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A Failed Formula for Worldwide War

Posted on Oct 26, 2012
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By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

They looked like a gang of geriatric giants. Clad in smart casual attire—dress shirts, sweaters, and jeans—and incongruous blue hospital booties, they strode around “the world,” stopping to stroke their chins and ponder this or that potential crisis. Among them was General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a button-down shirt and jeans, without a medal or a ribbon in sight, his arms crossed, his gaze fixed. He had one foot planted firmly in Russia, the other partly in Kazakhstan, and yet the general hadn’t left the friendly confines of Virginia.

Several times this year, Dempsey, the other joint chiefs, and regional war-fighting commanders have assembled at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico to conduct a futuristic war-game-meets-academic-seminar about the needs of the military in 2017. There, a giant map of the world, larger than a basketball court, was laid out so the Pentagon’s top brass could shuffle around the planet—provided they wore those scuff-preventing shoe covers—as they thought about “potential U.S. national military vulnerabilities in future conflicts” (so one participant told the New York Times).  The sight of those generals with the world underfoot was a fitting image for Washington’s military ambitions, its penchant for foreign interventions, and its contempt for (non-U.S.) borders and national sovereignty.

A World So Much Larger Than a Basketball Court

In recent weeks, some of the possible fruits of Dempsey’s “strategic seminars,” military missions far from the confines of Quantico, have repeatedly popped up in the news.  Sometimes buried in a story, sometimes as the headline, the reports attest to the Pentagon’s penchant for globetrotting.   


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In September, for example, Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen, Jr., revealed that, just months after the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, a unit of Special Operations Forces had already been redeployed there in an advisory role and that negotiations were underway to arrange for larger numbers of troops to train Iraqi forces in the future.  That same month, the Obama administration won congressional approval to divert funds earmarked for counterterrorism aid for Pakistan to a new proxy project in Libya.  According to the New York Times, U.S. Special Operations Forces will likely be deployed to create and train a 500-man Libyan commando unit to battle Islamic militant groups which have become increasingly powerful as a result of the 2011 U.S.-aided revolution there. 

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the U.S. military had secretly sent a new task force to Jordan to assist local troops in responding to the civil war in neighboring Syria.  Only days later, that paper revealed that recent U.S. efforts to train and assist surrogate forces for Honduras’s drug war were already crumbling amid a spiral of questions about the deaths of innocents, violations of international law, and suspected human rights abuses by Honduran allies. 

Shortly after that, the Times reported the bleak, if hardly surprising, news that the proxy army the U.S. has spent more than a decade building in Afghanistan is, according to officials, “so plagued with desertions and low re-enlistment rates that it has to replace a third of its entire force every year.”  Rumors now regularly bubble up about a possible U.S.-funded proxy war on the horizon in Northern Mali where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have taken over vast stretches of territory—yet another direct result of last year’s intervention in Libya.

And these were just the offshore efforts that made it into the news.  Many other U.S. military actions abroad remain largely below the radar.  Several weeks ago, for instance, U.S. personnel were quietly deployed to Burundi to carry out training efforts in that small, landlocked, desperately poor East African nation.  Another contingent of U.S. Army and Air Force trainers headed to the similarly landlocked and poor West African nation of Burkina Faso to instruct indigenous forces. 

At Camp Arifjan, an American base in Kuwait, U.S. and local troops donned gas masks and protective suits to conduct joint chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear training.  In Guatemala, 200 Marines from Detachment Martillo completed a months-long deployment to assist indigenous naval forces and law enforcement agencies in drug interdiction efforts. 

Across the globe, in the forbidding tropical forests of the Philippines, Marines joined elite Filipino troops to train for combat operations in jungle environments and to help enhance their skills as snipers.  Marines from both nations also leapt from airplanes, 10,000 feet above the island archipelago, in an effort to further the “interoperability” of their forces.  Meanwhile, in the Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste, Marines trained embassy guards and military police in crippling “compliance techniques” like pain holds and pressure point manipulation, as well as soldiers in jungle warfare as part of Exercise Crocodilo 2012.

The idea behind Dempsey’s “strategic seminars” was to plan for the future, to figure out how to properly respond to developments in far-flung corners of the globe.  And in the real world, U.S. forces are regularly putting preemptive pins in that giant map—from Africa to Asia, Latin America to the Middle East. On the surface, global engagement, training missions, and joint operations appear rational enough.  And Dempsey’s big picture planning seems like a sensible way to think through solutions to future national security threats.

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