At around 11 o’clock that night, four Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talons, turboprop Special Operations aircraft, were flying through a moonless sky from Pakistani into Afghan airspace. On board were 199 Army Rangers with orders to seize an airstrip. One hundred miles to the northeast, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters cruised through the darkness toward Kandahar, carrying Army Delta Force operators and yet more Rangers, heading for a second site. It was October 19, 2001. The war in Afghanistan had just begun and U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were the tip of the American spear.
Those Rangers parachuted into and then swarmed the airfield, engaging the enemy ― a single armed fighter, as it turned out ― and killing him. At that second site, the residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the special operators apparently encountered no resistance at all, even though several Americans were wounded due to friendly fire and a helicopter crash.
In 2001, U.S. special operators were targeting just two enemy forces: al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 2010, his first full year in office, President Barack Obama informed Congress that U.S. forces were still “actively pursuing and engaging remaining al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.” According to a recent Pentagon report to Congress, American troops are battling more than 10 times that number of militant groups, including the still-undefeated Taliban, the Haqqani network, an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-Khorasan, and various “other insurgent networks.”
After more than 16 years of combat, U.S. Special Operations forces remain the tip of the spear in Afghanistan, where they continue to carry out counterterrorism missions. In fact, from June 1st to November 24th last year, according to that Pentagon report, members of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan conducted 2,175 ground operations “in which they enabled or advised” Afghan commandos.
“During the Obama administration the use of Special Operations forces increased dramatically, as if their use was a sort of magical, all-purpose solution for fighting terrorism,” William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, pointed out. “The ensuing years have proven this assumption to be false. There are many impressive, highly skilled personnel involved in special operations on behalf of the United States, but the problems they are being asked to solve often do not have military solutions. Despite this fact, the Trump administration is doubling down on this approach in Afghanistan, even though the strategy has not prevented the spread of terrorist organizations and may in fact be counterproductive.”
Since U.S. commandos went to war in 2001, the size of Special Operations Command has doubled from about 33,000 personnel to 70,000 today. As their numbers have grown, so has their global reach. As TomDispatchrevealed last month, they were deployed to 149 nations in 2017, or about 75% of the countries on the planet, a record-setting year. It topped 2016’s 138 nations under the Obama administration and dwarfed the numbers from the final years of the Bush administration. As the scope of deployments has expanded, special operators also came to be spread ever more equally across the planet.
In October 2001, Afghanistan was the sole focus of commando combat missions. On March 19, 2003, special operators fired the first shots in the invasion of Iraq as their helicopter teams attacked Iraqi border posts near Jordan and Saudi Arabia. By 2006, as the war in Afghanistan ground on and the conflict in Iraq continued to morph into a raging set of insurgencies, 85% of U.S. commandos were being deployed to the Greater Middle East.
As this decade dawned in 2010, the numbers hadn’t changed appreciably: 81% of all special operators abroad were still in that region.
Eight years later, however, the situation is markedly different, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. Despite claims that the Islamic State has been defeated, the U.S. remains embroiled in wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Afghanistan and Yemen, yet only 54% of special operators deployed overseas were sent to the Greater Middle East in 2017. In fact, since 2006, deployments have been on the rise across the rest of the world. In Latin America, the figure crept up from 3% to 4.39%. In the Pacific region, from 7% to 7.99%. But the striking increases have been in Europe and Africa.
In 2006, just 3% of all commandos deployed overseas were operating in Europe. Last year, that number was just north of 16%. “Outside of Russia and Belarus we train with virtually every country in Europe either bilaterally or through various multinational events,” Major Michael Weisman, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, told TomDispatch.
“The persistent presence of U.S. SOF alongside our allies sends a clear message of U.S. commitment to our allies and the defense of our NATO alliance.” For the past two years, in fact, the U.S. has maintained a Special Operations contingent in almost every nation on Russia’s western border. As Special Operations Command chief General Raymond Thomas put it last year, “[W]e’ve had persistent presence in every country ― every NATO country and others on the border with Russia doing phenomenal things with our allies, helping them prepare for their threats.”
Africa, however, has seen the most significant increase in special ops deployments. In 2006, the figure for that continent was just 1%; as 2017 ended, it stood at 16.61%. In other words, more commandos are operating there than in any region except the Middle East. As I recently reported at Vice News, Special Operations forces were active in at least 33 nations across that continent last year.
The situation in one of those nations, Somalia, in many ways mirrors in microcosm the 16-plus years of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Not long after the 9/11 attacks, a senior Pentagon official suggested that the Afghan invasion might drive militants out of that country and into African nations. “Terrorists associated with al-Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” he said. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities.”
When pressed about actual transnational dangers, that official pointed to Somali militants, only to eventually admit that even the most extreme Islamists there “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” Similarly, when questioned about connections between Osama bin Laden’s core al-Qaeda group and African extremists, he offered only the most tenuous links, like bin Laden’s “salute” to Somali militants who killed U.S. troops during the infamous 1993 Black Hawk Down incident.