By recently releasing a redacted version of top secret “talking points” that Secretary of State Alexander Haig used to brief President Ronald Reagan about Mideast developments in spring 1981, the U.S. government has inadvertently revealed what it still wants to hide from the public some 34 years later – because I found the full version in congressional files in late 1994 and first wrote about it in early 1996.
The key points that the U.S. government still doesn’t want you to know include that in early 1981 Israel already was supplying U.S. military equipment to Iran for its war with Iraq; that the Saudis had conveyed a “green light” supposedly from President Jimmy Carter to Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in 1980; and that the Saudis agreed to finance arms sales to Pakistan and other states in the region.
All three points have relevance today because they reveal the early seeds of policies that have grown over the past three decades into the twisted vines of today’s bloody conflicts. The still-hidden sections of Haig’s “talking points” also could cause some embarrassment to the nations mentioned.
For instance, the Israelis like to present their current hostility toward Iran as derived from a principled opposition to the supposed extremism of the Islamic state, so the revelation that they were supplying U.S. military hardware to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s government, which had held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, suggests that less noble motivations were driving Israel’s decisions.
Though ex-President Carter has denied encouraging Iraq to invade Iran in September 1980 – at the height of the hostage crisis which was destroying his reelection bid – the Saudis’ “green light” assertion at least indicates that they led Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to believe that his invasion had U.S. backing.
Whether the Saudis deceived Hussein about the “green light” or not, their instigation of the war exposes the origins of the modern Sunni-Shiite conflict, though now the Saudis are accusing the Iranians of regional aggression. The Haig “talking points” reveal that the first blow in the revival of this ancient fight was thrown not by the Shiites of Iran but by the Sunnis of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with Saudi backing and encouragement.
The Saudi agreement to pay for arms purchases by Pakistan and other regional government sheds light on another aspect of today’s Mideast crisis. Saudi financial help to Pakistan in the 1980s became a key element in the expansion of a radical Sunni jihadist movement that coalesced along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to carry on the CIA-backed war against the Soviet army and secular Afghan forces.
That war – with the United States and Saudi Arabia each eventually pouring in $500 million a year – led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the collapse of the modernist, leftist regime in Kabul to be replaced by the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban which, in turn, gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda led by a wealthy Saudi, Osama bin Laden.
Thus, the outlines of today’s violent chaos across the Middle East were sketched in those years, albeit with many subsequent twists and turns.
The Persian Gulf War
After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 – with both countries financially drained – Saddam Hussein turned on his suddenly stingy Sunni benefactors who began refusing further credit and demanding repayment of wartime loans. In reaction, Hussein – after consulting with U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie and thinking he had another “green light” – invaded Kuwait. That, in turn, prompted a U.S.-led deployment to both defend Saudi Arabia and drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Although Hussein soon signaled a readiness to withdraw his troops, President George H.W. Bush rebuffed those overtures and insisted on a bloody ground war both to demonstrate the qualitative superiority of the modern U.S. military and to excite the American people about a military victory – and thus to “kick the Vietnam Syndrome.” [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Bush’s military offensive succeeded in those goals but also provoked bin Laden’s outrage over the placement of U.S. troops near Islamic holy sites. The United States became the new target of Al-Qaeda’s terrorist revenge. And, for Official Washington’s emerging neoconservatives, the need to finally and completely destroy Saddam Hussein – then Israel’s bête noire – became an article of faith.
The Persian Gulf War’s demonstration of U.S. military prowess – combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – also encouraged the neocons to envision a strategy of “regime changes” for any government that showed hostility toward Israel. Iraq was listed as target number one, but Syria also was high on the hit list.
By the early 1990s, Israel had grown alienated from cash-strapped Iran, which had withdrawn from the lucrative arms bazaar that Israel had been running for that Shiite government through the 1980s. Gradually, Israel began to realign itself with the Sunnis bankrolled by Saudi Arabia.
The 9/11 attacks in 2001 were an expression of the anti-U.S. outrage among Sunni fundamentalists, who were funded by the Saudis and other Persian Gulf oil states, but the intricate realities of the Middle East were then little known to the American people who didn’t much know the difference between Sunni and Shiite and who lacked knowledge about the hostilities between secularists like Hussein and fundamentalists like bin Laden.
President George W. Bush and his administration exploited that ignorance to rally the public behind an invasion of Iraq in 2003 out of unrealistic fears that Saddam Hussein would share weapons of mass destruction with Osama bin Laden. Beyond the false claims about Iraq having WMDs and about a connection between Hussein and bin Laden, there was little appreciation even within the higher levels of the Bush administration about how the ouster and killing of Hussein would shatter the fragile equilibrium between Sunnis and Shiites.
With Hussein removed, the Shiite majority gained control of Iraq, distressing the Saudis who had, in many ways, launched the modern Sunni-Shiite war by pushing Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 but who now saw Iran’s allies gaining control of Iraq. The Saudis and other Gulf sheiks began financing Sunni extremists who flooded into Iraq to fight the Shiites and their enablers, the U.S. military.
The Saudis also built a behind-the-scenes alliance with Israel, which saw its financial and geopolitical interests advanced by this secret collaboration. Soon, the Israelis were identifying their old arms-trading partners, the Iranians, as an “existential threat” to Israel and pushing the United States into a more direct confrontation with Iran. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Did Money Seal Israel-Saudi Alliance?”]
The battlefront in the Sunni-Shiite conflict moved to Syria, where Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Sunni states joined in supporting a rebellion to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. As that conflict grew bloodier and bloodier, Assad’s relatively secular regime became the protector of Christians, Shiites, Alawites and other minorities against the Sunni forces led by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the hyper-brutal Islamic State.
In 2014, pressed by President Barack Obama, the Saudis joined an alliance against the Islamic State, although Saudi participation was tepid at best. Saudi Arabia’s true enthusiasm was to push a series of regional proxy wars against Iran and any Shiite-related movements, such as the Houthis in Yemen and the Alawites in Syria. If that helped Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, so be it, was the Saudi view.
Though the two redacted paragraphs from Haig’s “talking points” from 34 years ago might seem to be ancient history no longer worthy of the secrecy stamp, the U.S. government still insists on shielding that information from the American people, not letting them know too much about how these entangling alliances took shape and who was responsible for them.
The primary sources for Haig were Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Saudi Prince Fahd (later King Fahd), both of whom are dead, as are several other principals in these events, including Reagan, Hussein and Haig. The two redacted paragraphs – that Haig used in his presentation to Reagan – read as follows, with underlined sections in the original “talking points”:
”Fahd was also very enthusiastic toward your policies. As a measure of his good faith, he intends to insist on a common oil policy at a forthcoming meeting of his Arab colleagues which will include a single price and a commitment to no drop in production. Also of importance was Fahd’s agreement in principle to fund arms sales to the Pakistanis and other states in the area.
“Both Sadat and Fahd provided other bits of useful intelligence (e.g. Iran is receiving military spares for U.S. equipment from Israel). It was also interesting to confirm that President Carter gave the Iraqis a green light to launch the war against Iran through Fahd.”
The redacted version – with those two paragraphs blacked out – was released by the George H.W. Bush presidential library after the “talking points” went through a declassification process. The release was in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I had filed in connection with the so-called October Surprise affair, in which the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 was alleged to have conspired with Iranian officials and Israeli intelligence officers to delay the release of the 52 American hostages held in Iran to ensure President Carter’s reelection defeat.
In 1991, Congress began an investigation into the 1980 issue, suspecting that it may have been a prequel to the Iran-Contra scandal which had involved Reagan’s secret arms-for-hostage deals with Iran in 1985-86 (also with Israeli help). The George H.W. Bush administration collected documents possibly related to the 1980 events and shared some with the congressional investigation, including the Haig “talking points.”
But Bush’s operatives – trying to protect his reelection chances in 1991-92 – engaged in delays and obstructions of the congressional inquiry, which finally agreed after Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in November 1992 to say that it could find “no credible evidence” that Reagan and Bush had orchestrated a delay in Iran’s release of the hostages. The hostages were finally freed on Jan. 20, 1981, immediately after Reagan was sworn in as president.
Subsequent disclosures of evidence, however, buttressed the long-held suspicions of a Republican-Iranian deal, including documents that the Bush-41 White House had withheld from Congress as well as other documents that the congressional investigation possessed but ignored. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Second Thoughts on October Surprise” or, for more details, Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
An Iranian man sits on the beach in the port city of Chabahar, southeastern Iran, on March 7, 2015 [Xinhua]
As New Delhi aims to take advantage of a thaw in Tehran’s relations with world powers, India and Iran have reached a deal on Wednesday to develop a strategic port in southeast Iran.
Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi, Iranian Minister for Transport and Urban Development and his Indian counterpart Nitin Gadkari signed an inter-Governmental Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding India’s participation in the development of the Chabahar Port in Iran.
“With the signing of this MoU, Indian and Iranian commercial entities will now be in a position to commence negotiations towards finalisation of a commercial contract under which Indian firms will lease two existing berths at the port and operationalise them as container and multi-purpose cargo terminals,” the Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Richard Verma, US Ambassador in India, cautioned against “rushing in” with the deal saying there is no guarantee that a final deal will be secured with Tehran by a June 30 deadline.
India intends to lease two berths at Chabahar for 10 years. The port will be developed through a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which will invest $85.21 million to convert the berths into a container terminal and a multi-purpose cargo terminal.
The port of Chabahar in southeast Iran is central to India’s efforts to open up a route to landlocked Afghanistan where it has developed close security ties and economic interests.
“The availability of a functional container and multipurpose cargo terminal at Chabahar Port would provide Afghanistan’s garland road network system alternate access to a sea port, significantly enhancing Afghanistan’s overall connectivity to regional and global markets, and providing a fillip to the ongoing reconstruction and humanitarian efforts in the country,” said the Indian Foreign Ministry late on Wednesday evening.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his meeting with the Indian Minister in Tehran said, “Resumption of Iran-India cooperation in the southeastern Iranian port city of Chabahar would lead to a new chapter in relations of two countries.”
Meanwhile, India’s fellow BRICS member, South Africa is sending a delegation headed by its Foreign Minister for talks with Iranian leaders.
South Africa hopes to restore energy ties with Iran, its energy minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, said on Sunday.
Body Counts, Drones, and “Collateral Damage” (aka “Bug Splat”)
In the twenty-first-century world of drone warfare, one question with two aspects reigns supreme: Who counts?
In Washington, the answers are the same: We don’t count and they don’t count.
The Obama administration has adamantly refused to count. Not a body. In fact, for a long time, American officials associated with Washington’s drone assassination campaigns and “signature strikes” in the backlands of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen claimed that there were no bodies to count, that the CIA’s drones were so carefully handled and so “precise” that they never produced an unmeant corpse — not a child, not a parent, not a wedding party. Nada.
When it came to “collateral damage,” there was no need to count because there was nothing to tote up or, at worst, such civilian casualties were “in the single digits.” That this was balderdash, that often when those drones unleashed their Hellfire missiles they were unsure who exactly was being targeted, that civilians were dying in relatively countable numbers — and that others were indeed counting them — mattered little, at least in this country until recently. Drone war was, after all, innovative and, as presented by two administrations, quite miraculous. In 2009, CIA Director Leon Panetta called it “the only game in town” when it came to al-Qaeda. And what a game it was. It needed no math, no metrics. As the Vietnam War had proved, counting was for losers — other than the usual media reports that so many “militants” had died in a strike or that some al-Qaeda “lieutenant” or “leader” had gone down for the count.
That era ended on April 23rd when President Obama entered the White House briefing room and apologized for the deaths of American aid worker Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, two Western hostages of al-Qaeda. They had, the president confessed, been obliterated in a strike against a terrorist compound in Pakistan, though in his comments he managed not to mention the word “drone,” describing what happened vaguely as a “U.S. counterterrorism operation.” In other words, it turned out that the administration was capable of counting — at least to two.
And that brings us to the other meaning of “Who counts?” If you are an innocent American or Western civilian and a drone takes you out, you count. If you are an innocent Pakistani, Afghan, or Yemeni, you don’t. You didn’t count before the drone killed you and you don’t count as a corpse either. For you, no one apologizes, no one pays your relatives compensation for your unjust death, no one even acknowledges that you existed. This is modern American drone reality and the question of who counts and whom, if anyone, to count is part of the contested legacy of Washington’s never-ending war on terror.
A Brief History of the Body Count
Once upon a time, of course, enemy deaths were a badge of honor in war, but the American “body count,” which would become infamous in the Vietnam era, had always been a product of frustration, not pride. It originated in the early 1950s, in the “meat-grinder” days of the Korean War, after the fighting had bogged down in a grim stalemate and signs of victory were hard to come by. It reappeared relatively early in the Vietnam War years as American officials began searching for “metrics” that would somehow express victory in a country where taking territory in the traditional fashion meant little. As time went on, the brutality of that war increased, and the promised “light at the end of the tunnel” glowed ever more dimly, the metrics of victory only grew, and the pressure to produce that body count, which could be announced daily by U.S. press spokesmen to increasingly dubious journalists in Saigon did, too. Soon enough, those reporters began referring to the daily announcements of those figures as the “Five O’Clock Follies.”
On the ground, the pressure within the military to produce impressive body counts for those “Follies” resulted in what GIs called the “Mere Gook Rule.” (“If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC [Viet Cong].”) And soon enough anything counted as a body. As William Calley, Jr., of My Lai massacre fame, testified, “At that time, everything went into a body count — VC, buffalo, pigs, cows. Something we did, you put it on your body count, sir… As long as it was high, that was all they wanted.”
When, however, victory proved illusory, that body count came to appear to ever more Americans on the home front like grim slaughter and a metric from hell. As a sign of success, increasingly detached from reality yet producing reality, it became a death-dealing Catch-22. As those bodies piled up and in the terminology of the times a “credibility gap” yawned between the metrics and reality, the body count became a symbol not just of a war of frustration, but of defeat itself. It came, especially after the news of the My Lai massacre finally broke in the U.S., to look both false and barbaric. Whose bodies were those anyway?
In the post-Vietnam era, not surprisingly, Washington would treat anything associated with the disaster that had been Vietnam as if it were radioactive. So when, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration’s top officials began planning their twenty-first-century wars in a state of exhilarated anticipation, they had no intention of reliving anything that reeked of Vietnam. There would be no body bags coming home in the glare of media attention, no body counts in the battle zones. They were ready to play an opposites game when it came to Vietnam. General Tommy Franks, who directed the Afghan invasion and then the one in Iraq, caught the mood perfectly in 2003 when he said, “We don’t do body counts.”
There would be no more “Five O’clock Follies,” not in wars in which victory was assured for “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world” and “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” (as presidents took to calling the U.S. military). And that remains official military policy today. Only recently, for instance, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby responded to a journalist’s question about how many Islamic State fighters and civilians U.S. air power had recently killed in Washington’s latest war in Iraq this way: “First of all, we don’t have the ability to — to count every nose that we shwack [sic]. Number two, that’s not the goal. That’s not the goal… And we’re not getting into an issue of body counts. And that’s why I don’t have that number handy. I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t have asked my staff to give me that number before I came out here. It’s simply not a relevant figure.”
From 2003 to 2015, official policy on the body count has not reflected reality. The U.S. military has, in fact, continued to count bodies. For one thing, it kept and reported the numbers on America’s war dead, bodies that truly counted, though no one would have called the tallies a body count. For another, from beginning to end, the military has been secretly counting the dead on the other side as well, perhaps to privately convince themselves, Vietnam-style, that they were indeed winning in wars where a twenty-first-century version of the credibility gap appeared all too quickly and never left the scene. As David Axe has written, the military “proudly boasts of the totals in official documents that it never intends for public circulation.” He added, “The disconnect over wartime body counts reflects a yawning gap between the military’s public face and its private culture.”
To Count or Not to Count, That Is the Question
But here was the oddest thing: whatever the military might have been counting, the fact that it stopped counting in public didn’t stop the body count from happening. It turned out that there were others on this planet no less capable of counting dead bodies. In the end, the cast of characters producing the public metrics of this era simply changed and with it the purpose of the count. The newcomers had, you might say, different answers to both parts of the question: Who counts?
Over the last century, as “collateral damage” — the deaths of civilians, rather than combatants — has become ever more the essence of war, the importance of who is dying and in what numbers has only increased. When the U.S. military began refusing to make its body count part of a public celebration of its successes, civil society stepped in with a very different impulse: to shame, blame, and hold the military’s feet to the fire by revealing the deeper carnage of war itself and what it does to society, not just to the warriors.
While the previous counters had pretended that all bodies belonged to enemies, the new counters tried to make “collateral damage” the central issue of war. No matter what the researchers who have done such counts may say, most of them are, by their nature, critiques of war, American-style, and included in them were no longer just the bodies, civilian and military, found on the battlefield, but every body that could somehow be linked to a conflict or its fallout, its side effects, its afteraffects.
Think of this as a new numerology of defeat or disaster or slaughter or shame. In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, distinctly non-military outfits took up this counting or estimating process. In 2004 and 2006, the Lancet, a British medical journal, published studies based on scientific surveys of “excess Iraqi deaths” since the American invasion of 2003 and, in the first case, came up with an estimated 98,000 of them and in the second with 655,000 (a much-criticized figure); such studies by medical and other researchers have never stopped. More recent counts of such deaths have ranged from 500,000 in 2013 to one million or 5% of the Iraqi population this year.
The most famous enumeration of civilian casualties in Iraq, however, comes from the constantly upgraded tally — based on published media reports, hospital and morgue records, and the like — of Iraq Body Count, the independent website that bills itself as “the public record of violent deaths following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.” At this moment, its most up-to-date top estimate for civilian deaths since that invasion is 156,000 (211,000, including the deaths of combatants). And these figures are considered by the site and others as distinctly conservative, no more than what can be known about a subject of which much is, by necessity, unknown.
In Afghanistan, there has been less tallying, but the U.N. Mission there has kept a count of civilian casualties from the ongoing war and estimates the cumulative figure, since 2001, at 21,000 (though again, that is undoubtedly a conservative figure). However, when it comes to the American drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, in particular, where the Obama administration has adamantly resisted the idea of significant civilian casualties, the civilian counters have been there under the most impressively difficult circumstances, sometimes with representatives on the ground in distant parts of Pakistan and elsewhere. In a world in which drone operators refer to the victims of their strikes as “bug splat” and top administration officials prefer to obliterate those “bugs” a second time by denying that their deaths even occurred, the attempt to give them back their names, ages, and sexes, to remind the world of what was most human about the dead of our new wars, should be considered a heroic task.
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in particular, has done careful as well as dogged work tabulating drone casualties in Pakistan and Yemen, including counts and estimates of all those killed by drones, of civilians killed by drones, and of children killed by drones. It even has a project, “Naming the Dead,” that attempts to reattach names and other basic personal information — sometimes even photos — to the previously nameless dead (721 of them so far). The Long War Journal (a militarized exception to the rule when it comes to the counters of this era) has also kept a record of what it could dig up about drone deaths in Pakistan and Yemen, as has the New America Foundation on Pakistan. In 2012 the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic studied the three sources of such counts and issued a report of its own.
Among the more fascinating reports, the human-rights group Reprieve recently considered claims to drone “precision” and surgical accuracy by doing its own analysis of the available data. It concluded that, in trying to target and assassinate 41 enemy figures in Pakistan and Yemen over the years, Washington’s drones had managed to kill 1,147 people without even killing all the figures actually targeted. (As Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian wrote, “The drones came for Ayman Zawahiri on 13 January 2006, hovering over a village in Pakistan called Damadola. Ten months later, they came again for the man who would become al-Qaida’s leader, this time in Bajaur. Eight years later, Zawahiri is still alive. Seventy-six children and 29 adults, according to reports after the two strikes, are not.”)
In other words, when it came to counting, civil society rode to the rescue, though the impact of the figures produced has remained limited indeed in this country. In some ways, the only body count of any sort that has made an impression here in recent years has been sniper Chris Kyle’s 160 confirmed Iraqi “kills” that played such a part in the publicity for the blockbuster movie American Sniper.
In his public apology for deaths that were clearly embarrassing to him, President Obama managed to fall back on a trope that has become ever more politically commonplace in these years. Even in the context of a situation in which two innocent hostages had been killed, he congratulated himself and all Americans for the exceptional nature of this country. “It is a cruel and bitter truth,” he said, “that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur. But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
Whatever our missteps, in other words, we Americans are exceptional killers in a world of ordinary ones. This attitude has infused Obama’s global assassination program and the White House “kill list” that goes with it and that the president has personally overseen. Pride in his killing agenda was evident in the decision to leak news of that list to the New York Times back in May 2012. And this version of American exceptionalism fits well with the exceptionalism of the drone itself — even if it is a weapon guaranteed to become less exceptional as it spreads to more countries (in part through recently green-lighted U.S. drone sales to allies).
On the rarest of occasions, Obama admitted in that White House briefing room, drone strikes even kill exceptional people (like us) who need to be attended to presidentially, whose deaths deserve apologies, whose lives are to be highlighted in special media accounts, and whose value is such that recompense is due to their families. In most of the places the drone goes, however, those it kills by mistake are, by definition, unexceptional. They deserve neither notice nor apology nor recompense. They count for nothing.
One thing makes the drone a unique weapon in the world of the uncounted dead on a planet where killing otherwise seems like a dime-a-dozen activity: its pilot, its “crew,” those who trigger the launch of its missiles are hundreds, even thousands of miles away from danger. Though we speak loosely about drone “warfare,” the way that machine functions bears little relation to war as it was once defined. Conceptually, the drone represents a one-way street of destruction. Because in its version of “warfare” only one side can be hurt, its “signature” is slaughter, not war, no matter how carefully it may be used. It is an executioner’s weapon.
In part because of that, it’s also a blowback weapon. Though it may surprise Americans, those to be slaughtered, the hunted, don’t take to the constant buzz of drones in their skies in a kindly fashion. They reportedly exhibit the symptoms of PTSD; they are resentful; they grasp the unfairness and injustice that lies behind the machine and its form of “warfare” and are unimpressed with the exceptionalism of the Americans using it. As a result, drones across the Greater Middle East have been the equivalent of recruitment posters for those who want revenge and so for extremist outfits everywhere.
Drones should be weapons of shame and yet, despite the recent round of criticism here in the wake of the hostage killings, their use is still widely supported in Washington and among the public. The justification for their use, whatever “legal” white papers the Obama administration has produced as cover, is simple enough: power. We send them across sovereign boundaries as we wish in search of those we want to kill because we can, because we are us.
So all praise to the few in our world who think it worth the bother to count those who count for nothing to us. They do matter.
40 Years Later, Will the End Games in Iraq and Afghanistan Follow the Vietnam Playbook?
If our wars in the Greater Middle East ever end, it’s a pretty safe bet that they will end badly — and it won’t be the first time. The “fall of Saigon” in 1975 was the quintessential bitter end to a war. Oddly enough, however, we’ve since found ways to re-imagine that denouement which miraculously transformed a failed and brutal war of American aggression into a tragic humanitarian rescue mission. Our most popular Vietnam end-stories bury the long, ghastly history that preceded the “fall,” while managing to absolve us of our primary responsibility for creating the disaster. Think of them as silver-lining tributes to good intentions and last-ditch heroism that may come in handy in the years ahead.
The trick, it turned out, was to separate the final act from the rest of the play. To be sure, the ending in Vietnam was not a happy one, at least not for many Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. This week we mark the 40th anniversary of those final days of the war. We will once again surely see the searing images of terrified refugees, desperate evacuations, and final defeat. But even that grim tale offers a lesson to those who will someday memorialize our present round of disastrous wars: toss out the historical background and you can recast any U.S. mission as a flawed but honorable, if not noble, effort by good-guy rescuers to save innocents from the rampaging forces of aggression. In the Vietnamese case, of course, the rescue was so incomplete and the defeat so total that many Americans concluded their country had “abandoned” its cause and “betrayed” its allies. By focusing on the gloomy conclusion, however, you could at least stop dwelling on the far more incriminating tale of the war’s origins and expansion, and the ruthless way the U.S. waged it.
Here’s another way to feel better about America’s role in starting and fighting bad wars: make sure U.S. troops leave the stage for a decent interval before the final debacle. That way, in the last act, they can swoop back in with a new and less objectionable mission. Instead of once again waging brutal counterinsurgencies on behalf of despised governments, American troops can concentrate on a humanitarian effort most war-weary citizens and soldiers would welcome: evacuation and escape.
Phony Endings and Actual Ones
An American president announces an honorable end to our longest war. The last U.S. troops are headed for home. Media executives shut down their war zone bureaus. The faraway country where the war took place, once a synonym for slaughter, disappears from TV screens and public consciousness. Attention shifts to home-front scandals and sensations. So it was in the United States in 1973 and 1974, years when most Americans mistakenly believed that the Vietnam War was over.
In many ways, eerily enough, this could be a story from our own time. After all, a few years ago, we had reason to hope that our seemingly endless wars — this time in distant Iraq and Afghanistan — were finally over or soon would be. In December 2011, in front of U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, President Obama proclaimed an end to the American war in Iraq. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” he said proudly. “This is an extraordinary achievement.” In a similar fashion, last December the president announced that in Afghanistan “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”
If only. Instead, warfare, strife, and suffering of every kind continue in both countries, while spreading across ever more of the Greater Middle East. American troops are still dying in Afghanistan and in Iraq the U.S. military is back, once again bombing and advising, this time against the Islamic State (or Daesh), an extremist spin-off from its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization that only came to life well after (and in reaction to) the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. It now seems likely that the nightmare of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began decades ago, will simply drag on with no end in sight.
The Vietnam War, long as it was, did finally come to a decisive conclusion. When Vietnam screamed back into the headlines in early 1975, 14 North Vietnamese divisions were racing toward Saigon, virtually unopposed. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese troops (shades of the Iraqi army in 2014) were stripping off their military uniforms, abandoning their American equipment, and fleeing. With the massive U.S. military presence gone, what had once been a brutal stalemate was now a rout, stunning evidence that “nation-building” by the U.S. military in South Vietnam had utterly failed (as it would in the twenty-first century in Iraq and Afghanistan).
On April 30, 1975, a Communist tank crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in the southern capital of Saigon, a dramatic and triumphant conclusion to a 30-year-long Vietnamese struggle to achieve national independence and reunification. The blood-soaked American effort to construct a permanent non-Communist nation called South Vietnam ended in humiliating defeat.
It’s hard now to imagine such a climactic conclusion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, where the Communists successfully tapped a deep vein of nationalist and revolutionary fervor throughout the country, in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has any faction, party, or government had such success or the kind of appeal that might lead it to gain full and uncontested control of the country. Yet in Iraq, there have at least been a series of mass evacuations and displacements reminiscent of the final days in Vietnam. In fact, the region, including Syria, is now engulfed in a refugee crisis of staggering proportions with millions seeking sanctuary across national boundaries and millions more homeless and displaced internally.
Last August, U.S. forces returned to Iraq (as in Vietnam four decades earlier) on the basis of a “humanitarian” mission. Some 40,000 Iraqis of the Yazidi sect, threatened with slaughter, had been stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq surrounded by Islamic State militants. While most of the Yazidi were, in fact, successfully evacuated by Kurdish fighters via ground trails, small groups were flown out on helicopters by the Iraqi military with U.S. help. When one of those choppers went down wounding many of its passengers but killing only the pilot, General Majid Ahmed Saadi, New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin, injured in the crash, praised his heroism. Before his death, he had told her that the evacuation missions were “the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years of flying.”
In this way, a tortured history inconceivable without the American invasion of 2003 and almost a decade of excesses, including the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, as well as counterinsurgency warfare, finally produced a heroic tale of American humanitarian intervention to rescue victims of murderous extremists. The model for that kind of story had been well established in 1975.
Stripping the Fall of Saigon of Historical Context
Defeat in Vietnam might have been the occasion for a full-scale reckoning on the entire horrific war, but we preferred stories that sought to salvage some faith in American virtue amid the wreckage. For the most riveting recent example, we need look no further than Rory Kennedy’s 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. The film focuses on a handful of Americans and a few Vietnamese who, in defiance of orders, helped expedite and expand a belated and inadequate evacuation of South Vietnamese who had hitched their lives to the American cause.
The film’s cast of humanitarian heroes felt obligated to carry out their ad hoc rescue missions because the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, refused to believe that defeat was inevitable. Whenever aides begged him to initiate an evacuation, he responded with comments like, “It’s not so bleak. I won’t have this negative talk.” Only when North Vietnamese tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon did he order the grandiloquently titled Operation Frequent Wind — the helicopter evacuation of the city — to begin.
By that time, Army Captain Stuart Herrington and others like him had already led secret “black ops” missions to help South Vietnamese army officers and their families get aboard outgoing aircraft and ships. Prior to the official evacuation, the U.S. government explicitly forbade the evacuation of South Vietnamese military personnel who were under orders to remain in the country and continue fighting. But, as Herrington puts it in the film, “sometimes there’s an issue not of legal and illegal, but right and wrong.” Although the war itself failed to provide U.S. troops with a compelling moral cause, Last Days in Vietnam produces one. The film’s heroic rescuers are willing to risk their careers for the just cause of evacuating their allies.
The drama and danger are amped up by the film’s insistence that all Vietnamese linked to the Americans were in mortal peril. Several of the witnesses invoke the specter of a Communist “bloodbath,” a staple of pro-war propaganda since the 1960s. (President Richard Nixon, for instance, once warned that the Communists would massacre civilians “by the millions” if the U.S. pulled out.) Herrington refers to the South Vietnamese officers he helped evacuate as “dead men walking.” Another of the American rescuers, Paul Jacobs, used his Navy ship without authorization to escort dozens of South Vietnamese vessels, crammed with some 30,000 people, to the Philippines. Had he ordered the ships back to Vietnam, he claims in the film, the Communists “woulda killed ‘em all.”
The Communist victors were certainly not merciful. They imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people in “re-education camps” and subjected them to brutal treatment. The predicted bloodbath, however, was a figment of the American imagination. No program of systematic execution of significant numbers of people who had collaborated with the Americans ever happened.
Following another script that first emerged in U.S. wartime propaganda, the film implies that South Vietnam was vehemently anti-communist. To illustrate, we are shown a map in which North Vietnamese red ink floods ever downward over an all-white South — as if the war were a Communist invasion instead of a countrywide struggle that began in the South in opposition to an American-backed government.
Had the South been uniformly and fervently anti-Communist, the war might well have had a different outcome, but the Saigon regime was vulnerable primarily because many southern Vietnamese fought tooth and nail to defeat it and many others were unwilling to put their lives on the line to defend it. In truth, significant parts of the South had been “red” since the 1940s. The U.S. blocked reunification elections in 1956 exactly because it feared that southerners might vote in Communist leader Ho Chi Minh as president. Put another way, the U.S. betrayed the people of Vietnam and their right to self-determination not by pulling out of the country, but by going in.
Last Days in Vietnam may be the best silver-lining story of the fall of Saigon ever told, but it is by no means the first. Well before the end of April 1975, when crowds of terrified Vietnamese surrounded the U.S. embassy in Saigon begging for admission or trying to scale its fences, the media was on the lookout for feel-good stories that might take some of the sting out of the unremitting tableaus of fear and failure.
They thought they found just the thing in Operation Babylift. A month before ordering the final evacuation of Vietnam, Ambassador Martin approved an airlift of thousands of South Vietnamese orphans to the United States where they were to be adopted by Americans. Although he stubbornly refused to accept that the end was near, he hoped the sight of all those children embraced by their new American parents might move Congress to allocate additional funds to support the crumbling South Vietnamese government.
Commenting on Operation Babylift, pro-war political scientist Lucien Pye said, “We want to know we’re still good, we’re still decent.” It did not go as planned. The first plane full of children and aid workers crashed and 138 of its passengers died. And while thousands of children did eventually make it to the U.S., a significant portion of them were not orphans. In war-ravaged South Vietnam some parents placed their children in orphanages for protection, fully intending to reclaim them in safer times. Critics claimed the operation was tantamount to kidnapping.
Nor did Operation Babylift move Congress to send additional aid, which was hardly surprising since virtually no one in the United States wanted to continue to fight the war. Indeed, the most prevalent emotion was stunned resignation. But there did remain a pervasive need to salvage some sense of national virtue as the house of cards collapsed and the story of those “babies,” no matter how tarnished, nonetheless proved helpful in the process.
Putting the Fall of Saigon Back in Context
For most Vietnamese — in the South as well as the North — the end was not a time of fear and flight, but joy and relief. Finally, the much-reviled, American-backed government in Saigon had been overthrown and the country reunited. After three decades of turmoil and war, peace had come at last. The South was not united in accepting the Communist victory as an unambiguous “liberation,” but there did remain broad and bitter revulsion over the wreckage the Americans had brought to their land.
Indeed, throughout the South and particularly in the countryside, most people viewed the Americans not as saviors but as destroyers. And with good reason. The U.S. military dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, the very land it claimed to be saving, making it by far the most bombed country in history. Much of that bombing was indiscriminate. Though policymakers blathered on about the necessity of “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, the ruthlessness of their war-making drove many southerners into the arms of the Viet Cong, the local revolutionaries. It wasn’t Communist hordes from the North that such Vietnamese feared, but the Americans and their South Vietnamese military allies.
The many refugees who fled Vietnam at war’s end and after, ultimately a million or more of them, not only lost a war, they lost their home, and their traumatic experiences are not to be minimized. Yet we should also remember the suffering of the far greater number of South Vietnamese who were driven off their land by U.S. wartime policies. Because many southern peasants supported the Communist-led insurgency with food, shelter, intelligence, and recruits, the U.S. military decided that it had to deprive the Viet Cong of its rural base. What followed was a long series of forced relocations designed to remove peasants en masse from their lands and relocate them to places where they could more easily be controlled and indoctrinated.
The most conservative estimate of internal refugees created by such policies (with anodyne names like the “strategic hamlet program” or “Operation Cedar Falls”) is 5 million, but the real figure may have been 10 million or more in a country of less than 20 million. Keep in mind that, in these years, the U.S. military listed “refugees generated” — that is, Vietnamese purposely forced off their lands — as a metric of “progress,” a sign of declining support for the enemy.
Our vivid collective memories are of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their homeland at war’s end. Gone is any broad awareness of how the U.S. burned down, plowed under, or bombed into oblivion thousands of Vietnamese villages, and herded survivors into refugee camps. The destroyed villages were then declared “free fire zones” where Americans claimed the right to kill anything that moved.
In 1967, Jim Soular was a flight chief on a gigantic Chinook helicopter. One of his main missions was the forced relocation of Vietnamese peasants. Here’s the sort of memory that you won’t find in Miss Saigon, Last Days in Vietnam, or much of anything else that purports to let us know about the war that ended in 1975. This is not the sort of thing you’re likely to see much of this week in any 40th anniversary media musings.
“On one mission where we were depopulating a village we packed about sixty people into my Chinook. They’d never been near this kind of machine and were really scared but they had people forcing them in with M-16s. Even at that time I felt within myself that the forced dislocation of these people was a real tragedy. I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn’t understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They had no say in what was happening. I could see the terror in their faces. They were defecating and urinating and completely freaked out. It was horrible. Everything I’d been raised to believe in was contrary to what I saw in Vietnam. We might have learned so much from them instead of learning nothing and doing so much damage.”
What Will We Forget If Baghdad “Falls”?
The time may come, if it hasn’t already, when many of us will forget, Vietnam-style, that our leaders sent us to war in Iraq falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction he intended to use against us; that he had a “sinister nexus” with the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked on 9/11; that the war would essentially pay for itself; that it would be over in “weeks rather than months”; that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators; or that we would build an Iraqi democracy that would be a model for the entire region. And will we also forget that in the process nearly 4,500 Americans were killed along with perhaps 500,000 Iraqis, that millions of Iraqis were displaced from their homes into internal exile or forced from the country itself, and that by almost every measure civil society has failed to return to pre-war levels of stability and security?
The picture is no less grim in Afghanistan. What silver linings can possibly emerge from our endless wars? If history is any guide, I’m sure we’ll think of something.
Christian Appy, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of three books about the Vietnam War, including the just-published American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking).
Copyright 2015 Christian Appy
What Happened to $1.3 Billion of Taxpayer Money Sent Directly to U.S. Military Officers in Afghanistan? Pentagon won’t Say
The Department of Defense (DOD) refuses to detail what it did with $1.3 billion that was supposed to be used on urgent humanitarian and reconstruction projects.
A report (pdf) from Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko pointed out that $2.26 billion had been put into the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). That funding is meant to be used primarily for small projects estimated to cost less than $500,000 involving such issues as transportation, electricity and education. This year, most of the money will be used for condolence payments when civilians are killed or injured or property is damaged by U.S. forces and to increase security for communities that happen to be located near active U.S. military bases.
However, according to the SIGAR report, the Defense Department is given “broad authority to spend CERP funds notwithstanding other provisions of law. As a result, projects supported by CERP funds are not bound by procurement laws or the Federal Acquisition Regulation.”
The Army’s official guidance on CERP projects is “CERP is a quick and effective method that provides an immediate, positive impact on the local population while other larger reconstruction projects are still getting off the ground. The keys to project selection are: Execute quickly; Employ many people from the local population; Benefit the local population; Be highly visible.”
But the SIGAR report said “DOD could only provide financial information relating to the disbursement of funds for CERP projects totaling $890 million (40%) of the approximately $2.2 billion in obligated funds at that time.” The other $1.3 billion of the CERP money that has been sent to Afghanistan has been spent on projects classified as “unknown.”
What’s worse is that according to the Pentagon’s response to the report, some of the money went to war-fighting instead of helping Afghan civilians. “Although the report is technically accurate, it did not discuss the Counter Insurgency (COIN) strategies in relationship to CERP. In addition, the 20 users [sic] of CERP funds, it was also used as a tool for COIN. CERP funds were, and continue to be used to build goodwill between the people of Iraq and/or Afghanistan and the United States in an effort to gain their support in fighting the insurgency. In many cases CERP’s main effort was the COIN aspect verse the actual project being procured.”
So, from the part of that statement that makes any sense, it would appear that the money was siphoned off from approved uses and into counter insurgency, which is not among the 20 approved uses for CERP funds.
To Learn More:
Pentagon Can’t Account for $1 Billion in Afghan Reconstruction Aid (by James Rosen, McClatchy )
Department of Defense Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP): Priorities and Spending in Afghanistan for Fiscal Years 2004-2014 (Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction) (pdf)
Commander’s Emergency Response Program (Center for Army Lessons Learned)
After 6 Years, Obama’s Pentagon Suddenly Declares Details of Afghanistan War “Classified” (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov )
U.S. Wasted $7.6 Billion to Fight Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan…Which is Now at an All-Time High (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov )
U.S. Wasted $34 Million Pushing Soybeans on Afghanistan (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov )
Pentagon Leads PR Campaign to Counter Critical Inspector General Reports on Afghanistan (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov )
Harsh Inspector General Report Says 0 of 16 Afghan Agencies can be Trusted with U.S. Aid (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov )
U.S. Funded Industrial Park in Afghanistan Found With Only One Business and No Electricity . . . And Missing Records
We have yet another example of how we are wasting billions of dollars in Afghanistan where a combination of incompetence and corruption continues to drain the U.S. treasury. This week, SIGAR released two reports showing how, an inspection of the $7.8 million Shorandam Industrial Park in Kandahar is an utter failure and how the money to create a sustainable source of power for Kandahar City has left the city literally in the dark. Once again, there is no indication of any discipline or action taken against those who approve such projects and oversee such failures.
I have previously written about the waste of billions of dollars by the government without any significant discipline of government officials. We have become accustomed to reports of unimaginable corruption and waste in Afghanistan from bags of money delivered to officials to constructing huge buildings immediately torn down to buying aircraft that cannot be used to buildings that seem to “melt away”. Much like our useless campaign against poppy production where we continued to spend billions because no one had the courage to end or change the program.
In this latest case, SIGAR found only one active Afghan business at the park, which was designed to accommodate 48 businesses. Notably, SIGAR inspectors found that they could not full assess the site because there was a lack of electricity and the contract files were mysteriously missing — leaving them also both literally and figuratively in the dark.
The missing contract files are a signature for our contractors in Afghanistan. An inspection of USAID-funded facility at Gorimar Industrial Park in Balkh province also found the files missing.
A $416 million program to empower Afghan women may leave them “without any tangible benefit” instead, a government watchdog warned, urging USAID to provide more data on the controversial project.
The Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs – Promote, for short – was announced last November as part of US reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Its stated intent is to empower some 75,000 Afghan women between the ages of 18 and 30 to become political, business and civil service leaders, and engage girls ages 14 through 18 in “leadership development programs.”
However, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) warned that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has not shown what the program would actually do, provided for adequate safeguards and controls of the contractors involved, or even accounted for half the funding Promote is supposed to receive.
“I am concerned that some very basic programmatic issues remain unresolved and that the Afghan women engaged in the program may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion,” John F. Sopko wrote in a letter to the USAID acting administrator, made public Thursday.
“I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else,” Sopko said, quoting the words of Afghanistan’s First Lady, Rula Ghani, from a November 2014 conference.
Though his staff was briefed on Promote in late February, Sopko wrote, “USAID could not provide the audit team a list of all the agency’s projects, programs, and initiatives intended to support Afghan women, or how much the agency spent on each effort.”
“USAID was also unable to provide data demonstrating a causal relationship or correlation between the agency’s efforts to support Afghan women and improvements in Afghan women’s lives,” he added.
In October 2014, USAID announced the award of five-year, “indefinite-delivery/indefinite quantity” contracts for Promote to three companies: Chemonics International, Development Alternatives and Tetra Tech. According to the agency, USAID would provide $216 million for the program, while another $200 million would come from unspecified foreign donors.
The SIGAR is questioning the basis of this estimate, since USAID failed to produce any supporting documentation, including any memorandum of the understanding between the three contractors and the Afghan government.
“Of this $416 million, how much will be spent in Afghanistan on Afghan women, and how much will be spent on security and overhead costs for the three contractors and program implementers?” the SIGAR asked. Sopko also raised the issue of USAID’s “sustainability plan,” asking whether any steps were taken to ensure the program survived past the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Soldiers will be safe from the “persistent human rights claims” that have dogged the British military for years because the Conservatives will “rip up” human rights legislation if they win the general election, two top Tories have pledged.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon called for an end to what he called the “abuse” of the Human Rights Act to bring about costly inquiries into the conduct of British soldiers during wartime operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He warned that legal claims such as those emerging from the Iraq War had undermined the military’s work and had cost the taxpayer millions of pounds.
Fallon told the Daily Mail : “This abuse has got to stop and the next Tory government will limit the reach of human rights cases to the UK so our forces overseas are not subject to persistent human rights claims.”
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP added his voice on Tuesday, telling the Mail: ‘We can’t go on with a situation where our boys are hamstrung by human rights laws … I made it clear last year that I want to rip up Labour’s Human Rights Act and that it is only the Conservatives who will make real changes to the human rights framework to restore some common sense.”
The pledge reflects a broader Tory commitment to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and instead develop a British Bill of Rights in its place.
It is said this would then govern the actions of UK troops on operations and take proper account of the pressures faced by service personnel in wartime if legal cases arise.
The MP’s comments come in the wake of a study by a right-wing think tank released on Monday
It argued that Britain must scrap the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in times of warfare because British soldiers cannot fight under the restraints of “judicial imperialism.”
Offering enemy combatants the right to sue the British government and expecting soldiers on the battlefield to operate with the same level of caution as police patrolling London streets will render future foreign combat operations unworkable, the report by Policy Exchange said.
The British military establishment has been dogged by inquiries into allegations of human rights abuses on the battlefield perpetrated by UK forces.
Although the Al Sweady investigation into allegations of murder and mutilation of Iraqis by British troops in 2004 found the majority of accusations “completely baseless” in December last year, there are still cases pending.
Last month, the High Court ruled that grieving families of Iraqis gunned down by British soldiers in Iraq may sue Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) for violating international law.
The milestone ruling could pave the way for over 1,200 claims, brought by Iraqi families.
British law firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), which specializes in judicial review cases relating to human rights violations, would represent the claimants.
A Pakistani Woman named Aafia Siddiqui was abducted from a taxi in Karachi, Pakistan along with her 3 children 12 years ago on March 30, 2003. At the time she was vulnerable, recently divorced from an abusive husband; living with her mother; her father had just died of a heart attack. The youngest child was an infant. Following her abduction, Aafia Siddiqui and her children disappeared from view for 5 years. She spent those years in US Black Site prisons in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One can only imagine the torment she suffered there, in a system created to enable the torture and abuse of terrorism suspects. She was a woman alone. They took her children, and threatened them when personal torture was not enough to gain her acquiescence.
They say other women came and went from Bagram and the secret prisons in Afghanistan, but Aafia Siddiqui is the only one whose story is known. This is true in part because she had lived, studied and worked in the United States for more than a decade, but even more so because of the devoted persistence of her family, her mother Ismet, and sister Fowzia, who never for one moment ceased their efforts to find her and bring her home. Using their standing as an upper middle class family in Karachi, a conservative Muslim family, well educated, known for their involvement in various aspects of civil society during, the Siddiqui women engaged with the government at all levels, engaged the press to publicize Aafia’s disappearance and to investigate her whereabouts and the circumstances of her disappearance.
Ismet says that shortly after her daughter’s disappearance, a man came to her door and threatened her. He told her to drop the search for her missing daughter or ‘else’. The two women, Ismet and Fowzia, were convinced that Aafia and her children had been detained by either Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) or the CIA. This is not surprising because Pakistani citizens were frequently disappeared during that period, mostly by the Pakistani Secret Police and Intelligence forces complicit with the American CIA and FBI who were casting a broad net to fish for ‘terrorists’ after 9/11/2001. Thousands were abducted and imprisoned for long or short periods of time. A few eventually landed in Guantanamo, but who knows what happened to the rest?. Many never returned. Thousands of Muslim immigrants were rounded up and questioned here in the United States as well. Many of them were tortured. Many were held for months and years with no accessto legal aid or their families. Many were eventually deported despite having committed no crime.
No, Aafia Siddiqui wasn’t the only person rendered during the first years of the Global War on Terror, nor was she the only Pakistani disappeared under the Musharraf regime. We now know that thousands were rendered from the streets of Pakistan and around the globe during the first years following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We know that torture was ubiquitous during that period, while brutal violence against civilians characterized the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is extraordinary about Aafia Siddiqui’s case is that she was a woman, and was taken with her children. Also somewhat unusual is the fact that she had spent many years in the US where she went to college and eventually obtained a PhD from Brandeis, married a Pakistani Doctor and had 2 children; and worked for various charities generally leading a conscientious life of good will. She sent Qurans to prisoners, and taught children at a Mosque in an impoverished city neighborhood.
But after 9/11 it all fell apart. She and her husband were not abducted, but they were interrogated. A young Saudi the government was pursuing had stayed for a while in their apartment building. Her husband had used his credit card to buy night vision goggles, he said for hunting. The marriage was becoming increasingly stressed and at times, violent. Aafia had a long scar on her cheek from a cut caused by a baby bottle her husband admitted to throwing at her. Aafia took her children and returned to her parents’ home in Karachi. She was pregnant with their third child when her husband divorced her and remarried. We are told she seemed nervous and agitated during this period. Who wouldn’t be nervous and agitated under those circumstances? And then, one day she set out for a family visit with her uncle, got in the taxi with her children, and disappeared.
In July of 2008, Aafia Siddiqui arrived in Manhattan a week after abdominal surgery to remove a couple of bullets from her intestines, and was brought directly into a courtroom in her wheelchair for arraignment on charges of attacking US military personnel in Afghanistan. After a highly publicized trial during which the press consistently referred to her as ‘Lady al Qaeda’, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison and sent to Carswell Medical Center, a high security federal prison in Texas, where she remains to this day, so we are told.
At the trial, no physical evidence was presented by the prosecution. There was none. Basic questions related to context were neither asked nor answered. Where was Aafia Siddiqui between the time of her disappearance 5 years earlier, and her encounter with the soldiers in Ghazni, Afghanistan? Why wasn’t she believed when she said she had been rendered and tortured? Why did the Pakistani Government allow her to be extradited from Afghanistan, then pay a small fortune for lawyers for her, lawyers that she did not want or trust because, whatever their qualifications, they had been selected and paid for by the Pakistani government? Why, when a fragile woman, who was obviously physically and mentally broken, said that she had been tortured, did no one investigate her story?
Between 2003 and 2008, US officials repeatedly denied having Aafia Siddiqui in custody. They insisted that she was not in the system anywhere. But, when she showed up in 2008, they had a story all ready to tell about her involvement with al Qaeda, conferring with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of his associates. They actually said she was married to his nephew Ammar al Baluchi, a charge her family absolutely denies. She was only recently divorced, and had just birthed a child when she disappeared. The specific accusation against Siddiqui was that she had got a mailbox in Maryland for Majid Khan, a young man who had associated with Khalid Sheikh Muhammed in Karachi. He had allowed his visa to lapse while he was visiting family in Karachi, and needed a US mailbox address to reapply for it so he could return to the US. Khan was accused of plotting to commit terrorist attacks on returning to the USA.
But this isn’t the crime Aafia Siddiqui was tried for, just a story leaked to the press. Majid Khan was detained a few weeks before Aafia Siddiqui and her children were. Like her, he had lived in the United States for some years and had attended high school here. Raised in a middle class suburb of Baltimore, he was restless and unable to decide what to do with his life, so he went to Karachi to visit the extended family and married there. Members of his family were initially detained with him, then later released. According to his brother, Majid Khan was tortured and beaten during this period, and coerced into making unreliable and false confessions
Although he may have known KSM and his nephew, Khan was never proven to do anything other than talk and spin stories. After touring the black sites and being tortured for a couple of years, Khan landed in Guantanamo where he apparently continued talking and spinning stories. Majid Khan was eventually able to arrange a plea deal for early release from Guantanamo in 2012 in exchange for testimony against Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ammar Al Baluchi and others. Perhaps Siddiqui did help Majid Khan with his immigration problem. He was a kid who needed help. That is an immigration violation that might keep her from returning to the US. But we don’t even know for sure that she even did that. We do know that Khan told a lot of stories in return for a plea deal in 2012 that capped his sentence at 19 years.
The government, however, claimed that Aafia Siddiqui spent the 5 years she was missing in a terrorist cell developing chemical and biological weapons. She was a scientist, after all, with a PhD. When she was arrested in Pakistan, there were some chemicals in her bag along with some recipes for biological and chemical weapons written in her handwriting and a picture of the statue of liberty, an odd choice for someone who had lived many years in Boston area and Texas before that. These items were brought into evidence. Again, when Aafia Siddiqui explained that she wasn’t that kind of scientist, that she was an educator, she was ignored. Her PhD was in neuroscience as it pertains to learning capabilities. This is a matter of public record at Brandeis University. She was Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, but neither a physician, a chemist nor even a biologist except in a narrow tangential sense. She said she wrote in the documents what she was told to write by men who threatened to harm her children if she did not do as they wished.
Aafia Siddiqui suffered from severe PTSD which made it difficult for her to present a consistently calm and pleasant demeanor during trial. She told the court she had been tortured during the time she was missing, but this testimony was dismissed as untrue and irrelevant. The government, of course, had denied it. She didn’t want the highly paid lawyers hired on her behalf by the Pakistani government because she didn’t trust the motivation of the Pakistani government, and she didn’t like the way they were building her case. But the judge chose to ignore her protest and allowed those lawyers to continue. Judge Berman was privately informed of the details the US held against Siddiqui. The story was apparently leaked to the press as well. But it wasn’t told in open court where she might have refuted it. The jury convicted despite the lack of physical evidence on charges normally bringing a sentence of around 15 years. They did not convict on the charge of premeditation, but Judge Berman added a ‘terrorism’ enhancement to her verdict, and sentenced Aafia Siddiqui to 86 years in a federal prison.
Today, Aafia Siddiqui remains in the psychiatric division of Carswell, seven years into her 86 year sentence. She had a hard time early on, and apparently was beaten at one point, by the guards? Other inmates? That we don’t know. We do know she was in solitary after that. She hasn’t been allowed to receive mail. I, myself, have sent her many letters, all returned. Early on they came back unopened, marked ‘undeliverable’. When I called the prison to inquire whether I had the wrong address, the person who answered went off to ask advice on what to tell me. He said, when he returned to the phone, that she refused her mail. A few months later when I was in jail myself (for direct action protest at the gate of Hancock AFB) I received a letter from my attorney, and realized that they have to open your mail and inspect it before offering it to you. After I called again to question this issue, my letters started coming back opened.
Aafia Siddiqui hasn’t spoken to her family in more than a year. She has a brother, also in Texas, but he has not been able to see her. No one has had contact with her for over a year now. The last time she was given a chance to talk to her family, to her mother and sister, and the 2 children returned to them after she was imprisoned in the US, was following a national press conference outside the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC and a well-publicized protest outside Carswell Prison. At the time, Fowzia asked her why she was refusing her mail, and she replied ‘What mail?”
Last year Robert Boyle, a new attorney hired by the family, submitted a motion to vacate to Judge Berrman, requesting that he throw out the verdict because Aafia’s repeated requests for an adjournment of the proceedings so she could find an acceptable attorney were ignored. The motion lays out a detailed argument that Siddiqui’s request was sane and reasonable, and described the potential bias of the Pakistani government and the ways in which their choice of attorneys, even well-known human rights lawyers, might not have been in her best interest. Judge Berman called the lawyers in a few days later and said that Aafia Siddiqui had written a letter to him, asking that the motion be dismissed, and that he was therefore required to dismiss it. He went on to say that he had, in any case, no intention of granting the motion.
Since then, another six months have passed with no word to anyone from Aafia Siddiqui. It’s true she is likely depressed. Is she sick? Is she being heavily medicated? Is she alive? An appeal that had earlier been rejected which focused on procedural issues. This motion that Judge Berman says she asked to have dismissed very directly mirrored her own concerns at the time of the trial. It’s true; she may have done this out of depression or despair. But if she was too disturbed for the Judge to support her initial request in the court room, why was her current request honored without a hearing?
Aafia Siddiqui said that she had been tortured and raped. Why her assertion was dismissed as a fabrication with no investigation, and why were any investigations into her claims treated as collateral conspiracy theories? How did she neatly fall into the hands of US soldiers just as the family felt their sources were near locating her? Why did the Pakistani Government allow her to be extradited if they thought she was innocent? Where is Aafia Siddiqui now and what is her status?
The fact is that Aafia Siddiqui’s story is not so different than many of the other Pakistani, Afghan and Arab men swept up after 9/11. Why is it so unbelievable? All of the evidence is in her favor except for the ‘secret’ evidence and the fact that the US denies her assertions. Would we expect anything different from them? We have heard the stories of others illegally swept up in the rendition program. But maybe we don’t want to believe they would do that to a woman. We’ve heard a lot of stories about horrors visited on women by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Vietnam, but maybe we don’t want to think that might happen to a vulnerable middle class housewife with a PhD in Education. What would they do to cover up committing these atrocities against this kind, well educated, English speaking woman who had spent nearly half her life in the US when she was detained? And to cover up the cover up?
Although a conservative estimate, physicians’ groups say the figure ‘is approximately 10 times greater’ than typically reported
How do you calculate the human costs of the U.S.-led War on Terror?
On the 12th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, groups of physicians attempted to arrive at a partial answer to this question by counting the dead.
In their joint report— Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror—Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War concluded that this number is staggering, with at least 1.3 million lives lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone since the onset of the war following September 11, 2001.
However, the report notes, this is a conservative estimate, and the total number killed in the three countries “could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.”
Furthermore, the researchers do not look at other countries targeted by U.S.-led war, including Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and beyond.
Even still, the report states the figure “is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs.
In Iraq, at least 1 million lives have been lost during and since 2003, a figure that accounts for five percent of the nation’s total population. This does not include deaths among the estimated 3 million Iraqi refugees, many of whom were subject to dangerous conditions during this past winter.
Furthermore, an estimated 220,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, note the researchers. The findings follow a United Nations report which finds that civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2014 were at their highest levels since the global body began making reports in 2009.
The researchers identified direct and indirect deaths based on UN, government, and NGO data, as well as individual studies. While the specific number is difficult to peg, researchers say they hope to convey the large-scale of death and loss.
Speaking with Democracy Now! on Thursday, Dr. Robert Gould, president of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-author of the forward to the report, said:
“[A]t a time when we’re contemplating at this point cutting off our removal of troops from Afghanistan and contemplating new military authorization for increasing our operations in Syria and Iraq, this insulation from the real impacts serves our government in being able to continue to conduct these wars in the name of the war on terror, with not only horrendous cost to the people in the region, but we in the United States suffer from what the budgetary costs of unending war are.”
According to Gould’s forward, co-authored with Dr. Tim Takaro, the public is purposefully kept in the dark about this toll.
“A politically useful option for U.S. political elites has been to attribute the on-going violence to internecine conflicts of various types, including historical religious animosities, as if the resurgence and brutality of such conflicts is unrelated to the destabilization cause by decades of outside military intervention,” they write. “As such, under-reporting of the human toll attributed to ongoing Western interventions, whether deliberate of through self-censorship, has been key to removing the ‘fingerprints’ of responsibility.”
Special Ops Missions Already in 105 Countries in 2015
In the dead of night, they swept in aboard V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Landing in a remote region of one of the most volatile countries on the planet, they raided a village and soon found themselves in a life-or-death firefight. It was the second time in two weeks that elite U.S. Navy SEALs had attempted to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers. And it was the second time they failed.
On December 6, 2014, approximately 36 of America’s top commandos, heavily armed, operating with intelligence from satellites, drones, and high-tech eavesdropping, outfitted with night vision goggles, and backed up by elite Yemeni troops, went toe-to-toe with about six militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When it was over, Somers was dead, along with Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher due to be set free the next day. Eight civilians were also killed by the commandos, according to local reports. Most of the militants escaped.
That blood-soaked episode was, depending on your vantage point, an ignominious end to a year that saw U.S. Special Operations forces deployed at near record levels, or an inauspicious beginning to a new year already on track to reach similar heights, if not exceed them.
During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.
Despite its massive scale and scope, this secret global war across much of the planet is unknown to most Americans. Unlike the December debacle in Yemen, the vast majority of special ops missions remain completely in the shadows, hidden from external oversight or press scrutiny. In fact, aside from modest amounts of information disclosed through highly-selective coverage by military media, official White House leaks, SEALs with something to sell, and a few cherry-picked journalists reporting on cherry-picked opportunities, much of what America’s special operators do is never subjected to meaningful examination, which only increases the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
The Golden Age
“The command is at its absolute zenith. And it is indeed a golden age for special operations.” Those were the words of Army General Joseph Votel III, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger, as he assumed command of SOCOM last August.
His rhetoric may have been high-flown, but it wasn’t hyperbole. Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, including their numbers, their budget, their clout in Washington, and their place in the country’s popular imagination. The command has, for example, more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today, including a jump of roughly 8,000 during the three-year tenure of recently retired SOCOM chief Admiral William McRaven.
Those numbers, impressive as they are, don’t give a full sense of the nature of the expansion and growing global reach of America’s most elite forces in these years. For that, a rundown of the acronym-ridden structure of the ever-expanding Special Operations Command is in order. The list may be mind-numbing, but there is no other way to fully grasp its scope.
The lion’s share of SOCOM’s troops are Rangers, Green Berets, and other soldiers from the Army, followed by Air Force air commandos, SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen and support personnel from the Navy, as well as a smaller contingent of Marines. But you only get a sense of the expansiveness of the command when you consider the full range of “sub-unified commands” that these special ops troops are divided among: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR, the European contingent; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which conducts missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East; SOCNORTH, which is devoted to “homeland defense”; and the globe-trotting Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC — a clandestine sub-command (formerly headed by McRaven and then Votel) made up of personnel from each service branch, including SEALs, Air Force special tactics airmen, and the Army’s Delta Force, that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists.
And don’t think that’s the end of it, either. As a result of McRaven’s push to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners,” Special Operations liaison officers, or SOLOs, are now embedded in 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations. Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019. The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among others.
Special Operations Command’s global reach extends further still, with smaller, more agile elements operating in the shadows from bases in the United States to remote parts of Southeast Asia, from Middle Eastern outposts to austere African camps. Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. Take, for instance, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) which, at its peak, had roughly 600 U.S. personnel supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf. After more than a decade spent battling that group, its numbers have been diminished, but it continues to be active, while violence in the region remains virtually unaltered.
A phase-out of the task force was actually announced in June 2014. “JSOTF-P will deactivate and the named operation OEF-P [Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines] will conclude in Fiscal Year 2015,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee the next month. “A smaller number of U.S. military personnel operating as part of a PACOM [U.S. Pacific Command] Augmentation Team will continue to improve the abilities of the PSF [Philippine Special Forces] to conduct their CT [counterterrorism] missions…” Months later, however, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines remained up and running. “JSOTF-P is still active although the number of personnel assigned has been reduced,” Army spokesperson Kari McEwen told reporter Joseph Trevithick of War Is Boring.
Another unit, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Bragg, remained in the shadows for years before its first official mention by the Pentagon in early 2014. Its role, according to SOCOM’s Bockholt, is to “train and equip U.S. service members preparing for deployment to Afghanistan to support Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.” That latter force, in turn, spent more than a decade conducting covert or “black” ops “to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of” the Afghan government. This meant night raids and kill/capture missions — often in concert with elite Afghan forces — that led to the deaths of unknown numbers of combatants and civilians. In response to popular outrage against the raids, Afghan President Hamid Karzai largely banned them in 2013.
U.S. Special Operations forces were to move into a support role in 2014, letting elite Afghan troops take charge. “We’re trying to let them run the show,” Colonel Patrick Roberson of the Afghanistan task force told USA Today. But according to LaDonna Davis, a spokesperson with the task force, America’s special operators were still leading missions last year. The force refuses to say how many missions were led by Americans or even how many operations its commandos were involved in, though Afghan special operations forces reportedly carried out as many as 150 missions each month in 2014. “I will not be able to discuss the specific number of operations that have taken place,” Major Loren Bymer of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan told TomDispatch. “However, Afghans currently lead 96% of special operations and we continue to train, advise, and assist our partners to ensure their success.”
And lest you think that that’s where the special forces organizational chart ends, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan has five Special Operations Advisory Groups “focused on mentoring and advising our ASSF [Afghan Special Security Force] partners,” according to Votel. “In order to ensure our ASSF partners continue to take the fight to our enemies, U.S. SOF must be able to continue to do some advising at the tactical level post-2014 with select units in select locations,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Indeed, last November, Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani quietly lifted the night raid ban, opening the door once again to missions with U.S. advisors in 2015.
There will, however, be fewer U.S. special ops troops available for tactical missions. According to then Rear-, now Vice-Admiral Sean Pybus, SOCOM’s Deputy Commander, about half the SEAL platoons deployed in Afghanistan were, by the end of last month, to be withdrawn and redeployed to support “the pivot in Asia, or work the Mediterranean, or the Gulf of Guinea, or into the Persian Gulf.” Still, Colonel Christopher Riga, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, whose troops served with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan near Kandahar last year, vowed to soldier on. “There’s a lot of fighting that is still going on in Afghanistan that is going to continue,” he said at an awards ceremony late last year. “We’re still going to continue to kill the enemy, until we are told to leave.”
Add to those task forces the Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements, small teams which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.” SOCOM declined to confirm the existence of SOC FWDs, even though there has been ample official evidence on the subject and so it would not provide a count of how many teams are currently deployed across the world. But those that are known are clustered in favored black ops stomping grounds, including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon, as well as SOC FWD East Africa, SOC FWD Central Africa, and SOC FWD West Africa.
Africa has, in fact, become a prime locale for shadowy covert missions by America’s special operators. “This particular unit has done impressive things. Whether it’s across Europe or Africa taking on a variety of contingencies, you are all contributing in a very significant way,” SOCOM’s commander, General Votel, told members of the 352nd Special Operations Group at their base in England last fall.
The Air Commandos are hardly alone in their exploits on that continent. Over the last years, for example, SEALs carried out a successful hostage rescue mission in Somalia and a kidnap raid there that went awry. In Libya, Delta Force commandos successfully captured an al-Qaeda militant in an early morning raid, while SEALs commandeered an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen. Additionally, SEALs conducted a failed evacuation mission in South Sudan in which its members were wounded when the aircraft in which they were flying was hit by small arms fire. Meanwhile, an elite quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU-10) has been engaged with “strategic countries” such as Uganda, Somalia, and Nigeria.
A clandestine Special Ops training effort in Libya imploded when militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided its camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment, hundreds of weapons — including Glock pistols, and M4 rifles — as well as night vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment. As a result, the mission was scuttled and the camp was abandoned. It was then reportedly taken over by a militia.
In February of last year, elite troops traveled to Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise that brought together the forces of the host nation, Canada, Chad, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Burkina Faso. Several months later, an officer from Burkina Faso, who received counterterrorism training in the U.S. under the auspices of SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University in 2012, seized power in a coup. Special Ops forces, however, remained undaunted. Late last year, for example, under the auspices of SOC FWD West Africa, members of 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, partnered with elite Moroccan troops for training at a base outside of Marrakech.
A World of Opportunities
Deployments to African nations have, however, been just a part of the rapid growth of the Special Operations Command’s overseas reach. In the waning days of the Bush presidency, under then-SOCOM chief Admiral Eric Olson, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world. By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post. In 2011, SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120 by the end of the year. With Admiral William McRaven in charge in 2013, then-Major Robert Bockholt told TomDispatch that the number had jumped to 134. Under the command of McRaven and Votel in 2014, according to Bockholt, the total slipped ever-so-slightly to 133. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted, however, that under McRaven’s command — which lasted from August 2011 to August 2014 — special ops forces deployed to more than 150 different countries. “In fact, SOCOM and the entire U.S. military are more engaged internationally than ever before — in more places and with a wider variety of missions,” he said in an August 2014 speech.
He wasn’t kidding. Just over two months into fiscal 2015, the number of countries with Special Ops deployments has already clocked in at 105, according to Bockholt.
SOCOM refused to comment on the nature of its missions or the benefits of operating in so many nations. The command would not even name a single country where U.S. special operations forces deployed in the last three years. A glance at just some of the operations, exercises, and activities that have come to light, however, paints a picture of a globetrotting command in constant churn with alliances in every corner of the planet.
In January and February, for example, members of the 7th Special Forces Group and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment conducted a month-long Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) with forces from Trinidad and Tobago, while troops from the 353rd Special Operations Group joined members of the Royal Thai Air Force for Exercise Teak Torch in Udon Thani, Thailand. In February and March, Green Berets from the 20th Special Forces Group trained with elite troops in the Dominican Republic as part of a JCET.
In March, members of Marine Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Unit 1 took part in maneuvers aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens as part of Multi-Sail 2014, an annual exercise designed to support “security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.” That same month, elite soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines took part in a training exercise code-named Fused Response with members of the Belizean military. “Exercises like this build rapport and bonds between U.S. forces and Belize,” said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Heber Toro of Special Operations Command South afterward.
In April, soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group joined with Honduran airborne troops for jump training — parachuting over that country’s Soto Cano Air Base. Soldiers from that same unit, serving with the Afghanistan task force, also carried out shadowy ops in the southern part of that country in the spring of 2014. In June, members of the 19th Special Forces Group carried out a JCET in Albania, while operators from Delta Force took part in the mission that secured the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. That same month, Delta Force commandos helped kidnap Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected “ringleader” in the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, while Green Berets deployed to Iraq as advisors in the fight against the Islamic State.
In June and July, 26 members of the 522nd Special Operations Squadron carried out a 28,000-mile, four-week, five-continent mission which took them to Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Japan, among other nations, to escort three “single-engine [Air Force Special Operations Command] aircraft to a destination in the Pacific Area of Responsibility.” In July, U.S. Special Operations forces traveled to Tolemaida, Colombia, to compete against elite troops from 16 other nations — in events like sniper stalking, shooting, and an obstacle course race — at the annual Fuerzas Comando competition.
In August, soldiers from the 20th Special Forces Group conducted a JCET with elite units from Suriname. “We’ve made a lot of progress together in a month. If we ever have to operate together in the future, we know we’ve made partners and friends we can depend upon,” said a senior noncommissioned officer from that unit. In Iraq that month, Green Berets conducted a reconnaissance mission on Mount Sinjar as part an effort to protect ethnic Yazidis from Islamic State militants, while Delta Force commandos raided an oil refinery in northern Syria in a bid to save American journalist James Foley and other hostages held by the same group. That mission was a bust and Foley was brutally executed shortly thereafter.
In September, about 1,200 U.S. special operators and support personnel joined with elite troops from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Slovenia for Jackal Stone, a training exercise that focused on everything from close quarters combat and sniper tactics to small boat operations and hostage rescue missions. In September and October, Rangers from the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment deployed to South Korea to practice small unit tactics like clearing trenches and knocking out bunkers. During October, Air Force air commandos also conducted simulated hostage rescue missions at the Stanford Training Area near Thetford, England. Meanwhile, in international waters south of Cyprus, Navy SEALs commandeered that tanker full of oil loaded at a rebel-held port in Libya. In November, U.S. commandos conducted a raid in Yemen that freed eight foreign hostages. The next month, SEALs carried out the blood-soaked mission that left two hostages, including Luke Somers, and eight civilians dead. And these, of course, are only some of the missions that managed to make it into the news or in some other way onto the record.
Everywhere They Want to Be
To America’s black ops chiefs, the globe is as unstable as it is interconnected. “I guarantee you what happens in Latin America affects what happens in West Africa, which affects what happens in Southern Europe, which affects what happens in Southwest Asia,” McRaven told last year’s Geolnt, an annual gathering of surveillance-industry executives and military personnel. Their solution to interlocked instability? More missions in more nations — in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries, in fact — during McRaven’s tenure. And the stage appears set for yet more of the same in the years ahead. “We want to be everywhere,” said Votel at Geolnt. His forces are already well on their way in 2015.
“Our nation has very high expectations of SOF,” he told special operators in England last fall. “They look to us to do the very hard missions in very difficult conditions.” The nature and whereabouts of most of those “hard missions,” however, remain unknown to Americans. And Votel apparently isn’t interested in shedding light on them. “Sorry, but no,” was SOCOM’s response to TomDispatch’s request for an interview with the special ops chief about current and future operations. In fact, the command refused to make any personnel available for a discussion of what it’s doing in America’s name and with taxpayer dollars. It’s not hard to guess why.
Votel now sits atop one of the major success stories of a post-9/11 military that has been mired in winless wars, intervention blowback, rampant criminal activity, repeated leaks of embarrassing secrets, and all manner of shocking scandals. Through a deft combination of bravado and secrecy, well-placed leaks, adroit marketing and public relations efforts, the skillful cultivation of a superman mystique (with a dollop of tortured fragility on the side), and one extremely popular, high-profile, targeted killing, Special Operations forces have become the darlings of American popular culture, while the command has been a consistent winner in Washington’s bare-knuckled budget battles.
This is particularly striking given what’s actually occurred in the field: in Africa, the arming and outfitting of militants and the training of a coup leader; in Iraq, America’s most elite forces were implicated in torture, the destruction of homes, and the killing and wounding of innocents; in Afghanistan, it was a similar story, with repeated reports of civilian deaths; while in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia it’s been more of the same. And this only scratches the surface of special ops miscues.
In 2001, before U.S. black ops forces began their massive, multi-front clandestine war against terrorism, there were 33,000 members of Special Operations Command and about 1,800 members of the elite of the elite, the Joint Special Operations Command. There were then also 23 terrorist groups — from Hamas to the Real Irish Republican Army — as recognized by the State Department, including al-Qaeda, whose membership was estimated at anywhere from 200 to 1,000. That group was primarily based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although small cells had operated in numerous countries including Germany and the United States.
After more than a decade of secret wars, massive surveillance, untold numbers of night raids, detentions, and assassinations, not to mention billions upon billions of dollars spent, the results speak for themselves. SOCOM has more than doubled in size and the secretive JSOC may be almost as large as SOCOM was in 2001. Since September of that year, 36 new terror groups have sprung up, including multiple al-Qaeda franchises, offshoots, and allies. Today, these groups still operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan — there are now 11 recognized al-Qaeda affiliates in the latter nation, five in the former — as well as in Mali and Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, Nigeria and Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen, among other countries. One offshoot was born of the American invasion of Iraq, was nurtured in a U.S. prison camp, and, now known as the Islamic State, controls a wide swath of that country and neighboring Syria, a proto-caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that was only the stuff of jihadi dreams back in 2001. That group, alone, has an estimated strength of around 30,000 and managed to take over a huge swath of territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, despite being relentlessly targeted in its infancy by JSOC.
“We need to continue to synchronize the deployment of SOF throughout the globe,” says Votel. “We all need to be synched up, coordinated, and prepared throughout the command.” Left out of sync are the American people who have consistently been kept in the dark about what America’s special operators are doing and where they’re doing it, not to mention the checkered results of, and blowback from, what they’ve done. But if history is any guide, the black ops blackout will help ensure that this continues to be a “golden age” for U.S. Special Operations Command.