“Training.” It sounds so innocuous. It also sounds like something expected of a military. All professional soldiers undergo some sort of basic training. Think: calisthenics, negotiating obstacle courses, and marksmanship. Soldiers require instruction, otherwise they’re little more than rabble.
Sometimes soldiers from one country even train the troops of another, imparting skills from the basic to the complex. The U.S. military calls this, among other things, “building partner capacity.” Sometimes a foreigner steps in and whips sorry soldiers into shape, as former Prussian army officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben did with George Washington’s Continental Army. And sometimes the foreigners, like the modern heirs to the army that Steuben trained, can’t even seem to successfully teach their wards, like Iraqis or Afghans, jumping jacks or pushups. (Nor does anyone seem to ask why Americans are teaching jumping jacks or pushups to such trainees in the first place.) And then we wonder why one of those proxy armies folded in the face of a tiny terror force in Iraq in 2014 or why, after almost two decades of assistance, another is taking unsustainable losses, as is the case in Afghanistan now.
Each year, through a vast constellation of global training exercises, operations, facilities, and schools, the United States trains around 200,000 foreign soldiers, police, and other personnel. From 2003 to 2010, for example, the U.S. carried out this training regime at no fewer than 471 locations in 120 countries and on every continent but Antarctica. Most of it goes on behind closed doors, far from public view. And almost all of it escapes independent scrutiny. Is the training effective? Does it achieve the desired results? Is it worth the cost? Does it conform to U.S. laws? It’s often difficult to glean basic information about what types of training are taking place, let alone the results.
Recently, for example, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) told Yahoo News — unequivocally — that the U.S. does not “conduct exercises with members of the [Saudi-led coalition] to prepare for combat operations in Yemen.” While CENTCOM admitted to providing “training” to the coalition, it called that assistance “limited non-combat support.” Internal military documents, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, told an entirely different story however. Air Force files state, just as unequivocally, that the United States has trained members of the Saudi-led coalition “for combat operations in Yemen.” (Senator Elizabeth Warren has now demanded answers about the discrepancy.)
Yemen is just one of the many countries where the U.S. provides counterterrorism assistance. So where else is the U.S. carrying out these missions? Let TomDispatch regular Stephanie Savell, co-director of the invaluable Costs of War Project, provide the answer by way of a tour of the scores of nations where U.S. military personnel — from elite Navy SEALs to the weekend warriors of the National Guard — are conducting counterterrorism training and assistance about which we know little, that sometimes turns deadly, and can be almost indistinguishable from combat.