Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: The U.S. Military Is in Africa—But What Is It Doing There?

Journalist Nick Turse discusses his new book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.

Marc Daalder August 17, 2015

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jarrod Branch, an armor officer with the 13th Calvary Regiment, instructs U.S. and Zambian Defense Force Soldiers during Southern Accord 2015 in Lusaka, Zambia on Aug. 6. (US Army Africa / Flickr / Creative Commons)

The Unit­ed States mil­i­tary is a glob­al force, with bases span­ning six con­ti­nents and dozens of coun­tries. Its expan­sion in East Asia makes head­lines and trig­gers protests around the world; forces fight­ing in coun­tries as dis­tant as Ukraine and Syr­ia receive mil­i­tary aid; over the past sev­er­al decades, it has crip­pled South Amer­i­can insur­gent groups and still per­forms large scale train­ing oper­a­tions in Cen­tral America.

I had seen the outlines of a very sophisticated logistics network being set up. Now you don’t build a logistics network—ferrying supplies all across the continent—unless you’re planning on sending personnel all across the continent, unless you’re planning to man outposts and bases. But when I asked about this, they talked about how light their footprint was. These things didn’t match up.

The one con­ti­nent in which U.S. mil­i­tary action rarely receives any atten­tion for is Africa. The U.S. main­tains just one back­wa­ter base in Dji­bouti, Camp Lemon­nier, and rarely adver­tis­es its mil­i­tary actions there.

Nick Turse, an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist, looked deep­er into the state of U.S. mil­i­tary affairs in Africa in a series of arti­cles for TomDis​patch​.com, where he is an edi­tor. These arti­cles have been col­lect­ed in a book enti­tled Tomor­row’s Bat­tle­field: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Turse spoke with In These Times recent­ly to dis­cuss what the U.S. mil­i­tary is up to in Africa.

How did you get the idea to write the book? 

It had very hum­ble begin­nings. I asked the pub­lic rela­tions peo­ple at U.S. Africa Com­mand, or AFRICOM, to answer a few sim­ple ques­tions about the scale and scope of their involve­ment on the con­ti­nent. I asked these ques­tions because I start­ed see­ing indi­ca­tions of increased U.S. oper­a­tions for a cou­ple years. But I got a pub­lic rela­tions brush-off — prat­tle that didn’t match up to what it seemed to me they were actu­al­ly doing in Africa.

I had seen the out­lines of a very sophis­ti­cat­ed logis­tics net­work being set up. Now you don’t build a logis­tics net­work — fer­ry­ing sup­plies all across the con­ti­nent — unless you’re plan­ning on send­ing per­son­nel all across the con­ti­nent, unless you’re plan­ning to man out­posts and bases. But when I asked about this, they talked about how light their foot­print was. Because these things didn’t match up, I start­ed dig­ging more and more.

If they had told me any­thing that resem­bled the truth — what I was find­ing out through my report­ing — I prob­a­bly would have writ­ten one arti­cle and moved on. But because it looked like they had some­thing to hide, I decid­ed to dig.

The stan­dard image of U.S. mil­i­tary involve­ment in Africa is one of almost entire­ly human­i­tar­i­an work. You reveal in the book the astound­ing inep­ti­tude in our human­i­tar­i­an and aid work there, as well as the ulte­ri­or motives for help­ing out in the first place. 

If you reach out to AFRICOM pub­lic affairs, they like to talk about human­i­tar­i­an mis­sions. To hear them talk about oper­a­tions in Africa, you’d think that AFRICOM was some sort of cross between the Peace Corps and Doc­tors With­out Borders.

They do a lot of human­i­tar­i­an oper­a­tions on the con­ti­nent, or things that look human­i­tar­i­an. This is the only thing they like to talk about. But if you lis­ten when offi­cers talk to each oth­er, or talk to mil­i­tary con­trac­tors, or read inter­nal mem­os, you hear a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry. They don’t talk about the human­i­tar­i­an oper­a­tions — they talk about Africa as a bat­tle­field or a con­ti­nent where they’re at war.” This is dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to the human­i­tar­i­an veneer that they try and project to the public.

One of the biggest ques­tions that you work on answer­ing in the book is why the U.S. wants to keep all of this secret. What are some of the top rea­sons the U.S. is hid­ing its mil­i­tary pres­ence and mil­i­tary goals in Africa from the public?

One of the major rea­sons that gets men­tioned (off­hand, some­times) by their com­man­ders is that they’re afraid of the response in Africa. Com­man­ders have some­times oblique­ly men­tioned the fact that Africa’s colo­nial past means they need to tread light­ly. They aren’t oper­at­ing with a very light foot­print at this point, but they still want the per­cep­tion to be out there.

This is also just the default posi­tion of the U.S. mil­i­tary for almost any­thing. I put in hun­dreds of FOIA [Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act] requests a year for basic infor­ma­tion only to see them reject­ed. This is just part and par­cel of how the mil­i­tary oper­ates. They’d rather not answer any questions.

You say that since 911, the num­ber of failed African states has almost dou­bled and many more ter­ror­ist groups are oper­at­ing on the con­ti­nent. Is U.S.-involvement to blame for this unrest?

It’s always dif­fi­cult to pin down cau­sa­tion on any of these things. There are cer­tain­ly under­ly­ing or inter­nal issues in these coun­tries that don’t have any­thing to do with the U.S. That said, the Unit­ed States cer­tain­ly con­tributed to desta­bi­liza­tion in a lot of ways that have paved the road for increas­es in prob­lems all across the continent.

One of these instances that I talk about in the book is of course the 2011 war in Libya, which I think the U.S. saw as a no-brain­er” — that you could fight it on the cheap, at least as far as U.S. lives go, fight it from the air. You have Libyan forces on the ground and then Euro­pean part­ners that you can lean on. It was seen as a major win. But the U.S. gov­ern­ment always has a prob­lem of not under­stand­ing the reper­cus­sions of its actions down the road.

The prob­lems with the rev­o­lu­tion in Libya was that [mer­ce­nary] Tuaregs who were fight­ing for Gaddafi loot­ed his arms stores, returned to their native Mali and desta­bi­lized the gov­ern­ment there. That led to a coup by a U.S.-trained offi­cer in Mali. He seemed to be inca­pable of fight­ing against the Tuareg insur­gency, and that embold­ened an Islamist insur­gency that mus­cled the Tuaregs aside. That meant the U.S. had to back an African and French force to beat back the Islamists. Now, Mali is in a very frag­ile state.

This was once seen as a real bul­wark for the Unit­ed States, an anti-ter­ror bul­wark in West Africa. And beat­ing back the Islamists as the French and Cha­di­ans and oth­er forces did, just spread them out through oth­er coun­tries in the region and caused mass desta­bi­liza­tion there.

Unin­tend­ed con­se­quences seems to be the U.S. stock and trade. So while they may not be com­plete­ly respon­si­ble for any of these things, they cer­tain­ly have played an impor­tant role in them. Besides the Libya exam­ple, you can see it all across the con­ti­nent. In Soma­lia, Al-Shabaab was beat­en back, but now is a region­al threat instead of one that was con­fined to Somalia.

In the same way that Mali was a bul­wark for the U.S. mil­i­tary and in gen­er­al a suc­cess sto­ry, there’s a lot of oth­er coun­tries that for a while were suc­cess sto­ries but now are start­ing to fall apart — South Sudan, for exam­ple. In the final chap­ter, you talk about how Chad is in some sense seen by the U.S. as the new anti-ter­ror bul­wark for Africa, but has many issues with an author­i­tar­i­an régime and U.S.-trained forces who are actu­al­ly prone to atroc­i­ties in oth­er coun­tries and at home.

The Cha­di­ans are seen as a real suc­cess. They’re seen to be very potent fight­ers on the bat­tle­field and a proxy force that can be used in lieu of putting U.S. forces or even large num­bers of Euro­pean forces on the ground. But the issues you raised are ever-present.

In the State Department’s Human Rights reports that they put out every year, if you look at Chad, the coun­try is cit­ed every year for var­i­ous forms of human rights abus­es car­ried out by secu­ri­ty forces: extra­ju­di­cial killings, tor­ture, assault. Also Unit­ed Nations reports, Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, Human Rights Watch, they’ve all cit­ed Chad for mil­i­tary crimes out­side of its bor­ders. This is the force that the Unit­ed States is hang­ing its hat on.

And even in Mali, when the Cha­di­ans were on the ground there — they’re sup­posed to be very pow­er­ful desert fight­ers, but they were tak­ing casu­al­ties in the first few months and decid­ed that their army, that we had trained, wasn’t suit­ed to gueril­la war­fare, and with­drew their troops. These are the allies that we’re cre­at­ing. It’s very prob­lem­at­ic even from the U.S. military’s point of view. I would have to think if this is your top ally, that you’re real­ly in very rough shape.

Are any of the Unit­ed States’ proxy forces using child sol­diers? Is that an issue that AFRICOM thinks about?

Chad’s forces just a few years ago were involved in a report from Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al about a mas­sive recruit­ment of child sol­diers. So this is one of the U.S.’s main proxy forces and it insti­tutes them. One that I’ve writ­ten about a cou­ple times is South Sudan, where it’s well-known that South Sudan’s armed forces had child sol­diers at the time of inde­pen­dence. They made a pledge to rid the army of child sol­diers. And on this pro­vi­so, the Unit­ed States, which is barred from giv­ing mil­i­tary aid to forces over­seas that employ child sol­diers, issued a waiv­er for that first year, 2011.

South Sudan said by the end of the year that they would let all the child sol­diers out of the ranks — but they nev­er did. And the U.S. con­tin­ued to issue waiv­er after waiv­er, allow­ing South Sudan’s armed forces to grow, to receive U.S. equip­ment and sup­plies, while they still had chil­dren in the ranks. When South Sudan explod­ed in civ­il war, all those years of waivers meant there were child sol­diers who were already there and the government’s mil­i­tary and the off­shoot rebel forces both began exten­sive recruit­ment of child soldiers.

This was engrained in both those mil­i­taries as they came out of the one which the US had fund­ed. In many ways, the Unit­ed States set the stage for it. Once the civ­il war began, both sides were look­ing for any advan­tage and they didn’t hes­i­tate from recruit­ing chil­dren. Per­haps if they had already been elim­i­nat­ed from the armed forces, if there had been a cul­ture change, that wouldn’t have been the first place these armies would have looked to increase their ranks.

One coun­try that’s had a bet­ter track record in Africa than the U.S. is Chi­na. You have a whole chap­ter where you talk about the dif­fer­ent approach­es between China’s and the U.S.’s takes towards involve­ment in Africa, mil­i­tar­i­ly but also economically.

If you look at the Chi­nese role in Africa since 911 and the U.S. role since 911, you’ll see that two dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed paths were tak­en. The Chi­nese decid­ed that they would go an eco­nom­ic route — that that’s how they would build inroads. And the U.S. has decid­ed on a whack-a-mole” coun­tert­er­ror strat­e­gy where they would throw mon­ey at var­i­ous ter­ror prob­lems that they saw on the con­ti­nent and help build up allies that way.

Chi­na now has very deep ties with African nations all over the con­ti­nent. It has cre­at­ed pub­lic works projects, big projects that Africans can see and touch with their hands, while the US is try­ing to build up mil­i­taries there. The Chi­nese have been much more suc­cess­ful at what they’ve done. There are a lot of prob­lems with how Chi­na works on the con­ti­nent in terms of the envi­ron­ment, labor rights — it’s not a rosy pic­ture by any means. But I think it has been very effec­tive, where­as the U.S. strat­e­gy hasn’t been.

What are the best steps to take in ensur­ing Africa’s sta­bil­i­ty? Or is that not real­ly a U.S. responsibility?

If you look at the results of the last five years, ter­ror­ism on the con­ti­nent has spiked by all objec­tive mea­sures at the same time the U.S. has been pour­ing more and more mon­ey into coun­tert­er­ror. Ter­ror groups have spread as we’ve been try­ing to con­strain them. I think that it might be time for the U.S. to rethink things.

If that means a com­plete­ly hands-off pol­i­cy, per­haps that’s it. Per­haps it’s an engage­ment strat­e­gy that’s more in line with what Chi­na has done to try and build eco­nom­ic ties and raise up African economies instead of try­ing to raise African mil­i­taries. But some­how, there has to be a rethink. When the exact oppo­site of your plans come to fruition after spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions, bil­lions of dol­lars, obvi­ous­ly something’s gone wrong.

Marc Daalder is a jour­nal­ist based in Detroit, Michi­gan and Welling­ton, NZ who writes on pol­i­tics, pub­lic hous­ing, and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions. Twit­ter: @marcdaalder.
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