By some measures, the United States seems poised to become a peacetime nation once again: President Barack Obama's administration has withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and has begun the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.
But there's one big problem with the idea that the United States is moving away from being a nation at war. While Obama is bringing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end, he has dramatically expanded America's covert wars across the globe --favoring surgical strikes by Special Forces teams, such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and missile-wielding drones that can deliver death from above.
Obama's not-so-secret reliance on covert action has transformed the nature of warfare. Here's a tour of the hotspots where the United States is waging war from the shadows.
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Obama has authorized 244 drone strikes in Pakistan since his inauguration in 2009, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation -- a number that dwarfs the strikes conducted under President George W. Bush. On Jan. 31, Obama publicly confirmed for the first time that the United States was conducting these strikes, describing it as "a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans."
However, it's not clear that's the entire story. A report by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that hundreds of civilians have been "credibly reported" killed in U.S. drone attacks, including more than 60 children. U.S. officials argue that this number is much too high, though they do admit that dozens of civilians have been inadvertently killed during operations.
Whatever the risks, it's clear the Obama administration is doubling down on the use of special forces to fight its wars. Even in this age of budget-cutting, the Pentagon's new budget seeks to add 3,000 people to SOCOM -- while the rest of the military shrinks.
Above, Pakistani security personnel examine a crashed American surveillance drone in the town of Chaman on Aug. 25, 2011. The drone crashed in southwestern Pakistan near a paramilitary base close to the Afghan border.
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Unsurprisingly, Pakistanis aren't happy about the drones. Above, a protester burns an American flag as a crowd shouts slogans during a protest against the drone attacks in the city of Multan on Feb. 9, 2011. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that a paltry 12 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States, and 69 percent saw the United States as more enemy than friend.
But they're effective. According to New American Foundation data, U.S. drone strikes have killed more than 1,000 militants in Pakistan since Obama's inauguration.
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Yemen grabbed headlines this year because of its blood-soaked uprising against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- after months of chaos, Yemenis voted his successor into office on Feb. 21. But without drawing too many headlines, the United States has also been waging a covert battle against al Qaeda havens in the country. While the United States trains Yemeni special forces soldiers, its own special forces are believed to be operating in the country in tandem with Yemen's military.
U.S. officials maintain that Yemen's domestic upheaval has not deterred counterterrorism cooperation with the Yemeni government. John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism advisor, praised Yemen's new President Abd Rabbouh Mansur al-Hadi's commitment to "destroying" al Qaeda in a recent visit to the country.
Above, a mannequin and "crashed plane" set the scene for Orbit Comet, an anti-terrorism and force protection training exercise at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in June 2006. The exercise was designed to test local, state, and national authorities' reaction to terrorist attacks, hostage situations, the release of a lethal biological agent, and cyberterrorism.
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Above, the USS Boxer departs from Naval Air Station North Island on Jan. 14, 2004. Carrying 200 marines and 900 sailors, the USS Boxer is an amphibious assault vessel on permanent station in the Gulf of Aden off Yemen's coast, with a squadron of Harrier aircraft to fly strike-missions against targets in-country identified either by the CIA, Special Forces on the ground, or drones.
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Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which finds most of its safe havens in Yemen, has evolved into arguably the most deadly of the infamous terrorist organization's "franchises." As a result, U.S. policy toward Yemen is viewed almost exclusively through the prism of counterterrorism.
Here, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, Navy Adm. Eric Olson, and Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb prepare to testify during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee March 17, 2010, in Washington. Petraeus, now the CIA director, addressed U.S. efforts in Yemen, Pakistan, and the creation of a "Cyber Command" to defend the United States from computer attack.
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A Yemeni soldier stands guard in old Sanaa. The United States and Britain temporarily closed their embassies in the Yemeni capital on Jan. 3, 2010, after threats from AQAP and the failed bombing of a U.S. airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, by a terrorist trained in Yemen.
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It's not only the Middle East and South Asia where American soldiers are fighting terror: From Camp Lemonnier in the tiny African country of Djibouti, the U.S. military is quietly battling terrorism across a wide swath of Africa. There are approximately 1,800 troops stationed in Djibouti, where their mission is to prevent al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from accessing nations in the region, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Above, a hangar is visible at a base where the U.S. military launches its drones for surveillance in the Horn of Africa.
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New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees looks through the sights of an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon while visiting the U.S. Marines stationed in Djibouti on March 29, 2010. The amphibious assault ship USS Nassau stands nearby to support maritime security operations in the region.
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U.S. Marines with the 24th Marine Regiment undergo weapons training on Feb. 24, 2003 at Camp Lemonnier.
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Drones haven't only been a key component of the U.S. covert war in Pakistan's tribal regions -- they've also played a major role in complementing the war effort in Afghanistan.
Above, U.S. Army Sgt. Don Stolle launches a Raven surveillance drone into the air on Aug. 30, 2011, in the Afghan district of Achin. The military uses the small unmanned aerial vehicles to watch for possible Taliban movements near U.S. forces on the ground. The craft, controlled remotely like a model airplane, can fly for up to one and a half hours and has a distance of about six miles on its electronic motor before being brought back and relaunched with a fresh battery.
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U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Bender launches a Raven surveillance drone near the remote Afghan village of Baqwa on March 21, 2009. Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment use the unmanned aerial vehicles to get real-time intelligence on Taliban movements.
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U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Bender and Lt. Cpl. Dennis Goddard monitor the flight of a Raven surveillance drone from a Marine base on March 21, 2009, near Baqwa.
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When Obama pledged U.S. support to enforce a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya last year, he also sent in the drones. As NATO forces struggled to help the Libyan rebels break Muammar al-Qaddafi's siege of the city of Misrata in April, the United States authorized the use of Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles to target the Libyan leader's forces. While Obama had promised that America's European partners would take the lead in the Libya operations, it turned out that there were certain capabilities -- including the drones -- that only the United States possessed.
Here, smoke billows from Qaddafi's tightly-guarded compound in the Libyan capital of Tripoli on March 29, 2011, following airstrikes from the NATO-led coalition.
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Fire engulfs a boat in the port of Tripoli after NATO aircraft hit eight vessels belonging to Qaddafi's navy in the early morning hours of May 20, 2011.
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One of the murkiest U.S. counterterrorism efforts is being conducted against the Somali militant group al-Shabab, which has formally merged with al Qaeda and threatened publicly to bring the "flames of war" to neighboring Kenya. As Kenyan troops moved toward the rebel stronghold of Kismayu in October 2011, foreign military forces -- possibly including the United States -- joined the offensive against al-Shabab. Senior U.S. officials have since denied that U.S. forces were involved in any airstrikes in Somalia during that period.
At other times, the American hand in Somalia has been clearer. In January, a U.S. drone killed a senior foreign commander in al-Shabab, and U.S. commandos staged a daring raid in the country to rescue two aid workers. In 2006 and 2007, the U.S. military also cooperated closely with a large Ethiopian force that stormed into Somalia to expel an Islamist movement that had seized control of much of the country.
Above, al-Shabab officials display dead bodies, which they allege are soldiers from the Burundian contingent of the Africa Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, on Oct. 20, 2011, after heavy fighting between Somali and foreign forces and the insurgents. "We have killed more than 70 of the enemy soldiers today," boasted al-Shabab spokesman Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage during a press conference.
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