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Nick Turse, AFRICOM’s Gigantic “Small Footprint”

6:31 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Here’s a question for you: Can a military tiptoe onto a continent? It seems the unlikeliest of images, and yet it’s a reasonable enough description of what the U.S. military has been doing ever since the Pentagon created an Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. It’s been slipping, sneaking, creeping into Africa, deploying ever more forces in ever more ways doing ever more things at ever more facilities in ever more countries — and in a fashion so quiet, so covert, that just about no American has any idea this is going on.  One day, when an already destabilizing Africa explodes into various forms of violence, the U.S. military will be in the middle of it and Americans will suddenly wonder how in the world this could have happened. 

In the Cold War years, while proxy battles took place between U.S.- and Soviet-backed forces in Angola and other African lands, the U.S. military, which by then had garrisoned much of the planet, was noticeably absent from the continent.  No longer.  And no one who might report on it seems to be paying attention as a downsizing media evidently sees no future in anticipating America’s future wars.  In fact, with the exception of Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, it’s hard to think of any journalist who has dug into the fast-expanding American role in Africa. 

Enter TomDispatch’s Nick Turse.  When it comes to American military plans for that continent, he has been doing the work of the rest of the American foreign press corps on his own.  For the last two years, while his bestselling book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, was being published, he has been carefully tracking and mapping the growing American military presence in Africa, exploring the way those moves may actually be helping to destabilize the continent, and doing his best to make sure that U.S. planning for future wars there doesn’t go unnoticed and unreported. 

Today, he puts his work — and his efforts to mine resistant AFRICOM spokespeople for information — into a single panorama of everything a fine reporter and outsider can possibly know now about Washington’s ongoing militarization of Africa.  It’s a grim tale of the way, via a hush-hush version of mission creep, the Pentagon and AFRICOM are turning Africa into a battlefield of the future.  Don’t say you weren’t warned — at TomDispatch. Tom

The Pivot to Africa
The Startling Size, Scope, and Growth of U.S. Military Operations on the African Continent
By Nick Turse

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 U.S. 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 U.S. Africa Command.

To hear AFRICOM tell it, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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.


The U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2013 TomDispatch ©Google

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 U.S. military outposts, construction, security cooperation, and deployments in Africa.  It looks like a field of mushrooms after a monsoon.  U.S. 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 U.S. military involvement with no fewer than 49 African nations

In some, the U.S. maintains bases, even if under other names. In others, it trains local partners and proxies to battle militants ranging from Somalia’s al-Shabab 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 [U.S. 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 U.S. Army Africa, identifies one of the CSL sites as Entebbe, Uganda, a location from which U.S. 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 U.S. 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 barebones 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. announced the establishment of a new drone facility in Niger.  Later in the spring, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed to TomDispatch that U.S. 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 U.S. has flown drones out of the Seychelles Islands and Ethiopia’s Arba Minch Airport. 

When it comes to expanding U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military now has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

In addition, U.S. 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 U.S. Transportation Command, include Ghana’s Tema and Senegal’s Dakar. 

The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Army Research Unit – Kenya, operates from facilities in Kisumu and Kericho.

(In and) Out of Africa

When considering the scope and rapid expansion of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. missions this spring drives home the true extent of the growing U.S. engagement in Africa. 

In January, for instance, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military no longer has a small footprint in Africa.  Even the repeated claims that U.S. 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 U.S. military involvement in Africa have long feared, while blowback and the unforeseen consequences of U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 

Key to the Map of the U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013

Green markers: U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2013
Yellow markers:
U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2012
Purple marker:
U.S. “security cooperation”
Red markers:
Army National Guard partnerships
Blue markers:
U.S. bases, forward operating sites (FOSes), contingency security locations (CSLs), contingency locations (CLs), airports with fueling agreements, and various shared facilities
Green push pins:
U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2013
Yellow push pins:
U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2012

Copyright 2013 Nick Turse

Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Nick Turse, The Snags, Snares, and Snafus of Covering the U.S. Military

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The 30-year-old history of U.S. foreign policy: now, there’s a dynamite issue!  Explosive, in fact.  Far too dangerous, it turns out, for Americans to be informed about or have access to basic documents about — so you might conclude from a recent report at Steven Aftergood’s website Secrecy News.

U.S. Africa Command C4ISR Senior Leaders Conference, Vicenza, Italy, February 2011

U.S. Africa Command C4ISR Senior Leaders Conference, Vicenza, Italy, February 2011

According to him, “A 1991 statute mandated that the State Department publish the documentary record of U.S. foreign policy (known as Foreign Relations of the United States, or FRUS) no later than 30 years after the events described.”  They were years behind when President Obama, still in his sunshine mode, hit the Oval Office and ordered State “to complete the processing of the backlog of 25-year-old records awaiting declassification by the end of December 2013.”

Didn’t happen, of course.  And that, it turns out, is the least of it.  A State Department historical advisory committee (HAC), a “panel of distinguished historians,” has just weighed in with its own fears that “a substantial percentage of those records that have been reviewed by the NDC [National Declassification Center] have not been cleared for release to the public.  In the opinion of the HAC, the relatively high number of reviewed documents that remain withheld from researchers and citizens raises fundamental questions about the declassification guidelines.”  The historians wonder, in fact, whether the majority of the FRUS volumes will ever see the light of day.

History, too, may need its Edward Snowden, a rogue historian with access to those State documents and the urge to travel to Hong Kong or tour the bowels of Moscow’s international airport terminal.  If no such historian appears, then Americans curious about the documentary history of our past may get another 30 years of the good old runaround — and even then it’ll be nothing compared to what TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of the bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, received from the U.S. military. Tom

The Classic Military Runaround
Your Tax Dollars at Work Keeping You in the Dark
By Nick Turse

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of U.S. personnel — the military refuses to say how many — stationed in the ochre-tinted country of Qatar.  Out in the searing heat of the desert, they fly fighter jets or fix them.  They equip and arm troops headed to war.  Some work in a high-tech command-and-control center overseeing U.S. air operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East.  Yet I found myself sitting in a hotel room in Doha, Qatar’s capital, about 30 miles east of al-Udeid Air Base, the main U.S. installation in the country, unable to see, let alone talk, to any of them.

In mid-May, weeks before my arrival in Qatar, I sent a request to the public affairs office at the base to arrange a visit with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, the unit that, according to the military, carries out a “criti­cal combat mission that spans nearly 6,000 miles from the Horn of Africa to Northern Afghanistan.”  Or at least I tried to.  Day or night, weekday or weekend, the website refused to deliver my message.  Finally, I dug up an alternate email address and sent in my request.  Days passed with no word, without even an acknowledgement.  I followed up yet again and finally received a reply — and then it began.

The initial response came on May 28th from the Media Operations Chief at Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs.  She told me that I needed to contact the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing’s Public Affairs liaison, Captain Angela Webb, directly.  So I repeatedly wrote to Captain Webb.  No response.  On June 10th, I received an email from Susan Harrington.  She was, she told me, “taking over” for Captain Webb.  Unfortunately, she added, it was now far too close to my arrival in Qatar to arrange a visit.  “Due to time constraints,” she wrote me, “I do not think it will be possible to support this request since we are likely already within that 30 day window.”

Don’t think I was surprised.  By now, I’m used to it.  Whether I’m trying to figure out what the U.S. military is doing in Latin America or Africa, Afghanistan or Qatar, the response is remarkably uniform  – obstruction and obfuscation, hurdles and hindrances.  In short, the good old-fashioned military runaround.  I had hoped to take a walk around al-Udeid Air Base, perhaps get a glimpse of the jumbotron-sized screens and rows of computers in its Combined Air and Space Operations Center.  I wanted to learn how the drawdown in Afghanistan was affecting life on the base.

Instead, I ended up sitting in the climate-controlled comfort of my hotel room, staring at a cloudless sky, typing these words behind double-paned glass that shielded me from the 106 degree heat outside.  For my trouble, on my return to the United States, I was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York by agents of the Department of Homeland Security.  Their question for me: Was I planning to fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

Base Desires in Africa

If you are an American citizen, you’re really not supposed to know about operations at al-Udeid Air Base.  The men and women there on your dime can’t even “mention the base name or host nation name in any unsecured communications.”  Instead, they’re instructed to say that they are at an “undisclosed location in Southwest Asia” instead of “the Deid,” as they call it.

It isn’t the only base that the Pentagon wants to keep in the shadows.  You’re also not supposed to know how many bases the U.S. military currently has in Africa.  I learned that the hard way.  As a start, let me say that, officially speaking, there is only a single U.S. facility on the entire continent that the military formally calls a “base”: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a tiny nation in the Horn of Africa.  U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is adamant about this and takes great pains to emphasize it.  Internally, however, they do admit that they also have forward operating sites (aka “enduring locations”), contingency security locations (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations (which are used only during ongoing operations).  But don’t try to get an official list of these or even a simple count — unless you’re ready for the old-fashioned runaround.

In May 2012, I made the mistake of requesting a list of all facilities used by the U.S. military in Africa broken down by country.  Nicole Dalrymple of AFRICOM’s Public Affairs Office told me the command would look into it and would be in touch.  I never heard from her again.  In June, Pat Barnes, AFRICOM’s Public Affairs liaison at the Pentagon, shot down my request, admitting only that the U.S. military had a “a small and temporary presence of personnel” at “several locations in Africa.”  Due to “force protection” issues, he assured me, he could not tell me “where our folks are located and what facilities they use.”

That July, with sparing assistance from AFRICOM, I published an article on “Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon’s ‘New Spice Route’ in Africa,” in which I attempted to shed light on a growing U.S. military presence on that continent.  This included a previously ignored logistics network set up to service U.S. military operations, with critical nodes in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; and Dire Dawa in Ethiopia.   I also drew attention to posts, airports, and other facilities used by Americans in Arba Minch in Ethiopia, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.
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Nick Turse, Blowback Central

6:57 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

An Africom soldier

Today’s US military operations in Africa set us up for tomorrow’s blowback.

The other day, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-supported Afghan president who was once sardonically nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul,” had a few curious things to say about American policy in the Muslim world.  Karzai, of course, is a man whose opinions — whether on U.S. special operations forces and their (out of control) militias, U.S. night raids on Afghan homes, or U.S. air strikes on Afghan villages — Washington loves to ignore.  He is considered “volatile.”  Sometimes, however, it’s worth listening to what our subordinate allies, uncomfortable nationalists-cum-puppets, think and say about us.

As Josh Rogin reported at the Daily Beast, Karzai recently suggested that, starting in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration and the CIA buddied up with the Saudis and Pakistani intelligence and backed a set of extreme fundamentalist Afghan rebels against the Soviets, the U.S. has been, advertently or not, promoting Islamic radicalism in the Greater Middle East.  As Karzai said of that long-forgotten moment, “The more radical we looked and talked, the more we were called mujahedin. The consequence of that was a massive effort toward uprooting traditional Afghan values and culture and tolerance.”  In his speech at the 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, he made a case for the ways in which Washington’s destabilization of the region has never ended, provoking ever more extreme blowback as it goes.

Without a doubt, the central event in the multi-decade fiasco that for a few years was known as the Global War on Terror was the invasion of Iraq, Washington’s preeminent act of folly so far in the twenty-first century.  Its disastrous effects have yet to be fully absorbed or assessed.  Yet without that invasion, it is hard to imagine a whole series of developments, including the present killing fields in Syria, the potential disintegration of Iraq itself, the Arab Spring, or the spread of extreme Islamic factions ever more widely in a vast region.  The irony, of course, is that the Bush administration and the neocon types who set so much of this in motion used to refer to the Greater Middle East from North Africa to the Chinese border disparagingly as “the arc of instability.”  Today, it increasingly looks like an arc of chaos and, as Nick Turse indicates, the process, far from ending, seems to be spreading — in this case, deep into Africa.

Turse, author of the recent bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has been following the latest U.S. global command, AFRICOM, as it embeds American military power ever more fully on the African continent. (In the process, he has engaged in full-scale public debate with that command over the nature of what it is doing.) Today, he offers a magisterial overview of what can be known about the increasing American military presence in Africa and how it is continuing a now more than three-decade-old process of spurring destabilization, the growth of radical Islamic movements, and blowback in a new region of the planet. Tom

The Terror Diaspora
The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa
By Nick Turse

The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. Africa Command’s big success stories. The Gulf… of Guinea.

Never mind that most Americans couldn’t find it on a map and haven’t heard of the nations on its shores like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM’s chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming “another Somalia,” because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.

The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where “stability,” the command spokesman assured me, had “improved significantly,” and the U.S. military had played a major role in bringing it about. But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since AFRICOM was set up, had been wracked by coups, insurgencies, violence, and volatility?

A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Obama years.  Recent history indicates that as U.S. “stability” operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled.

The signal event in this tsunami of blowback was the U.S. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi that helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with U.S. backing.  The situation could still worsen as the U.S. armed forces grow ever more involved.  They are already expanding air operations across the continent, engaging in spy missions for the French military, and utilizing other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.

The Terror Diaspora

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U.S. Africa Command Debates TomDispatch

7:08 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

US Army Soldiers in a dusty, scrub-filled African desert.

Soliders create a perimeter in Djibouti. (Photo: U.S. Army photo by Specialist Michelle C. Lawrence / Flickr)

On July 12th, TomDispatch posted the latest piece in Nick Turse’s “changing face of empire” series: “Obama’s Scramble for Africa.” It laid out in some detail the way in which the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has, in recent years, spread its influence across that continent, establishing bases and outposts, sending in special operations forces and drones, funding proxy forces on the continent, and so on. As last week ended, TomDispatch received a “letter to the editor” from Colonel Tom Davis, director of the U.S. Africa Command Office of Public Affairs, disputing in some detail a number of Turse’s points. (Colonel Davis also sent a copy of the letter to the Nation Institute, which supports this website.)

As readers know, it’s quite possible to write this editor. I read everything that arrives at TomDispatch with appreciation and answer when I can. There is, however, no “comments” section, nor a place for letters to the editor at TD.  In this case, however, I found the obvious time and effort AFRICOM took to respond to the Turse piece of interest and so, today, we’re posting Colonel Davis’s full letter, and a response from Turse. After all, whatever highlights the changing U.S. military position in Africa, about which Americans know remarkably little, seems well worth the time and space.

Two things remain to be said: first, beneath the detailed critique and response that follows lies an obvious difference of opinion that seems worth highlighting. Like a number of other TomDispatch writers, I believe that the U.S. military should not be responsible for Planet Earth; that it is not in our interest for the Pentagon to be dividing the globe, like a giant pie, into six “slices” covering almost every inch of the planet: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), the U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and a touch of North Africa), NORTHCOM (North America), SOUTHCOM (South America and most of the Caribbean), and AFRICOM (almost all of Africa).  Nor should the U.S. military be garrisoning the planet in the historically unprecedented way it does.  This imperial role of ours has little or nothing to do with “defense” and creates many possibilities for future blowback. Instead, it seems far more sensible to begin to shut down or cut back radically on our vast array of global bases and outposts (rather than, as in Africa, expanding them), and downsize our global mission in a major way.  AFRICOM would obviously disagree, as would the Pentagon and the Obama administration, and the results of that basic disagreement about the role of the U.S. military in the world can be seen in what follows.

Second, one of Colonel Davis’s criticisms below is of a passage in my introduction to Turse’s piece. “[O]nly the other day,” I wrote, “it was revealed that three U.S. Army commandos in a Toyota Land Cruiser had skidded off a bridge in Mali in April. They died, all three, along with three women identified as ‘Moroccan prostitutes.’”  The Colonel questions the accuracy of that word “revealed,” since his command had issued a brief press release on April 20th stating: “Three U.S. military members and three civilians died in a vehicle accident in Bamako, Mali today.”

In the Washington Post piece I linked to, however, reporter Craig Whitlock identified the three “military members” as “U.S. Army Commandos” and those three “civilians” as “Moroccan prostitutes” and raised the following questions: “What the men were doing in the impoverished country of Mali, and why they were still there a month after the United States suspended military relations with its government, is at the crux of a mystery that officials have not fully explained even 10 weeks later.” It seems to me that, if you compare the press release to the later article, “revealed” is not too strong a word.  With that, let me turn the proceedings over to Colonel Davis and Nick Turse. Tom

The Nature of the U.S. Military Presence in Africa:
An Exchange between Colonel Tom Davis and Nick Turse

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