The Secret War in 120 Countries: The SOCOM Shadow

Nick Turse, an investigative journalist over at TomDispatch, provides a sobering account of secret U.S. military activity across the globe. Special Operations Command  (SOCOM) was once a small branch of the U.S. military, but has now grown exponentially in size and is used as the Obama Administration’s covert assassination wing. There are now 70 commando missions performed a day in the majority of the world’s countries. The new Pentagon power elite is unprecedented in both size and reach, and augurs the new face of violence and geopolitics in the 21st century. Yet the full extent of their influence remains in the shadows, a known unknown. Some highlights from Turse’s report:

In 2010, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post (see post below) reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye reckons the figure will likely reach 120, in 60% of the world’s nation.

SOCOM was born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, in which eight U.S. service members died. Previously starved of cash, this lead to a single budget, a single home, and a four-star commander as their advocate It now is comprised of units from all of 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 its own logistical foundation. SOCOM carries out the U.S.’s most secret missions, including assassinations, counterterorrist 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 terrorist. JSOC reports to the President, and maintains a global hit list that includes U.S. 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.” The command also operates a network of secret prisons.

In the early 1990s, the force was around 37,000 people, which has grown to almost 60,000 – a third of whom are ‘career members’ of SOCOM, the rest are periodically cycled through. Growth has been exponential since 9/11, with SOCOM’s baseline budget almost tripling from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion. If you add in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has actually quadrupled to $9.8 billion. The personnel deployed abroad has jumped four-fold.

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) 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.”

Navy Admiral Eric Olson, the outgoing chief of Special Operations Command, launched “Project Lawrence,” an effort to increase cultural proficiencies — like advanced language training and better knowledge of local history and customs — for overseas operations. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Olson noted 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.  The military’s secret military, said Olson, wants “to get back into the shadows and do what they came in to do.”

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