What ‘The Drone Papers’ tell us about the US Military’s expanded geographic reach

As she rode to work, Anne—or “Sparkle” as she’s known to her fellow drone operators—wasn’t focused on the desert outside her window. It was 2009 and President Obama was sending troops in a surge to Afghanistan. Sparkle’s mind was on a desert 7,000 miles away. Over the next 24 hours she would track an insurgent, watch as he was killed by a Hellfire missile, and spy on his funeral before ending her night with a breakfast beer and a trip to the dog park. –Kevin Maurer

If you haven’t read The Intercept’s recent reporting on the United State’s secret drone campaign, you probably should. They’ve obtained a stash of documents that detail a mostly unremarked upon aspect of American military power’s ever-expanding geographic reach. A flurry of new intelligence gathering techniques are relying on new ways of geo-tracking targets, while an expanded network of material cartographies from military bases in Djibouti, to the ports of Somalia are providing the logistical capabilities to overcome what one Pentagon report has called the “Tyranny of Distance.” This is the distance that drones must travel in order to provide continual surveillance – now modus operandi of US intelligence operations – over vast swaths of Yemeni and Somalian territory. According to The Intercept, the problem for the Pentagon is that fuel shortages and extended flight times can cause ‘blinks’ in their coverage making it more difficult to fix and ‘finish’ their target.

However, it could just as easily refer to any number of spatial problems confronting the Pentagon’s Global War on Terror. Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier succinctly summarized the problem facing US and European Military planners in a Foreign Affairs article published in 2006 titled Global NATO, “Today, terrorists born in Riyadh and trained in Kandahar hatch deadly plots in Hamburg to fly airplanes into buildings in New York.” It was a dramatic way to announce to the world that its most powerful alliance was expanding its abilities to confront what it perceived as a proliferation of threats confronting the so-called ‘West’ and indicative of the thinking common to Brussels and Washigton D.C policy makers alike.

“Today, terrorists born in Riyadh and trained in Kandahar hatch deadly plots in Hamburg to fly airplanes into buildings in New York.”

It’s well-known that the Global War on Terror has been used to justify a massive expansion of US intelligence gathering activities, but exactly how these translate into direct action being taken is less understood – not the least of which is because we have grown ever more reliant on whistleblowers for disclosing even basic information that would otherwise be considered standard fare for a democracy dependent on informed and reasonable debate. One thing that is certain is that there is a growing network of worldwide partnerships and forward operating positions being used by the Pentagon in tandem with intelligence as part of a concerted geostrategic effort to effectively close the distance between the US military and their targets.

Professor Derek Gregory, a political geographer based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver B.C., has been covering this aspect of American military power for years. His recent work on Drone Geographies and The Everywhere War has helped disentangle the “matrix of military violence” that has become a hallmark of the post-9/11 world. But his work has also been helpful in understanding the various strategies the Pentagon has devised to combat space itself.

Of course, finding ways to overcome the ‘Tyranny of Distance’ is nothing new, it just took on unprecedented scalar proportions after the New York attacks. From the US Marine Corps first overseas deployment during the First Barbary War of 1801-1805, to the occupation of the Philippines 100 years on, until the present Global War on Terror, overcoming distance has always been the crux of US military power. But if distance has been their crux, crafty diplomacy and technological prowess has provided their spatial fix.

The truth is that the drone war is one significant part of a much larger campaign led by the US to build material networks like ports, airports and military bases the world over – but instead of owning these outright, the Department of Defense and State Department mostly help finance their construction and then negotiate access. This masks the true extent to which US forces are able to be deployed globally at a moments notice. In addition to construction projects, the Department of Defense and State Department train and equip partnerships with militaries the world over. Indeed, many if not most US embassies have a military advisor who’s sole purpose is facilitating these types of exchanges.

Nick Turse, author of the new book Tomorrow’s Battlefield (and also an author at The Intercept) does an excellent job recounting the U.S.’s recent ventures on one continent in particular.

“Counting countries in which it has bases or outposts or has done construction, and those with which it has conducted military exercises, advisory assignments, security cooperation or training missions, the US military, according to TomDispatch’s analysis, is involved with more than 90 percent of Africa’s fifty-four nations.” – Nick Turse

US military expansion into Africa only begins to tell the story of its expanded geographic reach, which is perhaps only now reaching a crescendo. This story includes a decades long project that began after the Cold War to push the boundaries of US-led western military and political power ever further.

Many of Professor Gregory’s and The Intercept’s insights dovetail my own research into NATO’s expanding material and political cartographies. Indeed I’m heavily indebted to their high quality of painstaking research. Logistic supply routes, military bases, joint training exercises, coded-military hardware, and multi-lateral agreements have turned what used to be a primarily defensive military alliance into a political-economic military organization with global reach. As part of its ‘Maritime Domain’ NATO now operates off the Horn of Africa in tandem with the US, EU, China, and even Columbia, protecting tankers from piracy in order to ensure the flow of oil goes on uninterrupted. As part of its political expansion, it has established a global network of partnerships, that span the Steppe from Warsaw in Poland to Ulanbaatar in Mongolia, and from Rabat across the Maghreb to Israel and beyond.  These formal networks of partnerships have drawn smaller states like The Republic of Georgia into NATO’s conflicts abroad. This helps explain why Georgia, a non-NATO member, is now the second largest troop contributor in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. A war that President Obama recently declared was going to last much longer.

If we take into account the US, EU, and NATO’s multiple bilateral, multilateral, and other overlapping security arrangements – we end up with a military network that is indicative of a geostrategy attempting to overcome the ‘Tyranny of Distance’ once and for all. Whether you believe the strategy of extending trans-Atlantic and Western military reach is the harbinger of peace and stability or “the single most destabilising force in world affairs since the Cold War” – one thing is for certain. It’s damn expensive. And we probably ought to know more about it.

Keep an eye on the Intercept and Professor Gregory’s blog for more analysis to come.

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