by Nick Turse
August 3, 2011.
Nick Turse is a
historian, essayist, and investigative journalist. The associate
editor of TomDispatch.com
and a new senior editor at Alternet.org,
his latest book is
The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan.
This article is a collaboration between Alternet.org and
In “Getting bin Laden,” Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker report on the assault on Osama bin Laden’s
compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, here’s the money sentence,
according to Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine’s Danger Room
“The Abbottabad raid was not
DEVGRU’s maiden venture into Pakistan, either. The team had
surreptitiously entered the country on ten to twelve
previous occasions, according to a special-operations
officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid.”
DEVGRU is the acronym for the Naval
Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six
(think “SEAL-mania”), the elite special operations outfit that
killed bin Laden.
His assassination - and Schmidle’s piece makes clear that his
capture was never an objective - brought on
a blitz of media
But without reading that single,
half-buried sentence, who knew that the same SEAL team had been
dropped into Pakistan to do who knows what 10 to 12 times before
the bin Laden mission happened? Not most Pakistanis, nor 99.99%
of Americans, myself included.
Keep in mind that this was only a
team of 23 elite troops (plus a translator and a dog). But there
are now about 20,000 full-time special operations types, at
13,000 of them deployed somewhere abroad at this moment.
In other words, we simply don’t know the half of it.
We probably don’t know the tenth of
it - neither the breadth or number of their missions, nor the
According to Schmidle again, on the
day of the bin Laden raid, special operations forces in nearby
Afghanistan conducted 12 other “night raids.” Almost 2,000 of
them have been carried out in the last couple of years.
These are staggering figures. And since we didn’t know that U.S.
special operations forces were secretly conducting Pakistan
missions in such numbers, it might be worth asking what else we
Former Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, speaking to the press in 2002 about the lack of
evidence linking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, made
a famous (or infamous)
distinction among “known knowns,” (things
we know we know), “known unknowns” (things we know we don’t
know), and “unknown unknowns” (things we don’t know we don’t
How apt those “unknown unknowns”
turn out to be when it comes to the ever-expanding special
operations forces inside the U.S. military.
Think of them, in fact, as the unknown unknowns of twenty-first
century American warfare. Fortunately, thanks to
regular Nick Turse, we now have a far better idea of the size
and scope of the global war being fought in our name by tens of
thousands of secret warriors fighting “in the shadows.”
A Secret War in 120
The Pentagon’s New Power Elite
by Nick Turse
Somewhere on this planet an American commando is carrying out a mission.
Now, say that 70 times and you’re done... for
the day. Without the knowledge of the American public, a secret force within
the U.S. military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s
countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size
and scope has never been revealed, until now.
After a U.S. Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden’s chest and another
his head, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the American
military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was
While it’s well known that U.S. Special Operations forces are
deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and
Iraq, and it’s increasingly
apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like
Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has remained deeply in the
Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post
reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries,
up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency.
By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations
Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely
“We do a lot of traveling - a lot more than
Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently.
This global presence - in about
60% of the
world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged - provides
striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a
secret war in all corners of the world.
The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military
Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, in which
eight U.S. service members died, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was
established in 1987.
Having spent the post-Vietnam years distrusted
and starved for money by the regular military, special operations forces
suddenly had a single home, a stable budget, and a four-star commander as
their advocate. Since then, SOCOM has grown into a combined force of
Made up of units from all the service branches,
...in addition to,
specialized helicopter crews
civil affairs personnel
battlefield air-traffic controllers
...SOCOM carries out the United States’ most specialized
and secret missions.
These include assassinations, counterterrorist
raids, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign troop
training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.
One of its key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or
a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is
tracking and killing
Reporting to the president and acting under his
authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that
includes American citizens.
It has been operating an extra-legal “kill/capture” campaign that John
Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general and
soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus,
"an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism
This assassination program has been carried out
by commando units like the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force as well as
via drone strikes as part of covert wars in which the CIA is also involved
in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen.
In addition, the command operates a
secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone, used
interrogating high-value targets.
From a force of about 37,000 in the
early 1990s, Special Operations Command personnel have grown to
almost 60,000, about a third of whom are career members of SOCOM; the rest
have other military occupational specialties, but periodically cycle through
Growth has been exponential since September 11,
2001, as SOCOM’s baseline budget almost tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.3
billion. If you add in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has
actually more than
quadrupled to $9.8 billion in these years. Not
surprisingly, the number of its personnel deployed abroad has also
Further increases, and expanded operations, are
on the horizon.
Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, the former head of the Marine
Corps Forces Special Operations Command - the last of the service
branches to be incorporated into SOCOM in 2006 -
indicated, for instance,
that he foresees a doubling of his former unit of 2,600.
“I see them as a force someday of about
5,000, like equivalent to the number of SEALs that we have on the
battlefield. Between [5,000] and 6,000,” he
said at a June breakfast
with defense reporters in Washington.
Long-term plans already call for the force to
increase by 1,000.
During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, Navy Vice Admiral William
the incoming SOCOM chief and outgoing head of JSOC (which he
commanded during the bin Laden raid) endorsed a steady manpower growth rate
of 3% to 5% a year, while also making a pitch for even more resources,
including additional drones and the construction of new special operations
A former SEAL who still sometimes accompanies troops into the field, McRaven
expressed a belief that, as conventional forces are drawn down in
Afghanistan, special ops troops will take on an ever greater role.
added, would benefit if elite U.S. forces continued to conduct missions
there past the December 2011 deadline for a total American troop withdrawal.
He also assured the Senate Armed Services
“as a former JSOC commander, I can tell you
we were looking very hard at Yemen and at Somalia.”
During a speech at the National Defense
Industrial Association's annual Special Operations and Low-intensity
Conflict Symposium earlier this year, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, the
outgoing chief of Special Operations Command, pointed to a composite
satellite image of the world at night (below image).
Before September 11, 2001, the lit portions of
the planet - mostly the industrialized nations of the global north - were
considered the key areas.
"But the world changed over the last
"Our strategic focus has shifted largely to
the south... certainly within the special operations community, as we
deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren't."
To that end, Olson launched "Project Lawrence,"
an effort to increase cultural proficiencies - like advanced language
training and better knowledge of local history and customs - for overseas
The program is, of course, named after the
British officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence (better known as "Lawrence of
Arabia"), who teamed up with Arab fighters to wage a guerrilla war in the
Middle East during World War I.
Mentioning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, and
Indonesia, Olson added that SOCOM now needed "Lawrences of Wherever."
While Olson made reference to only 51 countries of top concern to SOCOM,
Col. Nye told me that on any given day, Special Operations forces are
deployed in approximately 70 nations around the world.
All of them, he hastened to add, at the request
of the host government.
According to testimony by Olson before the House
Armed Services Committee earlier this year, approximately 85% of special
operations troops deployed overseas are in 20 countries in the CENTCOM area
of operations in the Greater Middle East:
United Arab Emirates
The others are scattered across the globe from
South America to Southeast Asia, some in small numbers, others as larger
Special Operations Command won’t disclose exactly which countries its forces
“We’re obviously going to have some places
where it’s not advantageous for us to list where we’re at,” says Nye.
“Not all host nations want it known, for whatever reasons they have - it
may be internal, it may be regional.”
But it’s no secret (or at least a poorly kept
one) that so-called black special operations troops, like the SEALs and
Delta Force, are conducting kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, Iraq,
Pakistan, and Yemen, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers
are training indigenous partners as part of a worldwide secret war against
al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
In the Philippines, for instance, the U.S.
$50 million a year on a 600-person contingent of Army Special
Operations forces, Navy Seals, Air Force special operators, and others that
carries out counterterrorist operations with Filipino allies against
insurgent groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.
Last year, as an analysis of SOCOM documents, open-source Pentagon
information, and a
database of Special Operations missions compiled by
investigative journalist Tara McKelvey (for the Medill School of
Journalism’s National Security Journalism Initiative) reveals, America’s
most elite troops carried out joint-training exercises in,
So far in 2011, similar training missions have
been conducted in,
the Dominican Republic
...among other nations.
In reality, Nye told me, training actually went
on in almost every nation where Special Operations forces are deployed.
“Of the 120 countries we visit by the end of
the year, I would say the vast majority are training exercises in one
fashion or another. They would be classified as training exercises.”
The Pentagon’s Power Elite
Once the neglected stepchildren of the military establishment, Special
Operations forces have been growing exponentially not just in size and
budget, but also in power and influence.
Since 2002, SOCOM has been authorized to create
its own Joint Task Forces - like Joint Special Operations Task
Force-Philippines - a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant
commands like CENTCOM.
This year, without much fanfare, SOCOM also
established its own Joint Acquisition Task Force, a cadre of equipment
designers and acquisition specialists.
With control over budgeting, training, and equipping its force, powers
usually reserved for departments (like the Department of the Army or the
Department of the Navy), dedicated dollars in every Defense Department
influential advocates in Congress, SOCOM is by now an
exceptionally powerful player at the Pentagon.
With real clout, it can win bureaucratic
battles, purchase cutting-edge technology, and pursue fringe research like
electronically beaming messages into people’s heads or developing
cloaking technologies for ground troops.
Since 2001, SOCOM’s prime contracts awarded to
small businesses - those that generally produce specialty equipment and
weapons - have jumped six-fold.
Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, but operating out of
theater commands spread out around the globe, including Hawaii, Germany, and
South Korea, and active in the majority of countries on the planet, Special
Operations Command is now a force unto itself.
As outgoing SOCOM chief Olson
put it earlier
this year, SOCOM,
“is a microcosm of the Department of
Defense, with ground, air, and maritime components, a global presence,
and authorities and responsibilities that mirror the Military
Departments, Military Services, and Defense Agencies.”
Tasked to coordinate all Pentagon planning
against global terrorism networks and, as a result, closely connected to
other government agencies, foreign militaries, and intelligence services,
and armed with a vast inventory of,
high-tech guns-a-go-go speedboats
Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs,
...as well as other state-of-the-art gear (with more on the way), SOCOM
represents something new in the military.
Whereas the late scholar of militarism
Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as "the president's private
JSOC performs that role, acting as the chief executive’s
private assassination squad, and its parent,
SOCOM, functions as a new
Pentagon power-elite, a secret military within the military possessing
domestic power and global reach.
In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command
carry out their secret war of,
...as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans.
Once “special” for being small, lean, outsider
outfits, today they are special for their power, access, influence, and
That aura now benefits from a well-honed public relations campaign which
helps them project a superhuman image at home and abroad, even while many of
their actual activities remain in the ever-widening shadows.
Typical of the vision they are pushing was this
statement from Admiral Olson:
“I am convinced that the forces… are the
most culturally attuned partners, the most lethal hunter-killers, and
most responsive, agile, innovative, and efficiently effective advisors,
trainers, problem-solvers, and warriors that any nation has to offer.”
Recently at the
Aspen Institute’s Security
Forum, Olson offered up similarly gilded comments and some misleading
claiming that U.S. Special Operations forces were
operating in just 65 countries and engaged in combat in only two of them.
When asked about drone strikes in Pakistan, he
“Are you talking about unattributed
What he did let slip, however, was telling.
He noted, for instance, that black operations
like the bin Laden mission, with commandos conducting heliborne night raids,
were now exceptionally common. A dozen or so are conducted every night, he
said. Perhaps most illuminating, however, was an offhand remark about the
size of SOCOM.
Right now, he emphasized, U.S. Special
Operations forces were approximately as large as Canada’s entire active duty
military. In fact, the force is larger than the active duty militaries of
many of the nations where America’s elite troops now operate each year, and
it’s only set to grow larger.
Americans have yet to grapple with what it means to have a “special” force
this large, this active, and this secret - and they are unlikely to begin to
do so until more information is available.
It just won’t be coming from Olson or his
“Our access [to foreign countries] depends
on our ability to not talk about it,” he said in response to questions
about SOCOM’s secrecy.
When missions are subject to scrutiny like the
bin Laden raid, he said, the elite troops object.
The military’s secret military, said Olson,
"to get back into the shadows and do what
they came in to do.”