The decade of war to come

War, in the form of proxies, drones and special ops, has accelerated around the globe under the Obama administration.

A Pakistani tribesman shows a photograph
Remotely piloted drone aircraft have reduced troops' exposure to danger, but have reportedly resulted in the deaths of many innocent people [AFP]

New York, NY –
“In operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, a failure to recognise, acknowledge and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions and goals,” reads a new draft report by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

In Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations, the authors admit to failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and lay out a series of lessons for the future, including more effective efforts aimed at winning hearts and minds, integrating regular troops and special operations forces, coordination with other government agencies, coalition operations, partnering with the forces of host-nations and paying greater attention to the use of proxy forces.

The report has created a buzz in military circles and has been hailed as offering new insights, but the move away from ruinous large-scale land wars to a new hybrid method of war-fighting, call it “the Obama formula”, has been evident for some time. For the past several years, the US has increasingly turned to special operations forces working not only on their own but also training or fighting beside allied militaries (if not outright proxy armies) in hot spots around the world. 

Fault Lines – Robot wars

And along with those special ops advisers, trainers and commandos, ever more resources are flowing into the militarisation of spying and intelligence, the use of drone aircraft is proliferating, cyber-warfare is on the rise, as are joint operations between the military and increasingly militarised “civilian” government agencies.

The Obama administration has, in fact, doubled down again and again on this new way of war – from Africa to the Greater Middle East to South America – but what looks today like a recipe for easy power projection that will further US interests on the cheap could soon prove to be an unmitigated disaster – one that likely won’t be apparent until it’s too late. 

The US war in Pakistan is a veritable poster-child for the Obama formula. Beginning as a limited drone assassination campaign backed by limited cross-border commando raids under the Bush administration, US operations in Pakistan have expanded into something close to a full-scale robotic air war, complemented by cross-border helicopter attacks, CIA-funded “kill teams” of Afghan proxy forces, as well as boots-on-the-ground missions by elite special operations forces, including the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. 

Accelerating under Obama

The CIA has conducted clandestine intelligence and surveillance missions in Pakistan, too, though its future role may be less important, thanks to Pentagon mission-creep. In April, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new CIA-like espionage agency within the Pentagon named the Defence Clandestine Service (DCS). According to the Washington Post, its aim is to expand “the military’s espionage efforts beyond war zones”. Pakistan is a probable candidate for future deployment of DCS operatives. Africa is also likely to see an influx of Pentagon spies in the coming years.  

Interestingly, Decade of War devotes space to decrying the use of proxies by adversaries and suggests that the Pentagon team with State Department diplomats and US spies to break up sponsor/proxy relationships and disrupt financing networks. As the report puts it, the military must “oppose proxies and surrogates through a global campaign that combines direct action and law enforcement with indirect approaches that address the factors that fuel support for terrorism”. Proxies are, however, also a linchpin of the Obama administration’s formula – most especially when it comes to operations in Africa.

The Obama administration has been ramping up operations south of the border using [drones].

Under President Obama, operations on the continent have accelerated far beyond the limited interventions of the Bush years:

  • Last year’s war in Libya;
  • A regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles;
  • A flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, secret prisons, helicopter attacks, and US commando raids;
  • Amassive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa;
  • A possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft;
  • Tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries and African troops;
  • A special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders, operating in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic (where US Special Forces now have a new base);
  • And a mission by elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) to train soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defense Force, which supplies the majority of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s fast-expanding activities in the region

The US is also ramping up missions in its near abroad. Since its founding, the United States has often intervened throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. During the Bush years, with some notable exceptions, Washington’s interest in America’s “backyard” took a backseat to wars farther from home. Recently, however, the Obama administration has been ramping up operations south of the border using its new formula. This has meant Pentagon drone missions deep inside Mexico to aid that country’s battle against the drug cartels, while CIA agents and civilian operatives from the Department of Defence were dispatched to Mexican military bases to take part in the country’s drug war. 

In 2012, the Pentagon has also ramped up its anti-drug operations in Honduras. US forces have taken part in joint operations with Honduran troops as part of a training mission dubbed Beyond the Horizon 2012; Green Berets have been assisting Honduran Special Operations forces in anti-smuggling operations; and a Drug Enforcement Administration Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, originally created to disrupt the poppy trade in Afghanistan, has joined forces with Honduras’ Tactical Response Team, that country’s most elite counternarcotics unit. A glimpse of these operations made the news recently when DEA agents, flying in a US helicopter, were involved in an aerial attack on civilians that killed two men and two pregnant women in the remote Mosquito Coast region.

No withdrawal from the Middle East

Despite the end of the Iraq and Libyan wars, a coming drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and copious public announcements about its national security pivot toward Asia, Washington is by no means withdrawing from the Greater Middle East. In addition to continuing operations in Afghanistan, the US has consistently been at work training allied troops, building up military bases and brokering weapons sales and arms transfers to despots in the region from Bahrain to Yemen.

“[Cyberwar efforts] were begun under the Bush administrtion but significantly accelerated under the current presdent, who became the first American commander-in-chief to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s infrastructure.

In fact, Yemen, like its neighbour, Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden, has become a laboratory for Obama’s wars. There, the US is carrying out its signature new brand of warfare with “black ops” troops like the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force probably conducting kill/capture missions, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous troops, and robot planes hunt and kill members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, possibly assisted by an even more secret contingent of manned aircraft.

The Middle East has also become the somewhat unlikely poster-region for another emerging facet of the Obama doctrine: cyberwar efforts. The recently revealed “Olympic Games”, a program of sophisticated attacks on computers in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities engineered and unleashed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Unit 8200, Israel’s equivalent of the NSA. As with other facets of the new way of war, these efforts were begun under the Bush administration but significantly accelerated under the current president, who became the first US commander-in-chief to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s infrastructure.

Even the State Department has, albeit modestly, become involved in cyberwar efforts. In a category-blurring speaking engagement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the recent Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Florida where she talked up her department’s eagerness to join in the new American way of war. “We need Special Operations Forces who are as comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound,”‘ she told the crowd. “We also need diplomats and development experts who are up to the job of being your partners.”

Across the globe

Clinton then took the opportunity to tout her agency’s online efforts, aimed at websites used by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. When al-Qaeda recruitment messages appeared on the latter, she said, “our team plastered the same sites with altered versions… that showed the toll al-Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni people”. She further noted that this information-warfare mission was carried out by experts at State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications with assistance, not surprisingly, from the military and the US Intelligence Community.

Such efforts are exactly the type of integration the Pentagon touts in “Decade of War”: “Initially in Iraq and Afghanistan, interagency unity of effort was a resounding failure,” says the report. To avoid this in the future, the report calls upon the Pentagon to regularly seed its people into other agencies and also develop policies for “greater inclusion of interagency involvement in planning, training and execution to increase interagency contributions, including expansion of their expeditionary capabilities”.

Across the globe from Central and South America to Africa, the Middle East to Asia, the Obama administration is working out its formula for a new American way of war. In its pursuit, the Pentagon and its increasingly militarised government partners are drawing on everything from classic precepts of colonial warfare to the latest technologies.

The United States is an imperial power chastened by more than ten years of failed, heavy-footprint wars. It is hobbled by a hollowing-out economy, and inundated with hundreds of thousands of recent veterans – a staggering 45 per cent of the troops who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq – suffering from service-related disabilities who will require ever more expensive care. No wonder the current combination of special ops, drones, spy games, civilian soldiers, cyberwarfare and proxy fighters sounds like a safer, saner brand of war-fighting. At first blush, it may even look like a panacea for the national security ills of the US. In reality, it may be anything but. 

After years spent fighting light-footprint shadow wars in Pakistan and Yemen, both nations are, as the New York Times recently noted – “arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr Obama became president”. Not only have the initial test cases yielded failure, but this new way of war holds great potential for unforeseen entanglements and serial blowback. Starting or fanning brushfire wars on several continents could lead to raging wildfires that spread unpredictably and prove difficult, if not impossible, to quench. 

Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations asserts that “operations during the first half of the [past] decade were often marked by numerous missteps and challenges, while those in the second half featured successful adaptation to overcome these challenges.” Such statements and an implicit certainty that the Pentagon can find the right formula for successful wars suggest that the lessons have actually been less than enduring – and a similar report with similar conclusions may, indeed, be in preparation a decade from now.  

Nick Turse is a historian, investigative journalist, the associate editor of, and a senior editor at Alternet.orgHis latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books).

You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.