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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 7:13 PM EDT

Nick Turse's Response:

From: Nick Turse

To: Tom Davis

Dear Colonel Davis,

Thank you very much for your note. It's flattering that you and your colleagues read my article, "Obama's Scramble for Africa: Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon's 'New Spice Route' in Africa," with such interest. It's always gratifying to know that a piece has had an impact on readers.

I appreciate your regard for the "great deal of research" that I conducted and am grateful for the information that your command released to me. I do, however, object to your assertion that the article contained "several inaccuracies and misrepresentations." Most of your "refutations" actually seem to corroborate my assertions and I believe that, by and large, your objections have largely to do with semantics and differences of interpretation. But let me respond, point by point:

"They call it the New Spice Route": I'm glad to have you confirm this fact. I do, however, find it odd that you refer to this as an informal term, since this is how the supply network was referred to in an official military publication (Army Sustainment). In fact, the article by Lieutenant Colonel David Corrick was even titled "The New Spice Route for Africa." To describe it as consisting of "primarily land shipments from Djibouti" also seems to run counter to the information in Lieutenant Colonel Corrick's article. A map of "The New Spice Route" that appeared with his article indicates that the supply network consists of land and sea routes linking Mombasa, Kenya, and Manda Bay, Kenya; Mombasa and Garissa, Kenya; Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya; Nairobi and Entebbe, Uganda; Mombasa and a Djiboutian port; and a Djiboutian port with Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. To complain about my calling it a "superpower's superhighway," on the basis of the total percentage of cargo that travels along the route, strikes me as nitpicking over a difference of interpretation.

Quite obviously, this is not how you would characterize it and I respect that. I see the matter differently, however. The United States is still a superpower -- on this, I suspect, we would both agree -- and this is the network by which it speeds food, fuel, and equipment to keep its operations in Africa running. I would also hasten to add that military personnel associated with the program characterize it not as some second-rate Djiboutian trucking effort, but as "innovative," "high-tech," and "transformational." This is their language, not mine. Moreover, Lieutenant Colonel Corrick writes that the network is growing and that it "will eventually span all of Africa."

"Fast-growing US military presence in Africa": You question this phrasing in my piece. Once again, your complaint about inaccuracy seems to me to be based on what is, at best, a matter of opinion -- although I obviously believe that the facts demonstrate otherwise. To base the bulk of your contentions strictly on troop-level increases strikes me as a very limited way of assessing growth. The US military "presence" anywhere is much more that simply a question of troop levels. (Nevertheless, given that the US is technically not "at war" in Africa, the more than 200% increase in US personnel there since 2005 seems striking to me.)

Back in 2003, the US military hardly had a foothold in Africa. Today, there is a major base in Djibouti (now slated for many improvements and expansion), contingents of US personnel have been deployed to the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, South Sudan, and the Seychelles Islands; troops have conducted operations in Burundi, Liberia, Somalia, and Uganda. Then there's that expanding supply network I wrote about. There's also the growing Tusker Sand program of aerial surveillance missions that the Washington Post exposed. You even state that AFRICOM conducts "some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent." The list goes on and on. I stand by this assessment and consider it well-documented.

"The US maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa": You deny that the places I identified are "bases." I understand that you don't label them as such, but that doesn't mean others don't. Let me start by noting this: I was more than fair in making certain that readers knew AFRICOM and I differed in our interpretations. At the beginning of my article, I explicitly noted: "According to Pat Barnes, a spokesman for US Africa Command (AFRICOM), Camp Lemonnier serves as the only official US base on the continent."

Shortly thereafter, I again drew attention to this distinction, and our differing interpretations of what constitutes a base, when I wrote: "Today -- official designations aside -- the US maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa." Neither you personally nor the US military are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes a base. You have your own definition, nothing more. Webster's begins its relevant entry on "base" as "the place from which a military force draws supplies…" That seems to encompass a good many facilities along that "New Spice Route" in Africa. But resorting to dictionaries, either yours or Webster's, seems beside the point. When the Washington Post first wrote about US operations in Obo in the Central African Republic, it began its article this way: "Behind razor wire and bamboo walls topped with security cameras sits one of the newest US military outposts in Africa. US Special Forces soldiers with tattooed forearms and sunglasses emerge daily in pickup trucks that carry weapons, supplies and interpreters..." Whether you call that an "outpost," a "base," or a "camp" matters little. It is clearly a protected compound that houses military personnel, supplies, and equipment. If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck...

Additionally, your letter could be read to imply that I claim the US had outposts at Thebephatswa Airbase in Molepolole, Botswana, or Mombasa International Airport in Kenya. To be clear, I never wrote any such thing. I asked your command for comment for my article about these and other sites, but none was offered until your note, which arrived more than a week after the article was published. As such, I did not publish anything about these facilities. It seems that, just as I suspected, they have been or are currently integral to the US military project in Africa, so I appreciate the information.

You will note that, in regard to Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, and a Navy port facility in Djibouti, I specifically mentioned in my article that "AFRICOM did not respond to requests for further information on these posts before this article went to press." To this day, no one has responded to my requests for information about these possible bases. What should I make of this pregnant silence?

"100 to 200 US commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay": You will need to take this up with the Washington Post. The sentence, in full, reads: "A recent investigation by the Washington Post revealed that contractor-operated surveillance aircraft based out of Entebbe, Uganda, are scouring the territory used by Kony's LRA at the Pentagon's behest, and that 100 to 200 US commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay." Specifically, the Washington Post states: "Manda Bay, Kenya: More than 100 US commandos are based at a Kenyan military installation."

To be clear, I did not want to rely on the Washington Post's reporting, but was left with no choice. Ten days before my article was published, I specifically asked your spokesman about the troops stationed at Manda Bay as well as the nature of the operations there, but my questions were never answered. I asked in a slightly different manner six days before publication, but again received no answer. Your letter to my editor, more than a week after publication, was the first response I received on the subject from AFRICOM.

"The US also has had troops deployed in Mali": It seems that we are in total agreement that this statement is true.

"Additionally, US Special Operations Forces are engaged in missions against the Lord's Resistance Army": We seem to be in agreement on this as well. I wrote nothing about tactical operations, gun battles, or anything of the sort. In fact, I even quote an AFRICOM spokesman who said, "US military personnel working with regional militaries in the hunt for Joseph Kony are guests of the African security forces comprising the regional counter-LRA effort." I don't know how much clearer I could have been about that. What is very clear is that US troops are thoroughly engaged in missions against the LRA. As an article by the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service explicitly noted: "US troops are providing information- and intelligence-sharing, logistics, communications and other enabling capabilities for host-nation troops pursuing Kony in Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Republic of the Congo."

"And that's still just a part of the story": Given that, in your letter, you chronicle missions above and beyond those that I exposed, I'd say we agree on this point as well.

"Next year, even more American troops are likely to be on hand": You begin by stating, "The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division will not deploy to Africa." I never said otherwise, only -- and very specifically -- that elements of this BCT would deploy. I never spoke of the full contingent, only units from it. As far as the numbers go, I apologize if these are incorrect. They are, however, publicly reported figures to which I explicitly provided a link as a form of citation. That article, in Army Times, is titled: "3,000 soldiers to serve in Africa next year."

Once again, I did not want to have to use figures from a third party in assessing the size of the American contingent in Africa. In fact, I asked the AFRICOM spokesman at the Pentagon, in an email dated July 6th, whether the US military presence (which he had already told me was approximately 5,000 at this moment) would grow, shrink, or stay about the same next year, but he never offered an answer. Nor did AFRICOM personnel at your headquarters, to whom he assured me that he passed along my questions, respond. In fact, weeks later, they still have not responded.

"Mercenary cargo carriers to skirt diplomatic clearance issues": You object to my language once again, but don't actually refute the facts. You ask: "What exactly is a mercenary cargo carrier?" I submit that it's a person or company which supports military cargo operations for financial gain. The air carriers you mention are, indeed, military contractors which are supporting military operations for profit, largely unbeknownst to the American public. I firmly stand by this characterization.

You go on to write: "[W]e 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 begin, I would refer CID to Major Joseph D. Gaddis of the US Air Force for further information. In a section of an Army Sustainment article on air logistics in Africa, titled "The Diplomatic Clearance Hurdle," Major Gaddis writes:

"A major question facing logisticians in Africa is whether the legwork of contracting airlift outweighs the challenges often associated with traditional methods of using US military aircraft in Africa, which include lengthy processes to obtain diplomatic clearance. Carrying out a mission into most countries often requires 14 to 21 days of leadtime. For the Hungary based C−17 unit, this process can be as long as 30 to 45 days. When working with operations in landlocked countries, diplomatic over-flight clearance leadtimes reduce the flexibility of the DOD airlift system. Domestically registered contract aircraft do not have these clearance issues. Their simple country clearance process enables them to plan a flight in less than a day. Foreign civilian carriers operating in Africa (including US-registered carriers) also face less diplomatic red tape and do not require the same lengthy clearance process as the US military."

Maj. Gaddis very clearly states: "Domestically registered contract aircraft do not have th[e] clearance issues" that affect US military aircraft. He states explicitly that the US can skirt lengthy authorization issues by using "Foreign civilian carriers operating in Africa...[which] face less diplomatic red tape and do not require the same lengthy clearance process as the US military." This suggests that the US is making a conscious decision to shift from traditional and more overt methods of shipping equipment and supplies to more covert methods in order to subvert regulations put in place by African countries -- or at the very least subvert the spirit of those regulations. While cutting "red tape" appears to be the primary reason for hiding behind contractors, I can't help but see similarities between this effort and the use of generic-looking spy planes as part of Tusker Sand surveillance missions in Africa.

In any case, I would appreciate it if you would keep me apprised of any investigations or other actions that result from this information.

"Emergency Troop Housing": Again, we seem to be in total agreement that the US is constructing "Emergency Troop Housing" in Djibouti. You note that "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." I just want to make clear that I never said these CLUs were for "new arrivals." It does, however, make me wonder about why that word "emergency" is being used for this new housing. I also question why -- since you dispute that the US presence in Africa is fast-growing -- troops have been living in substandard housing? If there was no rush and you have plenty of time to plan for arrivals, why wasn't adequate troop housing constructed in advance?

Finally, I respectfully take issue with your comments about my requests to AFRICOM for information for my article, which was published on July 12, 2012. As your records will attest, on May 29, 2012, I first asked for detailed information on the US military presence in Africa, specifically bases -- including those at which US troops are guests of other nations. On June 6th, I received a rather superficial reply to which I followed up with questions, by phone or email -- sometimes both -- on July 2nd, 6th, and 9th. I even followed up after the story was published and was told I would be contacted with answers by Wednesday, July 16th, by a specific individual at AFRICOM. At this writing, on July 24th, I am still waiting to hear from him.

I also object to your claim that I "followed up...with a list of questions that required much more time than the one business day he gave us to answer." To be frank, in my "business" there are no "business days." And let's be franker still: there aren't any in yours, either. Other than holiday ceasefires and the like, I've never heard about the US military taking a week off from a war or shutting down for the weekend. My work adheres to the same schedule.

Still, the list of questions to which you refer was first called in to your Pentagon spokesman on July 6th. He asked me to put them in writing, which I dutifully did. I sent those in and he assured me that he forwarded them on to your headquarters that same day. I followed up on the 9th and mentioned my looming deadline. I was told that AFRICOM headquarters might have some answers for me on the 10th. That day, however, came and went without a word. So did the 11th. We published the piece on the 12th.

Given that I've been requesting detailed information since May, I'm sorry to say that your letter rings a bit hollow when you write: "If he had waited, we would have provided the information requested, which could have better informed his story." Two weeks later, I'm still waiting for a complete reply to my questions of July 6th (not to mention those of May 29th). I respectfully submit that a vigorous free press cannot be held hostage, waiting for information that might never arrive.

Quite obviously, we have different worldviews and differing opinions, but to say that my reporting contained several "inaccuracies and misrepresentations" is, I believe, a misrepresentation and I hope you will reconsider your words in light of my response above.

I believe that I was fair in my reporting. I gave ample space to AFRICOM's views and contentions when they differed from mine, provided reasonable-sized quotes so that your spokesman was able to express AFRICOM's opinions, and drew on respected mainstream publications for information when your command did not answer my questions. I would also submit that my reporting gives much greater voice to dissenting views than do the news articles/releases on the AFRICOM website. I gave your spokesman's view on what constitutes a "base." I would challenge your staff to do the same and grant, in news releases and responses to queries, that while the US military might not consider a facility to be a "base," others could have a different opinion.

Moreover, let me suggest that if AFRICOM were entirely transparent -- and posting reams of information to your website is not the same as transparency -- with America's taxpayers about US military operations in Africa, all of this could be avoided.

With this and future articles on US operations in Africa, in mind, let me ask (with plenty of time to spare) for a full listing of all -- as you term them -- "temporary facilities" and any other sites where the United States has or has had "warehousing privileges," construction projects, work sites, outposts, camps, facilities, laboratories, warehouses, supply depots, fuel storage, and the like in Africa since 2003, as well as supporting documents on the nature of the operations at these locations so that I can evaluate them for myself. If I had a clearer picture, I would certainly be in a better position to ask even more informed questions. Once that picture becomes clearer, I would hope that you would facilitate visits by me to these facilities for a first-hand look, so I could draw my own conclusions about their nature.

In addition to providing me with this information, I also hope you'll allow me to call on you directly the next time I have questions about US operations in Africa.

Thank you again for your interest in my work and for the information your command provided to me.

Regards,

Nick Turse

Associate Editor, TomDispatch.com

 

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