Nick Turse has an excellent article at TomDispatch.com documenting how U.S. special ops forces are involved in many countries that share a border with Russia. A telling quotation from his article comes from General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Testifying before Congress, Thomas said
“We are working relentlessly with our [European] partners and the Department of State to build potency in eastern and northern Europe to counter Russia’s approach to unconventional warfare, including developing mature and sustainable Special Operations capabilities across the region.”
This looks like typical bureaucratese, but two words struck me as revealing: “relentlessly” and “potency.” Typically, one might say one is working “tirelessly,” or “cooperatively,” or just plain working. The idea one is working “relentlessly” serves to highlight the often frenetic nature of U.S. military deployments, the emphasis on ceaseless toil and constant action, especially of the kinetic variety. This is a leading feature of America’s can-do military, a strong preference for acting first, thinking later. And it doesn’t bode well as American special ops forces take up “mature and sustainable” positions in former Soviet satellite countries for the alleged reason of deterring Russian aggression.
The second word that struck me from the general’s testimony was “potency.” Americans certainly can’t be seen as impotent. But potency here is really a weasel word for offensive potential — the ability to strike “kinetically” at an enemy. For example, one could say the Soviets were building up potency in Cuba during the early 1960s, but the Kennedy administration didn’t exactly see nuclear missiles being based there in those terms. Is Kim Jong-un similarly building up regional “potency,” working “relentlessly” to deter U.S. aggression in his region of the world? American military and foreign policy experts would laugh at those words and sentiments coming from the mouth of rival leaders like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un.
With ever bigger military budgets, and ever growing ambitions, the U.S. military is relentlessly building up potency, which is nevertheless always framed as defensive, even benign.
Something tells me the Russians don’t see it this way.
What’s so special about Special Ops? It used to be that special operations troops were few in number. You had Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, mixed units like the Delta Force, and a few others, but nowadays U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) consists of 70,000 troops, equivalent to five or six regular army divisions, a military within the military.
What’s truly elite about America’s special ops community, as Nick Turse shows in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, is their global reach and global power, to borrow an Air Force phrase. Special ops forces have already been deployed to 137 countries in 2017, or 70% of the planet’s nations. Talk about reach! Yet enduring victories from past deployments, as Turse shows, have been surprisingly elusive.
Why is this? Special ops forces are good at short-term kinetic actions (hit and run strikes, commando stuff), and they do their share of training and advising. Yet their staying power, their persistence, their endurance, their ability to shift strategic winds in America’s favor, simply hasn’t been there. Some would say that’s not their purpose, except that the U.S. military and government has been selling them as strategic game-changers, which they’re not.
As I’ve written before, I see America’s special ops forces as America’s global missionaries, our version of the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order during the Counter Reformation. The Jesuits were soldiers of Christ, a militant order of highly trained missionaries, totally dedicated to upholding the one true faith (Catholicism, of course). For many peoples around the world, Catholicism was the Jesuits. And for many peoples around the world today (137 countries!), Americanism is a gun-toting special ops troop,
Coincidentally, I came across this report from FP: Foreign Policy this morning:
Pentagon taking lead in Africa makes some allies uneasy. At a recent summit meeting in Malawi attended by several U.S. generals and their African counterparts, some allies on the continent, while welcoming American attention, aren’t so sure they want it all from the Pentagon while the State Dept. is diminished.
“We have statements out of Washington about significant reductions in foreign aid,” Gen. Griffin Phiri, the commander of the Malawi Defense Forces, told the New York Times during the African Land Forces Summit, a conference between American Army officers and representatives from 40 African nations. “What I can tell you is that experience has shown us that diplomacy and security must come together.” He was unsure over the “mixed messages” coming out of Washington.
But is Washington’s message really mixed? It seems clear. Ever since 9/11, as Nick Turse has shown in several articles for TomDispatch.com, America has been downplaying diplomacy while ramping up “kinetic” strikes by special ops. This trend has only accelerated under the leadership (if that’s the right word) of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson at the State Department. When it comes to world affairs, Trump and Tillerson have often been AWOL, leaving the real action to Mattis and the Pentagon.
And nowadays the real action at the Pentagon is centered on SOCOM, the military within the military, America’s militant missionary order.
Even allies question America’s almost monomaniacal commitment to military action everywhere. They’re right to do so. For special ops aren’t so special when they’re deployed everywhere in dribs and drabs, parceled out on missions that lack achievable aims.
Finally, there’s this. Say what you will of the Jesuits, they had faith. A clear ideology. Their faith, their devotion, was an inspiration to many. Even as their symbol was the cross, their skill-set was quite varied, e.g. they were often learned men, well ahead of their times in areas like science and mathematics.
Does Washington’s militant missionary order have a clear ideology? A compelling symbol? A varied skill-set? Favorable and enduring results? Evidence (so far) suggests otherwise.
In October 2005, during the Iraq War, historian David M. Kennedy noted that “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
We have, in essence, a post-democratic military in the U.S. today, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com. You can read the entire article here; what follows is the first section on how our citizen-soldier tradition morphed into a professional force of volunteer-warriors augmented by privatized forces of mercenaries and corporations.
In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal. As such, it’s a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops). Abroad, it’s now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense. In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress.
Three areas highlight the post-democratic transformation of this military with striking clarity: the blending of military professionals with privatized mercenaries in prosecuting unending “limited” wars; the way senior military commanders are cashing in on retirement; and finally the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a quasi-missionary imperial force with a presence in at least 135 countries a year (and counting).
The All-Volunteer Military and Mercenaries: An Undemocratic Amalgam
I’m a product of the all-volunteer military. In 1973, the Nixon administration ended the draft, which also marked the end of a citizen-soldier tradition that had served the nation for two centuries. At the time, neither the top brass nor the president wanted to face a future in which, in the style of the Vietnam era just then winding up, a force of citizen-soldiers could vote with their feet and their mouths in the kinds of protest that had only recently left the Army in significant disarray. The new military was to be all volunteers and a thoroughly professional force. (Think: no dissenters, no protesters, no antiwar sentiments; in short, no repeats of what had just happened.) And so it has remained for more than 40 years.
Most Americans were happy to see the draft abolished. (Although young men still register for selective service at age 18, there are neither popular calls for its return, nor serious plans to revive it.) Yet its end was not celebrated by all. At the time, some military men advised against it, convinced that what, in fact, did happen would happen: that an all-volunteer force would become more prone to military adventurism enabled by civilian leaders who no longer had to consider the sort of opposition draft call-ups might create for undeclared and unpopular wars.
In 1982, historian Joseph Ellis summed up such sentiments in a prophetic passage in an essay titled “Learning Military Lessons from Vietnam” (from the book Men at War):
“[V]irtually all studies of the all-volunteer army have indicated that it is likely to be less representative of and responsive to popular opinion, more expensive, more jealous of its own prerogatives, more xenophobic — in other words, more likely to repeat some of the most grievous mistakes of Vietnam … Perhaps the most worrisome feature of the all-volunteer army is that it encourages soldiers to insulate themselves from civilian society and allows them to cling tenaciously to outmoded visions of the profession of arms. It certainly puts an increased burden of responsibility on civilian officials to impose restraints on military operations, restraints which the soldiers will surely perceive as unjustified.”
Ellis wrote this more than 30 years ago — before Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the launching of the War on Terror. These wars (and other U.S. military interventions of the last decades) have provided vivid evidence that civilian officials have felt emboldened in wielding a military freed from the constraints of the old citizen army. Indeed, it says something of our twenty-first-century moment that military officers have from time to time felt the need to restrain civilian officials rather than vice versa. Consider, for instance, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s warning early in 2003 that a post-invasion Iraq would need to be occupied by “several hundred thousand” troops. Shinseki clearly hoped that his (all-too-realistic) estimate would tamp down the heady optimism of top Bush administration officials that any such war would be a “cakewalk,” that the Iraqis would strew “bouquets” of flowers in the path of the invaders, and that the U.S. would be able to garrison an American-style Iraq in the fashion of South Korea until hell froze over. Prophetic Shinseki was, but not successful. His advice was dismissed out of hand, as was he.
Events since Desert Storm in 1991 suggest that the all-volunteer military has been more curse than blessing. Partially to blame: a new dynamic in modern American history, the creation of a massive military force that is not of the people, by the people, or for the people. It is, of course, a dynamic hardly new to history. Writing in the eighteenth century about the decline and fall of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon noted that:
“In the purer ages of the commonwealth [of Rome], the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.”
As the U.S. has become more authoritarian and more expansive, its military has come to serve the needs of others, among them elites driven by dreams of profit and power. Some will argue that this is nothing new. I’ve read my Smedley Butler and I’m well aware that historically the U.S. military was often used in un-democratic ways to protect and advance various business interests. In General Butler’s day, however, that military was a small quasi-professional force with a limited reach. Today’s version is enormous, garrisoning roughly 800 foreign bases across the globe, capable of sending its Hellfire missile-armed drones on killing missions into country after country across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and possessing a vision of what it likes to call “full-spectrum dominance” meant to facilitate “global reach, global power.” In sum, the U.S. military is far more powerful, far less accountable — and far more dangerous.
As a post-democratic military has arisen in this country, so have a set of “warrior corporations” — that is, private, for-profit mercenary outfits that now regularly accompany American forces in essentially equal numbers into any war zone. In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Blackwater was the most notorious of these, but other mercenary outfits like Triple Canopy and DynCorp were also deeply involved. This rise of privatized militaries and mercenaries naturally contributes to actions that are inherently un-democratic and divorced from the will and wishes of the people. It is also inherently a less accountable form of war, since no one even bothers to count the for-profit dead, nor do their bodies come home in flag-draped coffins for solemn burial in military cemeteries; and Americans don’t approach such mercenaries to thank them for their service. All of which allows for the further development of a significantly under-the-radar form of war making.
The phrase “limited war,” applied to European conflicts from the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789, and later to conventional wars in the nuclear age, has fresh meaning in twenty-first-century America. These days, the limits of limited war, such as they are, fall less on the warriors and more on the American people who are increasingly cut out of the process. They are, for instance, purposely never mobilized for battle, but encouraged to act as though they were living in a war-less land. American war efforts, which invariably take place in distant lands, are not supposed to interfere with business as usual in the “homeland,” which, of course, means consumerism and consumption. You will find no rationing in today’s America, nor calls for common sacrifice of any sort. If anything, wars have simply become another consumable item on the American menu. They consume fuel and resources, money, and intellect, all in staggering amounts. In a sense, they are themselves a for-profit consumable, often with tie-ins to video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment.
In the rush for money and in the name of patriotism, the horrors of wars, faced squarely by many Americans in the Vietnam War era, are now largely disregarded. One question that this election season has raised: What if our post-democratic military is driven by an autocrat who insists that it must obey his whims in the cause of “making America great again”?
In the movie Out of Africa, Meryl Streep (playing Karen Blixen, who used the pen name of Isak Dinesen) wistfully intones, “I had a farm in Africa.” It’s a considerable understatement given her character’s ambition and energy and drive. Rather than out of Africa, the U.S. military’s new motto is Into Africa, and like those cocky European colonialists of old, the military has plenty of ambition and energy and drive. So notes Nick Turse in his latest book, “Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.” Turse, the prize-winning author of “Kill Anything that Moves,” a searing examination of America’s war against Vietnam, turns his sharp eye to yet another misguided U.S. military adventure, this time within and across the continent of Africa. What he finds is disturbing.
The U.S. Army likes to talk about BLUF, or giving the bottom line up front, and Turse has a doozy on America’s militarized designs on Africa:
Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the [African] continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops and bases, missions and money. And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to this camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal. Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts. The human toll is incalculable. And there appears to be no end in sight.” (184)
A grim BLUF indeed. Perhaps that explains why the U.S. military is so reluctant to give Turse any information, even seemingly innocuous data such as the number of bases the U.S. has in Africa. Turse, who happily has a sense of humor, recounts tedious and frustrating battles with military public affairs officers as the latter employ various delaying tactics to stymie him. Indeed, if the U.S. military was as effective at winning wars as it is at fighting reporters, we might truly have a military that’s second to none. Turse perseveres through all this, relying on public sources, freedom of information requests, interviews, and other creative means to tease out the numerous ways AFRICOM is seeking to penetrate the continent.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that reporters who pay fawning tribute to U.S. efforts in Africa are happily accommodated by military public affairs. Turse, an old-school investigative reporter who’s not into fawning, gets stonewalled, his reward for having integrity.)
Though AFRICOM is eager to deny or minimize its “footprint” in Africa to Turse, the story is different when the military talks among themselves. Turse begins by cleverly recounting a military change of command ceremony he attended in Germany in 2013. At that ceremony, speaking freely to one another, U.S. military commanders were not reticent at all. One military commander obsequiously praised his boss in these words: “General Linder has been saying, ‘Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.’ And, sir, I couldn’t agree more. This new battlefield is custom made for SOC [the Special Operations community], and we’ll thrive in it. It’s exactly where we need to be today and I expect we’ll be for some time in the future.” (3)
Sir, I couldn’t agree more that Africa is already becoming a battlefield for U.S. special ops, now and in the future. And it’s “custom made” for us — we’re going to thrive there! Mark those words, America. We’ve heard their like before in the jungles of Vietnam in the early 1960s, when America’s fledgling special ops community boasted then that Vietnam was tailor made for the counterinsurgency skills of U.S. elite warriors. We were going to thrive there too. And look where that got us!
Turse’s knowledge of Vietnam makes him sensitive to the perils of mission creep in Africa, the problems of winning hearts and minds in cultures poorly understand by American troops, the dilemma of overthrowing less-than-tractable leaders (long ago, Diem in South Vietnam; more recently, Gaddafi in Libya) and the chaos that often results when the “bad man” is gone, the proliferation of U.S. weaponry that often accelerates regional violence, and so on. Rather than give an honest accounting of these difficulties, the U.S. military often prefers simply to declare victory, or at least to take credit for success, however partial or fleeting. Indeed, as Turse tartly observes, when it comes to Africa and America’s military missions there, “it’s so much easier to claim success than to achieve it.” (168)
For anyone interested in the U.S. military and especially AFRICOM, Turse’s honest, no-BS account makes for cautionary reading. It should be required reading for all U.S. military personnel assigned to Africa, who deserve to read honest criticism while being exposed to critical thinking. It’s a helluva lot better than hearing “I couldn’t agree more, sir.” And perhaps it’ll save the U.S. military from having to intone, tragically this time, “I had a base in Africa.”
There was a time when American democracy, however imperfectly practiced, and American ideals served to inspire peoples and independence movements around the world. Heck, even Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s confessed his admiration for Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But now it seems all that really matters in our foreign policy is troops and weapons. If we’re not basing troops or at least deploying them to a country, or if we’re not exporting arms to a country, we believe we have no influence.
Take this headline from FP: Foreign Policy.
The United States is in danger of losing its clout in Baghdad. Courage on the battlefield is how respect is won in the Middle East. The lack of U.S. presence in the fight for Tikrit is allowing Iran, whose forces are leading the charge, to gain leverage in Baghdad. FP’s Lara Jakes and Kate Brannen: “It is clear that the top U.S. priority in Iraq is to defeat the Islamic State — and deal later with Iran’s ever-growing influence in Baghdad. Yet that trade-off carries long-term consequences, and it’s not clear Washington has thought them through.”
So: Unless we’re fighting wars in Iraq (or Syria, or maybe even Iran?), the United States has no leverage. Indeed, in Iraq the U.S. risks being emasculated by the Iranians, who are swinging their big dicks in the form of tanks, rockets, and so on.
And those primitive Iraqis: All they respect is military force, right? If that’s so, why don’t they love America? After all, no country has “courageously” bombed them more over the last 25 years.
Talk about projection! Maybe it’s not the Iraqis or other unnamed Middle Easterners who are enthralled by “courage on the battlefield.” Maybe it’s all those “American sniper” wannabees, especially in Congress.
Consistent with Members of Congress clamoring for more war, America’s real ambassadors today are special forces and the special ops “community.” As Nick Turse noted for TomDispatch.com:
During the fiscal year that [started on October 1, 2013 and] ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.”
As the U.S. deploys its special ops forces around the planet, part of their mission, stated or unstated, is to encourage foreign military sales (FMS in the trade). Naturally, in selling weapons to various “allies” around the world, the United States continues to dominate the world’s arms trade, a lead that we’re supposed to keep until the year 2021. Think about it. What other sector of industrial manufacturing will the U.S. dominate for the next seven years?
Here’s an excerpt from the Grimmett Report (2012) that tracks weapons sales around the globe. Note that U.S. dominance of the global arms trade has come under a Democratic president who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize:
Recently, from 2008 to 2011, the United States and Russia have dominated the arms market in the developing world, with both nations either ranking first or second for each of these four years in the value of arms transfer agreements. From 2008 to 2011, the United States made nearly $113 billion in such agreements, 54.5% of all these agreements (expressed in current dollars). Russia made $31.1 billion, 15% of these agreements. During this same period, collectively, the United States and Russia made 69.5% of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations, ($207.3 billion in current dollars) during this four-year period. In 2011, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with over $56.3 billion or 78.7% of these agreements, an extraordinary increase in market share from 2010, when the United States held a 43.6% market share. In second place was Russia with $4.1 billion or 5.7% of such agreements. In 2011, the United States ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $10.5 billion, or 37.6% of all such deliveries. Russia ranked second in these deliveries at $7.5 billion or 26.8%.”
When it comes to deploying troops to foreign countries or to selling weapons overseas, the U.S. is indeed Number One. And that is precisely the problem. Troops and weapons do not spread freedom. Troops are trained to fight wars; they are trained to kill. Weapons are designed to kill. It’s a foreign policy based on a readiness — a willingness — perhaps even an eagerness — to kill.
For U.S. foreign policy, our national security state has reached one clear conclusion: the sword is mightier (and far more profitable) than the pen. Sorry, Thomas Jefferson.
Update (3/19/15): Greg Laxer makes an excellent point in the comments about how many weapons the U.S. gives away to foreign countries, i.e. bought and paid for by the American taxpayer. Incredibly, much of this weaponry gets “lost” and is often diverted to American enemies. The latest story out of Yemen speaks to half a billion dollars worth of weaponry getting “lost.” Here’s the story, written by Craig Whitlock and courtesy of the Washington Post:
The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.With Yemen in turmoil and its government splintering, the Defense Department has lost its ability to monitor the whereabouts of small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles and other supplies donated by the United States. The situation has grown worse since the United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, the capital, last month and withdrew many of its military advisers.
In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands.
“We have to assume it’s completely compromised and gone,” said a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
U.S. military officials declined to comment for the record. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said there was no hard evidence that U.S. arms or equipment had been looted or confiscated. But the official acknowledged that the Pentagon had lost track of the items.
“Even in the best-case scenario in an unstable country, we never have 100 percent accountability,” the defense official said.
Yemen’s government was toppled in January by Shiite Houthi rebels who receive support from Iran and have strongly criticized U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. The Houthis have taken over many Yemeni military bases in the northern part of the country, including some in Sanaa that were home to U.S.-trained counterterrorism units. Other bases have been overrun by fighters from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
As a result, the Defense Department has halted shipments to Yemen of about $125 million in military hardware that were scheduled for delivery this year, including unarmed ScanEagle drones, other types of aircraft and Jeeps. That equipment will be donated instead to other countries in the Middle East and Africa, the defense official said.
Although the loss of weapons and equipment already delivered to Yemen would be embarrassing, U.S. officials said it would be unlikely to alter the military balance of power there. Yemen is estimated to have the second-highest gun ownership rate in the world, ranking behind only the United States, and its bazaars are well stocked with heavy weaponry. Moreover, the U.S. government restricted its lethal aid to small firearms and ammunition, brushing aside Yemeni requests for fighter jets and tanks.
In Yemen and elsewhere, the Obama administration has pursued a strategy of training and equipping foreign militaries to quell insurgencies and defeat networks affiliated with al-Qaeda. That strategy has helped to avert the deployment of large numbers of U.S. forces, but it has also met with repeated challenges.
Washington spent $25 billion to re-create and arm Iraq’s security forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, only to see the Iraqi army easily defeated last year by a ragtag collection of Islamic State fighters who took control of large parts of the country. Just last year, President Obama touted Yemen as a successful example of his approach to combating terrorism.
“The administration really wanted to stick with this narrative that Yemen was different from Iraq, that we were going to do it with fewer people, that we were going to do it on the cheap,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They were trying to do with a minimalist approach because it needed to fit with this narrative . . .that we’re not going to have a repeat of Iraq.”
Auditors with the Government Accountability Office found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. (Government Accountability Office)
Washington has supplied more than $500 million in military aid to Yemen since 2007 under an array of Defense Department and State Department programs. The Pentagon and CIA have provided additional assistance through classified programs, making it difficult to know exactly how much Yemen has received in total.
U.S. government officials say al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen poses a more direct threat to the U.S. homeland than any other terrorist group. To counter it, the Obama administration has relied on a combination of proxy forces and drone strikes launched from bases outside the country.
As part of that strategy, the U.S. military has concentrated on building an elite Yemeni special-operations force within the Republican Guard, training counterterrorism units in the Interior Ministry and upgrading Yemen’s rudimentary air force.
Making progress has been difficult. In 2011, the Obama administration suspended counterterrorism aid and withdrew its military advisers after then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh cracked down against Arab Spring demonstrators. The program resumed the next year when Saleh was replaced by his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a deal brokered by Washington.
In a 2013 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the primary unclassified counterterrorism program in Yemen lacked oversight and that the Pentagon had been unable to assess whether it was doing any good.
Among other problems, GAO auditors found that Humvees donated to the Yemeni Interior Ministry sat idle or broken because the Defense Ministry refused to share spare parts. The two ministries also squabbled over the use of Huey II helicopters supplied by Washington, according to the report.
A senior U.S. military official who has served extensively in Yemen said that local forces embraced their training and were proficient at using U.S. firearms and gear but that their commanders, for political reasons, were reluctant to order raids against al-Qaeda.
“They could fight with it and were fairly competent, but we couldn’t get them engaged” in combat, the military official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter.
All the U.S.-trained Yemeni units were commanded or overseen by close relatives of Saleh, the former president. Most were gradually removed or reassigned after Saleh was forced out in 2012. But U.S. officials acknowledged that some of the units have maintained their allegiance to Saleh and his family.
According to an investigative report released by a U.N. panel last month, the former president’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, looted an arsenal of weapons from the Republican Guard after he was dismissed as commander of the elite unit two years ago. The weapons were transferred to a private military base outside Sanaa that is controlled by the Saleh family, the U.N. panel found.
It is unclear whether items donated by the U.S. government were stolen, although Yemeni documents cited by the U.N. investigators alleged that the stash included thousands of M-16 rifles, which are manufactured in the United States.
The list of pilfered equipment also included dozens of Humvees, Ford vehicles and Glock pistols, all of which have been supplied in the past to Yemen by the U.S. government. Ahmed Saleh denied the looting allegations during an August 2014 meeting with the U.N. panel, according to the report.
Many U.S. and Yemeni officials have accused the Salehs of conspiring with the Houthis to bring down the government in Sanaa. At Washington’s urging, the United Nations imposed financial and travel sanctions in November against the former president, along with two Houthi leaders, as punishment for destabilizing Yemen.
Ali Abdullah Saleh has dismissed the accusations; last month, he told The Washington Post that he spends most of his time these days reading and recovering from wounds he suffered during a bombing attack on the presidential palace in 2011.
There are clear signals that Saleh and his family are angling for a formal return to power. On Friday, hundreds of people staged a rally in Sanaa to call for presidential elections and for Ahmed Saleh to run.
Although the U.S. Embassy in the capital closed last month, a handful of U.S. military advisers have remained in the southern part of the country at Yemeni bases controlled by commanders that are friendly to the United States.
Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
Nick Turse has a revealing new piece at TomDispatch.com on the rise of Special Forces and SOCOM (Special Ops Command) within the U.S. military. (For a telling critique of America’s excess of enthusiasm for Special Forces, see last year’s article here by Dan White for The Contrary Perspective.)
What are we to make of U.S. Special Forces being involved, in one way or another, in the affairs of 150 countries in the world over the last three years? And, as Turse points out, just 66 days into Fiscal Year 2015, U.S. Special Forces have already made their presence known in 105 countries, a presence that seems never to wane.
One historical analogy that occurs to me (which I’ve used before) is the rise of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, within an embattled Catholic Church during the Reformation. A besieged Church needed true believers to take the fight to heretical Protestants who were bent on the Church’s destruction. So along came Ignatius Loyola and his church militant of Jesuit priests, sworn to believe that black was white if the Holy Church deemed it so. Considered an elite within the Church, the Jesuits took the fight to the Protestants during the Catholic Counter Reformation in Europe and across the world. Jesuits were everywhere, from China in the Old World to nearly everywhere in the New World, crusading for the Church and against the incursions of Protestantism and its various sects.
So, how does the 16th century shed light on the 21st? America’s Vatican is obviously the Pentagon. Its primary methods are wars and weapons sales and military training. Its Loyola was until recently Admiral William McRaven, head of SOCOM. And its Jesuit priests are America’s Special Ops troops, true believers who are committed to defending the faith of America.
In the aftermath of 9/11, in a rare outburst of honesty, George W. Bush said America was on a crusade across the world. You might say against “protestants” and other heretics to the American way of life. And who are our crusaders? Who is being sent virtually everywhere (remember those 150 countries in three years?) on various “missions”?
Like it or not, America’s Special Forces are our lead missionaries, our Jesuits, our church militant.
The new head of SOCOM, General Joseph Votel III, West Point grad and Army Ranger, put it plainly back in August that America is witnessing “a golden age for special operations.” What a telling phrase. And indeed it’s getting increasingly difficult to recall “golden ages” in America’s past that weren’t linked to the military.
But that’s no accident when the national church is the Pentagon and its Special Ops troops are acclaimed as so many missionary heroes.