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The US Has Special Operations Forces in How Many Countries?

The Bush administration had special operations forces in 60 countries. Today, that number is 75—and it's rising.

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 3:28 PM EDT
US Army soldiers conduct a patrol through the village of Kowtalay in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

It's a story that should take your breath away: the destabilization of what, in the Bush years, used to be called "the arc of instability." It involves at least 97 countries, across the bulk of the global south, much of it coinciding with the oil heartlands of the planet. A startling number of these nations are now in turmoil, and in every single one of them—from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zambia —Washington is militarily involved, overtly or covertly, in outright war or what passes for peace.

Garrisoning the planet is just part of it. The Pentagon and US intelligence services are also running covert special forces and spy operations, launching drone attacks, building bases and secret prisons, training, arming, and funding local security forces, and engaging in a host of other militarized activities right up to full-scale war. But while you consider this, keep one fact in mind: the odds are that there is no longer a single nation in the arc of instability in which the United States is in no way militarily involved.

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Covenant of the Arc

"Freedom is on the march in the broader Middle East," the president said in his speech. "The hope of liberty now reaches from Kabul to Baghdad to Beirut and beyond. Slowly but surely, we're helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom."

An arc of freedom. You could be forgiven if you thought that this was an excerpt from President Barack Obama's Arab Spring speech, where he said "[I]t will be the policy of the United States to… support transitions to democracy." Those were, however, the words of his predecessor George W. Bush. The giveaway is that phrase "arc of instability," a core rhetorical concept of the former president's global vision and that of his neoconservative supporters.

The dream of the Bush years was to militarily dominate that arc, which largely coincided with the area from North Africa to the Chinese border, also known as the Greater Middle East, but sometimes was said to stretch from Latin America to Southeast Asia. While the phrase has been dropped in the Obama years, when it comes to projecting military power President Obama is in the process of trumping his predecessor.

In addition to waging more wars in "arc" nations, Obama has overseen the deployment of greater numbers of special operations forces to the region, has transferred or brokered the sale of substantial quantities of weapons there, while continuing to build and expand military bases at a torrid rate, as well as training and supplying large numbers of indigenous forces. Pentagon documents and open source information indicate that there is not a single country in that arc in which US military and intelligence agencies are not now active. This raises questions about just how crucial the American role has been in the region's increasing volatility and destabilization.

 

Flooding the Arc

Given the centrality of the arc of instability to Bush administration thinking, it was hardly surprising that it launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and carried out limited strikes in three other arc states—Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. Nor should anyone have been shocked that it also deployed elite military forces and special operators from the Central Intelligence Agency elsewhere within the arc.

In his book The One Percent Doctrine, journalist Ron Suskind reported on CIA plans, unveiled in September 2001 and known as the "Worldwide Attack Matrix," for "detailed operations against terrorists in 80 countries." At about the same time, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed that the nation had embarked on "a large multi-headed effort that probably spans 60 countries." By the end of the Bush years, the Pentagon would indeed have special operations forces deployed in 60 countries around the world.

It has been the Obama administration, however, that has embraced the concept far more fully and engaged the region even more broadly. Last year, the Washington Post reported that US had deployed special operations forces in 75 countries, from South America to Central Asia. Recently, however, US Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me that on any given day, America's elite troops are working in about 70 countries, and that its country total by year's end would be around 120. These forces are engaged in a host of missions, from Army Rangers involved in conventional combat in Afghanistan to the team of Navy SEALs who assassinated Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, to trainers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines within US Special Operations Command working globally from the Dominican Republic to Yemen.

The United States is now involved in wars in six arc-of-instability nations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. It has military personnel deployed in other arc states, including Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Of these countries, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all host US military bases, while the CIA is reportedly building a secret base somewhere in the region for use in its expanded drone wars in Yemen and Somalia. It is also using already existing facilities in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates for the same purposes, and operating a clandestine base in Somalia where it runs indigenous agents and carries out counterterrorism training for local partners.

In addition to its own military efforts, the Obama administration has also arranged for the sale of weaponry to regimes in arc states across the Middle East, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It has been indoctrinating and schooling indigenous military partners through the State Department's and Pentagon's International Military Education and Training program. Last year, it provided training to more than 7,000 students from 130 countries. "The emphasis is on the Middle East and Africa because we know that terrorism will grow, and we know that vulnerable countries are the most targeted," Kay Judkins, the program's policy manager, recently told the American Forces Press Service.

According to Pentagon documents released earlier this year, the US has personnel—some in token numbers, some in more sizeable contingents—deployed in 76 other nations sometimes counted in the arc of instability: Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Syria, Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

While arrests of 30 members of an alleged CIA spy ring in Iran earlier this year may be, like earlier incarcerations of supposed American "spies", pure theater for internal consumption or international bargaining, there is little doubt that the US is conducting covert operations there, too. Last year, reports surfaced that US black ops teams had been authorized to run missions inside that country, and spies and local proxies are almost certainly at work there as well. Just recently, the Wall Street Journal revealed a series of "secret operations on the Iran-Iraq border" by the US military and a coming CIA campaign of covert operations aimed at halting the smuggling of Iranian arms into Iraq.

All of this suggests that there may, in fact, not be a single nation within the arc of instability, however defined, in which the United States is without a base or military or intelligence personnel, or where it is not running agents, sending weapons, conducting covert operations—or at war.

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