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The Startling Size of US Military Operations in Africa

The Pentagon's Africa Command will tell you there's one military base on the entire continent. Don't believe them.

| Fri Sep. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

(In and) Out of Africa

When considering the scope and rapid expansion of US military activities in Africa, it's important to keep in mind that certain key "African" bases are actually located off the continent. Keeping a semblance of a "light footprint" there, AFRICOM's headquarters is located at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, Germany. In June, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the base in Stuttgart and the US Air Force's Air Operations Center in Ramstein were both integral to drone operations in Africa.

Key logistics support hubs for AFRICOM are located in Rota, Spain; Aruba in the Lesser Antilles; and Souda Bay, Greece, as well as at Ramstein. The command also maintains a forward operating site on Britain's Ascension Island, located about 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa in the South Atlantic, but refused requests for further information about its role in operations. 

Another important logistics facility is located in Sigonella on the island of Sicily. Italy, it turns out, is an especially crucial component of US operations in Africa. Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa, which provides teams of Marines and sailors for "small-footprint theater security cooperation engagements" across the continent, is based at Naval Air Station Sigonella. It has, according to AFRICOM's Benjamin Benson, recently deployed personnel to Botswana, Liberia, Djibouti, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Tunisia, and Senegal.

In the future, US Army Africa will be based at Caserma Del Din in northern Italy, adjacent to the recently completed home of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. A 2012 US Army Africa briefing indicates that construction projects at the Caserma Del Din base will continue through 2018. The reported price-tag for the entire complex: $310 million.  
 

A Big Base Gets Bigger

While that sum is sizeable, it's surpassed by spending on the lone official US base on the African continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. That former French Foreign Legion post has been on a decade-long growth spurt. 

In 2002, the US dispatched personnel to Africa as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). The next year, CJTF-HOA took up residence at Camp Lemonnier, where it resides to this day. In 2005, the US struck a five-year land-use agreement with the Djiboutian government and exercised the first of two five-year renewal options in late 2010. In 2006, the US signed a separate agreement to expand the camp's boundaries to 500 acres.

According to AFRICOM's Benson, between 2009 and 2012, $390 million was spent on construction at Camp Lemonnier. In recent years, the outpost was transformed by the addition of an electric power plant, enhanced water storage and treatment facilities, a dining hall, more facilities for Special Operations Command, and the expansion of aircraft taxiways and parking aprons. 

A briefing prepared earlier this year by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command lists a plethora of projects currently underway or poised to begin, including an aircraft maintenance hangar, a telecommunications facility, a fire station, additional security fencing, an ammunition supply facility, interior paved roads, a general purpose warehouse, maintenance shelters for aircraft, an aircraft logistics apron, taxiway enhancements, expeditionary lodging, a combat aircraft loading apron, and a taxiway extension on the east side of the airfield. 

Navy documents detail the price tag of this year's proposed projects, including $7.5 million to be spent on containerized living units and workspaces, $22 million for cold storage and the expansion of dining facilities, $27 million for a fitness center, $43 million for a joint headquarters facility, and a whopping $220 million for a Special Operations Compound, also referred to as "Task Force Compound."


Plans for Construction of the Special Operations or "Task Force" Compound at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti

According to a 2012 briefing by Lieutenant Colonel David Knellinger, the Special Operations Compound will eventually include at least 18 new facilities, including a two-story joint operations center, a two-story tactical operations center, two five-story barracks, a large motor pool facility, a supply warehouse, and an aircraft hangar with an adjacent air operations center.   

A document produced earlier this year by Lieutenant Troy Gilbert, an infrastructure planner with AFRICOM's engineer division, lists almost $400 million in "emergency" military construction at Camp Lemonnier, including work on the special operations compound and more than $150 million for a new combat aircraft loading area. Navy documents, for their part, estimate that construction at Camp Lemonnier will continue at $70 million to $100 million annually, with future projects to include a $20 million wastewater treatment plant, a $40 million medical and dental center, and more than $150 million in troop housing.
 

Rules of Engagement

In addition, the US military has been supporting construction all over Africa for its allies. A report by Hugh Denny of the Army Corps of Engineers issued earlier this year references 79 such projects in 33 countries between 2011 and 2013, including Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Cote D'Ivoire, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, The Gambia, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. The reported price tag: $48 million.

Senegal has, for example, received a $1.2 million "peacekeeping operations training center" under the auspices of the US Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program. ACOTA has also supported training center projects in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda.

The US is planning to finance the construction of barracks and other facilities for Ghana's armed forces. AFRICOM's Benson also confirmed to TomDispatch that the Army Corps of Engineers has plans to "equip and refurbish five military border security posts in Djibouti along the Somalia/Somaliland border." In Kenya, US Special Operations Forces have "played a crucial role in infrastructure investments for the Kenyan Special Operations Regiment and especially in the establishment of the Kenyan Ranger school," according to Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.

AFRICOM's "humanitarian assistance" program is also expansive. A 2013 Navy briefing lists $7.1 million in humanitarian construction projects—like schools, orphanages, and medical facilities—in 19 countries from Comoros and Guinea-Bissau to Rwanda. Hugh Denny's report also lists nine Army Corps of Engineers "security assistance" efforts, valued at more than $12 million, carried out during 2012 and 2013, as well as 15 additional "security cooperation" projects worth more than $22 million in countries across Africa.
 

A Deluge of Deployments

In addition to creating or maintaining bases and engaging in military construction across the continent, the US is involved in near constant training and advisory missions. According to AFRICOM's Colonel Tom Davis, the command is slated to carry out 14 major bilateral and multilateral exercises by the end of this year. These include Saharan Express 2013, which brought together forces from Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, among other nations, for maritime security training; Obangame Express 2013, a counter-piracy exercise involving the armed forces of many nations, including Benin, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Togo; and Africa Endeavor 2013, in which the militaries of Djibouti, Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Zambia, and 34 other African nations took part.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. As Davis told TomDispatch, "We also conduct some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent." A cursory look at just some of US missions this spring drives home the true extent of the growing US engagement in Africa. 

In January, for instance, the US Air Force began transporting French troops to Mali to counter Islamist forces there.  At a facility in Nairobi, Kenya, AFRICOM provided military intelligence training to junior officers from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Sudan. In January and February, Special Operations Forces personnel conducted a joint exercise code-named Silent Warrior with Cameroonian soldiers. February saw South African troops travel all the way to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to take part in Cobra Gold 2013, a multinational training exercise cosponsored by the US military.

In March, Navy personnel worked with members of Cape Verde's armed forces, while Kentucky National Guard troops spent a week advising soldiers from the Comoros Islands. That same month, members of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa deployed to the Singo Peace Support Training Center in Uganda to work with Ugandan soldiers prior to their assignment to the African Union Mission in Somalia. Over the course of the spring, members of the task force would also mentor local troops in Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Burkina Faso, the Seychelles, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Liberia.

In April, members of the task force also began training Senegalese commandos at Bel-Air military base in Dakar, while Navy personnel deployed to Mozambique to school civilians in demining techniques. Meanwhile, Marines traveled to Morocco to conduct a training exercise code-named African Lion 13 with that country's military. In May, Army troops were sent to Lomé, Togo, to work with members of the Togolese Defense Force, as well as to Senga Bay, Malawi, to instruct soldiers there.

That same month, Navy personnel conducted a joint exercise in the Mediterranean Sea with their Egyptian counterparts. In June, personnel from the Kentucky National Guard deployed to Djibouti to advise members of that country's military on border security methods, while Seabees teamed up with the Tanzanian People's Defense Force to build maritime security infrastructure. That same month, the Air Force airlifted Liberian troops to Bamako, Mali, to conduct a six-month peacekeeping operation.
 

Limited or Limitless?

Counting countries in which it has bases or outposts or has done construction, and those with which it has conducted military exercises, advisory assignments, security cooperation, or training missions, the US military, according to TomDispatch's analysis, is involved with more than 90% of Africa's 54 nations. While AFRICOM commander David Rodriguez maintains that the US has only a "small footprint" on the continent, following those small footprints across the continent can be a breathtaking task.

It's not hard to imagine why the US military wants to maintain that "small footprint" fiction.  On occasion, military commanders couldn't have been clearer on the subject. "A direct and overt presence of US forces on the African continent can cause consternation… with our own partners who take great pride in their post-colonial abilities to independently secure themselves," wrote Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere earlier this year in the military trade publication Special Warfare. Special Operations Forces, he added, "must train to operate discreetly within these constraints and the cultural norms of the host nation."

On a visit to the Pentagon earlier this summer, AFRICOM's Rodriguez echoed the same point in candid comments to Voice of America: "The history of the African nations, the colonialism, all those things are what point to the reasons why we should… just use a small footprint."

And yet, however useful that imagery may be to the Pentagon, the US military no longer has a small footprint in Africa. Even the repeated claims that US troops conduct only short-term. intermittent missions there has been officially contradicted. This July, at a change of command ceremony for Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, a spokesman noted the creation and implementation of "a five-year engagement strategy that encompassed the transition from episodic training events to regionally-focused and persistent engagements in five Special Operations Command Africa priority countries."

In a question-and-answer piece in Special Warfare earlier this year, Colonel John Deedrick, the commander of the 10th Special Forces Group, sounded off about his unit's area of responsibility. "We are widely employed throughout the continent," he said. "These are not episodic activities. We are there 365-days-a-year to share the burden, assist in shaping the environment, and exploit opportunities." 

Exploitation and "persistent engagement" are exactly what critics of US military involvement in Africa have long feared, while blowback and the unforeseen consequences of US military action on the continent have already contributed to catastrophic destabilization.

Despite some candid admissions by officers involved in shadowy operations, however, AFRICOM continues to insist that troop deployments are highly circumscribed. The command will not, however, allow independent observers to make their own assessments. Benson said AFRICOM does not "have a media visit program to regularly host journalists there." 

My own requests to report on US operations on the continent were, in fact, rejected in short order. "We will not make an exception in this case," Benson wrote in a recent email and followed up by emphasizing that US forces are deployed in Africa only "on a limited and temporary basis." TomDispatch's own analysis—and a mere glance at the map of recent missions—indicates that there are, in fact, very few limits on where the US military operates in Africa. 

While Washington talks openly about rebalancing its military assets to Asia, a pivot to Africa is quietly and unmistakably underway. With the ever-present possibility of blowback from shadowy operations on the continent, the odds are that the results of that pivot will become increasingly evident, whether or not Americans recognize them as such.  Behind closed doors, the military says: "Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today." It remains to be seen just when they'll say the same to the American people.    

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at The Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Nation, on the BBC, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here. His website is NickTurse.comTo stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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