Mission Impossible: Keeping Track of US Special Ops in Africa
It was September 2014. The sky was bright and clear and ice blue as the camouflage-clad men walked to the open door and tumbled out into nothing. One moment members of the US 19th Special Forces Group and Moroccan paratroopers were flying high above North Africa in a rumbling C-130 aircraft; the next, they were silhouetted against the cloudless sky, translucent green parachutes filling with air, as they began to drift back to earth.
Those soldiers were taking part in a Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET mission, conducted under the auspices of Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa out of Camp Ram Ram, Morocco. It was the first time in several years that American and Moroccan troops had engaged in airborne training together, but just one of many JCET missions in 2014 that allowed America's best-equipped, best-trained forces to hone their skills while forging ties with African allies.
A key way the US military has deepened its involvement on the continent, JCETs have been carried out in an increasing number of African countries in recent years, according to documents recently obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). When it comes to US troops involved, foreign forces taking part, and US tax dollars spent, the numbers have all been on the rise. From 2013 to 2014, as those recently released files reveal, the price tag almost doubled, from $3.3 million to $6.2 million.
These increases offer a window into the rising importance of such missions by US Special Operations forces (SOF) around the world, including their increasingly conspicuous roles in conflicts from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Afghanistan. On any given day, 10,000 special operators are "deployed" or "forward stationed" conducting overseas missions "from behind-the-scenes information-gathering and partner-building to high-end dynamic strike operations" -- so General Joseph Votel, at the time chief of Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
Through such figures, the growing importance of the US military's pivot to Africa becomes apparent. The number of elite forces deployed there, for example, has been steadily on the rise. In 2006, the percentage of forward-stationed special operators on the continent hovered at 1%. In 2014, that number hit 10% -- a jump of 900% in less than a decade. While JCETs make up only a small fraction of the hundreds of military-to-military engagements carried out by US forces in Africa each year, they play an outsized role in the pivot there, allowing US Africa Command (AFRICOM) to deepen its ties with a variety of African partners through the efforts of America's most secretive and least scrutinized troops.
Exactly how many JCETs have been conducted in Africa is, however, murky at best. The documents obtained from US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) via FOIA present one number; AFRICOM offers another. It's possible that no one actually knows the true figure. One thing is certain, however, according to a study by RAND, America's premier think tank for evaluating the military: the program consistently produces poor results.
The Gray Zone
According to SOCOM, Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) is, on average, "routinely engaged" in about half of Africa's 54 countries, "working with and through our African counterparts." For his part, SOCAFRICA commander Brigadier General Donald Bolduc has said that his team of 1,700 personnel is "busy year-round in 22 partner nations."
The 2014 SOCOM documents TomDispatch obtained note that, in addition to conducting JCETs, US Special Operations forces took part in the annual Flintlock training exercise, involving 22 nations, and four named operations: Juniper Shield, a wide-ranging effort, formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara, aimed at Northwest Africa; Juniper Micron, a US-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali (following a coup there by a US-trained officer) that has been grinding on since 2013; Octave Shield, an even longer-suffering mission against militants in East Africa; and Observant Compass, a similarly long-running effort aimed at Joseph Kony's murderous Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa (that recently retired AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez derided as an expensive and strategically unimportant burden).
America's most elite forces in Africa operate in what Bolduc calls "the gray zone, between traditional war and peace." In layman's terms, its missions are expanding in the shadows on a continent the United States sees as increasingly insecure, unstable, and riven by terror groups.
"Operating in the Gray Zone requires SOCAFRICA to act in a supporting role to a host of other organizations," he told the CTC Sentinel, the publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. "One must understand, in Africa we are not the kinetic solution. If required, partner nations should do those sorts of operations. We do, however, build this capability, share information, provide advice and assistance, and accompany and support with enablers."
Officially, the Joint Combined Exchange Training program isn't so much about advice and assistance, support, or training partners, as it is about providing Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other special operators with unique opportunities to hone their craft -- specifically, unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense -- overseas. "The purpose of JCETs is to foster the training of US SOF in mission-critical skills by training with partner-nation forces in their home countries," according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw. "The program enables US SOF to build their capability to conduct operations with partner-nation military forces in an unfamiliar environment while developing their language skills, and familiarity with local geography and culture."
Authorization for the JCET program does, however, allow for "incidental-training benefits" to "accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost." In reality, say experts, this is an overarching goal of JCETs.
US Special Operations forces conducted 20 JCETs in Africa during 2014, according to the documents obtained from SOCOM. These missions were carried out in 10 countries, up from eight a year earlier. Four took place in both Kenya and Uganda; three in Chad; two in both Morocco and Tunisia; and one each in Djibouti, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania. "These events were invaluable training platforms that allowed US SOF to train and sustain in both core and specialized skills, while working hand-in-hand with host nation forces," say the files. African forces involved numbered 2,770, up from 2,017 in 2013. The number of US special operators increased from 308 to 417.
Impressive as these figures are, the actual numbers may prove higher still. AFRICOM claims it carried out not 20 but 26 JCETs in 2014, according to figures provided last year by spokesman Chuck Prichard. Similar discrepancies can be found in official figures for previous years as well. According to Prichard, special operators conducted "approximately nine JCETs across Africa in Fiscal Year 2012" and 18 in 2013. Documents obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act from the office of the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs indicate, however, that there were 19 JCETs in 2012 and 20 in 2013.
AFRICOM ignored repeated requests for clarification about the discrepancies among these figures. Multiple emails with subject lines indicating questions about JCETs sent to spokesperson Anthony Falvo, were "deleted without being read," according to automatic return receipts. Asked for an explanation of why AFRICOM and SOCOM can't agree on the number of JCETs on the continent or if anyone actually knows the real number, Ken McGraw of Special Operations Command demurred. "I don't know the source of AFRICOM's information," he told TomDispatch. "To the best of my knowledge, the information our office provided you was from official reporting."
In fact, effective oversight of even some relatively pedestrian training efforts is often hard to come by, thanks to the military's general lack of transparency and the opaque nature of assistance programs, says Colby Goodman, the director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy. "And for JCETs and other Special Operations programs," he says, "it's even more difficult."
Given that the two commands involved with the JCET program can't even come to a consensus on the number of missions involved raises a simple but sweeping question: Does anyone really know what America's most elite forces are doing in Africa?
Under the circumstances, it should surprise no one that a military that can't keep a simple count of one type of mission on one continent would encounter difficulties with larger, more difficult tasks.
More Missions, More Problems
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, the incoming commander of SOCOM, General Raymond Thomas III, laid out a sweeping vision of the "US strategy in Africa." It included "neutralizing Al-Shabaab in East Africa" and empowering Somalia's government to do the same; "working with our African partners in North and West Africa to ensure they are willing and capable of containing the instability in Libya, degrading VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] in the Sahel-Maghreb region, and interdicting the flow of illicit material," as well as working with African allies to contain Boko Haram and empowering Nigeria to suppress the terror group.
"SOF implements this strategy by being a part of [a] global team of national and international partners that conduct persistent, networked, and distributed full spectrum special operations in support of AFRICOM to promote stability and prosperity in Africa," said Thomas. "The SOCAFRICA end states are to neutralize Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda Affiliates and Adherents in East Africa, contain Libyan instability and Violent Extremist Organizations and other Terrorist organizations in North and West Africa, and degrade Boko Haram."
Bolduc, SOCAFRICA's commander, suggested that the US is well on its way toward achieving those goals. "Our security assistance and advise-and-assist efforts in Africa have been effective as we continue to see gradual improvements in the overall security capabilities of African partner nations across the continent," he said earlier this year. "Clearly, there's been more progress in certain areas versus others, but the trends I see with these forces are positive."
Independent assessments suggest just the opposite. Data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland show, for example, that terror attacks have spiked over the last decade, roughly coinciding with AFRICOM's establishment. Before it became an independent command in 2007, there were fewer than 400 such incidents annually in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, the number reached nearly 2,000.
Similarly, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which uses media reports to monitor violence, shows that "conflict events" have jumped precipitously, from less than 4,000 to more than 15,000 per year, over the same span.
Earlier this year, the Defense Department's own Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a research institution dedicated to the analysis of security issues on that continent, drew attention to skyrocketing terrorism fatalities there in recent years. It also published a map of "Africa's Active Militant Islamist Groups" that showed 22 organizations menacing the continent. Bolduc himself has repeatedly cited the far higher figure of nearly 50 terrorist and "malign groups" now operating in Africa, up from just one major threat cited by AFRICOM commander Carter Ham in 2010.
In addition to troubling overall trends in Africa since the US pivot there, JCETs have come under special criticism. A 2013 report by the RAND Corporation on "building partner capacity" (BPC) cited several limitations of the program. "US forces cannot provide support to partner equipment under JCETs and cannot conduct dedicated training in advanced CT [counterterrorism] techniques (and hence cannot conduct planning for BPC)," it noted. Ultimately the RAND study, which was prepared for the Pentagon's Joint Staff and the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, found "moderately low" effectiveness for JCETs conducted in Africa.
In an email, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw said he didn't have the time to review the results of the RAND study and refused to offer comment on it.
Mum's the Word
The US military either can't or won't come to a consensus on how many missions have been carried out by its most elite troops in Africa. Incredible as it might seem, given that we're talking about an organization that notoriously can't keep track of the money it spends or the weapons it sends to allied forces or even audit itself, it's entirely possible that no one actually knows how many JCETs -- and as a result how many special operations missions -- have been carried out on the continent, where they occurred, or what transpired during them.
What is known is that a Pentagon-commissioned study by RAND, the largest American think tank and the military's go-to source for analysis, found that the JCET program had yielded poor results. The command whose troops carried out the training, however, may not even have been aware of the years-old study and won't offer comment on it. At the same time, the command responsible for the continent where the training takes place won't even acknowledge questions about the program, let alone offer answers.
With independent analyses showing armed violence and terror attacks on the rise in Africa, the Pentagon's center for the study of the continent showing terrorism fatalities spiking, and the commander of America's most elite forces in Africa acknowledging a proliferation of terrorist groups there, perhaps it's no surprise that the US military isn't interested in looking too closely at its efforts over the last decade. Experts, however, say that keeping the American people in the dark is both dangerous for democracy and a threat to effective overseas US military engagement.
"There is a serious lack of transparency on this type of training and that inhibits efforts for Congressional staff and the public to provide oversight," says Colby Goodman of the Center for International Policy. Repeatedly asked about Goodman's assertion, AFRICOM's Anthony Falvo offered his typical non-response: Emails to the spokesman seeking comment were "deleted without being read."
To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning investigative journalist, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Nation, and is a contributing writer for The Intercept. His latest book is Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. His website is NickTurse.com.