The reach of the US military has expanded into nearly every corner of the world, but it is Africa that US officers describe behind closed doors as “the battlefield of tomorrow, today.” In his essential new book, Nick Turse tenaciously details the growth of the Pentagon’s secretive mission in Africa and the resulting harmful impact on the continent, its countries and its people. Order your copy of Tomorrow’s Battlefield now by making a donation to Truthout!
Since before the heinous ravaging of Africa as a source of human beings denied their humanity, lives and freedom as chattel in the slave trade, the continent has been brutally exploited by European colonial (and later US) powers. Now, the continent is targeted by developing nations as a rich source of natural resources and for its coveted geopolitical military positioning. Researcher and author Nick Turse, managing editor of TomDispatch.com, offers a sobering, thorough account of the extension of the US military mission in Africa, known as Africom.
Mark Karlin: What is Africom and how does it fit in with the structure of the US military presence around the world?
Nick Turse: In 2008, US Africa Command or Africom became the newest of the Department of Defense’s six geographic combatant commands with a responsibility for all military missions in Africa (aside from those in Egypt, which fall under the purview of Central Command or Centcom). After 9/11, the US military began to focus increased attention on Africa, ramping up counterterrorism operations, proxy interventions and the training of local allies while constructing an increasing number of outposts from which to launch missions.
Creating an umbrella command like others around the world was the natural response for the Pentagon, one that has grown in importance in the years since. When the US pulled its troops out of Iraq in late 2011 and the Afghan war seemed to be winding down, Africa was very much seen as a growth area for the Pentagon. While those two wars now seem to be interminable, Africa is still seen as the “battlefield of tomorrow,” to quote one officer who led one of the most secretive and elite US forces to serve on that continent.
Why has, in the recent epoch, Africa emerged as an area of major US military interest?
Wherever the US military looks, it sees threats. Just after 9/11, the Pentagon announced it was going to increase its attention on the African continent despite having to admit that there were no transnational terror threats present and only one Islamic extremist group of any note, located in Somalia. After pouring billions of dollars into equipping, arming and training local African forces and carrying out proxy wars and armed interventions, the continent is now rife with terror groups and militant forces like Ansar al-Dine, Boko Haram, Ansaru, the al-Mulathamun Battalion, Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, Libya, Ansar al-Sharia in Darnah, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Mali’s National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the Congolese Resistance Patriots, and Burundi’s National Forces of Liberation, among others. At the same time, US trained officers have carried out coups and US nation-building and counterterror projects have repeatedly gone down in flames. It’s been a completely dismal record, but it’s seen as proof of the need for ever-more US missions, operations and activities.
What role has President Obama played in what you call the “scramble for Africa”?
President Obama has presided over a massive increase in US military missions in Africa – a 300 percent jump in operations, training exercises and other activities over his tenure. Last year, Africom carried out 674 missions on the continent or approximately two missions per day. In 2008, it was 172 missions. What Obama has overseen is unprecedented and not likely to slow any time soon.
Does that interest have a relationship to neocolonialism?
This isn’t a term that I use, but the expansion of US outposts, the constant training and use of proxy forces operations, the alliances with authoritarian leaders and the like have all roused suspicions and led none too few Africans to raise the specter of neocolonialism.
In your book, you describe ongoing difficulty in receiving information about the growing US military role in Africa (detailed in the appendix to the book). Why do you think the armed forces are being so resistant to divulging information?
Africom has a carefully cultivated image designed to convince Africans (and Americans) that the US military has a very light footprint on the continent and is primarily engaged in humanitarian missions. Anything that upsets this fiction, upsets the US military, so they have consistently acted to obscure, cover-up and keep secret the size, scale and scope of operations on the continent. In less guarded moments, commanders have admitted that the specter of neocolonialism is a major reason why the appearance of a light footprint is key to the US mission.
Why do you believe Africom is bound to end up in even more blowback?
Blowback will continue because Washington has repeatedly set the stage for it through ill-conceived interventions that have imploded spectacularly only to lead to further meddling, which, in turn, is bound to lead to further chaos. Take Mali, where the US spent years of effort and untold hundreds of millions in aid to create an anti-terror bulwark. What Washington was trying to build in Mali came crashing down, however, after the US helped topple Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, causing that country to collapse into a morass of militia fiefdoms. Nomadic Tuareg fighters looted the weapons stores of the Qaddafi regime they had previously served, crossed the border into Mali, routed US-backed Malian forces and seized the northern part of the country. This, in turn, prompted a US-trained officer to stage a military coup in the Malian capital, Bamako, and oust the democratically elected president.
Soon after, the Tuareg rebels were muscled aside by heavily armed Islamist rebels who began taking over the country. This, in turn, prompted the US to back a 2013 invasion by French and African forces, which arrested the complete collapse of Mali – leaving it in a permanent state of occupation and insurgency. Meanwhile, Islamist fighters and Qaddafi’s weapons were scattered across Africa, contributing to greater instability in Nigeria and Libya, as well as increased threat levels in Chad, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Senegal and Togo. It evidently also spurred an audacious revenge attack in Algeria that left more than 80 dead and an assault on a French-run uranium mine and a nearby military base in Niger in which at least 25 people were killed, among many other repercussions. These types of results have been typical and the stage is set for more of the same in the months and years ahead.
Can you discuss a bit about US proxy wars and covert operations in Africa?
The US has engaged in a series of proxy wars and interventions from Mali to Central African Republic to Somalia, backing both African forces and French troops in a series of efforts to bolster local allies whose militaries have collapsed despite years of often covert US support. In spite of a woeful record, however, these covert ops continue as Navy SEALs, Green Berets and other elite troops from Special Operations Command Africa and its component units, like the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Trans Sahara and the even more shadowy Naval Special Warfare Unit Ten, carry out missions from Libya to Tunisia to South Sudan. It’s a constant churn of operations conducted almost completely in the shadows.
You have a chapter on “China, America and the new cold war in Africa.” Can you describe how that played out in South Sudan?
For the last decade, China has used “soft power” – aid, trade and infrastructure projects – to make major inroads on the African continent. In the process, it has set itself up as the dominant foreign player there. The US, on the other hand, increasingly confronts Africa as a “battlefield” or “battleground” or “war” in the words of the men running its operations. In recent years, there has been a substantial surge in US military activities of every sort, including the construction of military outposts and both direct and proxy interventions. These two approaches have produced starkly contrasting results for the powers involved and the rising nations of the continent.
“In Africa, a war zone about which most Americans are completely unaware, the writing is already on the wall.”
In South Sudan, specifically, the US poured in billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance as the new nation broke away from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war. It sent military instructors to train the country’s armed forces and advisers to mentor government officials. The new nation, it was hoped, would bolster US national security interests by injecting a heavy dose of democracy into the heart of Africa, while promoting political stability and good governance. Specifically, it was to serve as a democratic bulwark against Sudan and its president, Omar al-Bashir, who had once harbored Osama bin Laden and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in that country’s Darfur region.
During the years when America was helping bring South Sudan into existence, China pursued a very different tack. In 2012, newly inaugurated South Sudanese President Salva Kiir traveled to China where he sipped champagne with then-President Hu Jintao and reportedly secured a pledge of $8 billion to build up his country’s infrastructure and support its oil sector. Not long after, the China National Petroleum Corporation, with a 40 percent stake, became the largest shareholder in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, the top oil consortium in South Sudan. It also leads another important consortium, the Greater Pioneer Operating Company.
When South Sudan burst into civil war in late 2013, Beijing ramped up diplomatic efforts and brokered an unprecedented arrangement to expand the mandate of the UN Mission in South Sudan. In addition to “protection of civilians, monitoring and investigating human rights abuses, and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Beijing managed to strike a deal to send Chinese infantry to protect South Sudan’s oil installations, where China has invested billions of dollars, under the aegis of the United Nations. This means that US taxpayers, who fund about 27 percent of the cost of UN peacekeeping missions, are now effectively underwriting China’s efforts to protect its oil interests in South Sudan. It tells you pretty much all you need to know about who is winning this new Cold War.
To what degree is the “threat of terrorism” being used for expanding the military presence in Africa?
Terrorism fears have been the key justification for US military expansion in Africa. What’s interesting – and depressing – is that in 2000, a report prepared under the auspices of the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute examining the “African security environment” made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terrorist threats. In fact, prior to 2001, the United States did not recognize any terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa. Since then, the US has poured billions of dollars into counterterrorism efforts across the continent and, at the same time, seen transnational and Islamic terror groups proliferate at an ever-expanding rate.
You have a chapter on “winning hearts and minds.” How is the military doing in that department in Africa?
The US is definitely waging a war for the hearts and minds of Africa, but – as I detail in Tomorrow’s Battlefield – a classified Pentagon investigation I obtained suggests that the humanitarian projects being pursued in these efforts may well be orphaned, ill-planned and undocumented failures-in-the-making. According to the Department of Defense’s watchdog agency, US military officials in Africa “did not adequately plan or execute” missions designed to win over Africans deemed vulnerable to the lures of violent extremism.
This evidence of failure in the earliest stages of the US military’s hearts-and-minds campaign should have an eerie resonance for anyone who has followed its previous efforts to use humanitarian aid and infrastructure projects to sway local populations in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. In each case, the operations failed in spectacular ways, but were only fully acknowledged after years of futility and billions of dollars in waste. In Africa, a war zone about which most Americans are completely unaware, the writing is already on the wall.