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The Pivot to Africa


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.

 

 
 

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 rang

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