"Tomorrow's Battlefield": As U.S. Special Ops Enter Syria, Growing Presence in Africa Goes Unnoticed
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After announcing the deployment of special operation forces to Syria earlier this month, President Obama denied breaking his pledge not to put U.S. troops on the ground.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Keep in mind that we have run special ops already, and really this is just an extension of what we are continuing to do. We are not putting U.S. troops on the front lines fighting firefights with ISIL. But I’ve been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with a—battalions and occupations. That doesn’t solve the problem.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The White House says a team of less than 50 special operations forces is being sent to Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria to help fight the Islamic State. It’s the first sustained U.S. troop presence in Syria since President Obama launched a bombing campaign against ISIL in September 2014. Although 50 might seem like a small number, the deployment adds Syria to a global U.S. battlefield that is at historic size. This year, special operations forces have been sent to a record 147 countries—that’s 75 percent of the nations on the planet. It’s a 145 percent increase from the days of George W. Bush. And it means that on any given day elite U.S. forces are on the ground in 70 to 90 countries.
AMY GOODMAN: Those shocking numbers were revealed last month by our guest, the journalist Nick Turse. For years, Nick has been tracking the expansion of global U.S. militarism for the website TomDispatch and other outlets. His latest book focuses on one particular American military battlefield that often goes unnoticed: Africa. Since 2007, the U.S. has operated AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command. U.S. generals have maintained AFRICOM leaves only a "small footprint" on the continent, with just one official base in Djibouti. But Nick Turse says the U.S. military is now involved in more than 90 percent of Africa’s 54 nations. The U.S. presence includes, quote, "construction, military exercises, advisory assignments, security cooperation, or training missions." According to Turse, AFRICOM carried out 674 missions across the African continent last year—an average of nearly two a day, and a 300 percent jump from previous years. Nick Turse’s new book is called Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Nick joins us right now.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Nick.
NICK TURSE: Thanks so much for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: First, comment on the new announcement of special ops forces on the ground in Syria, and then we will move on, well, to the rest of the world.
NICK TURSE: Sure. Well, you know, as we heard from President Obama, he sees this as just a continuation of U.S. special operations in Syria. But I think, you know, that’s basically spin. You know, he said, unequivocally, no boots on the ground. He’s right that there were some short-term missions, night raids that went on, but I think this is a significant departure—talking about 50 boots on the ground to start, and generally U.S. special operations deployments don’t end there. They have a tendency to expand.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the most that Americans know about our government’s activities in Africa might be from the Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips recently. But what about the expansion throughout the region of what’s happening there?
NICK TURSE: Sure. You know, as I reported at TomDispatch, we’re talking about, you know, an exponential increase in U.S. ops on the continent—674 missions in 2014. These are anything from night raids that have been launched recently in Libya and Somalia. There’s a drone campaign. I worked on a series at The Intercept called "The Drone Papers," where we outline this proliferation of drone bases now that dot the African continent. There’s a shadow war that’s going on in Somalia. And we also see it elsewhere. There’s just been an announcement of a new drone base being set up in Cameroon to go after militants from Boko Haram, because that force is also spreading across the continent. And the U.S. has seen this, I think, as, in many ways, a growth area for special ops and for U.S. military missions writ large.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us where else these drone bases are in Africa.
NICK TURSE: Sure. You know, I should say, first off, that AFRICOM, U.S. Africa Command, claims that there’s, as you said, only one base on the continent.
AMY GOODMAN: Djibouti.
NICK TURSE: Yes, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. They have actually set up recently a new drone base in Djibouti at Chabelley Airfield. I did a follow-up report for The Intercept on that. They’re running at least—there’s takeoffs or landings of, say, 16 drones per day from Djibouti right now, perhaps more. They’ve—
AMY GOODMAN: Where are they attacking?
NICK TURSE: Well, a lot of these are surveillance drones, but the ones that are armed are generally conducting the war in Yemen and also in Somalia. You know, these attacks sort of ebb and flow over time, but that’s where the armed attacks are. There’s also drone bases that are supposedly set up in Somalia now, two of them; in Chad; Ethiopia; Niger—they’re flying out of the capital, Niamey. And they’re in the process right now of setting up a new drone base at Agadez. So there’s expansion all across the continent, east to west.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to AFRICOM commander, General David Rodriguez, speaking to Gail McCabe of Soldiers Broadcasting News. When asked about the effects of U.S. training on African militaries, Rodriguez says African partners now better serve their governments and their people.
GEN. DAVID RODRIGUEZ: You can look at all the effectiveness that has been increased in the African partners, so the troop-contributing countries in AMISOM, which we support the Department of State as they prepare those forces. They have had some significant success against al-Shabab. And those troop-contributing countries have performed well.
GAIL McCABE: As I understand it, the idea was to help the African militaries establish themselves so that they could take care of crisises on the African continent without our help.
GEN. DAVID RODRIGUEZ: Right. And it’s just—it’s about being a professional force in a democracy. Many of our African partners have increased their abilities as militaries, but also, and probably more importantly, to serve their governments and their people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about this issue, that this training is helping these African governments modernize and professionalize their military forces?
NICK TURSE: It sounds very good when General Rodriguez says it, but, unfortunately, if you look at the effects on the ground on the continent, it’s been rather dismaying these last years. One example is the case of Mali, where you had a U.S.-trained officer who overthrew the democratically elected government there just two years ago. You know, this was—Mali was supposed to be a bulwark against terrorism. It was supposed to be a stable success story. Instead you have that occurrence. Then, last year, a U.S.-trained officer overthrew the government of Burkina Faso. You know, this is—I think it’s troubling.
And you hear the talk about professionalism of the military and that they’re instilling values, human rights, these sorts of things. But, yeah, in reality, what we’re seeing on the continent is very different. And if you look at the groups that we’re training on the continent, the militaries we’re training, and then you compare them to the State Department’s own list of militaries that are carrying out human rights abuses, that are acting in undemocratic ways, you see that these are the same forces. The U.S. is linked up with forces that are generally seen as repressive, even by our own government.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.S. interest in Africa?
NICK TURSE: Well, it’s difficult to say for sure. I think that the U.S. has viewed Africa as a place of weak governance, you know, sort of a zone that’s prone to terrorism, and that there can be a spread of terror groups on the continent if the U.S. doesn’t intervene. So, you know, there’s generally only one tool in the U.S. toolkit, and that’s a hammer. And unfortunately, then, everywhere they see nails.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by in "The Drone Papers" that you got a hold of, a kind of—what’s been described as perhaps a second Edward Snowden, this project of The Intercept that you wrote about, particularly when it came to Africa?
NICK TURSE: Well, I think it’s really just how far the proliferation of drone bases has spread on the continent. You know, I’ve been looking at this for years, but "The Drone Papers" drove home to me just how integral drones have become to the U.S. way of warfare on the continent. You know, I think this feeds into President Obama’s strategy, trying to get away from large-footprint interventions, you know, the disasters that we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s leaned heavily now on special operations forces and on drones. And so, I think that’s probably the most surprising aspect.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the reports that we get here, you basically—there’s either news about Boko Haram or al-Shabab or the disintegration, continuing disintegration, of Libya. To what extent have these special operations focused on these areas, and to what extent have they had any success?
NICK TURSE: Well, I think that Libya is actually a—it’s a great example of the best intentions gone awry by the U.S. The U.S. joined a coalition war to oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi. And I think that it was seen as a great success. Gaddafi fell, and it seemed like U.S. policies had played out just as they were drawn up in Washington. Instead, though, we saw that Libya has descended into chaos, and it’s been a nightmare for the Libyan people ever since—a complete catastrophe.
And it then had a tendency to spread across the continent. Gaddafi had Tuaregs from Mali who worked for him. They were elite troops. As his regime was falling, the Tuaregs raided his weapons stores, and they moved into Mali, into their traditional homeland, to carve out their own nation there. When they did that, the U.S.-backed military in Mali, that we had been training for years, began to disintegrate. That’s when the U.S.-trained officer decided that he could do a better job, overthrew the democratically elected government. But he proved no better at fighting the Tuaregs than the government he overthrew. As a result, Islamist rebels came in and pushed out his forces and the Tuaregs, and were making great gains in the country, looked poised to take it over.
The U.S. decided to intervene again, another military intervention. We backed the French and an African force to go in and stop the Islamists. We were able to, with these proxies—which is the preferred method of warfare on the African continent—arrest the Islamists’ advance, but now Mali has descended into a low-level insurgency. And it’s been like this for several years now. The weapons that the Tuaregs originally had were taken by the Islamists and have now spread across the continent. You can find those weapons in the hands of Boko Haram now, even as far away as Sinai in Egypt. So, now, the U.S. has seen this as a way to stop the spread of militancy, but I think when you look, you see it just has spread it.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, during the first Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton defended the U.S. military intervention in Libya.
HILLARY CLINTON: I think President Obama made the right decision at the time. And the Libyan people had a free election, the first time since 1951. And you know what? They voted for moderates. They voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things, there was turmoil to be followed. But unless you believe the United States should not send diplomats to any place that is dangerous, which I do not, then when we send them forth, there is always the potential for danger and risk.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could respond to what Hillary Clinton said, and then talk about how Benghazi birthed the new normal in Africa, the secret African mission and an African mission that’s no secret?
NICK TURSE: Sure. You know, again, the idea was that—you know, the best of intentions there in Libya, but things just haven’t worked out that way. And it’s been the case again and again on the African continent that the U.S. has thought that, you know, sort of fighting wars on the cheap, you know, using proxy forces, would work out for them, but again and again, it just hasn’t.
You talked about the "new normal" concept. Because of the tragedy of Benghazi, the loss of life there, the U.S. has used that as, you know, some might say, an excuse to expand its footprint on the continent. As a result, there are now 11 of what they call contingency security locations, CSLs, spread across the continent. These are basically very austere bases that can be ramped up in very—very quickly. The U.S. maintains rapid response forces in Spain and in Italy. And these forces are designed to deploy to these 11 CSLs across the continent so that the U.S. can respond in the event of another Benghazi-type crisis. I think they’re seen as an insurance policy against it. But again, whenever the U.S. puts boots on the ground, whenever it builds bases, these things have a tendency to morph beyond their original—what they were originally set up to do. So I think in the future you’ll probably see them as launching pads for other types of missions.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the situation in the Horn of Africa, specifically Somalia, which has always—now, for years—been a source of problems and concerns for the United States, what’s going on there?
NICK TURSE: Well, just this morning—you know, it’s not something I reported on, just something I’ve been following on the news—we see that Kenyan forces that we’ve been backing have set up extensive smuggling networks in Somalia. They seem to have been putting down roots themselves in bases. I noticed that one of them is Kismayo, where the U.S. is supposedly flying drones out of and has a special operations base. That’s now apparently a smuggling hub for the Kenyan military, in league with the terrorist group al-Shabab. They seem to be working in concert to smuggle sugar. There’s also been charcoal smuggling in the region. So—and this is a force that the U.S. has been backing. And yeah, the U.S. has funded the Kenyans so that we wouldn’t have large numbers of troops on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick, we haven’t even gotten to the U.S.-Chinese competition over control in Africa, and so I’d like to ask you to stay after the show. We’ll do a post-show and post it online at democracynow.org, as you cover a little-covered story in this country. Nick Turse’s latest book is called Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. We’ll bring you Part 2 at democracynow.org.