AFRICOM stretches far wider than the public is being told, and it’s only going to get bigger in the years to come
Nick Turse, TOMDISPATCH.COM
In the shadows of what was once called the “dark continent,” a scramble has come and gone. If you heard nothing about it, that was by design. But look hard enough and — north to south, east to west — you’ll find the fruits of that effort: a network of bases, compounds, and other sites whose sum total exceeds the number of nations on the continent. For a military that has stumbled from Iraq to Afghanistan and suffered setbacks from Libya to Syria, it’s a rare can-do triumph. In remote locales, behind fences and beyond the gaze of prying eyes, the U.S. military has built an extensive archipelago of African outposts, transforming the continent, experts say, into a laboratory for a new kind of war.
So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa? It’s a simple question with a simple answer. For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America’s only acknowledged “base” on the continent. It wasn’t true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.
Pentagon’s official list of bases
Take a look at the Pentagon’s official list of bases, however, and the number grows. The 2015 report on the Department of Defense’s global property portfolio lists Camp Lemonnier and three other deep-rooted sites on or near the continent: U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3, a medical research facility in Cairo, Egypt, that was established in 1946; Ascension Auxiliary Airfield, a spacecraft tracking station and airfield located 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa that has been used by the U.S. since 1957; and warehouses at the airport and seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, that were built in the 1980s.
That’s only the beginning, not the end of the matter. For years, various reporters have shed light on hush-hush outposts — most of them built, upgraded, or expanded since 9/11 — dotting the continent, including so-called cooperative security locations(CSLs). Earlier this year, AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez disclosed that there were actually 11 such sites. Again, devoted AFRICOM-watchers knew that this, too, was just the start of a larger story, but when I asked Africa Command for a list of bases, camps and other sites, as I periodically have done, I was treated like a sap.
Resistance to honesty and transparency
“In all, AFRICOM has access to 11 CSLs across Africa. Of course, we have one major military facility on the continent: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” Anthony Falvo, AFRICOM’s Public Affairs chief, told me. Falvo was peddling numbers that both he and I know perfectly well are, at best, misleading. “It’s one of the most troubling aspects of our military policy in Africa, and overseas generally, that the military can’t be, and seems totally resistant to being, honest and transparent about what it’s doing,” says David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.
An extensive network of more than 60 outposts and access points in Africa
Research by TomDispatch indicates that in recent years the U.S. military has, in fact, developed a remarkably extensive network of more than 60 outposts and access points in Africa. Some are currently being utilized, some are held in reserve, and some may be shuttered. These bases, camps, compounds, port facilities, fuel bunkers, and other sites can be found in at least 34 countries — more than 60% of the nations on the continent — many of them corrupt, repressive states with poor human rights records. The U.S. also operates “Offices of Security Cooperation and Defense Attaché Offices in approximately 38 [African] nations,” according to Falvo, and has struck close to 30 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers.
There is no reason to believe that even this represents a complete accounting of America’s growing archipelago of African outposts. Although it’s possible that a few sites are being counted twice due to AFRICOM’s failure to provide basic information or clarification, the list TomDispatch has developed indicates that the U.S. military has created a network of bases that goes far beyond what AFRICOM has disclosed to the American public, let alone to Africans.
AFRICOM’s Base Bonanza
When AFRICOM became an independent command in 2008, Camp Lemonnier was reportedly still one of the few American outposts on the continent. In the years since, the U.S. has embarked on nothing short of a building boom — even if the command is loath to refer to it in those terms. As a result, it’s now able to carry out increasing numbers of overt and covert missions, from training exercises to drone assassinations.
“AFRICOM, as a new command, is basically a laboratory for a different kind of warfare and a different way of posturing forces,” says Richard Reeve, the director of the Sustainable Security Programme at the Oxford Research Group, a London-based think tank. “Apart from Djibouti, there’s no significant stockpiling of troops, equipment, or even aircraft. There are a myriad of ‘lily pads’ or small forward operating bases… so you can spread out even a small number of forces over a very large area and concentrate those forces quite quickly when necessary.”
Growing U.S. presence on the continent
Indeed, U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts — many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions — have been built (or built up) in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad,Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon,Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia,South Sudan, and Uganda. A 2011 report by Lauren Ploch, an analyst in African affairs with the Congressional Research Service, also mentioned U.S. military access to locations in Algeria, Botswana, Namibia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and Zambia. AFRICOM failed to respond to scores of requests by this reporter for further information about its outposts and related matters, but an analysis of open source information, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and other records show a persistent, enduring, and growing U.S. presence on the continent.
“A cooperative security location is just a small location where we can come in… It would be what you would call a very austere location with a couple of warehouses that has things like: tents, water, and things like that,” explained AFRICOM’s Rodriguez. As he implies, the military doesn’t consider CSLs to be “bases,” but whatever they might be called, they are more than merely a few tents and cases of bottled water.
Primed for conversion from temporary, bare-bones facilities into something more enduring
Designed to accommodate about 200 personnel, with runways suitable for C-130 transport aircraft, the sites are primed for conversion from temporary, bare-bones facilities into something more enduring. At least three of them in Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon are apparently designed to facilitate faster deployment for a rapid reaction unit with a mouthful of a moniker: Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF). Its forces are based in Morón, Spain, and Sigonella, Italy, but are focused on Africa. They rely heavily on MV-22 Ospreys,tilt-rotor aircraft that can take-off, land, and hover like helicopters, but fly with the speed and fuel efficiency of a turboprop plane.
This combination of manpower, access, and technology has come to be known in the military by the moniker “New Normal.” Birthed in the wake of the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the New Normal effectively allows the U.S. military quick access 400 miles inland from any CSL or, as Richard Reeve notes, gives it “a reach that extends to just about every country in West and Central Africa.”
The concept was field-tested as South Sudan plunged into civil war and 160 Marines and sailors from Morón were forward deployed to Djibouti in late 2013. Within hours, a contingent from that force was sent to Uganda and, in early 2014, in conjunction with another rapid reaction unit, dispatched to South Sudan to evacuate 20 people from the American embassy in Juba. Earlier this year, SPMAGTF-CR-AF ran trials at its African staging areas including the CSL in Libreville, Gabon, deploying nearly 200 Marines and sailors along with four Ospreys, two C-130s, and more than 150,000 pounds of materiel.
A similar test run was carried out at the Senegal CSL located at Dakar-Ouakam Air Base, which can also host 200 Marines and the support personnel necessary to sustain and transport them. “What the CSL offers is the ability to forward-stage our forces to respond to any type of crisis,” Lorenzo Armijo, an operations officer with SPMAGTF-CR-AF, told a military reporter. “That crisis can range in the scope of military operations from embassy reinforcement to providing humanitarian assistance.”
A light footprint
Another CSL, mentioned in a July 2012 briefing by U.S. Army Africa, is located in Entebbe, Uganda. From there, according to a Washington Postinvestigation, U.S. contractors have flown surveillance missions using innocuous-looking turboprop airplanes. “The AFRICOM strategy is to have a very light touch, a light footprint, but nevertheless facilitate special forces operations or ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] detachments over a very wide area,” Reeve says. “To do that they don’t need very much basing infrastructure, they need an agreement to use a location, basic facilities on the ground, a stockpile of fuel, but they also can rely on private contractors to maintain a number of facilities so there aren’t U.S. troops on the ground.”
The Outpost Archipelago
AFRICOM ignored my requests for further information on CSLs and for the designations of other outposts on the continent, but according to a 2014 article inArmy Sustainment on “Overcoming Logistics Challenges in East Africa,” there are also “at least nine forward operating locations, or FOLs.” A 2007 Defense Department news release referred to an FOL in Charichcho, Ethiopia. The U.S. military also utilizes “Forward Operating Location Kasenyi” in Kampala, Uganda. A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office mentioned forward operating locations in Isiolo and Manda Bay, both in Kenya.
Camp Simba in Manda Bay has, in fact, seen significant expansion in recent years. In 2013, Navy Seabees, for example, worked 24-hour shifts to extend its runway to enable larger aircraft like C-130s to land there, while other projects were initiated to accommodate greater numbers of troops in the future, including increased fuel and potable water storage, and more latrines. The base serves as a home away from home for Navy personnel and Army Green Berets among other U.S. troops and, as recently revealed at theIntercept, plays an integral role in the secret drone assassination program aimed at militants in neighboring Somalia as well as in Yemen.
Drones have played an increasingly large role in this post-9/11 build-up in Africa. MQ-1 Predators have, for instance, been based in Chad’s capital,N’Djamena, while their newer, larger, more far-ranging cousins, MQ-9 Reapers, have been flown out of Seychelles International Airport. As of June 2012, according to the Intercept, two contractor-operated drones, one Predator and one Reaper, were based in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, while a detachment with one Scan Eagle (a low-cost drone used by the Navy) and a remotely piloted helicopter known as an MQ-8 Fire Scout operated off the coast of East Africa. The U.S. also recently began setting up a base in Cameroon for unarmed Predators to be used in the battle against Boko Haram militants.
In February 2013, the U.S. also began flying Predator drones out of Niger’s capital,Niamey. A year later, Captain Rick Cook, then chief of U.S. Africa Command’s Engineer Division, mentioned the potential for a new “base-like facility” that would be “semi-permanent” and “capable of air operations” in that country. That September, the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlockexposed plans to base drones at a second location there, Agadez. Within days, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey announced that AFRICOM was, indeed, “assessing the possibility of establishing a temporary, expeditionary contingency support location in Agadez, Niger.”