assassinations there (with the latter markedly increasing in 2015-2016). On December 5th, President Obama issued his latest biannual “war powers” letter to Congress which noted that the military had not only “conducted strikes in defense of U.S. forces” there, but also in defense of local allied troops. The president also acknowledged that U.S. personnel “occasionally accompany regional forces, including Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, during counterterrorism operations.”
Obama’s war powers letter also mentioned American deployments in Cameroon, Djibouti, and Niger, efforts aimed at countering Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa, a long-running mission by military observers in Egypt, and a continuing deployment of forces supporting “the security of U.S. citizens and property” in rapidly deteriorating South Sudan.
The president offered only two sentences on U.S. military activities in Libya, although a long-running special ops and drone campaign there has been joined by a full-scale American air war, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, against Islamic State militants, especially those in the city of Sirte. Since August 1st, in fact, the United States has carried out nearly 500 air strikes in Libya, according to figures supplied by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Odyssey Lightning is, in fact, no outlier. While the “primary named operations” involving America’s elite forces in Africa have been redacted from the declassified secret files in TomDispatch’s possession, a November 2015 briefing by Bolduc, obtained via a separate FOIA request, reveals that his command was then involved in seven such operations on the continent. These likely included at least some of the following: Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa, Octave Shield, and/or Juniper Garret, all aimed at East Africa; New Normal, an effort to secure U.S. embassies and assets around the continent; Juniper Micron, a U.S.-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali (following a 2012 coup there by a U.S.-trained officer and the chaos that followed); Observant Compass, the long-running effort to decimate the Lord’s Resistance Army (which recently retired AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez derided as expensive and strategically unimportant); and Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging effort (formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara) aimed at Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. A 2015 briefing document by SOCAFRICA’s parent unit, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), also lists an ongoing “gray zone” conflict in Uganda.
On any given day, between 1,500 and 1,700 American special operators and support personnel are deployed somewhere on the continent. Over the course of a year they conduct missions in more than 20 countries. According to Bolduc’s November 2015 briefing, Special Operations Command Africa carries out 78 separate “mission sets.” These include activities that range from enhancing “partner capability and capacity” to the sharing of intelligence.
Most of what Bolduc’s troops do involves working alongside and mentoring local allies. SOCAFRICA’s showcase effort, for instance, is Flintlock, an annual training exercise in Northwest Africa involving elite American, European, and African forces, which provides the command with a plethora of publicity. More than 1,700 military personnel from 30-plus nations took part in Flintlock 2016. Next year, according to Bolduc, the exercise is expected “to grow to include SOF from more countries, [as well as] more interagency partners.”
While the information has been redacted, the SOCAFRICA strategic planning document — produced in 2012 and scheduled to be fully declassified in 2037 — indicates the existence of one or more other training exercises. Bolduc recently mentioned two: Silent Warrior and Epic Guardian. In the past, the command has also taken part in exercises like Silver Eagle 10 and Eastern Piper 12. (U.S. Africa Command did not respond to requests for comment on these exercises or other questions related to this article.)
Such exercises are, however, just a small part of the SOCAFRICA story. Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions are a larger one. Officially authorized to enable U.S. special operators to “practice skills needed to conduct a variety of missions, including foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism,” JCETs actually serve as a backdoor method of expanding U.S. military influence and contacts in Africa, since they allow for “incidental-training benefits” to “accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost.” As a result, JCETs play an important role in forging and sustaining military relationships across the continent. Just how many of these missions the U.S. conducts in Africa is apparently unknown — even to the military commands involved. As TomDispatch reported earlier this year, according to SOCOM, the U.S. conducted 19 JCETs in 2012, 20 in 2013, and 20, again, in 2014. AFRICOM, however, claims that there were nine JCETs in 2012, 18 in 2013, and 26 in 2014.
Whatever the true number, JCETs are a crucial cog in the SOCAFRICA machine. “During a JCET, exercise or training event, a special forces unit might train a partner force in a particular tactical skill and can quickly ascertain if the training audience has adopted the capability,” explained Brigadier General Bolduc. “Trainers can objectively measure competency, then exercise… that particular skill until it becomes a routine.”
In addition, SOCAFRICA also utilizes a confusing tangle of State Department and Pentagon programs and activities, aimed at local allies that operate under a crazy quilt of funding schemes, monikers, and acronyms. These include deployments of Mobile Training Teams, Joint Planning Advisory Teams, Joint Military Education Teams, Civil Military Support Elements, as well as Military Information Support Teams that engage in what once was called psychological operations, or psyops — that is, programs designed to “inform and influence foreign target audiences as appropriately authorized.”
Special Operations Command Africa also utilizes an almost mind-numbing panoply of “security cooperation programs” and other training activities including Section 1207(n) (also known as the Transitional Authorities for East Africa and Yemen, which provides equipment, training, and other aid to the militaries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen “to conduct counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda affiliates, and al-Shabab” and “enhance the capacity of national military forces participating in the African Union Mission in Somalia”); the Global Security Contingency Fund (designed to enhance the “capabilities of a country’s national military forces, and other national security forces that conduct border and maritime security, internal defense, and counterterrorism operations”); the Partnership for Regional East Africa Counterterrorism (or PREACT, designed to build counterterror capacities and foster military and law enforcement efforts in East African countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda); and, among others, the Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Partnership, the Global Peace Operations Initiative, the Special Operations to Combat Terrorism, the Combatting Terrorism Fellowship, and another known as Counter-Narcotic Terrorism.
Like Africa’s terror groups and Bolduc’s special ops troops, the almost 20 initiatives utilized by SOCAFRICA — a sprawling mass of programs that overlie and intersect with each other — have a border-busting quality to them. What they don’t have is clear records of success. A 2013 RAND Corporation analysis called such capacity-building programs “a tangled web, with holes, overlaps, and confusions.” A 2014 RAND study analyzing U.S. security cooperation (SC) found that there “was no statistically significant correlation between SC and change in countries’ fragility in Africa or the Middle East.” A 2016 RAND report on “defense institution building” in Africa noted a “poor understanding of partner interests” by the U.S. military.
“We’re supporting African military professionalization and capability-building efforts, we’re supporting development and governance via civil affairs and military information support operations teams,” Bolduc insisted publicly. “[A]ll programs must be useful to the partner nation (not the foreign agenda) and necessary to advance the partner nations’ capabilities. If they don’t pass this simple test… we need to focus on programs that do meet the African partner nation’s needs.”
The 2012 SOCAFRICA strategic planning document obtained by TomDispatch reveals, however, that Special Operations Command Africa’s primary aim is not fostering African development, governance, or military professionalization. “SOCAFRICA’s foremost objective is the prevention of an attack against America or American interests,” according to the declassified secret report. In other words, a “foreign agenda,” not the needs of African partner nations, is what’s driving the elite force’s border-busting missions.
American Aims vs. African Needs
Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw cautioned that because SOCAFRICA and AFRICOM have both changed commanders since the 2012 document was issued, it was likely out of date. “I recommend you contact SOCAFRICA,” he advised. That command failed to respond to multiple requests for information or comment. There are, however, no indications that it has actually altered its “foremost objective,” while Bolduc’s public comments suggest that the U.S. military’s engagement in the region is going strong.
“Our partners and [forward deployed U.S. personnel] recognize the arbitrary nature of borders and understand the only way to combat modern-day threats like ISIS, AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Boko Haram, and myriad others is to leverage the capabilities of SOF professionals working in concert,” said Bolduc. “Borders may be notional and don’t protect a country from the spread of violent extremism… but neither do oceans, mountains… or distance.”
In reality, however, oceans and distance have kept most Americans safe from terrorist organizations like AQIM and Boko Haram. The same cannot be said for those who live in the nations menaced by these groups. In Africa, terrorist organizations and attacks have spiked alongside the increase in U.S. Special Operations missions there. In 2006, the percentage of forward-stationed special operators on the continent hovered at 1% of total globally deployed SOF forces. By 2014, that number had hit 10% — a jump of 900% in less than a decade. During that same span, according to information from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, terror incidents in Africa increased precipitously — from just over 100 per year to nearly 2,400 annually. During the same period, the number of transnational terrorist organizations and illicit groups operating on the continent jumped from one to, according to Bolduc’s reckoning, nearly 50.
Correlation may not equal causation, but SOCAFRICA’s efforts have coincided with significantly worsening terrorist violence and the growth and spread of terror groups. And it shouldn’t be a surprise. While Bolduc publicly talks up the needs of African nations, his border-busting commandos operate under a distinctive America-first mandate and a mindset firmly in keeping with that of the incoming commander-in-chief. “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first,” Donald Trump said earlier this year in a major foreign policy speech. Kicking off his victory tour earlier this month, the president-elect echoed this theme. “From now on, it’s going to be America first. Okay? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first,” he told a crowd in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In Africa, the most elite troops soon to be under his command have, in fact, been operating this way for years. “[W]e will prioritize and focus our operational efforts in those areas where the threat[s] to United States interests are most grave,” says the formerly secret SOCAFRICA document. “Protecting America, Americans, and American interests is our overarching objective and must be reflected in everything we do.”