This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
They’re involved in Algeria and Angola, Benin and Botswana, Burkina Faso and Burundi, Cameroon and the Cape Verde Islands. And that’s just the ABCs of the situation. Skip to the end of the alphabet and the story remains the same: Senegal and the Seychelles, Togo and Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia. From north to south, east to west, the Horn of Africa to the Sahel, the heart of the continent to the islands off its coasts, the US military is at work. Base construction, security cooperation engagements, training exercises, advisory deployments, special operations missions, and a growing logistics network, all undeniable evidence of expansion—except at US Africa Command.
To hear AFRICOM tell it, US military involvement on the continent ranges from the miniscule to the microscopic. The command is adamant that it has only a single “military base” in all of Africa: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The head of the command insists that the US military maintains a “small footprint” on the continent. AFRICOM’s chief spokesman has consistently minimized the scope of its operations and the number of facilities it maintains or shares with host nations, asserting that only “a small presence of personnel who conduct short-duration engagements” are operating from “several locations” on the continent at any given time.
With the war in Iraq over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, the US military is deploying its forces far beyond declared combat zones. In recent years, for example, Washington has very publicly proclaimed a “pivot to Asia,” a “rebalancing” of its military resources eastward, without actually carrying out wholesale policy changes. Elsewhere, however, from the Middle East to South America, the Pentagon is increasingly engaged in shadowy operations whose details emerge piecemeal and are rarely examined in a comprehensive way. Nowhere is this truer than in Africa. To the media and the American people, officials insist the US military is engaged in small-scale, innocuous operations there. Out of public earshot, officers running America’s secret wars say: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”
The proof is in the details—a seemingly ceaseless string of projects, operations, and engagements. Each mission, as AFRICOM insists, may be relatively limited and each footprint might be “small” on its own, but taken as a whole, US military operations are sweeping and expansive. Evidence of an American pivot to Africa is almost everywhere on the continent. Few, however, have paid much notice.
If the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words, then what’s a map worth? Take, for instance, the one created by TomDispatch that documents US military outposts, construction, security cooperation, and deployments in Africa. It looks like a field of mushrooms after a monsoon. US Africa Command recognizes 54 countries on the continent, but refuses to say in which ones (or even in how many) it now conducts operations. An investigation by TomDispatch has found recent US military involvement with no fewer than 49 African nations.
In some, the US maintains bases, even if under other names. In others, it trains local partners and proxies to battle militants ranging from Somalia’s al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram to members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Elsewhere, it is building facilities for its allies or infrastructure for locals. Many African nations are home to multiple US military projects. Despite what AFRICOM officials say, a careful reading of internal briefings, contracts, and other official documents, as well as open source information, including the command’s own press releases and news items, reveals that military operations in Africa are already vast and will be expanding for the foreseeable future.
A Base by Any Other Name…
What does the US military footprint in Africa look like? Colonel Tom Davis, AFRICOM’s Director of Public Affairs, is unequivocal: “Other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, we do not have military bases in Africa, nor do we have plans to establish any.” He admits only that the US has “temporary facilities elsewhere…that support much smaller numbers of personnel, usually for a specific activity.”
AFRICOM’s chief of media engagement Benjamin Benson echoes this, telling me that it’s almost impossible to offer a list of forward operating bases. “Places that [US forces] might be, the range of possible locations can get really big, but can provide a really skewed image of where we are…versus other places where we have ongoing operations. So, in terms of providing a number, I’d be at a loss of how to quantify this.”
A briefing prepared last year by Captain Rick Cook, the chief of AFRICOM’s Engineering Division, tells a different story, making reference to forward operating sites or FOSes (long-term locations), cooperative security locations or CSLs (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations or CLs (which are used only during ongoing operations). A separate briefing prepared last year by Lieutenant Colonel David Knellinger references seven cooperative security locations across Africa whose whereabouts are classified. A third briefing, produced in July of 2012 by US Army Africa, identifies one of the CSL sites as Entebbe, Uganda, a location from which US contractors have flown secret surveillance missions using innocuous-looking, white Pilatus PC-12 turboprop airplanes, according to an investigation by the Washington Post.
The 2012 US Army Africa briefing materials obtained by TomDispatch reference plans to build six new gates to the Entebbe compound, 11 new “containerized housing units,” new guard stations, new perimeter and security fencing, enhanced security lighting and new concrete access ramps, among other improvements. Satellite photos indicate that many, if not all, of these upgrades have, indeed, taken place.
Entebbe Cooperative Security Location, Entebbe, Uganda, in 2009 and 2013 ©2013 Google ©2013 Digital Globe
A 2009 image (above left) shows a bare-bones compound of dirt and grass tucked away on a Ugandan air base with just a few aircraft surrounding it. A satellite photo of the compound from earlier this year (above right) shows a strikingly more built-up camp surrounded by a swarm of helicopters and white airplanes.
Initially, AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson refused to comment on the construction or the number of aircraft, insisting that the command had no “public information” about it. Confronted with the 2013 satellite photo, Benson reviewed it and offered a reply that neither confirmed nor denied that the site was a US facility, but cautioned me about using “uncorroborated data.” (Benson failed to respond to my request to corroborate the data through a site visit.) “I have no way of knowing where the photo was taken and how it was modified,” he told me. “Assuming the location is Entebbe, as you suggest, I would again argue that the aircraft could belong to anyone…It would be irresponsible of me to speculate on the missions, roles, or ownership of these aircraft.” He went on to suggest, however, that the aircraft might belong to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) which does have a presence at the Entebbe air base. A request for comment from MONUSCO went unanswered before this article went to press.
This buildup may only be the beginning for Entebbe CSL. Recent contracting documents examined by TomDispatch indicate that AFRICOM is considering an additional surge of air assets there—specifically hiring a private contractor to provide further “dedicated fixed-wing airlift services for movement of Department of Defense (DoD) personnel and cargo in the Central African Region.” This mercenary air force would keep as many as three planes in the air at the same time on any given day, logging a total of about 70 to 100 hours per week. If the military goes ahead with these plans, the aircraft would ferry troops, weapons, and other materiel within Uganda and to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.
Another key, if little noticed, US outpost in Africa is located in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. An airbase there serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative. According to military documents, that “initiative” supports “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that it provides “emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel,” although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for only 10% of its monthly flight hours.
While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents again indicate that, whatever its goals, it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December 2012, for example, the initiative flew 233 sorties. In the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.
In July, Berry Aviation, a Texas-based longtime Pentagon contractor, was awarded a nearly $50 million contract to provide aircraft and personnel for “Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing services.” Under the terms of the deal, Berry will “perform casualty evacuation, personnel airlift, cargo airlift, as well as personnel and cargo aerial delivery services throughout the Trans-Sahara of Africa,” according to a statement from the company. Contracting documents indicate that Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia are the “most likely locations for missions.”
Special Ops in Africa
Ouagadougou is just one site for expanding US air operations in Africa. Last year, the 435th Military Construction Flight (MCF)—a rapid-response mobile construction team—revitalized an airfield in South Sudan for Special Operations Command Africa, according to the unit’s commander, Air Force lieutenant Alexander Graboski. Before that, the team also “installed a runway lighting system to enable 24-hour operations” at the outpost. Graboski states that the Air Force’s 435th MCF “has been called upon many times by Special Operations Command Africa to send small teams to perform work in austere locations.” This trend looks as if it will continue. According to a briefing prepared earlier this year by Hugh Denny of the Army Corps of Engineers, plans have been drawn up for Special Operations Command Africa “operations support” facilities to be situated in “multiple locations.”
AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson refused to answer questions about SOCAFRICA facilities, and would not comment on the locations of missions by an elite, quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU 10). But according to Captain Robert Smith, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Group Two, NSWU 10 has been engaged “with strategic countries such as Uganda, Somalia, [and] Nigeria.”
Captain J. Dane Thorleifson, NSWU 10’s outgoing commander, recently mentioned deployments in six “austere locations” in Africa and “every other month contingency operations—Libya, Tunisia, [and] POTUS,” evidently a reference to President Obama’s three-nation trip to Africa in July. Thorleifson, who led the unit from July 2011 to July 2013, also said NSWU 10 had been involved in training “proxy” forces, specifically “building 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.”
Nzara in South Sudan is one of a string of shadowy forward operating posts on the continent where US Special Operations Forces have been stationed in recent years. Other sites include Obo and Djema in the Central Africa Republic and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, “advisory assistance at forward outposts was directly responsible for the establishment of combined operations fusion centers where military commanders, local security officials, and a host of international and non-governmental organizations could share information about regional insurgent activity and coordinate military activities with civil authorities.”
Drone bases are also expanding. In February, the US announced the establishment of a new drone facility in Niger. Later in the spring, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed to TomDispatch that US air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger’s capital, were providing “support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region.” More recently, the New York Times noted that what began as the deployment of one Predator drone to Niger had expanded to encompass daily flights by one of two larger, more advanced Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, supported by 120 Air Force personnel. Additionally, the US has flown drones out of the Seychelles Islands and Ethiopia’s Arba Minch Airport.
When it comes to expanding US outposts in Africa, the Navy has also been active. It maintains a forward operating location—manned mostly by Seabees, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops—known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. Since 2004, US troops have been stationed at a Kenyan naval base known as Camp Simba at Manda Bay. AFRICOM’s Benson portrayed operations there as relatively minor, typified by “short-term training and engagement activities.” The 60 or so “core” troops stationed there, he said, are also primarily Civil Affairs, Seabees, and security personnel who take part in “military-to-military engagements with Kenyan forces and humanitarian initiatives.”
An AFRICOM briefing earlier this year suggested, however, that the base is destined to be more than a backwater post. It called attention to improvements in water and power infrastructure and an extension of the runway at the airfield, as well as greater “surge capacity” for bringing in forces in the future. A second briefing, prepared by the Navy and obtained by TomDispatch, details nine key infrastructure upgrades that are on the drawing board, underway, or completed.
In addition to extending and improving that runway, they include providing more potable water storage, latrines, and lodgings to accommodate a future “surge” of troops, doubling the capacity of washer and dryer units, upgrading dining facilities, improving roadways and boat ramps, providing fuel storage, and installing a new generator to handle additional demands for power. In a March article in the National Journal, James Kitfield, who visited the base, shed additional light on expansion there. “Navy Seabee engineers,” he wrote, “…have been working round-the-clock shifts for months to finish a runway extension before the rainy season arrives. Once completed, it will allow larger aircraft like C-130s to land and supply Americans or African Union troops.”
AFRICOM’s Benson tells TomDispatch that the US military also makes use of six buildings located on Kenyan military bases at the airport and seaport of Mombasa. In addition, he verified that it has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities” such as training missions. He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia.
While Benson refused additional comment, official documents indicate that the US has similar agreements for the use of Nsimalen Airport and Douala International Airport in Cameroon, Amílcar Cabral International Airport and Praia International Airport in Cape Verde, N’Djamena International Airport in Chad, Cairo International Airport in Egypt, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Moi International Airport in Kenya, Kotoka International Airport in Ghana, Marrakech-Menara Airport in Morocco, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Nigeria, Seychelles International Airport in the Seychelles, Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Botswana, Bamako-Senou International Airport in Mali, and Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunisia. All told, according to Sam Cooks, a liaison officer with the Defense Logistics Agency, the US military now has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers.
In addition, US Africa Command has built a sophisticated logistics system, officially known as the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.” It connects posts in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya, Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda, Dire Dawa in Ethiopia, as well as crucial port facilities used by the Navy’s CTF-53 (“Commander, Task Force, Five Three”) in Djibouti, which are collectively referred to as “the port of Djibouti” by the military. Other key ports on the continent, according to Lieutenant Colonel Wade Lawrence of US Transportation Command, include Ghana’s Tema and Senegal’s Dakar.
The US maintains 10 marine gas and oil bunker locations in eight African nations, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson refuses to name the countries, but recent military contracting documents list key fuel bunker locations in Douala, Cameroon; Mindelo, Cape Verde; Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire; Port Gentil, Gabon; Sekondi, Ghana; Mombasa, Kenya; Port Luis, Mauritius; Walvis Bay, Namibia; Lagos, Nigeria; Port Victoria, Seychelles; Durban, South Africa; and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
The US also continues to maintain a long-time Naval Medical Research Unit, known as NAMRU-3, in Cairo, Egypt. Another little-noticed medical investigation component, the US Army Research Unit-Kenya, operates from facilities in Kisumu and Kericho.
Key to the Map of the US Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013
Green markers: US military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2013
Yellow markers: US military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2012
Purple marker: US “security cooperation”
Red markers: Army National Guard partnerships
Blue markers: US bases, forward operating sites (FOSes), contingency security locations (CSLs), contingency locations (CLs), airports with fueling agreements, and various shared facilities
Green push pins: US military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2013
Yellow push pins: US military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2012
(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.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.