US Army soldiers take a defensive position in the desert, ready for any trouble that comes their way. Photo: iStock

In September 2001, the administration of US president George W Bush launched the “Global War on Terror.” Though “global” has long since been dropped from the name, as it turns out, they weren’t kidding.

When I first set out to map all the places in the world where the United States is still fighting terrorism so many years later, I didn’t think it would be that hard to do. This was before the 2017 incident in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed on a counterterror mission and Americans were given an inkling of how far-reaching the war on terrorism might really be.

I imagined a map that would highlight Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria – the places many Americans automatically think of in association with the war on terror – as well as perhaps a dozen less-noticed countries like the Philippines and Somalia. I had no idea that I was embarking on a research odyssey that would, in its second annual update, map US counterterror missions in 80 countries in 2017 and 2018, or 40% of the nations on this planet (a map first featured in Smithsonian magazine).

As co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs in Providence, Rhode Island, I’m all too aware of the costs that accompany such a sprawling overseas presence. Our project’s research shows that, since 2001, the US war on terror has resulted in the loss – conservatively estimated – of almost half a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone. By the end of 2019, we also estimate that Washington’s global war will cost American taxpayers no less than US$5.9 trillion already spent and in commitments to caring for veterans of the war throughout their lifetimes.

In general, the American public has largely ignored these post-9/11 wars and their costs. But the vastness of Washington’s counterterror activities suggests, now more than ever, that it’s time to pay attention.

Recently, US President Donald Trump’s administration has been talking of withdrawing from Syria and negotiating peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet unbeknownst to many Americans, the war on terror reaches far beyond such lands and under Trump is actually ramping up in a number of places.

That US counterterror missions are so extensive and their costs so staggeringly high should prompt Americans to demand answers to a few obvious and urgent questions: Is this global war truly making Americans safer? Is it reducing violence against civilians in the US and other places? If, as I believe, the answer to both those questions is no, then isn’t there a more effective way to accomplish such goals?

Combat or ‘training’ and ‘assisting’?

The major obstacle to creating our database, my research team would discover, was that the US government is often so secretive about its war on terror. The US constitution gives Congress the right and responsibility to declare war, offering citizens, at least in theory, some means of input. And yet in the name of operational security, the military classifies most information about its counterterror activities abroad.

The US is fighting its global war on terror in 40% of the world’s nations. Map: Stephanie Savell, Costs of War Project, originally published in the February issue of Smithsonian magazine

This is particularly true of missions in which there are American boots on the ground engaging in direct action against militants, a reality, my team and I found, in 14 different countries in the last two years. The list includes Afghanistan and Syria, of course, but also some less known and unexpected places like Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Mali and Kenya. Officially, many of these are labeled “train, advise, and assist” missions, in which the US military ostensibly works to support local militaries fighting groups that Washington labels terrorist organizations. Unofficially, the line between “assistance” and combat turns out to be, at best, blurry.

Some outstanding investigative journalists have documented the way this shadow war has been playing out, predominantly in Africa. In Niger in October 2017, as journalists subsequently revealed, what was officially a training mission proved to be a “kill or capture” operation directed at a suspected terrorist.

Such missions occur regularly. In Kenya, for instance, American military-service members are actively hunting the militants of al-Shabaab, a US-designated terrorist group. In Tunisia, there was at least one outright battle between joint US-Tunisian forces and al-Qaeda militants. Indeed, two US service members were later awarded medals of valor for their actions there, a clue that led journalists to discover that there had been a battle in the first place.

In yet other African countries, US Special Operations forces have planned and controlled missions, operating in “cooperation with” – but actually in charge of – their African counterparts. In creating our database, we erred on the side of caution, only documenting combat in countries where we had at least two credible sources of proof, and checking in with experts and journalists who could provide us with additional information. In other words, American troops have undoubtedly been engaged in combat in even more places than we’ve been able to document.

Another striking finding in our research was just how many countries there were – 65 in all – in which the US “trains” and/or “assists” local security forces in counterterrorism. While the military does much of this training, the State Department is also surprisingly heavily involved, funding and training police, military, and border-patrol agents in many countries.

It also donates equipment, including vehicle X-ray detection machines and contraband inspection kits. In addition, it develops programs it labels “Countering Violent Extremism,” which represent a soft-power approach, focusing on public education and other tools to “counter terrorist safe havens and recruitment.”

Such training and assistance occur across the Middle East and Africa, as well as in some places in Asia and Latin America. American “law-enforcement entities” trained security forces in Brazil to monitor terrorist threats in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics, for example (and continued the partnership in 2017).

Similarly, US border-patrol agents worked with their counterparts in Argentina to crack down on suspected money-laundering by terrorist groups in the illicit marketplaces of the tri-border region that lies between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

To many Americans, all of this may sound relatively innocuous – like little more than generous, neighborly help with policing or a sensibly self-interested fighting-them-over-there-before-they-get-here set of policies. But shouldn’t we know better after all these years of hearing such claims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the results were anything but harmless or effective?

Such training has often fed into, or been used for, the grimmest of purposes in the many countries involved. In Nigeria, for instance, the US military continues to work closely with local security forces that have used torture and committed extrajudicial killings, as well as engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. In the Philippines, it has conducted large-scale joint military exercises in cooperation with President Rodrigo Duterte’s military, even as the police at his command continue to inflict horrific violence on that country’s citizenry.

The government of Djibouti, which for years has hosted the largest US military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, also uses its anti-terrorism laws to prosecute internal dissidents. The US State Department has not attempted to hide the way its own training programs have fed into a larger kind of repression in that country (and others). According to its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, a document that annually provides Congress with an overview of terrorism and anti-terror cooperation with the United States in a designated set of countries, in Djibouti, “the government continued to use counterterrorism legislation to suppress criticism by detaining and prosecuting opposition figures and other activists.”

In that country and many other allied nations, Washington’s terror-training programs feed into or reinforce human-rights abuses by local forces as authoritarian governments adopt “anti-terrorism” as the latest excuse for repressive practices of all sorts.

A vast military footprint

As we were trying to document those 65 training-and-assistance locations of the US military, the State Department reports proved an important source of information, even if they were often ambiguous about what was really going on. They regularly relied on loose terms like “security forces,” while failing to directly address the role played by our military in each of those countries.

Sometimes, as I read them and tried to figure out what was happening in distant lands, I had a nagging feeling that what the US military was doing, rather than coming into focus, was eternally receding from view. In the end, we felt certain in identifying those 14 countries in which American military personnel have seen combat in the war on terror in 2017-2018.

We also found it relatively easy to document the seven countries in which, in the last two years, the US has launched drone or other air strikes against what the government labels terrorist targets (but which regularly kill civilians as well): Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. These were the highest-intensity elements of that US global war.

However, this still represented a relatively small portion of the 80 countries we ended up including on our map.

In part, that was because I realized that the US military tends to advertise – or at least not hide – many of the military exercises it directs or takes part in abroad. After all, these are intended to display the country’s global military might, deter enemies (in this case, terrorists), and bolster alliances with strategically chosen allies. Such exercises, which we documented as being explicitly focused on counterterrorism in 26 countries, along with lands that host US bases or smaller military outposts also involved in anti-terrorist activities, provide a sense of the armed forces’ behemoth footprint in the war on terror.

Although there are more than 800 US military bases around the world, we included in our map only those 40 countries in which such bases are directly involved in the counterterror war, including Germany and other European nations that are important staging areas for US operations in the Middle East and Africa.

To sum up: Our completed map indicates that, in 2017 and 2018, seven countries were targeted by US air strikes; double that number were sites where American military personnel engaged directly in ground combat; 26 countries were locations for joint military exercises; 40 hosted bases involved in the war on terror; and in 65, local military and security forces received counterterrorism-oriented “training and assistance.”

A better grand plan

How often in the last 17 years has Congress or the American public debated the expansion of the war on terror to such a staggering range of places? The answer is: seldom indeed.

After so many years of silence and inactivity here at home, recent media and congressional attention to American wars in AfghanistanSyria and Yemen represents a new trend. Members of Congress have finally begun calling for discussion of parts of the war on terror. This month, for instance, the House of Representatives voted to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the Senate has passed legislation requiring Congress to vote on the same issue some time in the coming months.

On February 6, the House Armed Services Committee finally held a hearing on the Pentagon’s “counterterrorism approach” – a subject Congress as a whole has not debated since, several days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that presidents George W Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have all used to wage the ongoing global war.

Congress has not debated or voted on the sprawling expansion of that effort in all the years since. And judging from the befuddled reactions of several members of Congress to the deaths of those four soldiers in Niger in 2017, most of them were (and many probably still are) largely ignorant of how far the global war they’ve seldom bothered to discuss now reaches.

With potential shifts afoot in Trump administration policy on Syria and Afghanistan, isn’t it finally time to assess in the broadest possible way the necessity and efficacy of extending the war on terror to so many different places? Research has shown that using war to address terror tactics is a fruitless approach. Quite the opposite of achieving this country’s goals, from Libya to Syria, Niger to Afghanistan, the US military presence abroad has often only fueled intense resentment of America. It has helped both to spread terror movements and to provide yet more recruits to extremist Islamist groups, which have multiplied substantially since 9/11.

In the name of the war on terror in countries like Somalia, diplomatic activities, aid, and support for human rights have dwindled in favor of an ever more militarized US stance. Yet research shows that, in the long term, it is far more effective and sustainable to address the underlying grievances that fuel terrorist violence than to answer them on the battlefield.

All told, it should be clear that another kind of grand plan is needed to deal with the threat of terrorism both globally and to Americans – one that relies on a far smaller US military footprint and costs far less blood and treasure. It’s also high time to put this threat in context and acknowledge that other developments, like climate change, may pose a far greater danger to our country.

This article appeared previously at TomDispatch. Read the original here.

Copyright 2019 Stephanie Savell

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Stephanie Savell

Stephanie Savell is co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. An anthropologist, she conducts research on security and activism in the US and in Brazil. She co-authored The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life.

Join the Conversation

33 Comments

  1. I just couldn’t depart your web site before suggesting that I really enjoyed the standard info a person provide for your visitors? Is going to be back often in order to check up on new posts

  2. I used to be suggested this web site by my cousin. I’m
    not certain whether or not this submit is written through him as
    no one else recognise such special approximately my difficulty.
    You’re incredible! Thank you!

  3. Hi, I do believe this is an excellent website. I stumbledupon it 😉
    I’m going to return yet again since i have saved as
    a favorite it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change,
    may you be rich and continue to help other people.

  4. I want to show some thanks to this writer just for rescuing me from this particular setting. Just after surfing around throughout the world-wide-web and coming across solutions which are not pleasant, I figured my life was gone. Being alive without the presence of approaches to the issues you have sorted out by means of your good guideline is a crucial case, as well as ones which could have in a wrong way affected my career if I had not noticed the website. Your actual training and kindness in dealing with a lot of stuff was valuable. I am not sure what I would have done if I had not encountered such a subject like this. I can at this time relish my future. Thank you very much for your skilled and result oriented help. I will not be reluctant to recommend your web site to any individual who requires guidance about this topic.

  5. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something
    which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for
    me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get
    the hang of it!

  6. With havin so much written content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism
    or copyright infringement? My site has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either created myself
    or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement.
    Do you know any solutions to help stop content from being stolen? I’d truly appreciate it.

  7. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles?

    I mean, what you say is fundamental and all. But think about if you added some great images
    or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content
    is excellent but with pics and clips, this blog could certainly be one of the best in its field.

    Good blog!

  8. It’s actually a great and useful piece of information. I’m happy that you simply shared this useful info with
    us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Fantastic blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are
    so many choices out there that I’m completely confused ..

    Any suggestions? Kudos!

  10. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post.
    Taking the time and actual effort to make a top notch article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

  11. Somebody essentially help to make seriously posts I would state. This is the very first time I frequented your web page and thus far? I amazed with the research you made to create this particular publish extraordinary. Wonderful job!

  12. Whats up very nice web site!! Guy .. Beautiful .. Amazing ..

    I’ll bookmark your blog and take the feeds also? I’m glad to find numerous helpful info here in the publish, we’d like
    work out extra strategies in this regard, thanks for sharing.
    . . . . .

  13. Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

  14. you are really a good webmaster. The site loading
    speed is incredible. It seems that you are doing
    any unique trick. In addition, The contents are masterwork.
    you’ve performed a excellent job on this subject!

  15. Thanks , I have just been searching for information about
    this subject for ages and yours is the best I have discovered so
    far. However, what about the conclusion? Are you certain concerning the supply?

  16. Hello, i believe that i saw you visited my site thus i came to go
    back the favor?.I’m attempting to find things to enhance my website!I
    suppose its adequate to make use of a few of
    your ideas!!

  17. My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was once entirely right.
    This put up truly made my day. You can not consider just how a lot
    time I had spent for this info! Thank you!

  18. It is appropriate time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I want to suggest you some interesting things or tips. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I desire to read more things about it!

  19. Fantastic beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your website, how
    can i subscribe for a blog site? The account helped me a acceptable deal.
    I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided bright clear concept

  20. Hello! Someone in my Facebook group shared this website with us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Great blog and fantastic design and style.

  21. Thanks for any other fantastic post. Where else may anybody get that type of info in such a perfect method of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such information.

  22. Hey there this is kind of of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have
    to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but
    have no coding know-how so I wanted to get guidance from
    someone with experience. Any help would be enormously appreciated!

  23. I loved as much as you will receive carried out right here. The sketch is tasteful, your authored subject matter stylish. nonetheless, you command get bought an impatience over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more formerly again as exactly the same nearly very often inside case you shield this hike.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *