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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 4:28 PM EDT

The Arc of History

Just after President Obama came into office in 2009, then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Drawing special attention to the arc of instability, he summed up the global situation this way: "The large region from the Middle East to South Asia is the locus for many of the challenges facing the United States in the twenty-first century." Since then, as with the Bush-identified phrase "global war on terror," the Obama administration and the US military have largely avoided using "arc of instability," preferring to refer to it using far vaguer formulations.

During a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association's annual Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Symposium earlier this year, for example, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, then the chief of US Special Operations Command, pointed toward a composite satellite image of the world at night. Before September 11, 2001, said Olson, the lit portion of the planet—the industrialized nations of the global north—were considered the key areas. Since then, he told the audience, 51 countries, almost all of them in the arc of instability, have taken precedence. "Our strategic focus," he said, "has shifted largely to the south... certainly within the special operations community, as we deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren't."

More recently, in remarks at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., John O. Brennan, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, outlined the president's new National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which highlighted carrying out missions in the "Pakistan-Afghanistan region" and "a focus on specific regions, including what we might call the periphery—places like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and the Maghreb [northern Africa]."

"This does not," Brennan insisted, "require a ‘global' war"—and indeed, despite the Bush-era terminology, it never has. While, for instance, planning for the 9/11 attacks took place in Germany and would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid hailed from the United Kingdom, advanced, majority-white Western nations have never been American targets. The "arc" has never arced out of the global south, whose countries are assumed to be fundamentally unstable by nature and their problems fixable through military intervention.

 

Building Instability

A decade's evidence has made it clear that US operations in the arc of instability are destabilizing. For years, to take one example, Washington has wielded military aid, military actions, and diplomatic pressure in such a way as to undermine the government of Pakistan, promote factionalism within its military and intelligence services, and stoke anti-American sentiment to remarkable levels among the country's population. (According to a recent survey, just 12 percent of Pakistanis have a positive view of the United States.)

A semi-secret drone war in that nation's tribal borderlands, involving hundreds of missile strikes and significant, if unknown levels, of civilian casualties, has been only the most polarizing of Washington's many ham-handed efforts. When it comes to that CIA-run effort, a recent Pew survey of Pakistanis found that 97 percent of respondents viewed it negatively, a figure almost impossible to achieve in any sort of polling.

In Yemen, long-time support—in the form of aid, military training, and weapons, as well as periodic air or drone strikes—for dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh led to a special relationship between the US and elite Yemeni forces led by Saleh's relatives. This year, those units have been instrumental in cracking down on the freedom struggle there, killing protesters and arresting dissenting officers who refused orders to open fire on civilians. It's hardly surprising that, even before Yemen slid into a leaderless void (after Saleh was wounded in an assassination attempt), a survey of Yemenis found—again a jaw-dropping polling figure—99 percent of respondents viewed the US government's relations with the Islamic world unfavorably, while just 4 percent "somewhat" or "strongly approved" of Saleh's cooperation with Washington.

Instead of pulling back from operations in Yemen, however, the US has doubled down. The CIA, with support from Saudi Arabia's intelligence service, has been running local agents as well as a lethal drone campaign aimed at Islamic militants. The US military has been carrying out its own air strikes, as well as sending in more trainers to work with indigenous forces, while American black ops teams launch lethal missions, often alongside Yemeni allies.

These efforts have set the stage for further ill-will, political instability, and possible blowback. Just last year, a US drone strike accidentally killed Jabr al-Shabwani, the son of strongman Sheikh Ali al-Shabwani. In an act of revenge, Ali repeatedly attacked of one of Yemen's largest oil pipelines, resulting in billions of dollars in lost revenue for the Yemeni government, and demanded Saleh stop cooperating with the US strikes.

Earlier this year, in Egypt and Tunisia, long-time US efforts to promote what it liked to call "regional stability"—through military alliances, aid, training, and weaponry—collapsed in the face of popular movements against the US-supported dictators ruling those nations. Similarly, in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, popular protests erupted against authoritarian regimes partnered with and armed courtesy of the US military. It's hardly surprising that, when asked in a recent survey whether President Obama had met the expectations created by his 2009 speech in Cairo, where he called for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," only 4 percent of Egyptians answered yes. (The same poll found only 6 percent of Jordanians thought so and just 1 percent of Lebanese.)

A recent Zogby poll of respondents in six Arab countries—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—found that, taking over from a president who had propelled anti-Americanism in the Muslim world to an all-time high, Obama managed to drive such attitudes even higher. Substantial majorities of Arabs in every country now view the US as not contributing "to peace and stability in the Arab World."

 

Increasing Instability Across the Globe

US interference in the arc of instability is certainly nothing new. Leaving aside current wars, over the last century, the United States has engaged in military interventions in the global south in Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Egypt, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, the Philippines, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Somalia, Thailand, and Vietnam, among other places. The CIA has waged covert campaigns in many of the same countries, as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, and Syria, to name just a few.

Like George W. Bush before him, Barack Obama evidently looks out on the "unlit world" and sees a source of global volatility and danger for the United States. His answer has been to deploy US military might to blunt instability, shore up allies, and protect American lives.

Despite the salient lesson of 9/11-- interventions abroad beget blowback at home—he has waged wars in response to blowback that have, in turn, generated more of the same. A recent Rasmussen poll indicates that most Americans differ with the president when it comes to his idea of how the US should be involved abroad. Seventy-five percent of voters, for example, agreed with this proposition in a recent poll: "The United States should not commit its forces to military action overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest." In addition, clear majorities of Americans are against defending Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and a host of other arc of instability countries, even if they are attacked by outside powers.

After decades of overt and covert US interventions in arc states, including the last 10 years of constant warfare, most are still poor, underdeveloped, and seemingly even more unstable. This year, in their annual failed state index—a ranking of the most volatile nations on the planet—Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace placed the two arc nations that have seen the largest military interventions by the US—Iraq and Afghanistan—in their top ten. Pakistan and Yemen ranked 12th and 13th, respectively, while Somalia—the site of US interventions under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, during the Bush presidency in the 2000s, and again under Obama—had the dubious honor of being number one.

For all the discussions here about (armed) "nation-building efforts" in the region, what we've clearly witnessed is a decade of nation unbuilding that ended only when the peoples of various Arab lands took their futures into their own hands and their bodies out into the streets. As recent polling in arc nations indicates, people of the global south see the United States as promoting or sustaining, not preventing, instability, and objective measures bear out their claims. The fact that numerous popular uprisings opposing authoritarian rulers allied with the US have proliferated this year provides the strongest evidence yet of that.

With Americans balking at defending arc-of-instability nations, with clear indications that military interventions don't promote stability, and with a budget crisis of epic proportions at home, it remains to be seen what pretexts the Obama administration will rely on to continue a failed policy—one that seems certain to make the world more volatile and put American citizens at greater risk.

Nick Turse is a historian, investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and a senior editor at Alternet.org. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. This article is a collaboration between Alternet.org and TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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