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The Nature of the U.S. Military Presence in Africa

An exchange between Colonel Tom Davis and Nick Turse.

Thu Jul. 26, 2012 8:13 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

 

FROM: Colonel Tom Davis

Director, US Africa Command Office of Public Affairs

Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany

TO: Mr. Tom Engelhardt, Editor

 

Dear Mr. Engelhardt,

We read the recent article "Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon's 'New Spice Route' in Africa" with great interest. It is clear the author, Nick Turse, conducted a great deal of research, including reaching out to us, and we welcomed the opportunity to highlight US Africa Command's mission and activities. However, there were several inaccuracies and misrepresentations that we would like to address. My hope is that you, through your publication, will correct the record. As a thought provoking, responsible, and professional journalist, I know that you would want to ensure all reporting was based on facts, not innuendos or misperceptions.

Below are the items US Africa Command would like to address:

"They call it the New Spice Route": This was a term used informally by a few of our logistics specialists to describe the intra-theater transportation system, primarily land shipments from Djibouti, which provides logistical support for US military activities in Africa. The network is officially called the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network. However, to call it a "superpower's superhighway" is very misleading. The US military cargo transported along these different transportation nodes represents only a mere fraction -- i.e., a handful of trucks per week intermixed among the thousands of others -- of the total amount of fuel, food, and equipment transported along these routes each day.

"Fast-growing US military presence in Africa": While the size of the US military footprint in Africa has increased since the creation of US Africa Command in October 2008, to call it "fast-growing" is an exaggeration. At the end of October 2008, there were about 2,600 US military personnel and Department of Defense civilians on the African continent or on ships within the command's area of responsibility. The number today is about 5,000, more than half of which represents the service members who serve tours at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, with the remainder serving on a temporary basis ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Much of this change is attributable to an increase in the number of exercises and military-to-military engagement programs in order to better enable African nations and regional organizations to strengthen their defense capabilities. On a much smaller scale, it also reflects a modest increase in the staff sizes of DOD offices resident in US embassies, which average just a small number of staff members. But even 5,000 personnel -- about the military population of a small Air Force Base in the US -- spread across an area that covers 54 countries and major portions of two oceans can hardly be called a "scramble for Africa."

In our view, this is very positive, and testament to our desire to be a security partner of choice in Africa. It reflects an increase in military assistance engagement activities -- all of which are requested and approved by the host nation. While we work to advance the security interests of the US, we are together addressing what are clearly shared security interests.

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"The US maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa": This is incorrect. In the lexicon of the US military, the word "base" implies a certain size, level of infrastructure, and permanence. Based on this widely accepted definition, other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, we do not have military bases in Africa, nor do we have plans to establish any. We do, however, have temporary facilities elsewhere in Africa that support much smaller numbers of personnel, usually for a specific activity. In all cases, our personnel are guests within the host-nation and work alongside or coordinate their activities with host-nation personnel. Some of these locations are fairly well developed while others are more austere.

For example, approximately 100 US military advisors are dispersed among four nations in Central and East Africa providing advice and assistance to the national militaries working to end the threat posed by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). We currently have small teams in Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic, Dungu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nzara in South Sudan, and Entebbe in Uganda. In each location, we are working alongside the national militaries, helping to reinforce their efforts and strengthen collaboration and coordination, not conducting our own operations.

Similarly, there are humanitarian work sites in Ethiopian towns such as Humble, Hulla, and Dube, where Seabees and other US military personnel have assisted in the past or are currently assisting with drilling wells, providing medical and veterinary assistance, or constructing schools and health clinics.

Finally, Thebephatswa Airbase in Molepolole, Botswana, is staffed and operated by Botswana Defence Force personnel (BDFP). There is no permanent US presence on the airbase, nor has there ever been. The US has partnered with Botswana for previous exercises at Thebephatswa Airbase and much of SOUTHERN ACCORD, a major bi-lateral exercise in August, will be conducted at Thebephatswa.

We also currently have warehousing privileges at Mombasa International Airport in Kenya, which includes the storage of equipment and rations. US personnel do not manage the warehouses; the daily activities and running of the warehouse are handled by local nationals hired by the Embassy and funded by AFRICOM.

"100 to 200 US commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay": This is also incorrect. US military personnel deployed to Manda Bay are primarily Civil Affairs, Seabees, and security personnel involved with military to military engagements with Kenyan forces and humanitarian initiatives. Simba was established in 2004 to provide support to US military engagements with the Kenyan Navy. Its primary mission is to provide base/life support services to US military personnel who are in the area for training and engagement activities with the Kenyan military, including maritime engagement and civil-military efforts.

"The US also has had troops deployed in Mali": To clarify, prior to the coup, the US military had a longstanding military partnership with Mali. For several years, we had small teams regularly travel in and out of Mali for training activities with the Malian military; this includes conventional forces and special operations forces (SOF).

At the time of the military seizure on March 22, US Africa Command had a small number of personnel in Mali who were supporting our military-to-military activities. Military assistance to Mali was suspended immediately following the seizure. US government personnel from many agencies, including DoD, remained on stand-by in Bamako as negotiations continued toward a return to democratic, constitutional, civilian rule. Because of the continued uncertainty surrounding the outcome and consequences of the seizure, and the fact that military engagement had only been suspended, our personnel remained in Mali to provide assistance to the Embassy, maintain situational awareness on the unfolding events, and assist in coordination between US Africa Command and the Embassy.

The US State Department terminated foreign assistance to the government of Mali on April 10. The Department of Defense's Defense Security Cooperation Agency received a memorandum from the State Department dated 19 April notifying the DoD of the coup designation and the termination of all military assistance programs. Upon receiving this notification from State Department, we began arranging the departure of personnel and equipment from Mali. All US military personnel who were in Mali supporting military-to-military engagement activities have since departed Mali. Only those Department of Defense personnel regularly assigned to the Embassy (such as the Defense Attaché or US Marine Corps guards) remain.

Also, the introduction to the story states it was recently "revealed" that three US soldiers were killed in an accident in Mali in April and that "This is how we know that US special operations forces were operating in chaotic, previously democratic Mali." The fact is we issued a press release a day after the soldiers were killed, and the Associated Press, Xinhua, and AFP ran stories on the incident. It must be noted that the activities of US military forces in Mali have been very public. We have published stories, fact sheets, and photos on our website, and Malian, US and international reporters have covered these activities for some years.

"Additionally, US Special Operations Forces are engaged in missions against the Lord's Resistance Army": While our forces live and work closely with African security forces, our focus is on enabling their ability to better conduct command and control, planning and coordination. Special Operations Forces are not directly involved in the African-led operation to remove the threat of the LRA. The mission for US forces in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan is to advise and assist local forces to better enable them to conduct their operations. As a matter of fact, in April 2012, we organized a four-day press event in Uganda and CAR, providing 18 local and international journalists' access to cover the African-led counter-LRA mission. This visit resulted in extensive worldwide coverage of the story, which clearly articulated our advise and assist mission.

"And that's still just a part of the story": Yes, we've trained Ugandan, Burundian, and Djiboutian troops supporting the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As part of the C-LRA media trip mentioned above, we also brought the media to visit the AMISOM train-up efforts -- all taking place at a Uganda People's Defense Force base outside Kampala, Uganda. This visit also resulted in extensive worldwide media coverage. We've also trained Senegalese and Rwandan troops supporting the UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), as well as peacekeepers from nearly a dozen other African countries. We apply the resources that we do have to help countries willing to contribute to multinational efforts like AMISOM or UNAMID so that they can continue their operations. Our engagement in this realm is in support of a State Department-led peacekeeping training program, which has trained more than 200,000 African peacekeepers from 25 African nations over the years. Recently we've seen positive results in Mogadishu, not only as a result of the US support, but more importantly, because of the brave men and women of the AMISOM troop-contributing nations.

Like every Geographic Combatant Command, we have an exercise program with nations within our area of responsibility. We currently have 14 major bilateral and multilateral exercises that have been conducted or are planned for 2012 and as many in 2013. As you probably know, many security issues in Africa are best addressed multilaterally. Exercises are a critical engagement opportunity that not only allow for improvements to interoperability, but also foster greater regional cooperation and integration.

We also conduct some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent. This is part of our effort to enable African nations to increase their defense capabilities. These activities are requested by the host nation and cleared by the US embassies. Many are well covered by local press and highlighted on our website.

"Next year, even more American troops are likely to be on hand": The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division will not deploy to Africa. Instead, the brigade acts as a single source to provide US Army personnel to support activities already tasked to our Army service component, US Army Africa. Previously, the requirements were distributed across the entire US Army. Under this new construct, these same requirements will be filled from a single unit allowing personnel from this brigade to establish a level of expertise on the African continent. This change will not increase the number of Soldiers on the continent, but simplifies our internal processes for identifying Soldiers to support existing missions.

We must note that reports that leap to the conclusion that "3,000 Soldiers will deploy to Africa" are inaccurate. Small teams -- whose numbers typically range from 3-12 -- would be drawn from this unit to conduct deliberately planned engagements, training events, and exercises. Once or twice a year, to support a large-scale exercise, they may send a few hundred. This process is evolving. But, when their missions are complete, they return home. This can be compared to the SPMAGTF-12 cited in the article, whose Marines are not only doing great work for Uganda and Burundi and other partner nations, but also America, Americans, and American interests.

"Mercenary cargo carriers to skirt diplomatic clearance issues": The choice of words is interesting and unfortunate. This is only one example where somewhat inflammatory language is used to make a point but at the expense of the credibility of the report. What exactly is a mercenary cargo carrier? Federal Express, DHL, Ethiopian Air, and other reputable air cargo companies we use to transport material? The choice to use contract carriers is based exclusively on cost and efficiency. And, to be very clear, we are always required to obtain diplomatic clearance and complete all customs formalities. It would be highly inappropriate and unethical to attempt to "skirt" country clearances. To do that would be an egregious violation of our values. In fact, since these actions appear to constitute criminal activity, we would be appreciative if Mr. Turse can provide us specific details, documents, or other evidence, in order to provide our Criminal Investigative Command (CID) a basis of information to start an investigation. To be perfectly clear, AFRICOM does not condone this type of behavior, anything you can do to provide us the needed evidence would be appreciated.

"Emergency Troop Housing": All of the military construction projects you outline are included in the Defense Authorization Acts of FY 2010 and 2011 and are a matter of public record. However, the 300 additional Containerized Living Units (CLUs) are being built for people already living at Camp Lemonnier, either in tents or in other substandard housing, not for new arrivals.

We appreciate Mr. Turse contacting us for information and running our input in the final article. He followed up with us with a list of questions that required much more time than the one business day he gave us to answer. It took several days to conduct the research necessary to answer his questions; unfortunately, he chose to publish the story prior to receiving the answers, which he knew we were working on.If he had waited, we would have provided the information requested, which could have better informed his story. It takes time to gather information about locations in seven different countries.

Finally, I would encourage you and those who have interest in what we do to review our Website, www.AFRICOM.mil, and a new Defense Department Special Web Report on US Africa Command at this link http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2012/0712_AFRICOM/.

Please do not hesitate to contact us in the future if you have any questions or need any additional information.

Sincerely,

Tom Davis,

Colonel, US Army

Director of Public Affairs

United States Africa Command

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