Townsend Oversaw Army Unit in Syria That Committed Myriad Atrocities and Helped Cover Up Crimes
As head of AFRICOM, the veteran of Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is sanctioning yet more dirty war operations and killing.
In early December, The New York Times reported on the existence of a clandestine army unit in Syria which, from 2014 to 2019, had launched tens of thousands of bombs and missiles and repeatedly killed civilians, including farmers trying to harvest, children in the street and villagers sheltering in buildings.
The secret unit—which officially did not exist—was called Talon Anvil, and it embraced a loose interpretation of the military’s rules of engagement, according to the Times.
From 2016 to 2017, the unit was overseen by four-star Army General Stephen Townsend who, as commander of the offensive against the Islamic State in Syria, authorized low-level commanders to order air strikes. Under pressure to obtain results, these commanders, according to Air Force intelligence officers, would push analysts to say they saw evidence, such as weapons that could legally justify a strike, even when none existed.
Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department adviser who was one of the authors of a 2018 Defense Department report on civilian harm, reported that Townsend was dismissive of reports from news media and human rights organizations describing the mounting human toll of U.S. Special Forces operations in Syria.
Rather than being hounded by anti-war protesters and fired, Townsend was promoted in July 2019 to become the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, or AFRICOM, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany.
In that capacity, he is sponsoring yet more killing in U.S.-run dirty wars.
In April 2020, Townsend heralded the killing in a U.S. air strike of al-Shabaab leader Yusuf Jiis (aka Yusuf Nur Sheikh Hassan) 135 miles west of Mogadishu in Somalia.
According to Townsend, Jiis “was a key leader in the al-Shabaab organization [who] was violent, ruthless, and responsible for the loss of many innocent lives. His removal makes Somalia and neighboring countries safer.”
The “kingpin strategy,” however, in which top insurgent leaders are assassinated, has been shown time and time again to be a failure because these leaders are replaceable.
In the case of Jiis, he was al-Shabaab’s liaison to humanitarian agencies who was accused of leading a raid on aid agencies in 2009—although it was not clear that he had ever killed anybody.
AFRICOM had carried out hundreds of air strikes in a decades-long war against al-Shabaab, which was founded among disaffected youth after a joint U.S.-Ethiopian invasion overthrew the more moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
In April 2020, Amnesty International condemned AFRICOM for failing to report on civilian casualties—stating that it did not “seem to care about the families it has completely torn apart.”
This is unlikely to change under Townsend’s direction, given his track record. In an op-ed in Foreign Policy, he claimed that the reports of civilian casualties coming out of Somalia were “vastly inflated,” Airwars, however, identified at least 29 separate incidents in which civilians were harmed by U.S. military action in Somalia and, in June 2020, estimated that between 68 and 140 Somali civilians had been killed—a figure that far exceeded AFRICOM’s official count of four by at least 17 times.
AFRICOM was established in 2007 with the underlying goal of enhancing U.S. access to Africa’s mineral wealth and containing Chinese encroachment on the continent.
Townsend himself admitted in testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that 26 African nations “hold reserves of minerals determined to be critical to the U.S. economy and national security.” He also emphasized the importance of AFRICOM in keeping vital shipping lanes—which he said are key to the movement of Africa’s vast natural resources including energy and strategic minerals—open to international trade.
Netfa Freeman, co-coordinator of the Black Alliance for Peace’s Africa Team, said that “the real purpose of AFRICOM is to enable terrorism while at the same time prosecuting the ‘war on terror’ in Africa. This contradictory action ensures that Africa is in a constant state of war and instability. In doing so AFRICOM nurtures and justifies its own reason for being while developing a dependence of African states on AFRICOM for their defense.”
Since his appointment in 2019, Townsend has crisscrossed Africa, forging greater liaison with African military commanders and political leaders, many of whom are authoritarian in nature or have been involved in human rights atrocities.
In 2021, for example, Townsend visited Morocco to oversee a war-games operation between AFRICOM and local troops. One of the defense officials with whom he met was Lieutenant General Belkhir El Farouk, who was appointed to head military operations in Western Sahara, which Morocco occupies and had recently launched military operations against.
Townsend also met with General Mohammed El Haddad, chief of staff of the Libyan army, to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation. Subsequently, Townsend visited Libya in an attempt to curry influence with Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibha in advance of elections scheduled for December (later postponed) in which Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, was the frontrunner. (The U.S. obviously does not want Qaddafi to win).
In September, Townsend met with Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who had overseen ethnic violence after winning fraudulent elections.
Townsend then traveled to Niger, where the U.S. houses two major drone bases. The country’s president, Mohamed Bazoum was leading a major counter-insurgency operation, backed by the U.S. against Islamic militants. The U.S. troop presence was exposed when four American soldiers were killed after being ambushed in October 2017.
Besides Bazoum, Townsend met in Niamey with French Ambassador Alexandre Garcia and Burkina Faso Commander Laurent Michon to enhance U.S.-French counterterrorism cooperation—along the Syrian model.
Afterwards, Townsend traveled to Djibouti, home of a major U.S. military base where Special Forces operations on the continent were coordinated. He also met with Chadian President Idriss Déby, who later died on the front-lines of a dirty war supported by AFRICOM, and with Mozambican Defense Minister Cristóvão Chume and Chief of General Staff Admiral Joaquim Mangrasse.
The Biden administration had recently sent troops to Mozambique alongside Portuguese and Rwandan soldiers and South African mercenaries to help the corrupt government quell a Muslim insurgency that threatened a $30 billion liquefied natural gas project of ExxonMobil.
State security forces there receiving training by AFRICOM units were implicated in serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture, use of excessive force against unarmed civilians, intimidation, and extrajudicial executions.
When he visited a U.S. military base in Manda Bay, Kenya—a headquarters of the war in Somalia—Townsend survived an assassination attempt. AFRICOM troops based there adopted similar tactics to Talon Anvil against al-Shabaab—which made Townsend a target.
Secret paramilitary units for which Townsend had been covering up, like in Syria, were mounting “snatch and grab” and “kill and capture” raids which “disappeared” many innocent victims and frequently disregarded human rights.
Priding himself as a “soldier’s commander” with a love of history, General Townsend was born in Scheinfeld, Bavaria, West Germany, in 1959 to a German art student mother and an Afghan medical student father, the result of a love affair. He was adopted soon after birth by an American military family in Germany and grew up as an army brat. His adoptive father, James Townsend, was a staff sergeant in an armored unit.
Upon graduation from North Georgia College in 1982, General Townsend was commissioned as an Army infantry officer. In 1983, he served with Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and continued with Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti.
Subsequently, he served with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, leading a task force in Operation Anaconda, and commanded the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, leading it in the 2007 Battle of Baqubah in the Iraq War, where the capital of the Iraqi province of Diyala was retaken from Sunni/al-Qaeda forces at a cost of 124 insurgents killed.
A report on the battle in The Guardian described brutal battlefield conditions in Baqubah in which soldiers were faced with the dilemma of whether or not to shoot women and children who were being used by the insurgents as human shields. Photos show U.S. troops under Townsend’s command terrorizing local residents in the attempt to capture insurgents who had littered the city with IEDs and roadside bombs.
Empire As a Way of Life
From Grenada to Iraq, to Syria and now Africa, Stephen Townsend has gone around the globe for the last 38 years hunting down insurgents in the interests of the American empire.
In that time, he has helped advance a psychological operation facilitating public support for America’s “forever wars.”
Fashioning himself as a practitioner of counter-insurgency doctrine emphasizing the importance of building the legitimacy of the local government, Townsend claims that the U.S. was “never a colonizing power in Africa,” that AFRCOM’s motto is “African solutions, for African problems.” and that countries “drowning in poverty” frequently “ask for U.S. help.”
These words mask the imperial underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy.
Unfortunately, there is no broad demand for Townsend’s indictment as a war criminal. Townsend, rather, continues to enjoy status and respect in a society where empire is a way of life.
Townsend denied that he was dismissive of civilian casualties, which he blamed in an interview with the Times on “the misfortunes of war.” ↑
See Patrick Cockburn, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (New York: Henry Holt, 2015). ↑
“There is no secret air or shadow war as some allege,” Townsend said in an AFRICOM press release. “How can there be when the whole world knows we are assisting Somalia in their fight against al-Shabaab terrorists? When we publicly announce every single airstrike we conduct? When we publicly admit to our mistakes? Unlike al-Shabaab we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties and that is not changing on my watch.” ↑
Airwars is a UK based research agency that monitors conflicts in the Middle-East. ↑
Jeremy Kuzmarov, Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2019), 106. ↑
Townsend has also visited South Africa in an attempt to pry South Africa away from its growing alliances with Russia and China. The three countries participated in their first-ever trilateral naval exercises in November 2019. ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of five books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019), The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018), and Warmonger. How Clinton’s Malign Foreign Policy Launched the U.S. Trajectory From Bush II to Biden (Clarity Press, 2023).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.