One might think that a liberal president who has tried to cultivate the image of someone devoted to diplomacy, engaging enemies, and respect for all cultures would have a strong aversion to excessive military involvements abroad. To an extent, Barack Obama has been faithful to that image—ending combat involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling in his Nobel Prize speech for a world free of nuclear weapons, passionately addressing Middle East audiences on the importance of finding a path to an Israel-Palestine peace. But we have discovered another, less noble side to the President, one that favors drone strikes, vigorous prosecution of defense whistleblowers, and—today’s subject—an ever-expanding list of countries where the US carries out “special operations.”
I was led to this topic by a haircut in Yemen. Not mine, but that of two Americans attached to the US embassy in Sana, Yemen, on May 10. One of them reportedly is a CIA agent and the other a US Special Operations officer; they were getting a haircut at a local barber shop when, according to news articles, they were confronted by two Yemeni kidnappers. The Americans shot the Yemenis dead and left; the Yemenis were subsequently said to have belonged to an al-Qaeda cell. To avoid questions as well as to avoid becoming a political problem for Yemen’s pro-US leader, the two Americans were quickly secreted out of the country. End of another little episode in the global war on terror, now labeled “counterterrorism.”
But it’s not the end, as the President’s West Point speech (post #24) made clear with his request for another $5 billion to underwrite counterterrorism “partnerships.”
Leaving aside the interesting question of why the Americans were getting a haircut outside the embassy compound and without a security detail, the incident revealed a little-known fact: Yemen is a US military and intelligence outpost, one of about 100 around the world, and the US is an ally of Yemen in its war with al-Qaeda. Yemen hosts around 1,000 US military personnel, half of whom are reportedly in Special Operations. When you stop for a moment to consider that fact, you confront a situation that deserves attention: Despite the supposed end of the Cold War, and the US troop withdrawals from the Middle East, the US is engaged in an unceasing expansion of its military and intelligence missions all over the globe. Obama has built on a legacy of the Rumsfeld Pentagon: keep a low profile, but seek out terrorists everywhere. Formal, large military bases have mostly given way to small, leased facilities; the numbers of US personnel have been kept low; and missions have mostly been carried out under the radar.
That last point is what makes the publicity surrounding the barber shop incident in Yemen important. These guys brought attention to one of the many little wars that preoccupy the military and the CIA these days. Sending up drones (in Yemen, from a base in Saudi Arabia), training other armies, conducting commando raids and intelligence and surveillance operations against (alleged) terrorists, lifting cargo and troops—these are the new bread-and-butter activities of US forces in developing countries (aka “fragile states”). The role of the CIA has expanded along with the military’s role, in keeping with one of the iron laws of bureaucracy. About ten years ago President Bush signed a secret executive order, “Al Qaeda Network Exord”—that allowed coordinated military-CIA attacks anywhere in the world. (The New York Times reported this on November 10, 2008.) The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command came of age, with attacks on individuals and cells in Somalia, Syria, and Pakistan, and (some speculate) recon missions inside Iran. Although the secret order led to a turf battle between the CIA and the Pentagon, and concerns in the State Department, Special Ops is now a well established foreign-policy tool in the President’s tool box.
Africa is the main battleground of US counterterrorism activities. Take a look at the map below. What it shows is that under the Pentagon’s Africa Command are military facilities of various sizes and functions in all but about five African countries. While the AFRICOM insists it has only one permanent base (in Djibouti, in striking distance of Yemen and Somalia), it has drone, Special Forces, and helicopter, training, and intelligence posts in (for example) Kenya, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and Niger. (The Times reported on May 26 that the Pentagon has a secret program to train counterterrorist groups in Libya, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania.) And it has a continent-wide network of fuel, logistics, and port facilities, all of which are expanding in anticipation of accommodating even more US soldiers. The outstanding Australian journalist, Nick Turse, who often writes for TomDispatch on this issue, should be credited with taking the lid off the US “pivot to Africa” (see http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175743/). Turse, who has written perhaps the definitive book on US war crimes in the Vietnam War (Kill Anything That Moves), raises questions about what real good the US is doing by further militarizing Africa’s internal conflicts.
Wonder why the US was quick to offer help in Nigeria to find the kidnapped schoolgirls? I can accept that it did so partly for humanitarian reasons. But the fact is that Boko Haram is one of AFRICOM’s main counterterrorism targets, which is why the US military presence in Nigeria and neighboring Chad is, at this writing, over 100 and includes Predator drones. One look, however, at Nigeria’s woeful political and economic situation—the extraordinary corruption, the vast unemployment, the incompetence and corruption of the military, the inability of the country’s leaders to mobilize its oil wealth for social gain—makes plain that Boko Haram is merely the tip of the iceberg of discontent. (An excellent, concise portrait of Nigeria is at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/15/opinion/the-kidnapping-of-a-country.html?hp&rref=opinion. On the social and historical sources of Boko Haram, see–with thanks to Candice Goucher–www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/05/27/commentary/world-commentary/understanding-boko-haram/#.U4YGjPldUkx. ) Yet the US lauds Nigeria’s leaders, and US military leaders welcome the opportunity to pursue militant groups.
The New York Times quotes one officer responsible for training US troops for duty in several African countries as saying, “Our goal is to help Africans solve African problems, without having a big American presence.” A more accurate statement would be: We’ve bought off a number of African leaders so that we can pursue al-Qaeda affiliates. We’re not going to get into other African problems, such as poverty, desertification, corruption, famine, rampaging private militia, and unemployment. Let someone else deal with those if they can. We hope these guys we’re training will save us from having to fight terrorists ourselves. But who knows if they’re any good. And who knows if in the end we won’t have to do the fighting anyway.
Such tunnel vision ignores still larger security threats that Africans and everyone else are already confronting. One of them is climate change. A number of reports, one of which was just produced by a think tank staffed with retired military officers, have drawn a direct link between climate change and widely destabilizing events such as refugee flight, ethnic conflict, and internal fights over food and water. (See the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board’s report at http://www.cna.org.) In Africa, for example, political and military leaders will face far bigger challenges than hunting for terrorist cells. How useful will those bases and outposts for US forces be against floods, creeping deserts, and dried up waterways? (The New York Times report on the CNA report is at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/us/politics/climate-change-deemed-growing-security-threat-by-military-researchers.html?hp&_r=0.) Wouldn’t the well over $100 million the Pentagon is reportedly spending on counterterrorism training in those four countries mentioned above be better spent on human and environmental security?
According to the Pentagon, the United States has over 800 bases of various sizes and descriptions in 39 countries and 7 US territories. Bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea head the overseas list. As one critic has cutely phrased it, “the United States is to military bases as Heinz is to ketchup” (Hugh Gusterson, “Empire of Bases,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/columnists/hugh-gusterson/empire-of-bases). More important than even those eye-opening figures, and more important than all the other figures that demonstrate the overwhelming military edge the United States has over every other country, is what the military and its CIA partner are actually doing abroad. They’re not just getting haircuts or being polite observers at training exercises. And they’re virtually everywhere.
Next time someone observes how the US military is being eviscerated by budget cuts, don’t shed any tears.