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Obama's Expanding Covert Wars | The Nation

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Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill

Dispatches on wars, the military-industrial complex and national security.

Obama's Expanding Covert Wars

The Washington Post is reporting that the Obama administration has substantially expanded the role of US special operations forces across the globe as part of what the paper calls Washington's "secret war" against al Qaeda and other radical organizations. Obama, according to the paper, has increased the presence of special forces from 60 countries to 75 countries. US Special Forces, the paper reports, have about 4,000 people in countries besides Iraq and Afghanistan. "The Special Operations capabilities requested by the White House go beyond unilateral strikes and include the training of local counterterrorism forces and joint operations with them," according to the Post. "Plans exist for preemptive or retaliatory strikes in numerous places around the world, meant to be put into action when a plot has been identified, or after an attack linked to a specific group."

The expansion of special forces includes both traditional special forces, often used in training missions, and those known for carrying out covert and lethal, "direct actions." The Nation has learned from well-placed special operations sources that among the countries where elite special forces teams working for the Joint Special Operations Command have been deployed under the Obama administration are: Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Yemen, Pakistan (including in Balochistan) and the Philippines. These teams have also at times deployed in Turkey, Belgium, France and Spain. JSOC has also supported US Drug Enforcement Agency operations in Colombia and Mexico. The frontline for these forces at the moment, sources say, are Yemen and Somalia. "In both those places, there are ongoing unilateral actions," said a special operations source. "JSOC does a lot in Pakistan too." Additionally, these US special forces at times work alongside other nations' special operations forces in conducting missions in their home countries. A US special operations source described one such action where US forces teamed up with Georgian forces hunting Chechen rebels.

One senior military official told The Washington Post that the Obama administration has given the green light for "things that the previous administration did not." Special operations commanders, the paper reports, have more direct access to the White House than they did under Bush. "We have a lot more access," a military official told the paper. "They are talking publicly much less but they are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly."

According to the Post: "The clearest public description of the secret-war aspects of the doctrine came from White House counterterrorism director John O. Brennan. He said last week that the United States 'will not merely respond after the fact' of a terrorist attack but will 'take the fight to al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates whether they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.'"

Sources working with US special operations forces told The Nation that the Obama administration's expansion of special forces activities globally has been authorized under a classified order dating back to the Bush administration. Originally signed in early 2004 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it is known as the “AQN ExOrd," or Al Qaeda Network Execute Order. The AQN ExOrd was intended to cut through bureaucratic and legal processes, allowing US special forces to move into denied areas or countries beyond the official battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The ExOrd spells out that we reserve the right to unilaterally act against al Qaeda and its affiliates anywhere in the world that they operate," said one special forces source. The current mindset in the White House, he said, is that "the Pentagon is already empowered to do these things, so let JSOC off the leash. And that's what this White House has done." He added: "JSOC has been more empowered more under this administration than any other in recent history. No question."

The AQN ExOrd was drafted in 2003, primarily by the Special Operations Command and the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict and was promoted by neoconservative officials such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone as a justification for special forces operating covertly--and lethally--across the globe. Part of the order provides for what a source called "hot pursuit," similar to how some state police are permitted to cross borders into another state to pursue a suspect. "That's essentially what they have where they're chasing someone in Somalia and he moves over into Ethiopia or Eritrea, you can go after him," says the source.

"The Obama administration took the 2003 order and went above and beyond," says the special forces source. "The world is the battlefield, we've returned to that," he adds, referring to the Obama administration's strategy. "We were moving away from it for a little bit, but Cambone's 'preparing the battlefield' is still alive and well. It's embraced by this administration."

Under the Bush administration, JSOC and its then-commander Stanley McChrystal, were reportedly coordinating much of their activity with vice president Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Under the Obama administration, that relationship seems to have been more formalized with the administration as a whole. That's a change, as the Post notes, from the Bush era "when most briefings on potential future operations were run through the Pentagon chain of command and were conducted by the defense secretary or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." As a special operations source told The Nation, "It used to be the strategy was to insulate the president, now they directly interface with these people regularly."

Sources say that much of the most sensitive and lethal operations conducted by JSOC are carried out by Task Force 714, which was once commanded by Gen. McChrystal, the current commander of the war in Afghanistan. Under the Obama administration, according to sources, TF-714 has expanded and recently changed its classified name. The Task Force's budge has reportedly expanded 40% on the request of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and has added additional forces. "It was at Mullen's request and they can do more now," according to a special forces source. "You don't have to work out of the embassies, you don't have to play nice with [the State Department], you can just set up anywhere really."

While some of the special forces missions are centered around training of allied forces, often that line is blurred. In some cases, "training" is used as a cover for unilateral, direct action. "It's often done under the auspices of training so that they can go anywhere. It's brilliant. It is essentially what we did in the 60s," says a special forces source. "Remember the 'training mission' in Vietnam? That's how it morphs."

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