The U.S.-backed war in Libya and the CIA’s efforts in its aftermath are just two of the many operations that have proliferated across the [African] continent under President Obama. These include a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, consisting of intelligence operations, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, drone strikes, and U.S. commando raids; a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders in the jungles of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; a massive influx of funding for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; and, in just the last four years, hundreds of millions of dollars spent arming and training West African troops to serve as American proxies on the continent. From 2010-2012, AFRICOM itself burned through $836 million as it expanded its reach across the region, primarily via programs to mentor, advise, and tutor African militaries.
In recent years, the U.S. has trained and outfitted soldiers from Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya, among other nations, for missions like the hunt for Kony. They have also served as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia, part of the African Union Mission (AMISOM) protecting the U.S.-supported government in that country’s capital, Mogadishu. Since 2007, the State Department has anted up about $650 million in logistics support, equipment, and training for AMISOM troops. The Pentagon has kicked in an extra $100 million since 2011.
The U.S. also continues funding African armies through the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership and its Pentagon analog, now known as Operation Juniper Shield, with increased support flowing to Mauritania and Niger in the wake of Mali’s collapse. In 2012, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development poured approximately $52 million into the programs, while the Pentagon chipped in another $46 million.
In the Obama years, U.S. Africa Command has also built a sophisticated logistics system officially known as the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.” Its central nodes are in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier.
In addition, the Pentagon has run a regional air campaign using drones and manned aircraft out of airports and bases across the continent including Camp Lemonnier, Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger, and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while private contractor-operated surveillance aircraft have flown missionsout of Entebbe, Uganda. Recently, Foreign Policy reported on the existence of a possible drone base in Lamu, Kenya.
Another critical location is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, home to a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative that, according to military documents, 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 the initiative 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 just 10% of monthly flight hours.
While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents indicate that it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December of last year, for example, the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative flew 233 sorties. In just the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.
AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson has confirmed to TomDispatch that U.S. air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 in Niamey, the capital of Niger, were providing “support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region.” Refusing to go into detail about mission specifics for reasons of “operational security,” he added that, “in partnership with Niger and other countries in the region, we are committed to supporting our allies… this decision allows for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations within the region.”
Benson also confirmed that the U.S. military has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities” like training missions. He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. All told, the U.S. military now has agreements to use 29 international airports in Africa as refueling centers.
Benson was more tight-lipped about air operations from Nzara Landing Zone in the Republic of South Sudan, the site of one of several shadowy forward operating posts (including another in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and a third in Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo) that have been used by U.S. Special Operations forces. “We don’t want Kony and his folks to know… what kind of planes to look out for,” he said. It’s no secret, however, that U.S. air assets over Africa and its coastal waters include Predator, Global Hawk and Scan Eagle drones, MQ-8 unmanned helicopters, EP-3 Orion aircraft, Pilatus planes, and E-8 Joint Stars aircraft.
Last year, in its ever-expanding operations, AFRICOM planned 14 major joint-training exercises on the continent, including in Morocco, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria. One of them, an annual event known as Atlas Accord, saw members of the U.S. Special Forces travel to Mali to conduct training with local forces. “The participants were very attentive, and we were able to show them our tactics and see theirs as well,” said Captain Bob Luther, a team leader with the 19th Special Forces Group.