- Nick Tursefellow at The Nation Institute and the managing editor of TomDispatch.com. His most recent book is Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.
As President Obama deploys special operation forces to Syria, breaking his pledge not to put U.S. troops on the ground, we continue our conversation with journalist Nick Turse, who has been tracking the expansion of global U.S. militarism for the website TomDispatch and The Intercept. Turse also discusses his new book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. “Africa Command claims they only have one base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” Turse says. “Within a 10-mile radius there is actually another base.” Watch Part 1 of this interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Part 2 of our conversation with journalist Nick Turse about his new book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Nick Turse is a fellow at The Nation Institute and managing editor of TomDispatch.com. But because this is a presidential year, I want to bring in some presidential politics. We want to turn to Ben Carson, comments made by the Republican presidential hopeful, the retired neurosurgeon, earlier this week during the Republican presidential debate. He was asked a question by Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo about Obama’s decision to send special operations forces to Syria.
MARIA BARTIROMO: Dr. Carson, you were against putting troops on the ground in Iraq and against a large military force in Afghanistan. Do you support the president’s decision to now put 50 special ops forces in Syria and leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan?
DR. BEN CARSON: Well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them there, because they—that’s why they’re called special ops. They’re actually able to guide some of the other things that we’re doing there.
And what we have to recognize is that Putin is trying to really spread his influence throughout the Middle East. This is going to be his base. And we have to oppose him there in an effective way. We also must recognize that it’s a very complex place. You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there.
What we’ve been doing so far is very ineffective, but we can’t give up ground right there. But we have to look at this on a much more global scale. We’re talking about global jihadists. And their desire is to destroy us and to destroy our way of life. So we have to be saying, “How do we make them look like losers?” Because that’s the way that they’re able to gather a lot of influence. And I think in order to make them look like losers, we have to destroy their caliphate. And you look for the easiest place to do that? It would be in Iraq. And if—outside of Anbar in Iraq, there’s a big energy field. Take that from them. Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I’ve learned from talking to several generals. And then you move on from there. But you have to continue to face them, because our goal is not to contain them, but to destroy them before they destroy us.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Ben Carson in the recent Republican presidential debate. A number of issues to address there, Nick Turse.
NICK TURSE: Yeah, it’s a—where to start? You know, Dr. Carson claims his own intelligence says that the Chinese are there. There really isn’t any evidence to that effect. He also has the opinion that—I think that many Americans have, that special operations forces are, in some ways, supermen. And we’ve seen this, you know, in mass media over the years, where SEAL Team 6 is lionized. They’re seen as, you know, so capable that just a small number of them placed anywhere in the world can turn the tide. You know, I won’t argue that they aren’t very skilled at what they do. What they haven’t been very skilled at is actually setting the stage for strategic victories. You know, the special operations forces carried out extremely large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These were the hunting grounds of Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, the forces that kick down doors in the middle of the night, conduct night raids. They conducted extensive operations in both countries, but, you know, as we can plainly see, it certainly wasn’t enough to stabilize these countries in any way. Special ops is exceptionally limited. They can do a lot of things tactically, but it doesn’t translate into strategic results.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece for TomDispatch, “Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Special Ops 'Successes,'” and Tom Engelhardt wrote an introduction to your piece, where he said, “If journalism was once considered the first rough draft of history, now, when it comes to American military policy at least, it’s often the first rough pass at writing a script for 'The Daily Show.' Take, for example, a little inside-the-paper piece that Eric Schmitt of the New York Times penned recently with this headline: 'New Role for General After Failure of Syria Rebel Plan.' And here’s the first paragraph:”—this is in The New York Times.
“The Army general in charge of the Pentagon’s failed $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels is leaving his job in the next few weeks, but is likely to be promoted and assigned a senior counterterrorism position here, American officials said on Monday.”
That’s from the Times. And Tom writes, “Yes, you read that right. Major General Michael Nagata is indeed 'likely to be promoted.' He remains, according to Schmitt, one of 'the Army's rising stars’ and is [quote] 'in line to be awarded a third star, to lieutenant general, and take a senior position at the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington.' Oh, and one of the reasons for his possible upcoming promotion, other than having overseen a program to produce 15,000 American-backed 'moderate' Syrian rebels ready to fight the Islamic State that actually only produced a handful of them who fought no one, is according to 'colleagues' his 'bureaucratic acumen in counterterrorism jobs at the C.I.A. and the Pentagon.'”
Nick Turse, your response?
NICK TURSE: Well, you can’t make this stuff up. I mean, there’s a great tradition in the military of failing upwards. And I think you’ve seen it again and again during the global war on terror. You know, commanders who have overseen, at best, campaigns with checkered results have again and again been promoted to senior positions. You know, this has been endemic of these wars, I think, because we haven’t seen any victories in them. But if you can, you know, fight it out at the Pentagon, if you can win the bureaucratic wars, there’s really the only way to go: up.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened in Syria with the training of these rebels.
NICK TURSE: Well, this was another of the special operations forces’ training efforts around the world. This is generally what they do everywhere. And they were tasked to train, quote-unquote, “moderate” Syrian rebels. This was a program worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And it was supposed to produce 5,000 vetted rebels this year and then thousands more in the years to come. They had to fold up this program and just abandon it this year, because while they were supposed to have 5,000, there were really five to 10 rebels that were actually on the ground that hadn’t been—
AMY GOODMAN: Number five, like one hand.
NICK TURSE: Yes, you can count them on one hand. Those that were set down and just sent off into Syria were captured or killed immediately. Then a second batch was sent in, and they’ve promptly turned over their weapons and gear to the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group that operates in Syria. This is—again, it’s been endemic to special ops training programs that we’ve seen elsewhere around the world—Iraq, Afghanistan. You know, they’ve gone in, they tried to create proxy forces, but they’ve crashed and burned again and again.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick Turse, you have a chapter in your book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, that is—its header, “An East-West Showdown: China, America, and a New Cold War in Africa.” Explain.
NICK TURSE: Well, if you travel anywhere on the African continent, you’ll see that the Chinese have moved in, in a very big way, over the last decade. They’ve pursued a campaign of economic engagement across the continent, and very, very public projects. Everywhere you go, they’re building an airport, they’re building roads, they’re putting up government facilities—tangible projects that Africans can see. This is the strategy they’ve pursued to gain influence in Africa. The U.S. has gone a different route. They’ve pursued an antiterror whack-a-mole strategy, where they send small teams around the continent, they send drones. They try to tamp down terror groups and seem to only spread them around. They’ve also pumped in tremendous amounts of money, but this is to bolster African militaries with rather dubious human rights records.
AMY GOODMAN: Give us examples.
NICK TURSE: Well, you know, you can see this in Kenya. They’ve put a lot of money into training Kenyan force to act as a proxy in Somalia. But this—one, they haven’t been very successful in tamping down violence. Actually, it’s spread the violence into Kenya now. And the Kenyans have been seen by many groups as being exceptionally corrupt, conducting smuggling around the region, and also—you know, they’ve also committed human rights abuses. So—and the same thing has been seen elsewhere in Africa. Chad, we’ve pumped a lot of money into using the Chadians as proxy forces. But if you look at how Chad’s troops have operated abroad—you know, we backed Chad to go into Central African Republic, and they committed a massacre there, machine-gunned a marketplace filled with civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: And why did the U.S. back them?
NICK TURSE: Well, I think that the U.S. doesn’t want to put large numbers of its own forces on the ground, because of what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. They want to fight wars on the cheap. They want to limit American casualties. But the proxies to choose from in Africa are troubling.
AMY GOODMAN: You share some startling figures. Since 2007, the U.S. has operated AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command. U.S. generals have maintained AFRICOM leaves only a “small footprint” on the continent, with just an official base in Djibouti. But you say the U.S. military is now involved in more than 90 percent of Africa’s 54 nations. The U.S. presence includes, you say, “construction, military exercises, advisory assignments, security cooperation, or training missions.” But AFRICOM, you write, carried out 674 missions across the African continent last year—an average of nearly two a day, a 300 percent jump from previous years. Can you explain why these operations have expanded exponentially under President Obama?
NICK TURSE: Well, you know, I think Africa has been seen as a place of ungoverned spaces, a place that’s prone to terror. It’s ironic because when a senior Pentagon official was asked after 9/11 about the presence of transnational terror groups on the continent, he wasn’t able to come up with any. The best he could come up with was that militants in Somalia had saluted Osama bin Laden. That was the extent of it. They hadn’t actually attacked anywhere outside of Somalia. They had local grievances, and they were contained. But the U.S. got into its head that Africa was a place that could be a heartland for terrorism, so it pumped in a tremendous amount of money, sent in forces, conducted all these training operations, set up small bases around the continent—all of it to shore up the continent against terror. Instead, you look anywhere on the continent today, and you see a proliferation of terror groups—ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al-Mourabitoun, Ansaru, over and over. The Pentagon won’t name all the groups that it sees as threats, but it’s somewhere around 50 that it claims are groups on the continent that are opposed to U.S. interests. They’ve just proliferated in all—in these years.
AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama’s most recent trip to Africa, to the country where his father was born, to Kenya, and to Ethiopia? He also addressed the African Union.
NICK TURSE: Well, you know, I think this has been a focus area for President Obama. I think Africa was a place where he wanted to try and make inroads. You know, another country that he didn’t visit—for good reason—was South Sudan. This was a nation-building project for the United States, its one nation-building effort in Africa. The Obama administration was—followed up on the Bush administration in pushing this breakaway portion of Sudan to become its own independent country, and put a lot of money, time and effort into South Sudan. And then it, you know, exploded into civil war in 2013. This was supposed to be a great American success story, something the Obama administration had pushed as a model for what the United States can do. Now, I think the U.S. has really lost out to China there, in many ways. Somehow, the Chinese have enabled, through the U.N., an infantry battalion of their own to be put into South Sudan to guard the oil fields there. The Chinese have great oil interests in South Sudan. And the United States, because it pays for U.N. troops, peacekeepers around the world, is in effect paying Chinese troops to guard Chinese oil interests in South Sudan.
AMY GOODMAN: Your afterword is “Finding Barack Obama in South Sudan.” You went there.
NICK TURSE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe this afterword.
NICK TURSE: Yes, you know, I happened to be in a camp, a U.N. camp for internally displaced people in South Sudan. And, you know, I came across a young boy there who was wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt, and it said “Obama, my dream.” And I asked him about his dream. And at one time he had dreams of maybe being a president, like Barack Obama, about getting a good education. Now he was stranded at a U.N. base, unable to go back home because the military that we had funded and trained in South Sudan had attacked his people, had killed his uncle, had driven tens of thousands of people in South Sudan into what at the time and even today are, in effect, open-air prisons. People are too afraid to go back home. And this is because of the government that we supported for years.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, you reveal so much in Tomorrow’s Battlefield and your writing on Africa. What does the U.S. government actually admit? And what is it that you exposed, both in the book and also, for example, in your piece as part of the big “Drone Paper” project at The Intercept?
NICK TURSE: Well, U.S. Africa Command admits very little. You know, that was the reason why I wrote this book. I wasn’t intending on spending years covering the U.S. in Africa. Basically, I noticed that there were some things going on that told me there was an expansion underway. I saw that the U.S. was putting in a logistics network in Africa a few years ago. And I knew that there’s only one reason for this. You don’t create a network of sea and land routes to transport goods, unless you plan on building bases and putting people there. But when I asked Africa Command what was going on, all they told me was about a very light footprint, almost nothing was happening. And I knew it wasn’t the case. You know, if they had told me anything resembling reality, I think I would have written one piece and moved on. But I knew they were trying to spin me, I knew they weren’t being upfront and honest, so I decided to dig into it. And what I found is something far beyond anything you would find on AFRICOM’s website. They talk about a few humanitarian projects, building schools, donating shoes to orphans, this type of thing. But really, we’re seeing a massive expansion in the form of bases, drone warfare, special ops.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about that? I know you have a forthcoming piece at TomDispatch on this.
NICK TURSE: Yes. You know, Africa Command claims, again, they only have one base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Within a 10-mile radius of Camp Lemonnier, there’s actually another base, Chabelley Airfield, where they run all drone operations out of. So, it’s not even true for that one country. I don’t want to steal all my thunder from the piece; it’ll be out at TomDispatch this week, but I can tell you that there are scores of bases on the continent. It’s upwards of 50 U.S. outposts, bases, access sites, spread all across Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you even explain the history of AFRICOM, the fact—how difficult it was to get AFRICOM actually based in Africa?
NICK TURSE: Yeah, you know, for a few years after 9/11, there was a push to have a greater U.S. presence in Africa, and the U.S. looked around for a country that would host its base. And eventually, you know, it looked from top to bottom, east to west in Africa, and decided on Germany. It was because there were no African countries that wanted to own up to having a major U.S. command there. And I think this is one of the reasons why they keep things under wrap. Once in a while, speaking off the cuff, a commander will note that there’s a great resistance to colonialism in Africa, that there is this history of colonialism, so the U.S. wants to maintain the appearances of being lightly engaged on the continent. And I think that if African people knew the extent to which the United States operated there, it might cause real problems.
AMY GOODMAN: You have a piece, “American Monuments to Failure in Africa? How Not to Win Hearts and Minds.”
NICK TURSE: I got a hold of a classified report that was done by a inspector general, taking a look at these humanitarian projects, the only things that Africa Command will really talk about. They say that they’re great successes. The inspector general said otherwise. They looked around and saw, you know, projects that—where the U.S. hadn’t done follow-ups. They hadn’t checked with the community beforehand to see what people needed. They built water well projects that weren’t suited to the community. People didn’t know how to maintain them in any way. They weren’t given any guidance. And within a couple years, these were crumbling. And that quote there, “monuments to failure,” was one of—a U.S. official on the continent saying that he was very afraid that all these projects would, within a couple years, become failures, and they would stand as monuments to U.S. failure on the continent.
AMY GOODMAN: Nick Turse is a fellow at The Nation Institute, managing editor of TomDispatch.com. His most recent book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. And we’ll link to his articles right here at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.