Nick Turse reports on the expansion of U.S. secret bases, training facilities, and airfields throughout Africa. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is now a key region as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. Under President Obama, operations in the continent, especially “black-ops”, have escalated.
What began as a small footprint in the Horn of Africa in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has grown to expansive networks and infrastructures to support the U.S. military and Special Forces.
Partnering with “host nations”, the U.S. “guests” target an array of al-Qaeda affiliates and other more loosely defined adversaries in countries ranging from Nigeria to Ethiopia.
The largest concentration of U.S. troops, Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) is at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where it was formed in 2003. Other DOD personnel are assigned to U.S. embassies across Africa, which are often composed of small teams conducted “pinpoint” missions.
The U.S. is now involved, directly and by proxy, in military and surveillance operations against an expanding list of regional enemies. They include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa; the Islamist movement Boko Haram in Nigeria; possible al-Qaeda-linked militants in post-Qaddafi Libya; Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan; Mali’s Islamist Rebels of the Ansar Dine, al-Shabaab in Somalia; and guerrillas from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.
A recent investigation by the Washington Post revealed that contractor-operated surveillance aircraft based out of Entebbe, Uganda, are scouring the territory used by Kony’s LRA at the Pentagon’s behest, and that 100 to 200 U.S. commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay. Additionally, U.S. drones are being flown out of Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia and from the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while dronesand F-15 fighter-bombers have been operating out of Camp Lemonnier as part of the shadow wars being waged by the U.S. military and the CIA in Yemen and Somalia. Surveillance planes used for spy missions over Mali, Mauritania, and the Sahara desert are also flying missions from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and plans are reportedly in the works for a similar base in the newborn nation of South Sudan.
And that’s still just part of the story. U.S. troops are also working at bases inside Uganda. Earlier this year, elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) trained soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defense Force, which not only runs missions in the Central African Republic, but also acts as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia in the battle against the Islamist militants known as al-Shabaab. They now supply the majority of the troops to the African Union Mission protecting the U.S.-supported government in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
In addition, the U.S. is conducting counterterrorism training and equipping militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. AFRICOM also has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012, including operations in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria.
The size of U.S. forces conducting such joint exercises fluctuates around 5,000 personnel.
Last month the Washington Post revealed that the “practice of hiring private companies to spy on huge expanses of African territory… has been a cornerstone of the U.S. military’s secret activities on the continent.”
This for-hire surveillance is dubbed “Tusker Sand”.
It involves contractors flying from Entebbe airport in Uganda and a hanful of other airfields. The planes resemble civilian craft, but are packed with surveillance technology.
Construction is also on the rise: military contracting documents reveal plans for up to $180 million in Camp Lemonnier alone, chief of which will be the laying of 54,500 square meters to support medium-load aircraft.
“The absolute imperative for the United States military [is] to protect America, Americans, and American interests; in our case, in my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent.” – AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham
Pre-emptive logic has been employed for decades by the U.S. military, but has entrenched itself as a de rigueur mantra since 9/11. But blowback always looms on the horizon. Most recently, last year’s U.S. supported war in Libya led to masses of well-armed Tuareg mercenaries, who were under the control of Qaddafi, returning to Mali where they destabilized the country. As Turse concludes,
With the Obama administration clearly engaged in a twenty-first century scramble for Africa, the possibility of successive waves of overlapping blowback grows exponentially. Mali may only be the beginning and there’s no telling how any of it will end. In the meantime, keep your eye on Africa. The U.S. military is going to make news there for years to come.