An Empire of Bases and Special Forces: Garrisoning the Globe

In what follows, I explore the U.S. military’s global basing and Special Forces strategy. The article updates a lot of my own previous writing on the U.S. military’s “Baseworld” or “Droneworld,” and gives fresh statistics on the number of U.S. Special Forces across the world (thanks to the research of Nick Turse from TomDispatch). Two trajectories remain constant, whether we are looking at 2011 or 2015: (a) more Special Forces in more places (b) an increase in the number of smaller U.S. bases across the planet (so-called lily-pads). Both of these trends are indicative of a “lighter” but no less diffuse military footprint. By going smaller, the U.S. military is able to go further. Indeed, the rise of ISIL franchises across the Greater Middle East, Sinai Peninsula, and parts of Africa is driving and entrenching a much more globalized U.S. policing-cum-manhunting operation – one conducted from the air and shadows. Which is why the Pentagon’s recent plans to to create a system of interconnected bases across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (uniting what is currently an ad-hoc string of lily-pads) is likely to materialize in the very near future – possibly 2016. The continuing spread of the Predator Empire

Garrisoning the Globe: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Undermine National Security and Harm Us All. David Vine, September 13, 2015. TomDispatch.

“Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld,” Chalmers Johnson insisted, in his diagnosis of the U.S. military’s empire of bases, “one can’t begin to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order.”

In this article, which extends Johnson’s pioneering work, David Vine explores the costs and consequences of what he term’s America’s “Base Nation.” According to his tally, there are around 800 U.S. bases in foreign countries. 174 base sites in Germany, 113 in Japan, 83 in South Korea (according to the Pentagon) and hundreds more dotted across the planet in around 80 countries. “Although few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history.” As Vine estimates, these hundreds of bases run an annual cost of $156 billion or more.


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U.S. bases come in all shapes and sizes. Some are city-sized “Little Americas” — places like Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and the little known Navy and Air Force base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. On the other end of the scale are so-called “lily pad” bases (also known as “cooperative security locations” or CSLs), which typically house drones, manned surveillance aircraft, and other materials. As Vine continues, “Other facilities scattered across the planet include ports and airfields, repair complexes, training areas, nuclear weapons installations, missile testing sites, arsenals, warehouses, barracks, military schools, listening and communications posts, and a growing array of drone bases. Military hospitals and prisons, rehab facilities, CIA paramilitary bases, and intelligence facilities (including former CIA “black site” prisons) must also be considered part of our Base Nation because of their military functions… Worldwide, the military runs more than 170 golf courses.” Add to that are miltary personnel in about 160 foreign countries and territories, and the Navy’s 11 aircraft carrier, which the Navy refers to them as, “four and a half acres of sovereign U.S. territory.” Finally, above the seas, one finds a growing military presence in space.

Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country with bases outside its territory. The UK, Russia, Japan, France, South Korea, India, Chile, Turkey and Israel and lately China are reported to have foreign bases. Yet, while these may number some 30 installations abroad, the U.S. has approximately 95% of the world’s foreign bases.

This Baseworld, to use Chalmer’s turn of phrase, stems from when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a “destroyers-for-bases” deal with Great Britain. This “instantly gave the United States 99-year leases to installations in British colonies worldwide…. By 1945, the U.S. military was building base facilities at a rate of 112 a month. By war’s end, the global total topped 2,000 sites.” While this represents a high point, by the time the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the U.S. still had about 1600 foreign bases with 300,000 U.S. troops in Europe alone. To date, 250,000 American troops remain deployed abroad. And while there are half as many bases as there were in 1989, the Obama administration continues to spend  billions of dollars in construction across Asia, as part of the so-called “Pacific Pivot.”

This “forward strategy”, nearly 70 years old, is centered around the belief that U.S. power projection can “contain” communism. But this tenet remains in force today, despite the end of the Soviet Union. And, according to Vine,

“maintaining installations and troops overseas cost at least $85 billion in 2014 — more than the discretionary budget of every government agency except the Defense Department itself. If the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is included, that bill reaches $156 billion or more.”

All of which is big money for the military-industrial complex which constructs these bases and installations (see Vine). Moreover, by placing bases “everywhere” the danger appears “everywhere.” In turn, Baseworld becomes a self-referential justification for its own existence. Particularly, this is so with the fleets of drones that now roam the planet.

Vine quotes the anthropologist Catherine Lutz has as saying, when all you have in your foreign policy toolbox is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. To adapt this well-known formula: when all you have is a drone, everything starts to look like a target.


U.S. Special Ops Forces Deployed in 135 Nations. Nick Turse. September 24, 2015. TomDispatch.


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In this article, Nick Turse gathers together information on U.S. Special Forces operations across the globe. By September 2015, U.S. Special Operations were already deployed in some 135 nations (or 70% of the countries on the planet), according to Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This represents quite a stark escalation from the closing days of the Bush administration – where Special Operations Forces (SOF) were deployed in 60 or so nations. By 2010, that number crept to 75; by 2013 it was 134 nations; 133 nations the following year; and 135 by the summer of 2015. This escalation is indicative of how central Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is to U.S. national security strategy. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), this global presence is funded to the tune of some $10 billion a year. SOCOM personnel now now number 70,000 -over double the 33,000 men and women in 2001. Each day, 11,000 special operators are deployed outside the U.S. on “standby.” In 2014, 69 percent of these operators were stationed in the Middle East according to GAO figures.

SOCOM is itself divided into sub-unified commands:  SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of CENTCOM; SOCKOR,  devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which oversees Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCNORTH, devoted to “homeland defense”; and Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command made up of personnel from each service branch.

Most of these training missions across 135 nations are low-level training missions, designed to mentor proxies and forge close links with U.S. allies. As Turse explains,

“From 2012 to 2014, for instance, Special Operations forces carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as 67 countries each year.”

There were hundreds of other training exercises, too.

Special Operations Forces are broken down into various task forces. Turse lists many, forming an “alphabet soup” of units: “Around the world, you can find Special Operations Joint Task Forces (SOJTFs), Combined Joint Special Operations Task Forces (CJSOTFs), and Joint Special Operations Task Forces (JSOTFs), Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), as well as Special Operations Command and Control Elements (SOCCEs) and Special Operations Liaison Elements (SOLEs).  And that list doesn’t even include Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements — small teams which, according to the military, ‘shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.’” Additionally,  Special Operations liaison officers (SOLOs) are embedded in at least 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations.  The SOLO program is poised to expand to 40 countries by 2019.  The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI, and the NSA,  through the use of liaison officers and Special Operations Support Teams (SOSTs).

As Turse summarizes,

From Joint Special Operations Task Force-Juniper Shield, which operates in Africa’s Trans-Sahara region, and Special Operations Command and Control Element-Horn of Africa, to Army Special Operations Forces Liaison Element-Korea and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula, the global growth of SOF missions has been breathtaking.


Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Special Ops “Successes”
America’s Elite Forces Deploy to a Record-Shattering 147 Countries in 2015. Nick Turse, October 25, 2015. TomDispatch.


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Coming a month after the above article, in this report, Turse explores whether or not Special Operations have produced important military “success.” The picture he paints is that while SOF are engaged in key battles and conflicts around the world, their ability to effect meaningful change is limited – something that SOCOM itself admits.

The article opens by detailing the Green Berets. These are so-called “white” SOF since they operate in public, as opposed to the “black ops” performed by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive counter-terrorism organization that includes the U.S. military’s most elite units, such as the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force.

According to a statement of the SOCOM, “In the last decade, Green Berets have deployed into 135 of the 195 recognized countries in the world. Successes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Trans-Sahel Africa, the Philippines, the Andean Ridge, the Caribbean, and Central America have resulted in an increasing demand for [Special Forces] around the globe.”

Updating last month’s article from Turse (above), this means that SOF have been deployed in 147 countries. A record-breaking 75% of the world’s recognized nations. This is according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw.

But what about the Green Beret’s recent successes?

A recent $500 million program, run by Green Berets, to train a Syrian force of more than 15,000 over several years, for instance, crashed and burned in a very public way, yielding just four or five fighters in the field before being abandoned.

And what of JSOC? An intelligence-gathering, raiding, and manhunting machine?

If what JSOC can do is bump off and capture individuals and pressure such groups but not decisively roll up militant networks, despite years of anti-terror whack-a-mole efforts, it sounds like a recipe for spending endless lives and endless funds on endless war.

The growth of Islamic State, particularly since 2014, was, in part, bolstered by U.S. intervention, according to Turse.  As he reflects,

What if al-Qaeda in Iraq, which flowered in the years after the U.S. invasion, had never been targeted by JSOC as part of a man-hunting operation…?  Given that the even more brutal Islamic State (IS) grew out of that targeted terror group, that IS was fueled in many ways, say experts, both by U.S. actions and inaction, that its leader’s rise was bolstered by U.S. operations, that “U.S. training helped mold” another of its chiefs, and that a U.S. prison served as its “boot camp,” and given that the Islamic State now holds a significant swath of Iraq, was JSOC’s campaign against its predecessor a net positive or a negative?  Were special ops efforts in Iraq (and therefore in CENTCOM’s area of operations) — JSOC’s post-9/11 showcase counterterror campaign — a success or a failure?

As Turse explains (in dialogue with Sean Naylor, author of Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command)  the inability to completely eradicate al-Qaeda in Iraq led to its subsequent growth in northern Iraq in 2014.

This, in turn, led to the rushing of special ops advisers back into the country to aid the fight against the Islamic State, as well as to that program to train anti-Islamic State Syrian fighters that foundered and then imploded.  By this spring, JSOC operators were not only back in Iraq and also on the ground in Syria, but they were soon conducting drone campaigns in both of those tottering nations.

The message that Turse puts across, then, is that while SOF may be world-leaders in manhunting, their ability to effect lasting change and produce security, is not the same.


America’s Secret African Drone War Against the Islamic State. Predators and the “Neutralization” of 69 People in Iraq and Syria. Nick Turse, December 15 2015. TomDispatch. satellite photo of Predator and Reaper drones at Chabelley Airfield during Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Drake’s time in command of the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. Source.

This article focuses on Chabelly Airfield, an outpost in Djibouti close to Camp Lemonnier – the only “official” major U.S. military base in the continent of Africa. Following a series of Predator crashes in 2012 at Camp Lemonnier, nearby Chabelly (it’s about 10km away) became the heart of drone operations in the region. That is, until the drone unit was shuttered on 7th October 2015.

Between November 20, 2014 and October 7th 2015, Lieutenant Colonel Drake commanded the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaisance Squadron, a unit operating under U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT). The unit flew MQ-1 Predator drones from its base at Chabelley Airfield. During its operation it was central to Operation Inherent Resolve – the U.S. military’s conflict against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

The rise of Chabelley began in February 2013, after the Pentagon requested funding for “temporary operations.” By the fall, the U.S. drone fleet had been transferred. The base was expanded in May 2014, after AFRICOM signed a long-term deal with the Djiboutian government to establish an “enduring” base (“according to documents provided to the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year by the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller)”). By the close of that year, the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron was likely carrying out comabt operations for AFRICOM, CENTCOM, and SOCOM. Where targets in Yemen and Somalia were once central, the rise of Islamic State meant that it became the focus of drone surveillance and strikes, under Operation Inherent Resolve.

By the beginning of October 2015, drones flown out of Chabelley had already logged more than 24,000 hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), according to the chief of operations analysis and reconstructions of the 380th Expeditionary Operations Group, its parent unit. (In an Air Force news release, that officer was identified only as “Major Kori,” evidently to obscure his identity.)  According to Kori, Chabelley’s drones were also “responsible for the neutralization of 69 enemy fighters, including five high-valued individuals.”

AFCENT failed to provide additional details about the missions, those targeted, or that euphemism, “neutralization,” which was once a favored term of the CIA’s often muddled and sometimes murderous Phoenix Program that targeted the civilian “infrastructure” of America’s enemies during the Vietnam War.  Beckman did, however, confirm that “neutralizations” took place in Iraq and/or Syria.

That the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaisance Squadron’s Predators were transferred either suggests: (a) an end to U.S. drone missions from Djibouti; (b) a higher demand for Predators elsewhere in the world; (C) the Predators are set to be replaced by larger Reaper drones.

Military press materials suggest, however, that members of the 870th Air Expeditionary Squadron and the 33rd Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron have recently been operating at Chabelley airfield.  The latter unit has been known to fly Reapers from there.

Whatever the future of Chabelley and Camp Lemonnier, counter-terrorism in Africa isn’t going anywhere.

The New York Times now reports that “the Pentagon has proposed a new plan to the White House to build up a string of military bases in Africa” and beyond, “bring[ing] an ad hoc series of existing bases into one coherent system that would be able to confront regional threats from the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups.” But the expansion of Chabelley, the far flung network of bases of which it’s a part, and the war on the Islamic State waged from it suggest that there is little “new” about the proposal. The facts on the ground indicate that the Pentagon’s plan has been underway for a long time. What’s new is its emergence from the shadows. 


Pentagon Seeks to Knit Foreign Bases Into ISIS-Foiling Network. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmidt, December 10 2015. New York Times.


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This article reports on (vague) Pentagon plans to construct a string of military bases in Africa, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East. These bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives conducting counterterrorism missions – partly in response to a “metastasizing” Islamic State network of franchises. The plan would see an “enduring” U.S. military presence in “some of the world’s most volatile regions.”

Officials said that the Pentagon’s proposed new architecture of bases would include four “hubs” — including expanding existing bases in Djibouti and Afghanistan — and smaller “spokes,” or more basic installations, in countries that could include Niger and Cameroon, where the United States now carries out unarmed surveillance drone missions, or will soon.

The new approach would try to bring an ad hoc series of existing bases into one coherent system that would be able to confront regional threats from the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups…

The threat posed by Islamic State is seen as an amorphous and planetary problem (even if such franchises are local in orientation).

Gen. Joseph E. Dunford Jr., who took over in October from General Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress this month that he saw little to distinguish among the Islamic State affiliates. He said that the Islamic State’s inclusion of Boko Haram and other militant groups into its fold was part of a “global dynamic.”

“These threats are difficult to confine to one place,” he said, adding that was why the United States needed to strike at the Islamic State not only in Iraq and Syria but also in “other places where it is.”

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Africa, Baseworld, Camp Lemonnier, Chalmers Johnson, Empire, Nick Turse, Special Forces. Bookmark the permalink.

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