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Behind the Veil of Secrecy Over US Military Operations in Africa

US officials talk candidly (just not to reporters) about bases, winning hearts and minds, and the "war" in Africa.

| Mon Apr. 14, 2014 1:07 PM EDT

Hearts and Minds

When I spoke with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers, the first projects he mentioned and the only ones he seemed eager to talk about were those for African nations. This year, $6.5 million in projects had been funded when we spoke and of that, the majority were for "humanitarian assistance" or HA construction projects, mostly in Togo and Tunisia, and "peacekeeping" operations in Ghana and Djibouti.

Uhl talked about humanitarian projects, too. "HA projects are small, difficult, challenging for the Corps of Engineers to accomplish at a low, in-house cost… but despite all this, HA projects are extremely rewarding," he said. "The appreciation expressed by the locals is fantastic." He then drew attention to another added benefit: "Each successful project is a photo opportunity."

Uhl wasn't the only official to touch on the importance of public perception in Africa or the need to curry favor with military "partners" on the continent. Cook spoke to the contractors, for instance, about the challenges of work in austere locations, about how bureaucratic shakedowns by members of African governments could cause consternation and construction delays, about learning to work with the locals, and about how important such efforts were for "winning hearts and minds of folks in the area."

The Naval Facilities Engineering Command's Wildeman talked up the challenges of working in an environment in which the availability of resources was limited, the dangers of terrorism were real, and there was "competition for cooperation with [African] countries from some other world powers." This was no doubt a reference to increasing Chinese trade, aid, investment, and economic ties across the continent.

He also left no doubt about US plans. "We will be in Africa for some time to come," he told the contractors. "There's lots more to do there."

Cook expanded on this theme. "It's a big, big place," he said. "We know we can't do it alone. So we're going to need partners in industry, we're going to need… local nationals and even third country nationals."

AFRICOM at War

For years, senior AFRICOM officers and spokesmen have downplayed the scope of US operations on the continent, stressing that the command has only a single base and a very light footprint there. At the same time, they have limited access to journalists and refused to disclose the number and tempo of the command's operations, as well as the locations of its deployments and of bases that go by other names. AFRICOM'S public persona remains one of humanitarian missions and benign-sounding support for local partners.

"Our core mission of assisting African states and regional organizations to strengthen their defense capabilities better enables Africans to address their security threats and reduces threats to US interests," says the command. "We concentrate our efforts on contributing to the development of capable and professional militaries that respect human rights, adhere to the rule of law, and more effectively contribute to stability in Africa." Efforts like sniper training for proxy forces and black ops missions hardly come up. Bases are mostly ignored. The word "war" is rarely mentioned.

TomDispatch's recent investigations have, however, revealed that the US military is indeed pivoting to Africa. It now averages far more than a mission a day on the continent, conducting operations with almost every African military force, in almost every African country, while building or building up camps, compounds, and "contingency security locations." The US has taken an active role in wars from Libya to the Central African Republic, sent special ops forces into countries from Somalia to South Sudan, conducted airstrikes and abduction missions, even put boots on the ground in countries where it pledged it would not.

"We have shifted from our original intent of being a more congenial combatant command to an actual war-fighting combatant command," AFRICOM's Rick Cook explained to the audience of big-money defense contractors. He was unequivocal: the US has been "at war" on the continent for the last two and half years. It remains to be seen when AFRICOM will pass this news on to the American public.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award winner, his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, at 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 (just out in paperback).

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