Tomorrow’s battlefield: US wars, secret operations in Africa

Richard Poplak Correspondent
Greetings, friends, from the bottom of Occupied Africa. While the sitting African Union chairperson, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe insists that “(t)his is not the headquarters of the ICC, we don’t want it in this region at all”; while investment bankers tout “Africa Rising” bumper stickers at pay-all-you-can Africa Development Bank conferences; and while the rest of pretend that we’re finally drifting from the toxic ambit of neo-colonialism in order to define a set of singularly African narratives, along comes a fleet and sinewy book to knock us all back to Earth.

In 2005, the American journalist Nick Turse, after having covered his government’s misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, started to half-notice the fact that the US military (as distinct, say, from Congress or the media) had started to take a pervy interest in Africa. By 2010, during the brief interregnum between Mission Unaccomplished and the rise of ISIS, he realised that the pervy interest had transformed into a full-blown BDSM dungeon. He pitched stories to American news outlets, but no one cared. Thankfully, Tom Engelhardt, editor of the essential website, understood the implications, and by the middle of 2012, Turse was the lonely reporter working on a beat that turns out to be vital to the interests of every man, woman and child living on this continent.

Well, to start with, he found Schwarzenegger-worthy pronouncements like this one, courtesy of Captain Robert Smith, commanding officer of Naval Special Group Two, at a change of command ceremony in Boeblingen, Germany, in 2013: “Some people like to think of Africa as out next ridge-line. Africa is our current ridge-line.”

Or this one, attributed to Major General James Linder, commander of US Special Operations in Africa: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”

Turse’s recently published collection of TomDispatch pieces takes its title from the latter Chuck Norris-ism. Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa is a chilling account of Turse’s last three years of reportage. Most of his efforts were stonewalled by the United States Africa Command, better known – if known at all – as AFRICOM. While a website and Facebook page portrays the command as little more than nuclear-armed clinic builders and baby huggers, the mission statement conceals all sorts of foreboding Easter eggs: “United States Africa Command, in concert with inter-agency and international partners, builds defence capabilities, responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance US national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”

Every time – every time – the United States military attempts to promote “regional security, stability, and prosperity,” the very opposite occurs. Africans have learned this the hard way, mostly from Cold War, but also from more recent debacles like the intervention in Somalia and the so-called “Black Hawk Down” thing in Mogadishu.

But when Turse started digging, he found a veritable universe of potential Black Hawk Downs. In the old days, the US military traditionally divided Africa under three commands – the US European Command (EUCOM), the US Central Command (CENTCOM), and the US Pacific Command (PACOM). This befitted Africa’s status as a region of little importance, and it allowed civilian officials from the State Department to set policy, in consort with their peers at donor institutions like USAID.

In 2006, then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld formed a planning commission to advise on a more specific Africa-centred command to battle the never-ending terrorist scourge, and he brought those recommendations to President Bush in December of that year. On September 28, 2007, General William E. “Kip” Ward was named AFRICOM’s first commander.

He immediately began acting like a local dictator, allegedly blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars on unauthorised flights and hotel rooms for himself, his family, and his cronies. He was retired and reduced in rank to Lieutenant General in 2011, but not before setting up the vast “forward command base” Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, and kicking off the Age of AFRICOM.

And what defines this age? According to Turse, AFRICOM governs “a war zone spanning almost fifty countries that you weren’t meant to know about, a war zone the size of the United States, China, India, and most of Europe combined, a war zone that doesn’t officially exist because, outside of commander’s conclaves and briefings for defence contractors, the American military claims it’s not at war in Africa.”

It’s true that war has not been declared. But then how does one explain the 5,000 US military of Department of Defence personnel that operate on the continent at any one time? The 546 “activities” undertaken across Africa in 2013 alone? The three-quarter of a billion dollars that will be spent on Camp Lemonnier in the next ten years? (This includes a fitness centre that, at $24 million, has cost as much as the Nkandla upgrades.) The $836 million spent on AFRICOM activities between 2010 and 2012? The eight active or proposed drone bases?

How does one explain Libya?
Turse spends some time unpacking the nightmare that has unfolded in that country. The term he prefers is “blowback”: the unintended consequences that arise following the reaction to a military action, when the reaction is considered only in narrow military terms and discards anything approaching real world intelligence. This is an endemic American disease, and it’s particularly acute in Africa. Turse meticulously outlines how the Libya situation, which resulted in millions of dollars of high-tech arms knocking about North Africa, ended up becoming the Mali situation, one that the Americans and the French now have to manage infinitely, until it blows back into a much larger, much more dangerous problem, requiring more troops and more weapons, which…you get the idea.

All of these shenanigans have been played down by the US Military authorities, who insist that their existence in Africa leaves little more than a “light footprint”. (“AFRICOM releases information about only a fraction of its activities,” writes Turse.) One of the book’s principal pleasures is how creatively, consistently and politely AFRICOM’s spokesfolk urge Turse to, um, get lost. The refusal to be transparent is appalling, especially in light of how the State Department and others have been trying to “groom” transparency in Africa’s nascent democracies. This is not properly a cover-up, mostly because Turse is the only person asking the hard questions. But it’s clear that the AFRICOM strategy is to dazzle embedded journalist with saving-kittens-from-trees stories, while leaving the nitty-gritty Top Secret.

This is an essential book. Anyone interested, or living in, the continent needs to read it. It is not a perfect book—there is much repetition, and it is very much a collection of pieces rather than an overarching, cohesive narrative. Historical context is light, at best. All of this is understandable, given the constraints under which Turse was working. Turse, has done the Lord’s work in uncovering the US military’s incremental expansion in its new African theatre.

The results, he concludes, will not be pretty. “[If] the past is any guide, US operations will increase in Africa in the years ahead alongside increased insecurity, instability, and strife. Odds are, much of the former will occur below the radar and much of the latter will go unnoticed by most Americans. But make no mistake, for America in the years ahead, Africa will continue to be tomorrow’s battlefield.” – DM

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