WASHINGTON – In his first term, President Barack Obama instructed the Pentagon to pivot its forces and reorient its strategy toward fast-growing Asia. Instead, the U.S. military finds itself drawn into a string of messy wars in a much poorer part of the world: Africa.
Over the past two years, the Pentagon has become embroiled in conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Mali and Central Africa. The U.S. Air Force is setting up a fourth African drone base, while U.S. Navy warships are increasing their missions along the coastlines of East and West Africa.
The U.S. military involvement in Africa still barely registers when compared with its presence in Asia, let alone the Middle East or Afghanistan. There are only about 5,000 U.S. troops in all of Africa, while 28,000 are stationed in South Korea alone.
But it is becoming more common for the Pentagon to deploy troops to parts of Africa that many Americans would be hard-pressed to locate on a map, such as Djibouti, the Central African Republic and now the West African country of Niger, where the U.S. military is planning a base for Predator drones.
Pentagon officials say their expanded involvement in Africa is necessary to combat the spread of al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa and Somalia and other guerrillas such as Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. And while military leaders have sought to downplay their rudimentary network of bases on the continent, there are signs that they are planning for a much more robust presence.
In a written statement provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who is poised to become the next leader of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, estimated that the U.S. military needs to increase its intelligence-gathering and spying missions in Africa by nearly fifteenfold.
When U.S. military officials created the Africa Command in 2007, they insisted they did not have plans to create bases or move troops to the continent. Since then, however, the Pentagon has gradually assembled a network of small staging bases, including drone installations in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, and a forward operating base for special operations forces in Kenya.
The Pentagon has also expanded operations and construction at the only permanent U.S. base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which serves as a hub for counterterrorism missions in Somalia and Yemen.
Now pressure is building to add more bases in North and West Africa.
Lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon for being ill-positioned to respond quickly to the September attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Since then, the Defense Department has approved a small rapid-reaction force for Africa Command, though where it will be stationed remains unclear.
The Pentagon is also drawing up plans to base drones in Niger, which borders Mali, Libya and Nigeria, all of which are dogged by growing threats from al-Qaida affiliates and other militants.
At Rodriguez’s confirmation hearing Thursday, Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the committee, pressed the general to answer how the military would respond to “a crisis” in sub-Saharan Africa. “You’re going to have a hard time getting there,” Inhofe pointed out.
Unlike the Pentagon’s military commands for other parts of the globe, Africa Command has only a handful of troops regularly assigned to it and must borrow planes and personnel on a temporary basis.
Africa Command’s headquarters has been in Stuttgart, Germany, since it was created in 2007. The site was supposed to be temporary until a home could be found in Africa, but the search ran into roadblocks. Instead of rolling out a welcome mat, African countries expressed concern that the Pentagon was seeking to militarize U.S. policy or infringe on their sovereignty.