[News] A Secret War in 120 Countries

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Thu Aug 4 10:26:07 EDT 2011


August 4, 2011

A Secret War in 120 Countries

The Pentagon's New Power Elite


Somewhere on this planet an American commando is 
carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times 
and you're done... for the day. Without the 
knowledge of the American public, a secret force 
within the U.S. military is undertaking 
operations in a majority of the world's 
countries. This new Pentagon power elite is 
waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed, until now.

After a U.S. Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin 
Laden's chest and another in his head, one of the 
most secretive black-ops units in the American 
military suddenly found its mission in the public 
spotlight. It was atypical. While it's well known 
that U.S. Special Operations forces are deployed 
in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and 
it's increasingly apparent that such units 
operate in murkier conflict zones like Yemen and 
Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war 
has remained deeply in the shadows.

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the 
Washington Post reported that U.S. Special 
Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, 
up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By 
the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations 
Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that 
number will likely reach 120. "We do a lot of 
traveling -- a lot more than Afghanistan or 
Iraq," he said recently. This global presence -- 
in about 60% of the world's nations and far 
larger than previously acknowledged -- provides 
striking new evidence of a rising clandestine 
Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

The Rise of the Military's Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American 
hostages in Iran, in which eight U.S. service 
members died, U.S. Special Operations Command 
(SOCOM) was established in 1987. Having spent the 
post-Vietnam years distrusted and starved for 
money by the regular military, special operations 
forces suddenly had a single home, a stable 
budget, and a four-star commander as their 
advocate. Since then, SOCOM has grown into a 
combined force of startling proportions. Made up 
of units from all the service branches, including 
the Army's "Green Berets" and Rangers, Navy 
SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, and Marine Corps 
Special Operations teams, in addition to 
specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, civil 
affairs personnel, para-rescuemen, and even 
battlefield air-traffic controllers and special 
operations weathermen, SOCOM carries out the 
United States' most specialized and secret 
missions. These include assassinations, 
counterterrorist raids, long-range 
reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign 
troop training, and weapons of mass destruction 
counter-proliferation operations.

One of its key components is the Joint Special 
Operations Command, or JSOC, a clandestine 
sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and 
killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the 
president and acting under his authority, JSOC 
maintains a global hit list that includes 
American citizens. It has been operating an 
extra-legal "kill/capture" campaign that John 
Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to 
four-star general and soon-to-be CIA Director 
David Petraeus, calls "an almost industrial-scale 
counterterrorism killing machine."

This assassination program has been carried out 
by commando units like the Navy SEALs and the 
Army's Delta Force as well as via drone strikes 
as part of covert wars in which the CIA is also 
involved in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, and 
Yemen. In addition, the command operates a 
network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 
black sites in Afghanistan alone, used for interrogating high-value targets.

Growth Industry

 From a force of about 37,000 in the early 1990s, 
Special Operations Command personnel have grown 
to almost 60,000, about a third of whom are 
career members of SOCOM; the rest have other 
military occupational specialties, but 
periodically cycle through the command. Growth 
has been exponential since September 11, 2001, as 
SOCOM's baseline budget almost tripled from $2.3 
billion to $6.3 billion. If you add in funding 
for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has 
actually more than quadrupled to $9.8 billion in 
these years. Not surprisingly, the number of its 
personnel deployed abroad has also jumped 
four-fold. Further increases, and expanded operations, are on the horizon.

Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, the former head 
of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations 
Command -- the last of the service branches to be 
incorporated into SOCOM in 2006 -- indicated, for 
instance, that he foresees a doubling of his 
former unit of 2,600. "I see them as a force 
someday of about 5,000, like equivalent to the 
number of SEALs that we have on the battlefield. 
Between [5,000] and 6,000," he said at a June 
breakfast with defense reporters in Washington. 
Long-term plans already call for the force to increase by 1,000.

During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, 
Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven, the incoming 
SOCOM chief and outgoing head of JSOC (which he 
commanded during the bin Laden raid) endorsed a 
steady manpower growth rate of 3% to 5% a year, 
while also making a pitch for even more 
resources, including additional drones and the 
construction of new special operations facilities.

A former SEAL who still sometimes accompanies 
troops into the field, McRaven expressed a belief 
that, as conventional forces are drawn down in 
Afghanistan, special ops troops will take on an 
ever greater role. Iraq, he added, would benefit 
if elite U.S forces continued to conduct missions 
there past the December 2011 deadline for a total 
American troop withdrawal. He also assured the 
Senate Armed Services Committee that "as a former 
JSOC commander, I can tell you we were looking 
very hard at Yemen and at Somalia."

During a speech at the National Defense 
Industrial Association's annual Special 
Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium 
earlier this year, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, the 
outgoing chief of Special Operations Command, 
pointed to a composite satellite image of the 
world at night. Before September 11, 2001, the 
lit portions of the planet -- mostly the 
industrialized nations of the global north -- 
were considered the key areas. "But the world 
changed over the last decade," he said. "Our 
strategic focus has shifted largely to the 
south... certainly within the special operations 
community, as we deal with the emerging threats 
from the places where the lights aren't."

To that end, Olson launched "Project Lawrence," 
an effort to increase cultural proficiencies -- 
like advanced language training and better 
knowledge of local history and customs -- for 
overseas operations. The program is, of course, 
named after the British officer, Thomas Edward 
Lawrence (better known as "Lawrence of Arabia"), 
who teamed up with Arab fighters to wage a 
guerrilla war in the Middle East during World War 
I. Mentioning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, and 
Indonesia, Olson added that SOCOM now needed "Lawrences of Wherever."

While Olson made reference to only 51 countries 
of top concern to SOCOM, Col. Nye told me that on 
any given day, Special Operations forces are 
deployed in approximately 70 nations around the 
world. All of them, he hastened to add, at the 
request of the host government. According to 
testimony by Olson before the House Armed 
Services Committee earlier this year, 
approximately 85% of special operations troops 
deployed overseas are in 20 countries in the 
CENTCOM area of operations in the Greater Middle 
East: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, 
Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, 
Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, 
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, 
Uzbekistan, and Yemen. The others are scattered 
across the globe from South America to Southeast 
Asia, some in small numbers, others as larger contingents.

Special Operations Command won't disclose exactly 
which countries its forces operate in. "We're 
obviously going to have some places where it's 
not advantageous for us to list where we're at," 
says Nye. "Not all host nations want it known, 
for whatever reasons they have -- it may be internal, it may be regional."

But it's no secret (or at least a poorly kept 
one) that so-called black special operations 
troops, like the SEALs and Delta Force, are 
conducting kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, 
Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, while "white" forces 
like the Green Berets and Rangers are training 
indigenous partners as part of a worldwide secret 
war against al-Qaeda and other militant groups. 
In the Philippines, for instance, the U.S. spends 
$50 million a year on a 600-person contingent of 
Army Special Operations forces, Navy Seals, Air 
Force special operators, and others that carries 
out counterterrorist operations with Filipino 
allies against insurgent groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.

Last year, as an analysis of SOCOM documents, 
open-source Pentagon information, and a database 
of Special Operations missions compiled by 
investigative journalist Tara McKelvey (for the 
Medill School of Journalism's National Security 
Journalism Initiative) reveals, America's most 
elite troops carried out joint-training exercises 
in Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, 
Germany, Indonesia, Mali, Norway, Panama, and 
Poland. So far in 2011, similar training missions 
have been conducted in the Dominican Republic, 
Jordan, Romania, Senegal, South Korea, and 
Thailand, among other nations. In reality, Nye 
told me, training actually went on in almost 
every nation where Special Operations forces are 
deployed. "Of the 120 countries we visit by the 
end of the year, I would say the vast majority 
are training exercises in one fashion or another. 
They would be classified as training exercises."

The Pentagon's Power Elite

Once the neglected stepchildren of the military 
establishment, Special Operations forces have 
been growing exponentially not just in size and 
budget, but also in power and influence. Since 
2002, SOCOM has been authorized to create its own 
Joint Task Forces -- like Joint Special 
Operations Task Force-Philippines -- a 
prerogative normally limited to larger combatant 
commands like CENTCOM. This year, without much 
fanfare, SOCOM also established its own Joint 
Acquisition Task Force, a cadre of equipment 
designers and acquisition specialists.

With control over budgeting, training, and 
equipping its force, powers usually reserved for 
departments (like the Department of the Army or 
the Department of the Navy), dedicated dollars in 
every Defense Department budget, and influential 
advocates in Congress, SOCOM is by now an 
exceptionally powerful player at the Pentagon. 
With real clout, it can win bureaucratic battles, 
purchase cutting-edge technology, and pursue 
fringe research like electronically beaming 
messages into people's heads or developing 
stealth-like cloaking technologies for ground 
troops. Since 2001, SOCOM's prime contracts 
awarded to small businesses -- those that 
generally produce specialty equipment and weapons -- have jumped six-fold.

Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in 
Florida, but operating out of theater commands 
spread out around the globe, including Hawaii, 
Germany, and South Korea, and active in the 
majority of countries on the planet, Special 
Operations Command is now a force unto itself. As 
outgoing SOCOM chief Olson put it earlier this 
year, SOCOM "is a microcosm of the Department of 
Defense, with ground, air, and maritime 
components, a global presence, and authorities 
and responsibilities that mirror the Military 
Departments, Military Services, and Defense Agencies."

Tasked to coordinate all Pentagon planning 
against global terrorism networks and, as a 
result, closely connected to other government 
agencies, foreign militaries, and intelligence 
services, and armed with a vast inventory of 
stealthy helicopters, manned fixed-wing aircraft, 
heavily-armed drones, high-tech guns-a-go-go 
speedboats, specialized Humvees and Mine 
Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, as 
well as other state-of-the-art gear (with more on 
the way), SOCOM represents something new in the 
military. Whereas the late scholar of militarism 
Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as "the 
president's private army," today JSOC performs 
that role, acting as the chief executive's 
private assassination squad, and its parent, 
SOCOM, functions as a new Pentagon power-elite, a 
secret military within the military possessing 
domestic power and global reach.

In 120 countries across the globe, troops from 
Special Operations Command carry out their secret 
war of high-profile assassinations, low-level 
targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, 
kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations 
with foreign forces, and training missions with 
indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict 
unknown to most Americans. Once "special" for 
being small, lean, outsider outfits, today they 
are special for their power, access, influence, and aura.

That aura now benefits from a well-honed public 
relations campaign which helps them project a 
superhuman image at home and abroad, even while 
many of their actual activities remain in the 
ever-widening shadows. Typical of the vision they 
are pushing was this statement from Admiral 
Olson: "I am convinced that the forces
 are the 
most culturally attuned partners, the most lethal 
hunter-killers, and most responsive, agile, 
innovative, and efficiently effective advisors, 
trainers, problem-solvers, and warriors that any nation has to offer."

Recently at the Aspen Institute's Security Forum, 
Olson offered up similarly gilded comments and 
some misleading information, too, claiming that 
U.S. Special Operations forces were operating in 
just 65 countries and engaged in combat in only 
two of them. When asked about drone strikes in 
Pakistan, he reportedly replied, "Are you talking 
about unattributed explosions?"

What he did let slip, however, was telling. He 
noted, for instance, that black operations like 
the bin Laden mission, with commandos conducting 
heliborne night raids, were now exceptionally 
common. A dozen or so are conducted every night, 
he said. Perhaps most illuminating, however, was 
an offhand remark about the size of SOCOM. Right 
now, he emphasized, U.S. Special Operations 
forces were approximately as large as Canada's 
entire active duty military. In fact, the force 
is larger than the active duty militaries of many 
of the nations where America's elite troops now 
operate each year, and it's only set to grow larger.

Americans have yet to grapple with what it means 
to have a "special" force this large, this 
active, and this secret -- and they are unlikely 
to begin to do so until more information is 
available. It just won't be coming from Olson or 
his troops. "Our access [to foreign countries] 
depends on our ability to not talk about it," he 
said in response to questions about SOCOM's 
secrecy. When missions are subject to scrutiny 
like the bin Laden raid, he said, the elite 
troops object. The military's secret military, 
said Olson, wants "to get back into the shadows 
and do what they came in to do."

Nick Turse is the associate editor of 
where this article originally appeared. His 
latest book, 
Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso 
Books), which brings together leading analysts 
from across the political spectrum, has just gone 
into its second printing. Turse is currently a 
fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe 
Institute. His website is <http://NickTurse.com>NickTurse.com.

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