With the U.S. presidential election less than three weeks away, many Americans remain focused on domestic politics, or in foreign affairs, on the escalating tensions with Russia over the war in Syria. In other news, however, the U.S. is also escalating its role in an array of other conflicts across the Middle East — and Americans, not just their sometimes vaguely-defined enemies, are dying in the process.
On Thursday, Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan, 34, of Anaheim, California became the fourth U.S. service member to die in combat in Iraq in more than two years since U.S. troops redeployed to the country to fight the Islamic State group (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). However implausible, the official line continues to be that “American troops will not have a combat role or mission in Iraq.”
War Is Boring, on the other hand, went with something closer to a reality-based headline: “No Matter What Anyone Says, U.S. Troops Are in Combat in Iraq,” with an equally accurate sub-header: “Boots are on the ground.” The number of American troops in Iraq, in fact, has reportedly been in the neighborhood of 6,000 in recent weeks, including those “on temporary duty.” The total number is apparently changing on a daily basis, and it might be a safe bet that it is increasing.
Army Sgt. Douglas J. Riney, 26, of Fairview, Illinois, and Michael G. Sauro, 40, an army civilian employee from McAlester, Oklahoma, meanwhile, were also killed this week in Afghanistan, where the U.S. presence is even larger, as is the list of casualties. There are reportedly nearly 10,000 U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan, “to train and advise Afghan forces,” though they are clearly also “in harm’s way,” as Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook described the similar situation of U.S. special operations forces “advising” the Iraqis in the effort to retake Mosul this week.
The Americans killed in Afghanistan, along with three others who were wounded in the attack, were attempting to carry out an inspection at a base near Kabul “where Afghan military units are trained for specialized operations” when they came under fire from a gunman wearing an Afghan army uniform. Since 2008, there have been more than 90 such “insider attacks” on U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan, according to the L.A. Times. “It wasn’t immediately clear if the so-called ‘insider attack’ involved a Taliban sympathizer, a personal dispute or a cultural misunderstanding.”
These latest troop deaths come in the wake of a major escalation of U.S. military actions in Yemen. In the past two weeks, a U.S. Navy destroyer fired several cruise missiles at Houthi-controlled targets in Yemen, purportedly in retaliation for missiles that were shot at, but failed to hit, the ship. The Pentagon is also now reportedly claiming that “eight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operatives were killed in a pair of airstrikes in Yemen over the past two weeks.”
While those attacks both reportedly targeted AQAP in remote areas of Yemen’s Shabwah Governorate, the Houthis targeted in cruise missile strikes are not affiliated or allied with al Qaeda. The Houthi movement is led by Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, while al Qaeda is a Sunni group. The Houthis led a rebellion that ousted Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president since 2011, in early 2015. Since then, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been conducting a bombing campaign aimed at restoring Hadi to power — an effort to which the U.S. has contributed significantly.
“American forces were already involved in Yemen’s civil war,” writes Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe this week. “Since 2002, our drone attacks have reportedly killed more than 500 Yemenis, including at least 65 civilians. We are also supplying weapons and intelligence to Saudi Arabia, which has killed thousands of Yemenis in bombing raids over the last year and a half — including (this month’s) attack on a funeral in which more than 100 mourners were killed.”
Now, however, that involvement has reached a new level. Kinzer also notably compares the justification for U.S. “retaliatory” strikes on Yemeni targets to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used to justify escalation of U.S. military actions in Vietnam. The only problem with the Gulf of Tonkin incident was that the alleged North Vietnamese attack on American ships “never happened,” according to the New York Times. “The American ships had been firing at radar shadows on a dark night.” The Houthis, for their part, have denied responsibility for any attempted attack on the U.S. ship.
The escalation of American support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen follows an embarrassment for U.S. President Barack Obama last month, as his veto of a bill allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue the Saudi government was easily overridden. It marked the first veto override of Obama’s two terms in office. “The sharp rebuke of the president’s veto is a sign that Saudi Arabia’s fortunes are waning on Capitol Hill,” the Washington Post reported. “The Saudi government has denied it had any ties to the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks and has lobbied fiercely against the bill.” Nevertheless, it appears that the administration is now taking steps to send Saudi Arabia a clear message of unwavering support.
“American forces are already fighting, carrying out drone attacks, and ‘advising’ ground troops in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, and Somalia,” notes Kinzer. “No vital American interest is at stake in any of those conflicts. Nor will our security be affected by the outcome of Yemen’s civil war. The impulse to fight there — and to control the Persian Gulf — is simply the latest result of our long campaign to shape the fate of foreign nations.”
U.S. foreign policy planners appear to be taking the opportunity presented by the shameful media spectacle surrounding the current presidential race as a distraction to cover for obviously ongoing, yet officially-denied, military operations in a wide variety of countries around the world. As both major candidates in that election remain wildly, historically unpopular, however, perhaps America would be wiser to focus on fixing its own problems before trying to export its brand of “democracy” to other parts of the world.