The U.S. war in Africa

August 11, 2015

Lee Wengraf reviews an invaluable new book on the U.S. and Africa.

MEDIA COVERAGE of President Barack Obama's much-touted East Africa trip in July devoted ample space to his diplomatic "balancing act" of promoting U.S. interests alongside expressed concerns for democracy and human rights. Touring Kenya and Ethiopia, and then addressing the African Union in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Obama chided African leaders for failing to heed term limits and democratic norms.

Meanwhile, the visit unleashed a whirlwind of financial deals, with Obama announcing $1 billion raised for African businesses.

The backdrop to Obama's visit was a heightened focus on competition with China. China has outstripped the U.S. when it comes to trade with Africa, prompting Obama to speak about China's perceived intentions.

Yet missing from much of the reporting on Obama's visit and U.S.-China tensions is the largely hidden story of the U.S. military buildup on the continent. Notwithstanding oblique references to spending on "security," the true picture of Obama's Africa policy is one of a massive increase in military spending and an expanded footprint encompassing virtually every African nation.

Barack Obama (front left) greeted by large crowds on his arrival in Kenya
Barack Obama (front left) greeted by large crowds on his arrival in Kenya (Pete Souza | White House)

For the backstory on these crucial developments, readers must turn to Nick Turse's excellent new book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Turse, of Tom Dispatch, is a tenacious journalist, and his dogged pursuit of answers from U.S. military officials--or through other means, when faced with the inevitable stonewalling--has uncovered crucial details on U.S. military policy, from the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and beyond.

Turse's book comprises a series of articles over the span of several years and is a rich compilation of on-the-ground reporting, military PR spin and the unearthed documents that belie it. As Turse says, "It seemed like AFRICOM had something to hide." He was right--because of Turse's research, we now have a much clearer picture of its frightening scale and scope, the havoc wreaked by these operations and, importantly, the price it has exacted from ordinary Africans.


THE SHEER size of the U.S. footprint has seen a huge increase in recent years. What Turse describes as a "pivot to Africa" started under George W. Bush with his launch of AFRICOM in 2007 amid a growing strategic interest in the continent. The Bush administration was concerned with the rise of Islamist movements and inaugurated several counter-terrorism projects such as the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership.

The U.S. took control of Camp Lemonnier, formerly operated by the French, in 2001, now described as the only permanent U.S. base in Africa. Located in the tiny nation of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa's Gulf of Aden, the Horn's proximity to the Middle East facilitates Washington's ability to project power from North Africa to the Middle East.

These programs have increased massively under the Obama administration and, as Turse describes, there has been a 200 percent increase in military missions during his tenure. Camp Lemonnier now hosts 2,000 personnel, and U.S. Department of Defense staff are assigned to U.S. embassies across Africa.

The size and reach of these projects is overwhelming, and Turse sketches some of the key operations of recent years: NATO's 2011 war on Libya; a new campaign of expanded drone operations; a U.S. Navy flotilla in the Indian Ocean; a military and CIA campaign in Somalia, to shore up the Somalian government against al-Shabab rebels; and the use of U.S. Special Ops forces, along with African troops, in the hunt for Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony in Uganda and the Central African Republic. Besides al-Shabab and Kony, "regional enemies" include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb and Boko Haram, based in Nigeria.

Lurking behind these interventions is a growing infrastructure of counter-terrorism operations across the region. As Turse describes, while the military may decry any permanence to its operations, in fact they have built a vast network of outposts, drone facilities and aircraft landing support.

An array of military personnel and contractors provide logistics, equipment and "training support" for African troops, and civilian infrastructure has been upgraded for military uses. These expanded operations provide the basis for a number of "shadow wars."

A recent construction boom belies the euphemisms deployed by military officials. Turse reveals that from 2009-12, U.S. agencies spent $390 million on construction, from barracks and training centers. This expanded infrastructure has translated into an increase in military "surge capacity": by Turse's own count, the military has some kind of involvement in 49 African nations--meaning that there is now "training or activity in nearly every country on the continent." U.S. Army Africa has recorded a 94 percent increase in activities from 2011 to 2013, now averaging one mission per day.


THIS HEIGHTENED military capacity begs the question of what policy aims are driving this new interest in a vastly more militarized Africa. Turse outlines the U.S. counter-terrorism agenda, pointing out that "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here has been a core tenet of American foreign policy for decades, especially since 9/11."

Counter-terror, states Turse, is a primary concern for a continent where terrorist organizations have been a threat to stability for some years. In a West Point speech in 2013, Obama signaled a tactical shift, announcing, "The war on terror is over. We must define our effort not as a boundless 'Global War on Terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."

Nonetheless, policy makers look to embed themselves ever deeper in African operations. As a U.S. Special Ops commander told Turse, "We are there 365-days-a-year to share the burden, assist in shaping the environment and exploit opportunities."

But with this round-the-clock presence has come a widening blowback. As Tomorrow's Battlefield rightly points out, the scale of terrorism on African soil has only widened in response to U.S. activities. Describing a "ground zero for a veritable terror diaspora," Turse points out that no groups were designated "terrorist organizations" in sub-Saharan Africa prior to 2001, a far cry from the situation today. Clearly, "trying to apply military solutions to complex political and social problems has regularly led to unforeseen consequences."

A couple of examples illustrate his point well. One is the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa where--U.S.-lauded "success stories" to the contrary--piracy has jumped immensely. The Gulf has seen an increase in offshore oil exploration in recent years as oil majors such as Exxon and Shell have sought new, untapped sources, as well as alternatives to the oil theft, bunkering and pipeline destruction in the Niger River Delta, among other places, with lost revenue of thousands of barrels of oil per day.

Faced with heightened security concerns in the Gulf, the U.S. poured millions into "maritime security activities" and "counter-piracy training." Yet despite these initiatives, during the years 2010-23 the Gulf saw an 80 percent rise in piracy, from oil theft to kidnapping, making it the "most insecure and violent waterway in entire world."

Even the government's own policy recommendations have gone unheeded. "U.S. failures," Turse concludes, "are many," including "a failure to effectively combat piracy despite an outlay of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and a failure to confront African leaders who enable piracy in the first place."


A CORE theme in Tomorrow's Battlefield is the ways that U.S. intervention fuels insurgency, and the reverberations from Libya to Mali are a good example.

In the wake of the U.S.-led NATO air war on Libya that forced Qaddafi from office, militias "fill[ed] a security vacuum left by the collapse of the old regime." Attacks spread across the country, including an assault that killed the U.S. Ambassador in Benghazi in 2012. A Tuareg insurgency, armed with weaponry looted from Libya, seized northern sections of Mali, followed by an Islamist insurgency that then wrested back control.

Meanwhile, U.S.-trained officers staged a coup, and the U.S. moved quickly to back France's military intervention in 2013 with additional support. European militaries "beat back" Islamic forces, leaving low-intensity fighting and widening instability in its wake throughout the surrounding region. This approach, argues Turse, is the "new normal," a vast network designed for dealing with, as one official puts it, "a lot of rapidly-moving crises."

Turse's book is replete with numerous other examples of the U.S.'s inability to "succeed" in this new arena on its own terms, such as its close connection to the "midwifing" of South Sudan, as Secretary of State John Kerry termed it. Despite billions in aid, infrastructure development and military support poured by the U.S. into the new nation, a civil war has unleashed devastation in this oil-rich country.

Turse paints a vivid picture of Obama's visit to a camp in Juba, South Sudan's capital: notwithstanding U.S. desire to champion this nation-building project, in the squalor of the camp and beyond, the "human toll is incalculable." One million South Sudanese children--including many that Turse encountered on this same visit--will suffer from malnutrition.

A critical part of AFRICOM's veneer is its declared mission of "humanitarian assistance." Yet as Turse rightly points out, despite this altruistic cover, "to the U.S. military, humanitarian assistance...is a form of 'security cooperation,'" where the aim of "winning hearts and minds" is to facilitate local cooperation.

In fact, the very terminology--"civil-military operations (CMOs)"--tellingly points to the underlying agenda: stability to further U.S. interests rather than meet human need. Meanwhile, meshing military tactics with civilian needs only shores up the levels of militarization across the content.

The Obama administration's decision, for example, to opt for a militarized response to the Ebola crisis--deploying soldiers rather than medical personnel--produced more boots on the ground in a strategically critical region.

The U.S. isn't the only power seeking to win influence through construction and services: China has built strong ties across the continent, attempting, as Turse describes it, to "build goodwill through public works." In fact, China's influence is dwarfing that of the U.S.: China's trade with Africa reached $222 billion last year while trade between the U.S. and Africa only reached $73 billion during that same period, and is projected to further decline this year. China is Africa's largest trading partner, expecting to provide $1 trillion in infrastructure financing to Africa by 2025.

China, asserts Turse, deploys a "ruthlessly pragmatic power-projection strategy," relying on "soft power" and "multilateral interventions." These two super-powers, in his view, inhabit complementary spheres, where the "American and Chinese presence take quite different forms." For the U.S., "Africa is a battlefield"; "China is pre-eminent in economics, the U.S. in the political realm."

In fact, Chinese and U.S. interests may not be quite as far apart as Turse lays out. Not unlike Howard French's 2014 account of Chinese immigration and business development in China, his version of relations between the two puts less emphasis on the competitive dynamic unfolding on African soil than recent developments might warrant.

The U.S., in fact, is likewise motivated by economic and financial interests. The U.S. has been a major participant in what can rightly be called a "new scramble for Africa," seeking stability for U.S.-based corporations while edging out its competitors. From oil exploration to agricultural investment and the mining of rare minerals, multinationals and investment firms are driving a frenzy of business development.

The U.S. currently imports more oil from Africa than from the Middle East. A host of powers including European nations, India and Brazil have meanwhile entered the fray, but China and the U.S. lead the pack. Yet far from any kind of peaceful coexistence, U.S. and Chinese interests are going head to head, and the U.S. has been worried about the Chinese presence for some years, hence Obama's claims, in his July 2015 visit, that U.S. friendship has more to offer than China's.


THE TERRIFYING military escalation described in Tomorrow's Battlefield flows directly from this economic competition. As Turse himself relates, South Sudan, for example, has been the site of military involvement by both sides, a glimpse of the heightened clash of interests at play in other parts of the continent.

China is currently the front-runner in South Sudan, importing 77 percent of its oil. Its interests, writes Turse, have prompted China to both arm President Salva Kiir's forces in the war against former Vice President Riek Machar while also "securing a deal that will put the UN's famed blue helmets to work protecting workers in South Sudan's oil installations, where China has invested billions of dollars."

Speaking to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit recent visit to Kenya, Obama championed business interests in a country where Chinese companies have spent billions of dollars in construction projects alone. Among the biggest Chinese objectives is the massive LAPSSET pipeline and transportation project linking Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The U.S. now wants in on this $26 billion mega-project, and a consortium of U.S. companies, including giants like Bechtel, are in talks to nail down a deal.

This economic competition is the context for Obama 's East African counter-terrorism activities, and likewise the unprecedented presence of Chinese naval forces in the Horn of Africa region. As unfolding events in Africa show all too clearly, the scramble for resources, markets and investments has rapidly spilled over into a frightening militarization.

In painting this picture, Turse's aim is both to serve as warning and to expose the utter hypocrisy, neglect and cynicism of U.S. aims. His neglect, however, of the competitive drive behind this build-up leaves him with a narrower basis from which to critique these policies. As a result, Tomorrow's Battlefield pays a great deal of attention to assessing U.S. policy's "success" in its stated aims, leaving him with a more limited focus on "failure," "waste" and the "efficacy" of U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. has the ability and resources for nation-building, asserts Turse, but has been "ineffective" and demonstrated a startling "lack of planning." But should those of us seeking an end to militarization and poverty in Africa advocate for a more "successful" implementation of U.S. policy? Military intervention has only engendered further crisis in Africa. But "stability" that paves the way for the expanded reach of corporate interests is a dead end for the majority of Africans, a "solution" that will inevitably create the conditions for recurring conflicts and humanitarian disasters.

A militarized continent continues to leave ordinary Africans in devastated conditions, lacking basic services and infrastructure. According to the World Bank, at the turn of the millennium, three of the 10 countries with the fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa, but an estimated 58 percent of the population lived on less than $1.25 a day.

Despite the rising GDP of a number of nations, inequality has yet to be significantly reversed, and in fact, much of the continent's economic growth has enriched mainly foreign corporations and African elites at the expense of ordinary people on the receiving end of privatizations, land grabs, budget cuts and widening military conflicts.

None of these developments would be possible without the "actual war-fighting combatant command" of AFRICOM. The dangers of yet another front in the global war on terror--Obama's declarations to the contrary--are increasingly making themselves felt, along with the human costs Turse highlights. Tomorrow's Battlefield is an urgently needed resource for all those seeking ways to end military intervention in Africa.

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