"SOCOM’s shadow wars against terror groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) may, ironically, be its most visible operations. Shrouded in even more secrecy are its activities—from counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts to seemingly endless training and advising missions—outside acknowledged conflict zones across the globe. These are conducted with little fanfare, press coverage, or oversight in scores of nations every single day. From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America’s most elite forces—Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them—were deployed to 138 countries in 2016, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by US Special Operations Command. This total, one of the highest of Barack Obama’s presidency, typifies what has become the golden age of, in SOF-speak, the “gray zone”—a phrase used to describe the murky twilight between war and peace. The coming year is likely to signal whether this era ends with Obama or continues under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
“In just the past few years, we have witnessed a varied and evolving threat environment consisting of: the emergence of a militarily expansionist China; an increasingly unpredictable North Korea; a revanchist Russia threatening our interests in both Europe and Asia; and an Iran which continues to expand its influence across the Middle East, fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict,” General Thomas wrote last month in PRISM, the official journal of the Pentagon’s Center for Complex Operations. “Nonstate actors further confuse this landscape by employing terrorist, criminal, and insurgent networks that erode governance in all but the strongest states.… Special operations forces provide asymmetric capability and responses to these challenges.”
In 2016, according to data provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, the United States deployed special operators to China (specifically Hong Kong), in addition to eleven countries surrounding it—Taiwan (which China considers a breakaway province), Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Laos, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. Special Operations Command does not acknowledge sending commandos into Iran, North Korea, or Russia, but it does deploy troops to many nations that ring them.
SOCOM is willing to name only 129 of the 138 countries its forces deployed to in 2016. “Almost all Special Operations Forces deployments are classified,” spokesman Ken McGraw told TomDispatch. “If a deployment to a specific country has not been declassified, we do not release information about the deployment.”
SOCOM does not, for instance, acknowledge sending troops to the war zones of Somalia, Syria, or Yemen, despite overwhelming evidence of a US special ops presence in all three countries, as well as a White House report, issued last month, that notes “the United States is currently using military force in” Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, and specifically states that “U.S. special operations forces have deployed to Syria.”
According to Special Operations Command, 55.29 percent of special operators deployed overseas in 2016 were sent to the Greater Middle East, a drop of 35 percent since 2006. Over the same span, deployments to Africa skyrocketed by more than 1600 percent—from just 1 percent of special operators dispatched outside the U.S. in 2006 to 17.26 percent last year. Those two regions were followed by areas served by European Command (12.67 percent), Pacific Command (9.19 percent), Southern Command (4.89 percent), and Northern Command (0.69 percent), which is in charge of “homeland defense.” On any given day, around 8,000 of Thomas’s commandos can be found in more than 90 countries worldwide."