The original terms of the U.S. Constitution place the power to declare war solely in the hands of Congress. A revolutionary concept at the time, the framers of the Constitution reasoned that decisions of such gravity necessitated careful deliberation and open public debate and could not be made unilaterally by the president if the United States was to survive as a republic.
However, the U.S. has not formally declared war on a foreign adversary since World War II. And since Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in 1945, the U.S. has engaged directly in large-scale military conflicts around the globe without direct congressional approval, relying instead on a range of often-dubious legal justifications.
President Harry Truman, for example, committed American troops to Korea in the 1950s, at the request of the U.N. Security Council. The following decade, President Lyndon Johnson sent troops into Vietnam following the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which greatly expanded presidential authority in military matters. In the 1980s, President George H.W. Bush argued that America’s right to self-defense, a provision of the U.N. charter, warranted the U.S. invasion of Panama.
In the years since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even more checks and balances on military deployment have been stripped away. In the ongoing War on Terror, Congress has authorized the Department of Defense to train and equip military forces anywhere in the world and to provide backing to foreign forces supporting counterterrorism operations. These provisions, known as Section 333 and Section 127e, are now being used for American involvement in over a dozen shadow wars around the world.
Unlike America’s military campaigns of the latter half of the previous century, these are generally small-scale operations that target diffuse militant groups that operate across broad regions rather than nations with clearly defined borders.
Using data from the 2022 Brennan Center for Justice report, “Secret War: How the U.S. Uses Partnerships and Proxy Forces to Wage War Under the Radar,” 24/7 Wall St. identified the 15 countries where the U.S. government is engaging in secret wars. Each of the countries on this list is verified to have active programs covered under Section 333 and Section 127e.
It is important to note that this list of countries is not necessarily exhaustive and is instead based on publicly available information. Many of these countries, located exclusively in the Middle East and Africa, are home to branches of terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS).
The degree to which the U.S. is involved in these countries varies. In some, such as Iraq, thousands of American troops are deployed. In others, such as Yemen and Libya, American intervention is limited to airstrikes or supplying partner nations with weapons to use in combat. (Here is a look at every combat drone in use by the U.S. military.)
Since these clandestine military operations have become public, they have drawn widespread public criticism, largely for their lack of transparency. There have also been instances in which the local forces being trained and equipped by the U.S. have been accused of egregious human rights abuses, including torture and summary executions. And though Americans are ostensibly in many of these countries to support and train local fighters, U.S. troops have, at times, directly engaged in combat, sometimes incurring casualties. (Here is a look at each state’s death toll in America’s post 9/11 wars.)
Click here to see the 15 countries the US government is involved in secret wars with.
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