The Changing Face of Empire

Nick Turse (2012). The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare. Chicago: Haymarket Books

Changing Face of EmpireGeography and geographic imaginations play a pivotal role in the practice of inter-state violence. From “Clash of Civilization”-type territorial blocs during the Cold War; “arcs of instability”, “axes of evil”, and neologisms like “AfPak” under Bush, to the waking dreams of a seamless battlespace underlined by a “Worldwide Attack Matrix” that have been realized by Obama’s drone wars. The planet is mapped and remapped according to the imperial dictates of cartographer-generals.

And so to the latest phase in U.S. inter-state violence: the world as battlefield—a period that is analysed with investigative gusto by journalist Nick Turse, whose recently published book, “The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare”, pulls together years of reporting from TomDispatch into a single source—many of which I’ve actually discussed before on this website.

The title of the text indicates this is a book about the changing practices of U.S. state violence. There are key thematic pillars: the shift from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism, the rise of Special Operations Forces and drone strikes, the “scramble for Africa”, and the global training of “indigenous forces” (proxies). Often, these themes collapse around the idea of “jointness”—fusing the Pentagon with the CIA, the State Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration for complex and “layered” deployments. For example, in April 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new CIA-like spying agency called the Defense Clandestine Service. Not to be outdone, the State Department teamed up with the Pentagon to create the Global Security Contingency Fund.

On Special Forces

Like Scahill’s Dirty Wars, Turse directs his attention towards the global spread of Special Operations Forces—what former General Patreaus once described as “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine”. Special Forces, by the end of 2010, were deployed in 75 countries across the globe, up from 60 at the end of the Bush administration. By the end of 2011, Special Operations Command spokesman colonel Tim Nye told Turse that number would reach 120. From a force of about 37,000 in the early 1990s, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) personnel have grown to almost 60,000, a third of whom are career members.  The number of its personnel deployed abroad has jumped four-fold, and most are deployed in CENTCOM operations in the Greater Middle East. Since 9/11, SOCOM’s baseline budget has nearly tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion, and with funding from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, this totals around $9.8 billion. According to 2010 SOCOM documents, U.S. troops carried out joint training exercises in Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Germany, Indonesia, Mali, Norway, Panama and Poland.  In 2011, similar missions were conducted in the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Romania, Senegal, South Korea, and Thailand.  In reality, for Nye, training is continuous across the 120 countries where countries Special Forces are deployed (p.16).

On Drones

“Even if the Pentagon budget were to shrink, expansion of America’s empire of drone bases is a sure thing in the years to come. Drones are now the bedrock of Washington’s future military planning and –with counterinsurgency out of favor – one of the preferred ways of carrying out attacks abroad” (p.30)

TomDispatch has identified at least are 60 drone bases across the globe, some little more than desolate airstrips, ensuring minimum visibility, and a minimum footprint. Additionally, there is a shadowy baseworld of over 1,000 sites that could host drones in the future. These 60 “drone sites” include those in the domestic U.S., from the much discussed Creech Air Force base in Nevada, to Fort Huachuca in Arizona, which is home to the world’s largest UAV training center in the world, where would-be pilots are trained by private company General Dynamics. At Bale Air Force Base in California, Air Force personnel pilot RQ-4 Global Hawks, some originating from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam; other Global Hawks are stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, while the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio manages the Global Hawk program.

Outside the U.S., Turse lists a number of bases where military and CIA drones are currently based or have been in the past. This includes locations in: Italy, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, the Seychelles, Uzbekistan, and Iraq. In the past, the U.S. has also sent smaller tactical drones to the African nations of Uganda and Burundi.

The presence of drones in Afghanistan—already the global center of droneworld—is set to expand with the construction of two massive surveillance facilities in time for the U.S. drawdown of conventional troops in 2014. The first is a two-story intelligence facility, at the already massive air base in Kandahar, which will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, and will be used for targeted killings in Afghanistan. This new intelligence facility will be joined by a similar structure devoted to administrative operations and maintenance tasks associated with robotic missions. With a combined price tag of $5 million, both will be integral to Air Force Predator and Reaper missions (and perhaps CIA orbits too). So too is Bagram being massively upgraded: part of the wider shift to kill/capture missions and training local troops well beyond 2014. A major project involves the construction of a Special Operations Forces complex. Begun in 2010, the $29 million project is slated to join roughly 90 locations around the country where troops from Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan have been stationed.

On Africa

While CENTCOM is clearly a hub for the U.S. military, the growth of activity in AFRICOM is a focus of Turse’s analysis, as Special Forces and the CIA target al-Qaeda linked affiliates across the continent. These include: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa; the Islamist movement Boko Haram in Nigeria; possible AQ linked militants in Libya, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan; Mali’s Islamist Rebels of the Ansar Dine; al-Shabab of Somalia, and guerillas from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.

There are many military bases and troops spread across Africa, not just at the well-documented former French Legion outpost of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti—the only “official” site for the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Africa, as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Nearly all other activities are strictly off the books, often spun as “training exercises” with host nations. But the logistical network that the Africa pivot requires is proof of the scale of operation. Colloquially known as the “New Spice Route”, a superhighway across Africa services a fast-growing U.S. military presence. The nodes of the network include: Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier on the coast of the Gulf of Aden.

On average, there are 5,000 troops training in Africa at any one time. This will increase with the 2013 deployment of the 3,000-strong 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, known as the Dagger Brigade.

U.S. special operations forces are stationed at a string of even more shadowy forward operating posts, including one in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and others in Nzara in South Sudan and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.S. also has had troops deployed in Mali, despite having officially suspended military relations with that country following a coup. A June 2012 Washington Post investigation revealed that contractor-operated surveillance aircraft, based out of Entebbe, Uganda, were scouring the territory used by Kony’s LRA, and that 100 to 200 US commandos were sharing a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay. The U.S. Navy reportedly has a forward operating location, manned mostly be Seabees, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection trips, at Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa in Ethiopia. In addition, the U.S. is conducting counter-terrorist training and equipping militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia.  In 2012, AFRICOM planned major joint training exercises in countries including Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria. A scramble indeed.

 On Proxies

Finally, Turse concentrates in more detail on the “training missions” that the U.S. military conducts in the Middle East, Africa and South America. He argues that such “proxies” have become a centerpiece of U.S. national security in the “outsourcing” of war, most prominently found in the multi-nation African force that battles Islamist militants in Somalia. In his words,

 “While using slightly different methods in different regions, the basic strategy is a global one in which the U.S. will train, equip, and advise indigenous forces – generally from poor, underdeveloped nations – to do the fighting (and dying) it doesn’t want to do. In the process, as small an American force as possible, including special forces operatives and air support, will be brought to bear to aid those surrogates. Like drones, proxy warfare appears to offer an easy solution to complex problems” (p. 68).

USAFRICOM planned 13 such major joint training exercises in 2011 from Uganda to South Africa, Senegal to Ghana, while Special Forces were dispatched to Mexican military bases to take part in the country’s drug war. In 2012, the Pentagon ramped up its anti-drug operations in Honduras. Green Berets have assisted the Honduran Special Operations forces in anti-smuggling operations and a DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team has combined with Honduras’ Tactical Response Team. Less visible have been U.S. effort in Guyana, where SOF have been training local troops. So too have there been training efforts in Uruguay and Paraguay, as well as past exercises in Guatemala, and sponsored “partnership-building” missions in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Peru, and Panama; most recently the U.S. reaching an agreement to carry out 19 “activities” with the Columbian army in 2012 and 2013. There have also been large joint exercises in the Pacific, such as RIMPAC 2012, Cobra Gold 2012 and Hamel 2012.

Turse argues that this movement to proxy forces, or surrogages, has been the least noticed of America’s new empire, concluding that:

 “In one way or another, the U.S. military is now involved with most of the nations on Earth. Its soldiers, commandos, trainers, base builders, drone jockeys, spies, and arms dealers, as well as associated hired guns and corporate contractors, can now be found at any given moment just about anywhere on the planet” (92).

The book is a real eye-opener, and a great way to get up-to-speed on the various undercurrents of the “new face of empire” that are often bypassed for the bigger, sexier, “drone stories”.

The “scramble for Africa” that Turse covers in numerous chapters is perhaps the real highlight of the book, and will prove to be prophetic in many ways—as is the incredibly researched “drone atlas” he provides (the country-by-country, site by site, listing of those bases instrumental to unmanned warfare). A geographer really needs to map those 60 or so sites…

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3 Responses to The Changing Face of Empire

  1. Pingback: Chalmer’s Johnson on Empire | Understanding Empire

  2. Nick Turse’s book (and TomDispatch’s research) presents a fabulously revealing and vastly up-dated version of what the late Chalmers Johnson accomplished in his American Empire Project trilogy ‘exposing’, accurately diagnosing, and conclusively proving that our former country is now the certain Headquarters and major spear-carrier of the world’s “first truly Global Empire” — and the cancerous embodiment of that; corporate, financial, militarist, media/propaganda, extra-legal, and faux-political Global EMPIRE — which is only posing as our former country.

    Turse conclusively shows the extension of the previously diagnosed “American Empire” (which Johnson, Parenti, Wolin, Parsons, Perkins, Harvey, Hardt, Maier, Beerman, Negri, Chomsky, Zinn, Zeese, et al.) had previously demonstrated, written, and called-out alarm of, to now have metastasized into a full and deadly Global Empire which is only nominally (and quite probably temporarily) HQed in the US.

    Two points in Turse’s fabulous book that struck me most directly are that of a highly distributed nature to this new Global Empire’s ‘militarist’ sector, and the need to more carefully diagnose the Global Empire’s advances from a “Power-Structure” based heavily on militarism (along with corporate, financial, media, extra-legal, and political power-domination) to one of inhuman and inhumane intelligence and security via AI computing domination.

    Turse shows the real Imperial truth behind the ‘happy-talk’ of Thomas Barnett’s 2004 Naval War College strategy and book “The Pentagon’s New Map” — which has clearly resulted in Global Empire domination — not increased democracy.

    Best luck and love to the fast expanding ‘Occupy the Empire’
    educational and non-violent revolutionary movement against this
    deceitful and Disguised Global EMPIRE, which can’t so easily be
    identified as wearing Red Coats, Red Stars, nor funny looking Nazi
    helmets —- quite YET!

    Liberty, democracy, justice, and equality
    Over
    Violent (‘Vichy’ disguised)
    Empire,

    Alan MacDonald
    Sanford, Maine

    We don’t merely have a domestic tyranny and NSA SPYING problem, or
    a gun/fear problem, or an MIC problem, or an ‘Austerity’ problem, or
    an expanding wars problem, or a ‘drone assassinations’ problem, or a
    vast income & wealth inequality problem, or a Wall Street
    ‘looting’ problem, or a Global Warming and environmental
    death-spiral problem, or the world’s largest political prisoner
    problem, or a crappy un-healthy insurance problem, or, or, or … ad
    nauseam — but that we REALLY have a hidden VEMPIRE cancerous tumor
    of GLOBAL EMPIRE which is the prime CAUSE of all these underlying,
    related, and mere ‘symptom problems’.

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