This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
It looked like
a scene out of a Hollywood movie. In the inky
darkness, men in full combat gear, armed with automatic weapons and wearing
night-vision goggles, grabbed hold of a thick, woven cable hanging from a MH-47
Chinook helicopter. Then, in a flash, each “fast-roped” down onto a ship below.
Afterward, “Mike,” a Navy SEAL who would not give his last name, bragged to an
Army public affairs sergeant that, when they were on their game, the SEALs
could put 15 men on a ship this way in 30 seconds or less.
Once on the aft
deck, the special ops troops broke into squads and methodically searched the
ship as it bobbed in Jinhae Harbor,
Below deck and on the bridge, the commandos located several men and trained
their weapons on them, but nobody fired a shot. It was, after all, a training
All of those
ship-searchers were SEALs, but not all of them were American. Some were from
Naval Special Warfare Group 1 out of Coronado, California; others hailed from South Korea’s Naval Special
Brigade. The drill was part of Foal Eagle 2012, a multinational, joint-service
exercise. It was also a model for — and one small part of — a much publicized
U.S. military “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia, a move that
includes sending an initial contingent of 250 Marines to Darwin, Australia,
basing littoral combat ships in Singapore, strengthening military ties with Vietnam and India, staging war games in the Philippines (as well as a
drone strike there), and shifting the majority of the Navy’s ships to the
Pacific by the end of the decade.
That modest training exercise also reflected another kind of pivot. The
face of American-style war-fighting is once again changing. Forget full-scale
invasions and large-footprint occupations on the Eurasian mainland; instead,
think: special operations forces working on their own but also training or
fighting beside allied militaries (if not outright proxy armies) in hot spots
around the world. And along with those special ops advisors, trainers, and
commandos expect ever more funds and efforts to flow into the militarization of
spying and intelligence, the use of drone aircraft, the launching of
cyber-attacks, and joint Pentagon operations with increasingly militarized
“civilian” government agencies.
Much of this
has been noted in the media, but how it all fits together into what could be
called the new global face of empire has escaped attention. And yet this
represents nothing short of a new Obama doctrine, a six-point program for
twenty-first-century war, American-style, that the administration is now
carefully developing and honing. Its global scope is already breathtaking, if
little recognized, and like Donald Rumsfeld’s military lite and David
Petraeus’s counterinsurgency operations, it is evidently going to have its day
in the sun — and like them, it will undoubtedly disappoint in ways that will
surprise its creators.
For many years,
military has been talking up and promoting the concept of “jointness.”
An Army helicopter landing Navy SEALs on a Korean ship catches some of this
ethos at the tactical level. But the future, it seems, has something else in
store. Think of it as “blur-ness,” a kind of organizational version of
war-fighting in which a dominant Pentagon fuses its forces with other
government agencies — especially the CIA, the State Department, and the Drug
Enforcement Administration — in complex, overlapping missions around the
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began his “revolution in military
affairs,” steering the Pentagon toward a military-lite model of high-tech, agile forces. The concept came to a grim end in Iraq’s
embattled cities. A decade later, the last vestiges of its many failures
continue to play out in a stalemated war in Afghanistan against a rag-tag
minority insurgency that can’t be beaten. In the years since, two secretaries
of defense and a new president have presided over another transformation —
this one geared toward avoiding ruinous, large-scale land wars which the U.S. has
consistently proven unable to win.
Obama, the U.S.
has expanded or launched numerous military campaigns — most of them utilizing
a mix of the six elements of twenty-first-century American war. Take the
American war in Pakistan
— a poster-child for what might now be called the Obama formula, if not
doctrine. Beginning as a highly-circumscribed drone assassination campaign backed by
limited cross-border commando raids under the Bush administration,
U.S. operations in Pakistan have expanded into something close to a full-scale
robotic air war, complemented by cross-border helicopter attacks, CIA-funded “kill teams” of Afghan proxy forces, as well as
boots-on-the-ground missions by elite special operations forces, including the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The CIA has conducted clandestine intelligence and surveillance missions in Pakistan,
too, though its role may, in the future, be less important, thanks to Pentagon
mission creep. In April, in fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new CIA-like espionage agency
within the Pentagon called the Defense Clandestine Service. According to the Washington
Post, its aim is to expand “the military’s espionage efforts beyond war
Over the last
decade, the very notion of war zones has become remarkably muddled, mirroring
the blurring of the missions and activities of the CIA and Pentagon. Analyzing
the new agency and the “broader convergence trend” between Department of
Defense and CIA missions, the Post noted that the “blurring is also evident in
the organizations’ upper ranks. Panetta previously served as CIA director, and
that post is currently held by retired four-star Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.”
Not to be
outdone, last year the State Department, once the seat of diplomacy, continued
on its long march to militarization (and marginalization) when it
agreed to pool some of its resources with the Pentagon to create the Global Security Contingency Fund. That program will allow
the Defense Department even greater say in how aid from Washington
will flow to proxy forces in places like Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
One thing is
certain: American war-making (along with its spies and its diplomats) is
heading ever deeper into “the shadows.” Expect yet more clandestine operations
in ever more places with, of course, ever more potential for blowback in the
Light on “the Dark Continent”
likely to see an influx of Pentagon spies in the coming years is Africa. Under President Obama, operations on the
continent have accelerated far beyondthe more limited interventions of the Bush years.
Last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and
bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of
Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a
multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including
intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, secret prisons, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for
counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region
using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries
and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill
Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders, operating
in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic (where U.S. Special Forces now
have a new base) only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s
fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.
Even less well
known are other U.S.
military efforts designed to train African forces for operations now considered
integral to American interests on the continent. These include, for example, a
mission by elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground
Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) to train soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defense
Force, which supplies the majority of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia.
year, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National
Defense Force, the second-largest contingent in Somalia; sent trainers into Djibouti
(where the U.S. already maintains a major Horn of Africa base at Camp
Lemonier); and traveled to Liberia where they focused on teaching riot-control
techniques to Liberia’s military as part of an otherwise State Department
spearheaded effort to rebuild that force.
The U.S. is also conducting counterterrorism training and equipping
militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad,
Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. In addition, U.S. Africa
Command (Africom) has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012,
including operations in Morocco,
Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana,
South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal,
and what may become the Pakistan of Africa, Nigeria.
however, doesn’t encompass the full breadth of U.S.
training and advising missions in Africa. To
take an example not on Africom’s list, this spring the U.S. brought together 11 nations, including Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania,
and Sierra Leone
to take part in a maritime training exercise code-named Saharan Express 2012.
founding, the United States
has often meddled close to home, treating the Caribbean as its private lake and
intervening at will throughout Latin America.
During the Bush years, with
some notable exceptions, Washington’s
interest in America’s
“backyard” took a backseat to wars farther from home. Recently, however, the
Obama administration has been ramping up operations south of the border using
its new formula. This has meant Pentagon drone missions deep inside Mexico to aid that country’s
battle against the drug cartels, while CIA agents and civilian operatives from
the Department of Defense were dispatched to Mexican military bases to take part in the
country’s drug war.
In 2012, the
Pentagon has also ramped up its anti-drug operations in Honduras.
Working out of Forward Operating Base Mocoron and other remote camps
there, the U.S. military is
supporting Honduran operations by way of the methods it honed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, U.S.
forces have taken part in joint operations with Honduran troops as part of a
training mission dubbed Beyond the Horizon 2012; Green Berets have been assisting Honduran Special Operations forces in
anti-smuggling operations; and a Drug Enforcement Administration
Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, originally created to disrupt the poppy
trade in Afghanistan, has joined forces with Honduras’s Tactical Response Team,
that country’s most elite counternarcotics unit. A glimpse of these operations
made the news recently when DEA agents, flying in an American helicopter, were involved in an aerial attack on civilians that killed two men and two pregnant women in the
remote Mosquito Coast region.
have been U.S. efforts in Guyana, where
Special Operation Forces have been training local troops in heliborne air
assault techniques.“This is the first timewe have
had this type of exercise involving SpecialOperations Forces
of the United States on such
a grandscale,” Colonel Bruce Lovell of the Guyana Defense
Force told a U.S.
public affairs official earlier this year. “It gives us a chance to validate
ourselves and see where we are, what are our shortcomings.”
The U.S. military has been similarly active
elsewhere in Latin America, concluding training exercises in Guatemala, sponsoring “partnership-building”
missions in the Dominican Republic,
El Salvador, Peru, and Panama, and reaching an agreement
to carry out 19 “activities” with the Colombian army over the next year,
including joint military exercises.
in the Middle of the Middle East
Despite the end
of the Iraq and Libyan wars, a coming drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and
copious public announcements about its national security pivot toward Asia, Washington is by no means withdrawing
from the Greater Middle East. In addition to continuing operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. has consistently been at work
training allied troops, building up military bases, and brokering
weapons sales and arms transfers to despots in the region from Bahrain to
In fact, Yemen, like its neighbor, Somalia, across the Gulf of
Aden, has become a laboratory for Obama’s wars. There, the U.S. is
carrying out its signature new brand of warfare with “black ops” troops like
the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force undoubtedly conducting kill/capture
missions, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous troops, and robot planes hunt and kill members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates,
possibly assisted by an even more secret contingent of manned aircraft.
The Middle East has also become the somewhat unlikely
poster-region for another emerging facet of the Obama doctrine: cyberwar
efforts. In a category-blurring speaking engagement, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton surfaced at the recent Special Operations Forces Industry
Conference in Florida where she gave a speech talking up her department’s eagerness to join in the
new American way of war. “We need Special Operations Forces who are as
comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound,”
she told the crowd. “We also need diplomats and development experts who are up
to the job of being your partners.”
Clinton then took the opportunity to tout her agency’s online efforts, aimed at websites used by
al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.
When al-Qaeda recruitment messages appeared on the latter, she said, “our team plastered the same sites with altered
versions… that showed the toll al-Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni
people.” She further noted that this information-warfare mission was carried
out by experts at State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications
with assistance, not surprisingly, from the military and the U.S. Intelligence
on-line efforts join more potent methods of cyberwar being employed by the Pentagon and the CIA, including the recently revealed “Olympic Games,” a program of sophisticated
attacks on computers in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities engineered and
unleashed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Unit 8200, Israeli’s
equivalent of the NSA. As with other facets of the new way of war, these
efforts were begun under the Bush administration but significantly accelerated
under the current president, who became the first American commander-in-chief
to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s
Brushfires to Wildfires
globe from Central and South America to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the Obama administration is working out its formula
for a new American way of war. In its pursuit, the Pentagon and its
increasingly militarized government partners are drawing on everything from
classic precepts of colonial warfare to the latest technologies.
The United States
is an imperial power chastened by more than 10 years of failed, heavy-footprint
wars. It is hobbled by a hollowing-out economy, and inundated with hundreds of
thousands of recent veterans — a staggering 45% of the troops who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq — suffering from
service-related disabilities who will require ever more expensive care. No
wonder the current combination of special ops, drones, spy games, civilian
soldiers, cyberwarfare, and proxy fighters sounds like a safer, saner brand of
war-fighting. At first blush, it may even look like a panacea for America’s
national security ills. In reality, it may be anything but.
light-footprint Obama doctrine actually seems to be making war an ever more
attractive and seemingly easy option — a point emphasized recently by former
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace. “I worry about
speed making it too easy to employ force,” said Pace when asked about recent efforts to make it
simpler to deploy Special Operations Forces abroad. “I worry about speed
making it too easy to take the easy answer — let’s go whack them with special
operations — as opposed to perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a
better long-term solution.”
As a result,
the new American way of war holds great potential for unforeseen entanglements
and serial blowback. Starting or fanning brushfire wars on several continents
could lead to raging wildfires that spread unpredictably and prove difficult,
if not impossible, to quench.
By their very
nature, small military engagements tend to get larger, and wars tend to spread
beyond borders. By definition, military action tends to have unforeseen
consequences. Those who doubt this need only look back to 2001, when three
low-tech attacks on a single day set in motion a decade-plus of war that has
spread across the globe. The response to that one day began with a war in Afghanistan, that spread to Pakistan, detoured to Iraq,
popped up in Somalia and Yemen, and so
on. Today, veterans of those Ur-interventions find themselves trying to
replicate their dubious successes in places like Mexico
and Honduras, the Central Africa
Republic and the Congo.
History demonstrates that the U.S. is not very good at winning
wars, having gone without victory in any major conflict since 1945. Smaller
interventions have been a mixed bag with modest victories in places like Panama and Grenada
and ignominious outcomes in Lebanon
(in the 1980s) and Somalia
(in the 1990s), to name a few.
The trouble is,
it’s hard to tell what an intervention will grow up to be — until it’s too
late. While they followed different paths, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, and Iraq all began
relatively small, before growing large and ruinous. Already, the outlook for
the new Obama doctrine seems far from rosy, despite the good press it’s getting
today like a formula for easy power projection that will further U.S. imperial
interests on the cheap could soon prove to be an unmitigated disaster — one
that likely won’t be apparent until it’s too late.
is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his
work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the
Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch.
He is the author/editor of several books, including the just published Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt). This piece is the latest article in
his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is
being underwritten by Lannan
Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse,
and on Facebook.