The secret wars of the US empire

November 16, 2022
US army soldier with US flag in the background.
United States armed forces have engaged in secret wars across the world. Image: Green Left

To get to where they are, imperial powers will deceive, dissimulate and distort. The United States has tentacled itself across the world, often unbeknownst to its own citizens. 

In a report released by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center of Justice titled Secret War: How the US Uses Partnerships and Proxy Forces to Wage War Under the Radar, there is little to shock, though much to be concerned about. Author Katherine Yon Ebright contends that the list of countries supplied by the Pentagon on US military partnerships is a savagely clipped one.  The list is so wrong that 17 countries have been omitted.

Ebright, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, remarked that the “proliferation of secret war is a relatively recent phenomenon”, which she regards as “undemocratic and dangerous”. 

However, it is not a recent phenomenon. The US, since its inception, has schemed, through purchase, conspiracy and force of arms, to spread its power without declaring it.

The illegal, covert engagement by US forces in Laos was one of the most brutal examples of a clandestine conflict waged unawares to many US politicians. It was, as the dark title of Joshua Kurlantzick’s book on the subject suggests, “a great place to have war”. 

It began with a Central Intelligence Agency team training and arming members of the Hmong ethnic minority, who would fight against Communist allies of the North Vietnamese 14 years later.

This development was accompanied by an aerial campaign where the US air force dropped more bombs than it did in World War II. Between 1964 and 1973, they dropped more than 2.5 million tons of ordnance from over 580,000 bombing sorties.

Laws for war

US lawmakers tend to express much surprise when US forces mysteriously appear in countries they can barely find on the map. But to a large extent, the circumstances arose with their own connivance. The authorising backdrop to their operations centres on a number of instruments that have proliferated since September 11, 2001: the US Title 10 authorities, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), deployment notifications under the War Powers Resolution and the souped-up idea of the right to self-defence.

A broad umbrella of “security cooperation” programs are authorised by Congress under the AUMF against designated terrorist groups. Codified as 10 USC § 333, the provision permits the Department of Defense (DoD) to train and equip foreign forces in any part of the world.

Section 127e authorises the DoD to “provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating ongoing military operations by United States special operations forces to combat terrorism”.

The AUMF has become an instrument of vast elasticity, stretched by every administration since its inception to cover a list of terrorist groups that remains secret to the public. The executive had long withheld the list from Congress, something it was bound to do given its cavalier interpretation as to what “associated forces” in the context of terrorist groups are.

The DoD has also kept secret the specific circumstances US forces operate under these authorities. As Ebright puts it, the reasoning at play is “that the incident was too minor to trigger statutory reporting requirements”. Confrontations deemed “episodic” and part of “irregular” warfare do not amount to “hostilities”.

The Presidential Approval and Reporting of Covert Actions, aided by its important premise of deniability, has featured in targeted killings and assassinations, despite assertions to the contrary. 

The scope granted by Section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act mirrors Section 127e in some ways. However, the focus is not on counterterrorism, but supporting “irregular warfare operations” against “rogue states”. Ebright strikes a bleak note: “Far beyond the bounds of the war on terror, §1202 may be used to engage in low-level conflict with powerful, even nuclear, states.”


Every now and then, the veil of secrecy on such operations has been pierced. In 2017, four members of the US Army “Green Berets”, along with four soldiers from Niger, were killed in an ambush outside the village of Tongo Tongo. It was the highest loss of life for US military personnel since 1993, when 18 Army Rangers perished in the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia.

Members of Congress showed surprise after the incident, and nonplussed Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Joseph Dunford called for an investigation. His sole objectives were to ascertain whether US forces had “adequate intelligence, equipment and training” and whether there was “a pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area” of appropriate accuracy. A more relevant question would have been what these soldiers were doing without broader awareness back home?

The findings of the summary report, and those of Pentagon officials, were that militants in the area had “superior firepower”. For every US and Nigerien soldier came three attackers. This misses the overall point about clandestine operations that even some in the upper echelons of Washington know little about.

Despite a number of public statements claiming that the US military’s role in places such as Africa are confined to “advising and assisting” local militaries, the operational reality has occasionally been exposed.

Now-retired army general Donald Bolduc, who commanded US special forces in Africa until 2017, boastfully revealed in 2018 that the army had “guys in Kenya, Chad, Cameroon, Niger [and] Tunisia who are doing the same kinds of things as the guys in Somalia, exposing themselves to the same king of danger not just on 127 echoes [operations authorised under the AUMF]. We’ve had guys wounded in all the types of missions that we do.”

Ebright said that it is not enough to merely reform the “outdated and overstretched AUMFs”. “Congress should repeal or reform the Department of Defense’s security cooperation authorities,” she said. “Until it does so, the nation will continue to be at war — without, in some cases, the consent or even knowledge of its people.” 

Repeal or reform is unlikely to happen. The security establishment in Washington and are keen on keeping a lid on the fact that the US has been a garrison, warring state since 1941.

[Dr. Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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