Last October, four US soldiers — including two commandos —were killed in an ambush in Niger. Since then, talk of US special operations in Africa has centred on missions being curtailed and troop levels cut. But these claims are already being questioned, writes Nick Turse.
Press accounts have suggested the number of special operators on the front lines has been cut, with the head of US Special Operations forces in Africa directing his troops to take fewer risks. At the same time, a “sweeping Pentagon review” of special ops missions on the continent may result in drastic cuts in the number of commandos operating there.
US Africa Command has apparently been asked to consider the impact on counterterrorism operations of cutting the number of Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other commandos by 25% over 18 months and 50% over three years.
However, analysts have already stepped forward to question or criticise the proposed cuts. “Anybody that knows me knows that I would disagree with any downsizing in Africa,” Donald Bolduc, a former chief of US commandos on the continent, told Voice of America.
The review was reportedly ordered this spring and troop reductions may be coming. But there is no evidence yet of large cuts, gradual reductions, or any downsizing whatsoever.
In fact, the number of commandos operating on the continent has barely budged since last year. Nearly 10 months after the debacle in Niger, the tally of special operators in Africa remains essentially unchanged.
According to figures provided to The Intercept by US Special Operations Command, 16.5% of commandos overseas are deployed in Africa. This is about the same percentage of special operators sent to the continent last year and represents a major rise in deployments during the first decade of the post-9/11 war on terror.
In 2006, for example, just 1% of all US commandos deployed overseas were in Africa. This was fewer than in the Middle East, the Pacific, Europe, or Latin America. By 2010, the number had risen slightly to 3%.
Today, more US commandos are deployed to Africa than any other region of the world except the Middle East. Back in 2006, there were only 70 special operators deployed across Africa. Just four years ago, there were still just 700 elite troops on the continent. Given that an average of 8300 commandos are deployed overseas in any given week, according to SOCOM spokesperson Ken McGraw, we can surmise that roughly 1370 Green Berets, Navy SEALs, or other elite forces are currently operating in Africa.
The Pentagon won’t say how many commandos are still deployed in Niger. However, the total number of troops operating there is roughly the same as last October, when two Green Berets and two fellow soldiers were killed by ISIS militants.
There are 800 Defense Department personnel deployed to the West African nation, according to Major Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokesperson. “I can’t give a breakdown of SOF there, but it’s a fraction of the overall force,” she told The Intercept.
“None of these special operations forces are intended to be engaged in direct combat operations,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert S. Karem. He said this while speaking about current troop levels in Niger during a May Pentagon press briefing on the investigation into the deadly October ambush.
Despite this official policy, despite the deaths in Niger, and despite the supposed curbs on special operations in Africa, US commandos there keep finding themselves in situations that are indistinguishable from combat.
In December, for example, Green Berets fighting alongside local forces in Niger reportedly killed 11 ISIS militants in a firefight. Last month in Somalia, a member of the Special Operations forces, Staff Sergeant Alexander Conrad, was killed and four others wounded in an attack by members of the Islamist militant group Shabaab.
Conrad’s was the second death of a US special operator in Somalia in 13 months. Last May, a Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer Kyle Milliken, was killed, and two other US troops were wounded while carrying out a mission there with local forces.
Between 2015 and 2017, there were also at least 10 previously unreported attacks on US troops in West Africa, the New York Times revealed in March. Meanwhile, Politico recently reported that, for at least five years, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other commandos — operating under a little-understood budgetary authority known as Section 127e that funds classified programs — have been involved in reconnaissance and “direct action” combat raids with local forces in Cameroon, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia and Tunisia.
Indeed, in a 2015 briefing obtained by The Intercept, Bolduc, then the special ops chief in Africa, noted that US commandos were not only conducting “surrogate” and “combined” “counter violent extremist operations”, but also “unilateral” missions.
Media reports have focused on the possibility of imminent reductions, but the number of commandos deployed in Africa is nonetheless up 96% since 2014. They remain fundamentally unchanged since last year’s deadly ambush in Niger.
As the June death of Conrad in Somalia indicates, commandos are still operating in hazardous areas. Indeed, at the May Pentagon briefing, US Africa Command General Thomas Waldhauser drew attention to special operators’ “high-risk missions” under “extreme conditions” in Africa.
The US commandos, he said, “are doing a fantastic job across the continent”.
[Reprinted from The Intercept.]