The New Normal and the Same Old, Same Old
A batch of official Army Africa documents obtained by TomDispatch convinced me that EARF was intimately connected with Operation New Normal. A July 2013 briefing slide, for instance, references "East Africa Response Force/New Normal," while another concerning operations on that continent mentions "New Normal Reaction Force East." At the same time, the phrase "new normal" has been increasingly on the lips of the men running America's African ops.
Jason Hyland, a 30-year State Department veteran who serves as Foreign Policy Advisor to Brigadier General Wayne Grigsby, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), for instance, told an interviewer that the task force "is at the forefront in this region in implementing US policy on the ‘new normal' to protect our missions when there are uncertain conditions."
A news release from CJTF-HOA concerning the Juba operation also used the phrase: "While the East Africa Response Force was providing security for the embassy, additional forces were required to continue the evacuation mission. Under the auspices of ‘the new normal,' which refers to the heightened threat US Embassies face throughout the world, the SP-MAGTF CR arrived from Morón, Spain," wrote Technical Sergeant Jasmine Reif.
Earlier this year in Seapower magazine, the commander of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response, Colonel Scott Benedict, described the "new normal" as a world filled with "a lot of rapidly moving crises," requiring military interventions and likened it to the Marine Corps deployments in the so-called Banana Wars in Central America and the Caribbean in the early twentieth century.
On a visit to Camp Lemonnier, Marine commandant General James Amos echoed the same sentiments, calling his troops "America's insurance policy." Referencing the Marine task force, he invoked that phrase in an even more expansive way. Aside from "winning battles" in Afghanistan, he said, the creation of that force was "probably the most significant thing we've done in the last year-and-a-half as far as adjusting the Marine Corps for what people are now calling the new normal, which are these crises that are happening around the world."
In March, Brigadier General Wayne Grigsby explicitly noted that the phrase meant far more than simple embassy security missions. "Sitting in Djibouti is really the new normal," the CJTF-HOA commander said. (He was, in fact, sitting in an office in that country.) "It's not the new normal... as far as providing security for our threatened embassies. It's really the new normal on how we're going to operate as a [Department of Defense entity] in supporting the national security strategy of our country."
Operation New Normal and the Incredible Disappearing Lee Magee
With so many officials talking about the "new normal" and with documents citing a specific operation sporting the same name, I called up AFRICOM's media chief Benjamin Benson looking for more information. "I don't know the name new normal," he told me. "It isn't a term we're using to define one of the operations."
That seemed awfully curious. An official military document obtained by TomDispatch explicitly noted that US troops would be deployed as part of Operation New Normal in 2014. The term was even used, in still another document, alongside other code-named operations like Juniper Micron and Observant Compass, missions to aid the French and African interventions in Mali and to degrade or destroy Joseph Kony's murderous Lord's Resistance Army in central Africa.
Next, I got in touch with Lieutenant Colonel Glen Roberts at CJTF-HOA and explained that I wanted to know about Operation New Normal. His response was effusive and unequivocal: I should speak with Lee Magee—that is Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee Magee, a West Point graduate, third-generation Army officer, and commander of the East African Response Force who had deployed to South Sudan as the nation shattered on the rocks of reality. "He lives this concept and has executed it," was how Roberts put it.
Was I available to talk to Magee the next day? Yes, indeed.
On March 27th, the day of the proposed interview, however, a lower-ranking public affairs official got in touch to explain that Lieutenant Colonel Magee could not speak to me and Lieutenant Colonel Roberts was out of the office. I asked to reschedule for the next day. The spokesman said he didn't know what their calendars looked like, but that Roberts was expected back later that day. I left a message, but heard nothing.
The next morning, I called the press office in Djibouti and asked to speak to Magee. He wasn't there. No one was. Everyone had left work early. The reason? "Paint fumes."
That was a new one.
Another follow-up and Roberts finally got back in touch. "Apologies, but I am no longer able to arrange an interview with Magee," he informed me. "Thanks for understanding."
But I didn't understand and told him so. After all, Magee was the man who lived and executed the new normal. I thought we were set for an interview. What happened?
"He has simply declined an interview, as is his privilege," was the best Roberts could do. Magee had been dropped into the hot zone in South Sudan to forestall the next Benghazi, and had previously spoken with other media outlets about his work in Africa, but conversing with me about Operation New Normal was apparently beyond the pale. Or maybe it had something to do with those paint fumes.
On March 31st, Roberts told me that he could answer the questions by email—questions that I had already sent in on March 17th. But no response came. I followed up again. And again. And again. I sent the questions a second time.
As of publication, almost two months after my initial inquiry, no word yet. That, evidently, is the new normal, too.
The Real New Normal
Quite obviously, the US military isn't eager to talk about Operation New Normal, which—despite Benjamin Benson's contentions, Lee Magee's silence, and Glen Roberts' disappearance—is almost certainly the name for a US military mission in East Africa that, US documents suggest, is tied to the Benghazi-birthed East African Response Force.
More important than uncovering the nature of Operation New Normal, however, is recognizing the real new normal in Africa for the US military: ever-increasing missions across the continent—now averaging about 1.5 per day—ever more engagement with local proxies in ever more African countries, the construction of ever more new facilities in ever more countries (including plans for a possible new compound in Niger), and a string of bases devoted to surveillance activities spreading across the northern tier of Africa. Add to this impressive build-up the three new rapid reaction forces, specialized teams like a contingent of AFRICOM personnel and officials from the FBI and the departments of Justice, State, and Defense created to help rescue hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by members of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, and other shadowy quick-response units like the seldom-mentioned Naval Special Warfare Unit 10.
"Having resources [on the continent] that are ready for a response is really valuable," Benson told me when talking about the Djibouti-based EARF. The same holds for the US military's new normal in Africa: more of everything valuable to a military seeking a new mission in the wake of two fading, none-too-successful wars.
The Benghazi killings, unrest in South Sudan, and now the Boko Haram kidnappings have provided the US with ways to bring a long-running "light footprint in Africa" narrative into line with a far heavier reality. Each crisis has provided the US with further justification for publicizing a steady expansion on that continent that's been underway but under wraps for years. New forces, new battlefields, and a new openness about a new "war," to quote one of the men waging it. That's the real new normal for the US military in Africa—and you don't need to talk to Lieutenant Colonel Lee Magee to know it.
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, and 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 (now out in paperback).
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