America Black Ops Wars in 134 Countries

(By Nick Turse)

They operate in the green glow of night vision in Southwest Asia and stalk through the jungles of South America.  They snatch men from their homes in the Maghreb and shoot it out with heavily armed militants in the Horn of Africa.  They feel the salty spray while skimming over the tops of waves from the turquoise Caribbean to the deep blue Pacific.  They conduct missions in the oppressive heat of Middle Eastern deserts and the deep freeze of Scandinavia.  All over the planet, the Obama administration is waging a secret war whose full extent has never been fully revealed — until now.

This presence — now, in nearly 70% of the world’s nations — provides new evidence of the size and scope of a secret war being waged from Latin America to the backlands of Afghanistan, from training missions with African allies to information operations launched in cyberspace. 

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, from their numbers to their budget.  Most telling, however, has been the exponential rise in special ops deployments globally.  This presence — now, in nearly 70% of the world’s nations — provides new evidence of the size and scope of a secret war being waged from Latin America to the backlands of Afghanistan, from training missions with African allies to information operations launched in cyberspace. 

In the waning days of the Bush presidency, 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, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120.  Today, that figure has risen higher still.

In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs.  This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection.  Conducted largely in the shadows by America’s most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.        

Growth Industry

Formally established in 1987, Special Operations Command has grown steadily in the post-9/11 era.   SOCOM is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 personnel in 2014, up from 33,000 in 2001.  Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as its baseline budget, $2.3 billion in 2001, hit $6.9 billion in 2013 ($10.4 billion, if you add in supplemental funding).  Personnel deployments abroad have skyrocketed, too, from 4,900 “man-years” in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013.

A recent investigation by TomDispatch, using open source government documents and news releases as well as press reports, found evidence that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world in 2012-2013.  For more than a month during the preparation of that article, however, SOCOM failed to provide accurate statistics on the total number of countries to which special operators — Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos, specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, and civil affairs personnel — were deployed.   “We don’t just keep it on hand,” SOCOM’s Bockholt explained in a telephone interview once the article had been filed.  “We have to go searching through stuff.  It takes a long time to do that.”  Hours later, just prior to publication, he provided an answer to a question I first asked in November of last year.  “SOF [Special Operations forces] were deployed to 134 countries” during fiscal year 2013, Bockholt explained in an email.

Globalized Special Ops

Last year, Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven explained his vision for special ops globalization.  In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:

“USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate…”

While that “presence” may be small, the reach and influence of those Special Operations forces are another matter.  The 12% jump in national deployments — from 120 to 134 — during McRaven’s tenure reflects his desire to put boots on the ground just about everywhere on Earth.  SOCOM will not name the nations involved, citing host nation sensitivities and the safety of American personnel, but the deployments we do know about shed at least some light on the full range of missions being carried out by America’s secret military.

Last April and May, for instance, Special Ops personnel took part in training exercises in Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.  In June, U.S. Navy SEALs joined Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, and other allied Mideast forces for irregular warfare simulations in Aqaba, Jordan.  The next month, Green Berets traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to carry out small unit tactical exercises with local forces.  In August, Green Berets conducted explosives training with Honduran sailors.  In September, according to media reports, U.S. Special Operations forces joined elite troops from the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia — as well as their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded coun­terterrorism exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java. 

In October, elite U.S. troops carried out commando raids in Libya and Somalia, kidnapping a terror suspect in the former nation while SEALs killed at least one militant in the latter before being driven off under fire.  In November, Special Ops troops conducted humanitarian operations in the Philippines to aid survivors of Typhoon Haiyan. The next month, members of the 352nd Special Operations Group conducted a training exercise involving approximately 130 airmen and six aircraft at an airbase in England and Navy SEALs were wounded while undertaking an evacuation mission in South Sudan.  Green Berets then rang in the new year with a January 1st combat mission alongside elite Afghan troops in Bahlozi village in Kandahar province.

Deployments in 134 countries, however, turn out not to be expansive enough for SOCOM. In November 2013, the command announced that it was seeking to identify industry partners who could, under SOCOM’s Trans Regional Web Initiative, potentially “develop new websites tailored to foreign audiences.”  These would join an existing global network of 10 propaganda websites, run by various combatant commands and made to look like legitimate news outlets, including, Sabahi which targets the Horn of Africa; an effort aimed at the Middle East known as; and another targeting Latin America called

SOCOM’s push into cyberspace is mirrored by a concerted effort of the command to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway.  “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. — from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” SOCOM chief Admiral McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center last year.  Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of departments and agencies where SOCOM is now entrenched at 38.

134 Chances for Blowback

Although elected in 2008 by many who saw him as an antiwar candidate, President Obama has proved to be a decidedly hawkish commander-in-chief whose policies have already produced notable instances of what in CIA trade-speak has long been called blowback.  While the Obama administration oversaw a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (negotiated by his predecessor), as well as a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (after a major military surge in that country), the president has presided over a ramping up of the U.S. military presence in Africa, a reinvigoration of efforts in Latin America, and tough talk about a rebalancing or “pivot to Asia” (even if it has amounted to little as of yet). 

The White House has also overseen an exponential expansion of America’s drone war.  While President Bush launched 51 such strikes, President Obama has presided over 330, according to research by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  Last year, alone, the U.S. also engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.  Recent revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden have demonstrated the tremendous breadth and global reach of U.S. electronic surveillance during the Obama years.  And deep in the shadows, Special Operations forces are now annually deployed to more than double the number of nations as at the end of Bush’s tenure.

In recent years, however, the unintended consequences of U.S. military operations have helped to sow outrage and discontent, setting whole regions aflame.  More than 10 years after America’s “mission accomplished” moment, seven years after its much vaunted surge, the Iraq that America helped make is in flames.  A country with no al-Qaeda presence before the U.S. invasion and a government opposed to America’s enemies in Tehran now has a central government aligned with Iran and two cities flying al-Qaeda flags.

A more recent U.S. military intervention to aid the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, saw a coup there carried out by a U.S.-trained officer, ultimately led to a bloody terror attack on an Algerian gas plant, and helped to unleash nothing short of a terror diaspora in the region. 

And today South Sudan — a nation the U.S. shepherded into being, has supported economically and militarily (despite its reliance on child soldiers), and has used as a hush-hush base for Special Operations forces — is being torn apart by violence and sliding toward civil war.

The Obama presidency has seen the U.S. military’s elite tactical forces increasingly used in an attempt to achieve strategic goals.  But with Special Operations missions kept under tight wraps, Americans have little understanding of where their troops are deployed, what exactly they are doing, or what the consequences might be down the road.  As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, has noted, the utilization of Special Operations forces during the Obama years has decreased military accountability, strengthened the “imperial presidency,” and set the stage for a war without end.  “In short,” he wrote at TomDispatch, “handing war to the special operators severs an already too tenuous link between war and politics; it becomes war for its own sake.”

Secret ops by secret forces have a nasty tendency to produce unintended, unforeseen, and completely disastrous consequences.  New Yorkers will remember well the end result of clandestine U.S. support for Islamic militants against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s: 9/11.  Strangely enough, those at the other primary attack site that day, the Pentagon, seem not to have learned the obvious lessons from this lethal blowback.  Even today in Afghanistan and Pakistan, more than 12 years after the U.S. invaded the former and almost 10 years after it began conducting covert attacks in the latter, the U.S. is still dealing with that Cold War-era fallout: with, for instance, CIA drones conducting missile strikes against an organization (the Haqqani network) that, in the 1980s, the Agency supplied with missiles.

Without a clear picture of where the military’s covert forces are operating and what they are doing, Americans may not even recognize the consequences of and blowback from our expanding secret wars as they wash over the world.  But if history is any guide, they will be felt — from Southwest Asia to the Mahgreb, the Middle East to Central Africa, and, perhaps eventually, in the United States as well. 

In his blueprint for the future, SOCOM 2020, Admiral McRaven has touted the globalization of U.S. special ops as a means to “project power, promote stability, and prevent conflict.”  Last year, SOCOM may have done just the opposite in 134 places.  

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, on the BBC and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback).  You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here

Copyright 2014 Nick Turse

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18 Responses

  1. “America Black Ops Wars in 134 Countries”

    The sensationalist headline of Mr. Turse’s piece notwithstanding, U.S. Special Operation Forces are not engaged in “Black Ops Wars in 134 countries.” In most cases, they are on training missions, working with local forces to train them up on techniques, as well as to establish a degree of interoperability should it be necessary in the future.

    Breathless statements such as the above simply serve to undermine the credibility of some of the observations made in the piece.

    • Bill,
      you are right, most of those engagements are “Partnership” exercises.
      But you are wrong when you allege such engagements are innocuous. They bolster whoever is in power.
      “Look, the US military has my back. Don’t mess with me.”

  2. I guess I’m out of step with the rest of the internet.

    When someone exaggerates his case beyond recognition and uses over-the-top language to draw eyeballs, it doesn’t make me want to negotiate with him down to the truth. It makes me want to reject his argument in his entirely – a habit that goes back to the Bush administration’s WMD case, if not before.

    “134 Chances for Blowback”

    From Finland? For training Central American navy personnel in explosives?

    • I’m somewhat out of step myself. Either that or I’m shifting towards conservatism in my old age. The country has a lot of problems and Obama is taking them on energetically. He’s showing a lot of bravery and endurance in standing up to the Israel lobby. He addressed one of the most egregious domestic issues, health care insurance. He’s doing a good job for us, why go looking under rocks?

      Also, I’m developing more appreciation for the US; with all of its many failings it is still a great country. What is really worrisome in myself is that I’ve started thinking a lot about that phrase uttered by the first President Bush, GHW, “I don’t care what the facts are, I will not apologize for the United States of America”

      • Speaking of honest conservatism, there is this from Carl Schurz, first German-born American senator: “The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”–My-Country-Right-or-Wrong Schurz, G_d bless him, was a Republican. Of course only the my-country-r-or-w bit is usually espoused. Another literary observation on the subject: “But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.” link to

        • “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

          this is exactly it, thank you for the reference JTMcPhee! I think where liberal criticism goes awry is when it comes close to characterizing the country as the great satan/the evil empire. Especially today when Obama (who I did not vote for btw) is fighting a close fight to bring in some of the cherished liberal ideals, I wish people on the same side would just back off for awhile.

          Also, my recent close engagement with Israeli politics and society has made me conscious — and proud — of how our country has already resolved some of the same problems facing Israel. The occupation of Palestine is easily equivalent to black apartheid practiced in America. And the BDS movement in the US while subject to harsh societal reaction is very unlikely to be made illegal. IOW, we rock! Not perfect but working on it.

  3. Dare one ask what the national interest is in insinuating the US military presence into pretty much every corner of the planet? Are the threats so immanent and/or imminent, or is this just a bad habit grown very large and expensive? And as with the NSA’s justification for mass peeping, are there actual non-secret incidents of success in improving our national and international security by this steady expansion of the military bootprint, in “training those other local forces up on (unspecified) techniques?” Since there is actually some history of blowback and de-stabilization and crushing of rights and suchlike from such involvements? Though one would of course want to argue down their significance, one by one, as an index of a questionable, expensive imperial approach to whatever it is we are supposed to be doing in the Global Interoperable Network-centric Battlespace.

  4. AUMF, and the War Powers act allows this, it reactivates the divine right of Kings.
    But if we didn’t have a standing military it couldn’t be used.
    Albright to Powell in 1993 “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

    Representative ABRAHAM LINCOLN, letter to William H. Herndon, February 15, 1848
    “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us” but he will say to you “be silent; I see it, if you dont.”

    The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.”

    James I to parliament, summary of the theory of divine right of Kingship, 1609 :
    “Kings are justly calls gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth; for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create or destroy, make war or unmake at his pleasure, to give life or send death, to judge all and to be judged nor accountable to none, to raise low things and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects, they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death, judges over all their subjects and in all causes and yet accountable to none but God only. They have power to exalt low things and abase high things, and make of their subjects, like men at the chess, — a pawn to take a bishop or a knight — and to cry up or down any of their subjects, as they do their money. And to the King is due both the affection of the soul and the service of the body of his subjects”
    link to
    America. Hijacked.

  5. Bill:

    “In most cases, they are on training missions, working with local forces to train them up on techniques, as well as to establish a degree of interoperability should it be necessary in the future.”

    JT: “Dare one ask what the national interest is in insinuating the US military presence into pretty much every corner of the planet? Are the threats so immanent and/or imminent, or is this just a bad habit grown very large and expensive?”

    Bill seems to presume that the U.S. is going to be in the business of micro-managing outcomes militarily in poor countries for the indeterminate future as if our natural default setting must be a form of out-back neoconservativism.

    JT questions whether the program is justified by our national interests, especially in light of the law of unanticipated consequences.

    For what it’s worth, like JT I think we should get out of the business. We’ve been getting it wrong since about 1945 at roughly a king’s ransom per incident. We’re nowhere near the country we would be if we had avoided that nonsense. Does anyone still remember the advisers Jack Kennedy sent to Vietnam? How did we handle the Patrice Lumumba matter? Why did we choose nation-building in Afghanistan? What could go wrong pretty much has gone wrong. And so far as I can see we’ve just amped-up the level of violence. And then there is the endless America-hatred that we now see all over the Middle East. If it is power we must have, the route to that is economic, not the sprinkling of tough guys and weapons and explosives all over the globe. It’s hard to imagine that we have CHOSEN to do it ever since 1945.

    I’m going to hang onto this view until someone explains why we’ve been doing it for nearly 70 years and quantifies its benefits. What we are right now is exhausted as a result.

    • ” If it is power we must have, the route to that is economic, not the sprinkling of tough guys and weapons and explosives all over the globe. It’s hard to imagine that we have CHOSEN to do it ever since 1945.”

      Hunter I agree I like calling this the “Reverse Project for the New American Century”

    • “Bill seems to presume that the U.S. is going to be in the business of micro-managing outcomes militarily in poor countries for the indeterminate future as if our natural default setting must be a form of out-back neoconservativism.”

      And you are presumptuously assuming something I didn’t write, Mr. Watson. My comment was simply to point out the absurdity of Mr. Turse’s over-the-top, exaggerated statement that U.S. Special Operations Forces are engaged in “Black Ops Wars in 134 Countries.” They are not. I meant nothing more and nothing less. That the vast majority of SOF troop deployments are for training purposes seems to have eluded Mr. Turse, and my comment was meant to point that out. We can have a discussion about when and where, or even if, SOF troops should be deployed, but your attempt to use my observation on Mr. Turse’s exaggeration to flog your own views (that have nothing to do with what I wrote) is not the way to do it.

  6. Nick is just plain wrong about the “pivot to Asia” not amounting to much yet.

    The best “open sources” on this subject are the ones affiliated with the MICC, where folks brag about things that appear inconsistent with our values and Constitution.

    how ’bout askin’ yer DOD contact how many Combat Infantryman Badges, Combat Action Badges, and Ruptured Ducks were awarded, exclusive of Afghanistan, in 2013.
    You won’t get that answer, but if you did, you’d be shocked.

    • I’m afraid it’s just the nature of the beast, Mahmood. Not “America” in particular but “the dominant world power”. Great Britain did the same thing at the height of the British Empire, as you probably well know.

    • Mahmood,

      We need the answers ourselves too. Whatever these policies consist of they are not understood by the American people generally.

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