David Cloud of the LA Times writes an interesting piece on the growing involvement of U.S. Special Forces in North Africa. Typically, small teams have worked in remote and skeletal outposts to train native armed forces across “an arc of growing instability in North Africa and many sub-Saharan countries, from Mali in the west to Somalia in the east.” These dispersed groups are coordinated by the Pentagon’s “Africa Command” (AFRICOM), a six-year old unified structure that is based in Stuggart, Germany. Around 2,000 military and civilian staff oversee U.S. defense programs in about 38 countries, “although 5,000 or more U.S. troops are frequently on the continent for operations and training missions.”
The U.S. military also partners up with European allies, particularly the old colonial power in the region, France. For example, at an airport in Niamey, Niger, the U.S. and French air forces are flying unarmed Reaper drones to gather intelligence across “several Saharan countries.” There are three extremist organizations that are under the cross-hairs: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is active in north and west Africa, especially Mali; Boko Haram in Nigeria, al Shabab militants in Somali, and Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia.
The U.S.’ only permanent base is Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. In light of the 2012 attacks against U.S. diplomatic buildings in Benghazi, Libya, there is now a 130-soldier “crisis response” unit (East Africa Response Force) stationed there, that can rapidly respond to security crise “within 18 hours and up to 1,500 miles from Djibouti.” Consider also a “quick reaction force” of 550 Marines stationed at an air base in Moron Spain, whcih handles crises in North and West Africa: “The force has six V-22 Ospreys, tilt-rotor aircraft that take off and land like helicopters, as well as two refueling tankers. They give the Marines the capability to fly thousands of miles to remote locations in Africa, said Col. Scott Benedict, the commander.” The Pentagon recently expanded this force to 850 marines, with aircraft reaching an inventory of 16. Much of Africa Command’s movements remain off the radar. The military’s footprint, for now at least, is “light.”
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Nick Turse from TomDispatch carries a much longer piece on the “Scramble for Africa” here. The U.S. military has been involved, in some capacity, with 49 out of 54 nations on the continent – much of which has led to “blowback” according to Turse: the U.S.- backed uprising in Libya has spawned hundreds of militia, many of whom wrecked havoc in Mali; Tunisia has become increasingly destabilized; Kenya and Algeria were hit by large terrorist attacks that left Americans dead or wounded; South Sudan, “a fledgling nation Washington recently midwifed into being,” has now plunged into a civil war; the U.S.-backed military in Mali has been defeated multiple times by insurgent forces; and finally, U.S.-supported forces in the Central African Republic have “failed to stop a ragtag rebel group from ousting the president.”
In an effort to reverse such “problems,” the U.S. military has been “developing a back-to-the-future military policy in Africa” by uniting with former colonial power France. The “French connection” began after a trading post was erected in Senegal in 1659. It’s grip slowly spread until by the early twentieth century it possessed a vast colonial domain stretching across modern-day Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, among other places. Fast-forward to today, and in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande outlined their efforts in very positive light, stating that “Across the continent, from Senegal to Somalia, we are helping train and equip local forces so they can take responsibility for their own security.”
After 9/11, the U.S. began to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into training African partners ( including Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), through programs like the “Pan-Sahel Initiative” and the “Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership,” to promote regional “stability.” In 2013, the outgoing commander of an elite force known as “Naval Special Warfare Unit 10” described training these proxy forces was important for “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.” In short, the U.S. military is training African militaries to root out Islamic militants wherever they are found.
After fighting by Tuareg rebels and other Islamic groups led to a huge humanitarian crisis in Mali, France intervened under “Operation Serval” in 2013. 4,5000 French troops were allied with West African Forces (known collectively as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali [AFISMA], which later became the U.N.-mandated Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali [MINUSM]), composed of a “who’s who of American proxy forces in West Africa: Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Senegal, Benin, Liberia, Chad, Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.” The French fighters were supported by the U.S. military under Operation “Juniper Micron.” This included logistical supported, and “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” (ISR) by drone operations flown from Niger. The Pentagon also sent a small number of troops in the Spring of 2013 to support activities in Mali. This support continues.
In the spring of 2013, despite years of U.S. assistance, the Central African Republic’s military was overthrown by Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel group. Violence and atrocity, often fueled by religion, followed in its wake. In an effort to restore peace, France–backed by a UN Security Council resolution–sent troops to its former colony to boost peacekeeping operations by the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA). Under “Echo Casemate,” the U.S. offered African and French forces financial aid, as well as airlift support and training missions. Staged from Burundi and Uganda, the operation is ongoing, with a very small number of U.S. army boots on the ground–so-called “Lion Forward Teams.”
In recent months, former European colonial powers have pledged their support to various missions across the continent. Turse notes that Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the UK are part of a EU training mission in Mali. Such operations were narrowly a success, given that presidential elections were held in Mali. However, Turse notes that the intervention “caused a veritable terror diaspora that helped lead to attacks in Algeria, Niger, and Libya, without resolving Mali’s underlying instability.” As he goes on, “just about every move [the U.S. military] has made in the region thus far has helped spread conflict and chaos, while contributing to African destabilization.”
Despite evidence that the conflicts in West and Central Africa have no foreseeable end in sight for the French, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, stated before Congress in February 2014, “Leveraging and partnering with the French is a way to go… They have insight and understanding and, importantly, a willingness to use the forces they have there now.” History, of course, is repeating itself: French troops are now dying in the same fields as they did in the previous century: from “French Sudan” (now Mali) to “French Equatorial Africa” (now the Central African Republic).
Wikipedia has this map of colonial “possessions” in 1913. France, in blue, and the U.K, in red, controlled nearly all of Africa in the age of “New Imperialism.” The straight lines that cut through the continent are evidence of the mastery of “geometric order” that Europeans brought with them during a period that is colloquially known as the “Scramble for Africa.” Many cite the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 as the starting point for the formalization of European territorial claims.
European colonization was largely predicated on the idea that the earth could be carved up into longitudes and latitudes of control – an idea that was expressed most forcefully in the 15th century with Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the “New World.” The 1494 “Treaty of Tordesillas,” for example, split the New World between Spanish and Portuguese along a meridian of 370 leagues. The image below (again, from Wikipedia), illustrates this grand vision of control.
The point is that European colonization was never simply a matter of brute force (although it was certainly this too). Nor was it simply a “clash of civilizations” that was predicated on racist geographical imaginations. Instead, European colonization rested on a power of geometric rationality: a shared, calculative vision of the globe as homogenous and divisible. It’s a planetary discipline that is still with us today of course–perhaps even perfected–and it continues to create innumerable spatial contradictions and violent uprisings.
- The Changing Face of Empire (July 3, 2013)
- U.S. Drone bases in Africa mapped (Feb 28, 2013)
- The Predator Empire Spreads its Wings to West Africa (again) (Jan 29, 2013)
- The U.S.’ secretive “scramble for Africa” (July 13, 2012)