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The US Military Operations You Didn't Know Existed

Despite claims that our presence in Africa is miniscule, the US military has recently been involved in at least 49 of the 54 nations on the continent.

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 12:19 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Lion Forward Teams? Echo Casemate? Juniper Micron?

You could be forgiven if this jumble of words looks like nonsense to you. It isn't. It's the language of the US military's simmering African interventions; the patois that goes with a set of missions carried out in countries most Americans couldn't locate on a map; the argot of conflicts now primarily fought by proxies and a former colonial power on a continent that the US military views as a hotbed of instability and that hawkish pundits increasingly see as a growth area for future armed interventions.

Since 9/11, the US military has been making inroads in Africa, building alliances, facilities, and a sophisticated logistics network. Despite repeated assurances by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) that military activities on the continent were minuscule, a 2013 investigation by TomDispatch exposed surprisingly large and expanding US operations—including recent military involvement with no fewer than 49 of 54 nations on the continent. Washington's goal continues to be building these nations into stable partners with robust, capable militaries, as well as creating regional bulwarks favorable to its strategic interests in Africa. Yet over the last years, the results have often confounded the planning—with American operations serving as a catalyst for blowback (to use a term of CIA tradecraft).

A US-backed uprising in Libya, for instance, helped spawn hundreds of militias that have increasingly caused chaos in that country, leading to repeated attacks on Western interests and the killing of the US ambassador and three other Americans. Tunisia has become ever more destabilized, according to a top US commander in the region. Kenya and Algeria were hit by spectacular, large-scale terrorist attacks that left Americans dead or wounded. South Sudan, a fledgling nation Washington recently midwifed into being that has been slipping into civil war, now has more than 870,000 displaced persons, is facing an imminent hunger crisis, and has recently been the site of mass atrocities, including rapes and killings. Meanwhile, the US-backed military of Mali was repeatedly defeated by insurgent forces after managing to overthrow the elected government, and the US-supported forces of the Central African Republic (CAR) failed to stop a ragtag rebel group from ousting the president.

In an effort to staunch the bleeding in those two countries, the US has been developing a back-to-the-future military policy in Africa—making common cause with one of the continent's former European colonial powers in a set of wars that seem to be spreading, not staunching violence and instability in the region.

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The French Connection

After establishing a trading post in present-day Senegal in 1659, France gradually undertook a conquest of West Africa that, by the early twentieth century, left it with a vast colonial domain encompassing present-day Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, among other places. In the process, the French used Foreign Legionnaires from Algeria, Goumiers from Morocco, and Tirailleurs from Senegal, among other African troops, to bolster its ranks. Today, the US is pioneering a twenty-first-century brand of expeditionary warfare that involves backing both France and the armies of its former colonial charges as Washington tries to accomplish its policy aims in Africa with a limited expenditure of blood and treasure.

In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande outlined their efforts in glowing terms:

"In Mali, French and African Union forces—with US logistical and information support—have pushed back al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, allowing the people of Mali to pursue a democratic future. Across the Sahel, we are partnering with countries to prevent al-Qaeda from gaining new footholds. In the Central African Republic, French and African Union soldiers—backed by American airlift and support—are working to stem violence and create space for dialogue, reconciliation, and swift progress to transitional elections."

Missing from their joint piece, however, was any hint of the Western failures that helped facilitate the debacles in Mali and the Central African Republic, the continued crises plaguing those nations, or the potential for mission creep, unintended consequences, and future blowback from this new brand of coalition warfare. The US military, for its part, isn't saying much about current efforts in these two African nations, but official documents obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act offer telling details, while experts are sounding alarms about the ways in which these military interventions have already fallen short or failed.

Operation Juniper Micron

After 9/11, through programs like the Pan-Sahel Initiative and the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, the US has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into training and arming the militaries of Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in order to promote "stability." In 2013, Captain J. Dane Thorleifson, the outgoing commander of an elite, quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, described such efforts as training "proxy" forces in order to build "critical host nation security capacity; enabling, advising, and assisting our African CT [counterterror] partner forces so they can swiftly counter and destroy al-Shabab, AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and Boko Haram." In other words, the US military is in the business of training African armies as the primary tactical forces combatting local Islamic militant groups.

The first returns on Washington's new and developing form of "light footprint" warfare in Africa have hardly been stellar. After US and French forces helped to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, neighboring Mali went from bulwark to basket case. Nomadic Tuareg fighters looted the weapons stores of the Gaddafi regime they had previously served, crossed the border, and began taking over northern Mali. This, in turn, prompted a US-trained officer—a product of the Pan-Sahel Initiative—to stage a military coup in the Malian capital, Bamako, and oust the democratically elected president of that country. Soon after, the Tuareg rebels were muscled aside by heavily-armed Islamist rebels from the homegrown Ansar al-Dine movement as well as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Libya's Ansar al-Shariah, and Nigeria's Boko Haram, who instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, creating a humanitarian crisis that caused widespread suffering and sent refugees streaming from their homes.

In January 2013, former colonial power France launched a military intervention, code-named Operation Serval, to push back and defeat the Islamists. At its peak, 4,500 French troops were fighting alongside West African forces, known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), later subsumed into a U.N.-mandated Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The AFISMA force, as detailed in an official US Army Africa briefing on training missions obtained by TomDispatch, reads like a who's who of American proxy forces in West Africa: Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Senegal, Benin, Liberia, Chad, Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.

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US Army Africa briefing slide detailing US efforts to aid the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).

Under the moniker Juniper Micron, the US military supported France's effort, airlifting its soldiers and materiel into Mali, flying refueling missions in support of its airpower, and providing "intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance" (ISR) through drone operations out of Base Aerienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, the capital of neighboring Niger. The US Army Africa AFISMA document also makes reference to the deployment to Chad of an ISR liaison team with communications support. Despite repeated pledges that it would put no boots on the ground in troubled Mali, in the spring of 2013, the Pentagon sent a small contingent to the US Embassy in Bamako and others to support French and MINUSMA troops.

After issuing five media releases between January and March of 2013 about efforts to aid the military mission in Mali, AFRICOM simply stopped talking about it. With rare exceptions, media coverage of the operation also dried up. In June, at a joint press conference with President Obama, Senegal's President Macky Sall did let slip that the US was providing "almost all the food and fuel used by MINUSMA" as well as "intervening to assist us with the logistics after the French response."

A January 2014 Stars and Stripes article mentioned that the US air refueling mission supporting the French, run from a US airbase in Spain, had already "distributed 15.6 million gallons of fuel, logging more than 3,400 flying hours" and that the effort would continue. In February, according to military reports, elements of the Air Force's 351st Expeditionary Refueling Squadron delivered their one millionth pound of fuel to French fighter aircraft conducting operations over Mali. A December 2013 briefing document obtained by TomDispatch also mentions 181 US troops, the majority of them Air Force personnel, supporting Operation Juniper Micron.

Eager to learn where things stood today, I asked AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson about the operation. "We're continuing to support and enable the French and international partners to confront AQIM and its affiliates in Mali," he told me. He then mentioned four key current mission sets being carried out by US forces: information-sharing, intelligence and reconnaissance, planning and liaison teams, and aerial refueling and the airlifting of allied African troops.

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December 2013 US military document detailing American efforts to support French military operations in Mali and Central African Republic.

US Army Africa documents obtained by TomDispatch offer further detail about Operation Juniper Micron, including the use of Lion Forward Teams in support of that mission. I asked Benson for information about these small detachments that aided the French effort from Chad and from within Mali itself. "I don't have anything on that," was all he would say. A separate briefing slide, produced for an Army official last year, noted that the US military provided support for the French mission from Rota and Moron, Spain; Ramstein, Germany; Sigonella, Italy; Kidal and Bamako, Mali; Niamey, Niger; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and N'Djamena, Chad. Benson refused to offer information about specific activities conducted from these locations, preferring to speak about air operations from unspecified locations and only in generalities.

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Official briefing slide with details on US training for Chad and Guinea—"troop contributing countries" aiding the US-supported military mission in Mali.

Official military documents obtained by TomDispatch detail several US missions in support of proxy forces from the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, including a scheduled eight weeks of pre-deployment training for troops from Niger in the summer of 2013, five weeks for Chadian forces in the autumn, and eight weeks in the autumn as well for Guinean soldiers, who would be sent into the Malian war zone. I asked Benson about plans for the training of African forces designated for MINUSMA in 2014. "In terms of the future on that... I don't know," was all he would say.

Another official briefing slide produced by US Army Africa notes, however, that from January through March 2014, the US planned to send scores of trainers to prepare 1,400 Chadian troops for missions in Mali. Over the same months, other US personnel were to team up with French military trainers to ready an 850-man Guinean infantry force for similar service. Requests for further information from the French military about this and other missions were unanswered before this article went to press.

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