US Special Forces – The Long Arm of American Foreign Policy
Forget President Trump’s steps and missteps while travelling overseas. They have little to do with the execution of American foreign policy. The fact is that a nation is much more likely to have US Special Forces operate in their country than have a visit by Trump – or a senior American official like the Secretary of State.
Despite campaign promises to bring American troops home and Americans’ growing distaste for foreign military involvement, the US military is everywhere. In fact about 75% of the world’s countries have had US Special Forces operations carried out on their territory this year alone.
In fact, if American Special Forces deploy to just 17 more countries by the end of the fiscal year, they will exceed last year’s record-breaking total.
Ironically, although they are paying for it, Americans are woefully unaware of what is happening.
Early last month, a tiny military post near the town of Jamaame in Somalia, was attacked with small arms fire. When the attack was over, one Somali soldier had been wounded. However, American Special Forces were also operating from that outpost and four of them were wounded, three badly enough to be evacuated for further medical care. Another American, Staff Sergeant Alexander Conrad, a member of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets was killed.
This story isn’t that unusual. Last December, Green Berets operating alongside local forces in Niger killed 11 ISIS militants in a firefight. Two months earlier, in October, an ambush by an ISIS group in that same country left four U.S. soldiers dead. The Pentagon first described that mission as providing “advice and assistance” to local forces, then as a “reconnaissance patrol” as part of a broader “train, advise, and assist” mission, before it was finally exposed as a kill or capture operation.
Last May, a Navy SEAL was killed and two other U.S. personnel were wounded in a raid in Somalia that the Pentagon described as an “advise, assist, and accompany” mission. And a month earlier, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal militia that has terrorized parts of Central Africa for decades.
And there had been, as the New York Times noted in March, at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017.
For at least five years, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other members of the US Special Forces community have been operating under a little-understood legal authority known as Section 127e. As a result, American Special Forces have been involved in reconnaissance and “direct action” combat raids with African special operators in Somalia, Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia.
For decades, America’s Special Operations forces (SOF) have been regularly engaged in a wide-ranging set of missions including special reconnaissance and small-scale offensive actions, unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and security force assistance (that is, organizing, training, equipping, and advising foreign troops). And every day, almost everywhere, U.S. commandos are involved in various kinds of training.
Unless they end in disaster, most missions remain in the shadows. Yet in 2017 alone, U.S. SOFs deployed to 149 countries — about 75% of the nations on the planet. At the halfway mark of this year, according to figures provided to reporters by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM), America’s most elite troops have already carried out missions in 133 countries. That’s nearly as many deployments as occurred during the last year of the Obama administration and more than double those of the final days of George W. Bush’s White House.
“USSOCOM plays an integral role in opposing today’s threats to our nation, to protecting the American people, to securing our homeland, and in maintaining favorable regional balances of power,” General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, told members of the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year. “However, as we focus on today’s operations we must be equally focused on required future transformation. SOF must adapt, develop, procure, and field new capabilities in the interest of continuing to be a unique, lethal, and agile part of the Joint Force of tomorrow.”
Special Operations forces have actually been in a state of transformation ever since September 11, 2001. In the years since, they have grown in every possible way — from their budget to their size, to their pace of operations, to the geographic sweep of their missions. In 2001, for example, an average of 2,900 SF soldiers was deployed overseas in any given week. That number has now soared to 8,300, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. At the same time, the number of “authorized military positions” — the active-duty troops, reservists, and National Guardsmen that are part of SOCOM — has jumped from 42,800 in 2001 to 63,500 today. While each of the military service branches — the so-called parent services — provides funding, including pay, benefits, and some equipment to their elite forces, “Special Operations-specific funding,” at $3.1 billion in 2001, is now at $12.3 billion. (The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps also provide their special operations units with about $8 billion annually.)
This means that, on any given day, more than 8,000 Special Forces soldiers are deployed in approximately 90 countries. Most of those troops are Green Berets, Rangers, or other Army Special Operations personnel. According to Lieutenant General Kenneth Tovo, head of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command until his retirement last month, that branch provides more than 51% of all Special Operations forces and accounts for more than 60% of their overseas deployments. On any given day, just the Army’s elite soldiers are operating in around 70 countries.
These deployments aren’t just in trouble spots. They also deploy in neutral countries and even in countries where the relationship between President Trump and the national leadership is less than cordial. In February, for instance, Army Rangers carried out several weeks of winter warfare training in Germany, while Green Berets practiced missions involving snowmobiles in Sweden.
They also train with special forces of other nations. In April, Green Berets took part in the annual Flintlock multinational Special Operations forces training exercise conducted in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Senegal that involved Nigerien, Burkinabe, Malian, Polish, Spanish, and Portuguese troops, among others.
While most missions involve training, instruction, or war games, Special Forces soldiers are also regularly involved in combat operations across America’s expansive global war on terror. A month after Flintlock, for example, Green Berets accompanied local commandos on a nighttime air assault raid in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.
Although Army Special Forces are carrying the majority of the load, the Navy, according to Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski, chief of Naval Special Warfare Command, has about 1,000 SEALs or other personnel deployed to more than 35 countries each day. In February, Naval Special Warfare forces and soldiers from Army Special Operations Aviation Command conducted training aboard a French amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Gulf. That same month, Navy SEALs joined elite U.S. Air Force personnel in training alongside Royal Thai Naval Special Warfare operators during Cobra Gold, an annual exercise in Thailand.
The troops from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, deploy primarily to the Middle East, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific regions on six-month rotations. At any time, on average, about 400 “Raiders” are engaged in missions across 18 countries.
Air Force Special Operations Command, which fields a force of 19,500 active, reserve, and civilian personnel, conducted 78 joint-training exercises and events with other nations in 2017, according to Lieutenant General Marshall Webb, chief of Air Force Special Operations Command. In February, for example, Air Force commandos conducted Arctic training — ski maneuvers and free-fall air operations — in Sweden, but such training missions are only part of the story. Air Force special operators were, for instance, recently deployed to aid the attempt to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped deep inside a cave in Thailand. The Air Force also has three active duty special operations wings assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command, including the 24th Special Operations Wing, a “special tactics” unit that integrates air and ground forces for “precision-strike” and personnel-recovery missions. At a change of command ceremony in March, it was noted that its personnel had conducted almost 2,900 combat missions over the last two years.
One area of dramatic SF operational growth has been in Africa. In 2006, just 1% of all American commandos deployed overseas were operating in Africa. By 2016, that number had jumped above 17%. By then, there were more special operations personnel devoted to Africa — 1,700 special operators spread out across 20 countries — than anywhere else except the Middle East.
Cutting Back on SF Operations
Although Special Forces are effective, they are expensive to train and take time to bring online. In addition, the pace of operations has led to “burnout” as SF soldiers leave after their enlistment time is up either to spend more time with family, take a normal job, or take advantage of education opportunities.
The other problem is that they are deployed too widely, which means there aren’t enough for “critical” SF missions in the Middle East. This means paring down the number of SF forces in “non-critical” regions.
For years, members of SOCOM, as well as supporters in Congress, have been complaining about the soaring operations tempo for America’s elite troops and the resulting strains on them. “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” General Thomas, the SOCOM chief, told members of Congress last spring. “Despite growing demand for SOF, we must prioritize the sourcing of these demands as we face a rapidly changing security environment.”
There is also the potential future threat from Russia and China, which may impact future deployments. “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis in January, “but great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
As a result the New York Times reported that a “sweeping Pentagon review” of special ops missions – especially in Africa. U.S. Africa Command has apparently been asked to consider what effect cutting Special Forces there by 25% over 18 months and 50% over three years would have on its counterterrorism missions. In the end, only about 700 elite troops — roughly the same number as were stationed in Africa in 2014 — would be left there.
In addition, the United States Special Operations Forces in Africa has ordered its forces to, “plan missions to stay out of direct combat or do not go.”
The US may also start placing regular forces in Africa. Last year, in fact, Secretary of Defense Mattis noted that the lines between U.S. Special Operations forces and conventional troops were blurring and that the latter would likely be taking on missions previously carried out by Special Forces, particularly in Africa. “So the general purpose forces can do a lot of the kind of work that you see going on and, in fact, are now,” he said. “By and large, for example in Trans-Sahara, many of those forces down there supporting the French-led effort are not Special Forces. So we’ll continue to expand the general purpose forces where it’s appropriate. I would… anticipate more use of them.”
But that doesn’t mean that the Special Forces are due for a cut back. If anything, U.S. Special Operations forces are likely to expand, not contract, next year. SOCOM’s 2019 budget request calls for adding about 1,000 personnel to what would then be a force of 71,000. In April, at a meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities chaired by Ernst, New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich noted that SOCOM was on track to “grow by approximately 2,000 personnel” in the coming years.
But, the Congress may do more than fund the SF. They may turn its mission upside down, which can only hurt American strategies.
When the US Special Forces were created at the height of the Cold War by President Kennedy, they were designed to teach local guerillas, how to fight occupying forces like the Soviets or North Vietnamese. As a result, much of their training was on local customs and language.
But some politicians want to use the Special Forces for secret missions, while leaving the task of training to regular soldiers – troops that have been trained to fight, not teach.
This is what Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, an Iraq War veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, has also been advocating. Late last year, her press secretary, Leigh Claffey, told reporters that the senator believed “instead of such heavy reliance on Special Forces, we should also be engaging our conventional forces to take over missions when appropriate, as well as turning over operations to capable indigenous forces.”
Chances are that U.S. Special Forces will continue carrying out their shadowy raids alongside local forces across the African continent while leaving more conventional training and advising tasks to rank-and-file troops.
In other words, the number of Special Forces in low priority regions like Africa may be cut, but the total number of American troops may not – with covert combat operations possibly continuing at the present pace.
This again highlights what the future of American Special Forces is to be. Are they a training force for fighting insurgencies? Are they “super soldiers” for risky, secret missions? Are they to be used when politicians want to keep American military involvement around the world a secret?
SOCOM commander General Thomas told the House Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities earlier this year, “Why Green Berets and Navy SEALs need to solve national security problems – strategic issues that ought to be addressed by policymakers – is a question that has long gone unanswered.”
Since the Green Berets “liberated” Afghanistan in 2001, the United States has sent its Special Forces into several combat situations that have no end in sight. These include Cameroon, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.
These endless wars and deployments will only end when American politicians are willing to tackle the issue of the scope of American military involvement around the world.
Iranian Protests Underscore Regime’s Vulnerability
By James Phillips
June 29, 2018
On Sunday, protests spontaneously erupted in Tehran, Iran’s capital, as cellphone shop owners shut down their shops and demonstrated against the plummeting value of Iran’s currency, the rial, which has devastated their businesses. The next day they were joined by merchants in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, a key constituency for Iran’s clerical regime. The bazaar merchants played an important role in funding the Islamist extremists led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who hijacked Iran’s broad-based 1979 revolution. Khomeini famously downplayed the importance of economics for the revolution, which he maintained was “not about the price of watermelons.” But Khomeini’s successors do not have the luxury of ignoring Iran’s deteriorating economic situation. They know that most Iranians of rioting age are too young to remember the 1979 revolution, but are all too familiar with the economic mismanagement, corruption, and repression that the regime imposed after the revolution.
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Bab el-Mandeb: The U.S. Ignores the Most Dangerous Strait in the World
By Luke Coffey
July 2, 2018
Relatively few Americans are aware that there’s a civil war raging in Yemen. And even fewer can tell you where the Bab el-Mandeb strait is located—or why its fate affects them. The Bab el-Mandeb strait is a strategic waterway located between Djibouti and Yemen that links the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. At its narrowest, it is only eighteen miles across. Exports from the Persian Gulf and Asia destined for Western markets must pass through the strait before passing through the Suez Canal. It is also perhaps the most dangerous and geo-politically contested strait in the world. The civil war in Yemen and the border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti means that constant conflict surrounds the strait. In recent years the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the European Union have all conducted counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations in the region. Furthermore, the Americans, Chinese, Germans, French, Qataris, Emiratis, Saudi Arabians, Japanese, and Italians all have some form of military presence near the Bab el-Mandeb.
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Erdogan Takes Total Control of “New Turkey”
By Bulent Alizara
Center for Strategic and International Studies
July 18, 2018
July 9, 2018 will go down in Turkish political history as the day on which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan completed the transformation of Turkey to a presidential system he personally designed and shepherded to realization, following a formal swearing-in ceremony in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA), whose powers have been reduced significantly. Having emerged with a new mandate after Turkey’s first simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, Erdogan thus transitioned from the de facto control he had been exercising in the previous parliamentary system of government, since his election to the presidency in August 2014, to de jure management of what he has been calling “New Turkey.”
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By JUDY DEMPSEY and TOMÁŠ VALÁŠEK
July 12, 2018
What drama! The second day of a NATO summit—at least over the past decade—is usually devoted to partner countries and Afghanistan. They tend to be calm, attract little attention, and allow leaders to stick to their scheduled scripts and departure timetables.
Not this time around. After the international press and most leaders (probably excluding German Chancellor Angela Merkel) concluded that day one of the summit could have turned out much worse, they assumed that day two would be a shoo-in. Forget it. As soon as the meeting with Georgian and Ukrainian leaders began, Trump let rip. He singled out Germany, Spain, and the Benelux countries for falling way behind in meeting the NATO pledge to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. The Georgian and Ukrainian delegations were asked to leave the conference room. An emergency meeting of leaders was called by NATO’s secretary general. There, Trump didn’t mince his words, as he told a packed press conference at the end of the summit.
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Europe in the New Era of Great Power Competition
By Benjamin Haddad and Alina Polyakova
July 17, 2018
In the run-up to last week’s NATO summit and the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, European leaders could hardly hide their anxiety. In recent weeks, Trump has gone on a rhetorical warpath against the United States’ greatest allies. In a rally in June, he claimed that the EU “was set up to take advantage of the United States.” Earlier that month, Trump attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she was facing a rebellion in her own coalition over immigration. “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership,” he tweeted. Trump also reportedly asked French President Emmanuel Macron to leave the EU in order to get a better bilateral trade deal with the United States. These latest attacks came on the heels of Trump’s refusal to join the G-7 joint statement, his imposition of new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum from U.S. allies, and his proposal to readmit Russia to the G-7. On the eve of the meeting with Putin, the U.S. president called the European Union a “foe.” The message seems clear: “America first” means Europe alone.
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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor