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The Secret Wars of the US Imperium

To get to where they are, imperial powers will deceive, dissimulate and distort. The US imperium, that most awesome of devilish powers, has tentacled itself across the globe, 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. The author of the report 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.

Katherine Yon Ebright, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, betrays a charmless naivete in remarking that the “proliferation of secret war is a relatively recent phenomenon”, something she regards as “undemocratic and dangerous.” She is certainly right about the last two points, but distinctly wrong about the novelty.

The United States, since its inception, has schemed, through purchase, conspiracy and force of arms, to spread its power and embrace an empire without declaring it. Along with that embrace came the perceived need to wage secret war.

The illegal, covert engagement by US forces in Laos was one of the most brutal examples of a clandestine conflict waged unawares to many politicians back home. 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 outfit training and arming members of the Hmong ethnic minority who would, some 14 years later, partake in full scale engagements with Communist allies of the North Vietnamese.

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

US lawmakers tend to express much surprise that US forces should 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 such engagements centre 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.

Of concern here is the broad umbrella of “security cooperation” programs that are authorised by Congress under the AUMF against designated terrorist groups. Codified as 10 U.S.C.§ 333, the provision permits the DoD to train and equip foreign forces in any part of the globe.

Section 127e, or 10 U.S.C. §127e, stands out, as it 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 2001 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 quiet on 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 and parcel of “irregular” warfare do not amount to “hostilities”.

Another accretion of secrecy, and one aided by its important premise of deniability, is the Presidential Approval and Reporting of Covert Actions, 50 U.S.C. § 3093 (1991). Again, the 9/11 terrorist bogey has featured in targeted killings and assassinations, despite assertions to the contrary.

Perhaps the most startling nature to such cooperation programs is the scope granted by Section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018. While it mirrors Section 127e in some respects, the focus here 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 Somalian Black Hawk Down incident.

What was head shakingly odd about the whole affair was not merely the surprise shown by members of Congress by this engagement, but the nonplussed way the 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. Surely the more relevant question would have been what these modern kitted-up Roman legionnaires were doing without broader awareness back home?

The findings of the summary report, and those of Pentagon officials, was that militants in the area had “superior firepower”. For every US and Nigerien soldier came three attackers. Again, 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 role in theatres such as Africa are confined to “advising and assisting” local militaries, the operational reality has occasionally intruded.

In 2018, the now retired General Donald Bolduc, who commanded US special forces in Africa till 2017, had enough boastful candour to reveal 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. We’ve had guys wounded in all the types of missions that we do.”

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

That’s hardly going to happen. The security establishment in Washington and a coterie of amnesiacs are keen on keeping a lid on the fact that the US has been a garrison, warring state since 1941. And the next big conflict is just around the corner. Appearances must be kept.


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  1. meg mcmahon

    I find what you have to say and how you say it very interesting.
    Thank you.

  2. Zathras

    Also interesting is that the USA secretly supplied the North Vietnamese with weapons (surplus from WW2 intended for the Japanese invasion and stockpiled on Okinawa – the remainder destined for South Korea) to help them kick out the French in exchange for later exclusive access to suspected off-shore gas fields – but the North Vietnamese later reneged on the deal and we all know what happened next. The French later found out and relations never fully recovered.

    Some of those many bombs were actually dropped into the ocean where off-shore private seismological vessels were mapping potential well sites and years later a joint US-Vietnamese consortium was created.

    Business is business and the US economy is dependent on war and the benefits they bring, both directly and indirectly.

  3. New England Cocky

    When you have the USA (United States of Apartheid) as an ally why do you need other enemies?

    So, knowing that Australia began its illegal involvement in the US Imperialist War against Vietnam with three Armidale training team deployments authorised by Menzies before Harold Holt came up with the ”Conscription Lottery” for the post WWII babies to contribute to Australian military history, we find the Albanese LABOR government making the same mistakes again playing lap-dog to the us military establishment.

    Menzies never saw active service. Indeed, Menzies resigned his Australian Army commission on the first day of WWI. Holt also avoided active service, to later apparently commit suicide in the Portsea surf; was it because of his committing a generation of Australian youth to war, or, from exhaustion pursuing his extra-curricula interests?

    The AUKUS con and subsequent submarine proposal is already redundant as seen by the effectiveness of drone technology in the Russian Ukrainian war. Once again we see that the COALition has proven itself to be unfit for government ….. to the great detriment of Australian voters.

  4. Canguro

    Henry Kissinger, a war criminal of the first degree, was front and centre in the bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Responsibility lies squarely on this repugnant villain’s shoulders, but will justice ever be served? Of course not, the USA has no problem in behaving like the village thug that it has demonstrated itself to be time and again, but when it comes to receiving its just desserts, it slips the noose, repeatedly. At the end of WWII, Americans were at the forefront of the judicial proceedings in Nuremberg, trying and punishing Nazi war criminals, but do they accept any blame and culpability for their own actions? Rarely. William Calley was a rare example, but even he got not more than a slap on the wrist for his outrageously egregious & criminal behaviour at My Lai; the massacre of old men, women and children.

    American behaviour in the sense of the committing war crimes, whether in the Philippines, during WWII, or Korea, the Middle East and other parts of the world and then denying and avoiding responsibility is the very essence of the definition of gross hypocrisy and callous indifference to being the causal agent of massive human suffering. And they wonder why most of the rest of the planet hates them.

  5. Canguro

    In relation to Binoy’s reference to Joshua Kurlantzick’s book, A Great Place to Have a War; America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, take a moment to digest the following…

    [It is] the untold story of how America’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s transformed the CIA from a loose collection of spies into a military operation and a key player in American foreign policy.

    From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped some 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos, the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. It made Laos, per capita, the most bombed country in human history. In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during all of World War II.

    All told, some 200,000 Laotians were killed in the war—about a tenth of the country’s population. Most were civilians. Nor did the end of the fighting in 1975 stop the killing; over the next four decades, unexploded cluster bombs would kill 20,000 Laotians and maim additional thousands

    In 1960, President Eisenhower was focused on Laos, a tiny Southeast Asian nation few Americans had ever heard of. Washington feared the country would fall to communism, triggering a domino effect in the rest of Southeast Asia. So in January 1961, Eisenhower approved the CIA’s Operation Momentum, a plan to create a proxy army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos.

    While remaining largely hidden from the American public and most of Congress, Momentum became the largest CIA paramilitary operation in the history of the United States. The brutal war, which continued under Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, lasted nearly two decades, killed one-tenth of Laos’s total population, left thousands of unexploded bombs in the ground, and changed the nature of the CIA forever.

    Joshua Kurlantzick gives us the definitive account of the Laos war and its central characters, including the four key people who led the operation—the CIA operative who came up with the idea, the Hmong general who led the proxy army in the field, the paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong, and the State Department careerist who took control over the war as it grew.

    The Laos war created a CIA that fights with real soldiers and weapons as much as it gathers secrets. Laos became a template for CIA proxy wars all over the world, from Central America in the 1980s to today’s war on terrorism, where the CIA has taken control with little oversight.

    Based on extensive interviews and CIA records only recently declassified, A Great Place to Have a War is a riveting, thought-provoking look at how Operation Momentum changed American foreign policy forever.

    As said earlier, as they suck on their sodas and gorge on fairy-floss whilst wandering mindlessly through the Disneylands of Orlando & Anaheim, they wonder why the rest of the planet hates them.

  6. Phil Pryor

    The cocky and canguru, valuable wildlife, carry a hatred deep and long, which I and others share. The USA is a product of Self deception, deliberate larceny, murder, theft, occupations, intrusions, slavery, indigenous slaughter, all Filth. A nation made of scraps, droppings and sweepings, of those who rebelliously would not obey, serve, submit, conform, is a mix of the “noble, (they would say) and the insolent who deny authority, except when it suits over lesser beings and women. The USA folk, originally from British (brutish) and mostly European parts, are low grade people who would NOT obey, conform, submit, but who DENY all decencies to others they assault and coerce. Kissinger is one of those types who instincively believe in a great deal of murder, theft, assault, gross oppression, unless “they” do it to him first, a serious sickness brought about by bone deep superstition of the worst type. DO UNTO OTHERS and do it first, NOW. The gross militarist spender, producer, advocate, user, projector and abuser in modern times is not Adolf or Josef or anyone crimmed up in the shitty media, it is the US of A. Even Ukraine is used now for testing, assessments, logistics homework, political elasticity. Peace seems so far off…

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