U.S. expands its shadow wars in Africa

23 Jul

Map of Africa, Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As the U.S. supposedly winds down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasing its shadow wars in Africa. Since 9/11, under the guise of fighting terrorism, the U.S. expanded its military presence in Central Asia (with the invasion of Afghanistan), the Middle East (with the invasion of Iraq), and the Horn of Africa — regions that are predominantly Muslim. In 2003, the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was established to carry out civil-military operations in the Horn of Africa to counter terrorism. Its base is at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only major U.S. military outpost in Africa. In 2008, the U.S. created the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) to coordinate its military operations on the continent, even though it’s headquartered in Germany. Under the rubric of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. military and CIA have been spreading their forces throughout Africa to fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. However, there are deeper geopolitical reasons motivating Washington’s militarism in Africa. This increased militarism is destabilizing Africa and exacerbates human suffering on the continent.

Secret spying operations in Africa

Last June, the Washington Post published two articles about secret U.S. intelligence operations in Africa. The first details how the U.S. military is “expanding its secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator”. Code-named Creek Sand, the classified surveillance program utilizes “small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes”. The planes are equipped with “hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals” and “refuel on isolated airstrips favored by African bush pilots”. These planes are unarmed and used for surveillance.

According the Post, Ouagadougou (WAH-gah-DOO-goo), the capital of Burkina Faso, “one of the most impoverished countries in Africa, is the “key hub” of this spying network. About a dozen of such air bases “have been established in Africa since 2007”. Most of the operations are small and “run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports”. The spy planes fly to Mali, Mauritania, and the Sahara, to search for members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Normally, surveillance operations are left for the CIA to do. But the Post rightly points out that this program “highlights the ways in which Special Operations forces are blurring the lines that govern the secret world of intelligence”. In addition, the drone program, which is largely run by the CIA, shows how the lines between military operations and intelligence are blurred. The military will carry out surveillance activities, in addition to military operations, while the CIA will carry out military operations, such as drone strikes, in addition to intelligence-gathering activities. While they are different bureaucracies, U.S. special operations forces and the CIA carry out many of the same functions, largely in secrecy. This makes them favored tools for America’s power projection.

The second Washington Post article also touches upon the U.S. military’s secret surveillance operations in Africa but adds a key revelation — the use of private contractors. To add another layer of secrecy to these missions, the U.S. military uses private contractors to carry out the secret spying missions in Africa. According to the Post, contractors “supply the aircraft as well as the pilots, mechanics and other personnel to help process electronic intelligence collected from the airspace over Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.” In fact, the Post points out that before President Obama sent 100 U.S. special operations forces to search for brutal warlord Joseph Kony in central Africa in October 2011, private American contractors have also been searching for Kony, since at least 2009, under a project code-named Tusker Sand.

Private contractors, secret prisons, cash for counterterrorism operations

However, the revelations from the Washington Post articles are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to America’s militarism in Africa. The U.S. also uses private military contractors to train African troops to fight al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamic militant group aligned with al-Qaeda. Bancroft Global Development, a private security company, plays a vital role in training African troops in Somalia. The State Department indirectly funds Bancroft in a complicated arrangement. According to the New York Times, the “governments of Uganda and Burundi pay Bancroft millions of dollars to train their soldiers for counterinsurgency missions in Somalia under an African Union banner”. The State Department then reimburses the two countries for these expenditures. So while Uganda and Burundi, both U.S. allies, hand Bancroft the money, the company’s income comes from the United States government. The United States outsources these activities to private contractors to prevent putting its own soldiers in harm’s way (and to avoid a repeat of the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993).

In addition to using private military companies and carrying out secret spying missions, the United States carries out a number of military and other covert operations in Africa. In Somalia, the CIA indirectly runs secret prisons to interrogate suspected al-Shabaab members or affiliates. While the Somali National Security Agency (NSA) officially runs the prisons, the CIA largely finances the NSA and occasionally directly interrogates prisoners.

The United States also provides a lot of cash for counterterrorism operations in Africa. Last year, the U.S. gave Uganda and Burundi $45 million in military aid to help fight al-Shabaab in Somalia. The aid package, according to the Associated Press, included “four small, shoulder-launched Raven drones, body armor, night-vision gear, communications and heavy construction equipment, generators and surveillance systems” and military training. Recently, Congress approved $75 million cash influx for U.S.-led counterterrorism operations in Yemen and East Africa.

Private contractors are not the only ones who train African troops. Recently, the United States Army announced it will assign a combat brigade to Africa next year. Assigned to an AFRICOM pilot program, a team of soldiers will provide training to and participate in military exercises with African governments. U.S. troops also train militaries in Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Liberia. Journalist and historian Nick Turse reported that the U.S. is also “conducting counterterrorism training and equipping militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia”, while AFRICOM “also has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012, including operations in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria.” An AFRICOM spokesperson told Turse that “on an average basis, there are approximately 5,000 U.S. Military and DoD personnel working across the [African] continent” at any time, usually conducting joint exercises and training missions.

Supporting brutal regimes and backing invasions

It’s important to keep in mind that as the U.S. provides weapons and training to African governments to fight terrorism, it is bolstering the very brutal authoritarianism that plagues the continent and that the U.S. claims to oppose. Many of the regimes the U.S. supports with military training and aid have very poor human rights records. For example, Uganda, a U.S. ally, is governed under the oppressive rule of Yoweri Museveni who has been in power for more than 25 years and used violence to uphold his regime. Museveni’s regime is responsible for unlawful killings, torture, curtails on freedom of expression and other political rights, and other human rights abuses. In the mid-1990s, Uganda, following Rwanda’s (another U.S. ally) lead, invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo twice, resulting in terrible crimes against humanity and the deaths of 5 to 6 million people. Uganda is not the only African country, backed by the U.S., with a bad human rights record. Djibouti, Egypt’s military junta, and Rwanda are very repressive regimes with bad human rights records, as well.

In December 2006, the U.S., under the Bush administration, aided its ally Ethiopia when the country invaded Somalia and occupied it for two years. America formed a tight alliance with Ethiopia after 9/11 and gave it $1 billion in aid in 2008. The predominantly Christian country was seen as a natural ally in America’s fight against Islamic terrorism, especially since the country is surrounded by many Muslim countries with alleged links to al-Qaeda, particularly Somalia. Hence, Ethiopia’s U.S.-backed 2006-2009 invasion and occupation of Somalia was justified under the typical post-9/11 mantra of rooting out Islamic extremism. In fact, according to a WikiLeaks cable, Ethiopia was reluctant to invade Somalia because it lacked the resources to carry out a large scale invasion and occupation. However, Ethiopia was pressured by the U.S. to do so and it did. During the Ethiopian war in Somalia, the U.S. provided intelligence, training for Ethiopian soldiers, weapons, and even launched air strikes against alleged al-Qaeda members but killed many civilians.

The Union of Islamic Courts, which Ethiopia and the U.S. sought to root out, were suspected of having links to al-Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups. However, there were few al-Qaeda fighters in Somalia. The war resulted in massive amounts of bloodshed and human suffering. Thousands of people were killed, many of whom civilians, and millions were displaced. Rather than rooting out extremism, the invasion had the opposite effect — it exacerbated it. The massive humanitarian catastrophe, which resulted from the invasion, drove more people to support militant groups like al-Shabaab that, while proselytizing a very extreme and harsh brand of Islam (namely Wahhabism), offered social services to a suffering population and proved to be a strong force in kicking out foreign invaders. The U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia not only backfired but it created a staggering level of human suffering for millions of people and made Somalia’s problems much worse.

Drones, drone bases, airstrikes and air wars

Finally, the United States also carries out airstrikes in East Africa with drones, manned aircraft, and naval ships firing missiles. The U.S. airstrikes in Somalia during Ethiopia’s 2006-2009 invasion and occupation were an example of this. Recently, an Italian aviation blogger and Wired reported that the U.S. is flying F-15Es, based in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, throughout the Indian Ocean conducting airstrikes against al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia. The U.S. already built secret drone bases in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. One drone base is in Ethiopia and is already operational. Another is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, while another is in the Arabian Peninsula. The purpose of the drone bases is to carry out targeted killings by drones in hotspots like Yemen and Somalia. While drone strikes are increasing in Yemen, the U.S., since 2007, has launched around half a dozen drone strikes in Somalia, killing dozens of people. However, there are many U.S. airstrikes carried out in Somalia by conventional aircraft.

Then there was the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya (which was AFRICOM’s first mission). A popular uprising against a brutal dictator that began in February 2011 was quickly co-opted by NATO. For six months, Libyan rebels fought on the ground, while NATO provided air support through naval bombardments and airstrikes. The intervention was called for to protect Libyan civilians from a supposed impending massacre by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi’s forces against Libyans in Benghazi. While Qadhafi’s force did commit atrocities against the Libyan people (both during his rule and the civil war), it is difficult to tell whether Qadhafi would or could have committed a massacre in Benghazi on the large scale that was predicted by those calling for intervention.

Regardless, the humanitarian justification for the intervention was undermined by the humanitarian disaster of NATO’s seven-month bombing of Libya. According to a New York Times investigative report, NATO bombing killed between 40 and 70 (possibly more) civilians and caused “significant damage to civilian infrastructure”. At the end of the six-month civil war, some estimates put the total casualty count on both sides at around 30,000 killed and 50,000 wounded. This resulted from fighting by Libyan rebels, Qadhafi’s forces, and NATO bombing. While this is not a complete counting, it does show that an intervention claiming to protect civilians clearly did not. In addition, the NATO-backed Libyan rebels committed their share of awful atrocities. Most notably were racist killings, arrests of, and attacks against black Libyans and sub-Saharan African migrants who were suspected of being Qadhafi’s mercenaries. However, there was little to no evidence to prove they were Qadhafi’s mercenaries. The primary motivation for these abuses was largely anti-black racism.

Countering China, access to resources, and destabilizing Africa

There are deeper geopolitical reasons for Washington’s increasing militarism in Africa, namely to counter the influence of China and gain access to vital resources and markets. In the past decade, China has been increasing its influence in Africa. China increased trade relations with African countries, promoted development, and, recently, pledged $20 billion in credit for Africa over the next three years. This is because Africa is an important source of natural resources and markets for China’s growing economy. At the same time, this results in China turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses of its trading partners.

China’s growing influence in Africa worries many in the U.S. government. In building economic and political ties with resource-rich African countries, China gets access to resources and markets that the U.S. will not. As a result, this increases Beijing’s power vis-à-vis Washington’s and tips the geopolitical scale in China’s favor. This would weaken America’s global hegemony and strengthens China’s. Moreover, China’s model of state-led capitalist economic development in Africa offers a counterpoint to the U.S.’s model of neoliberal, free market capitalism. The failure of both models is that they undermine the political and economic self-determination of African countries and the African citizenry. However, this will not dissuade China and the U.S. from competing against each other in their respective scrambles for Africa.

Africa is rich in natural resources. The continent is home to oil, natural gas, diamonds, timber, gold, cobalt, copper, and coltan, which is used in electronic devices, such as computers. By 2020, it is expected that a one-quarter of the U.S.’s oil imports will come from Africa. U.S. oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, operate in African countries, such as Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Nigeria. Almost immediately after the 2011 Libyan civil war ended, several multinational oil companies rushed to Libya for access to its plentiful oil reserves. So it is no wonder that China and the United States would compete against each other for access to Africa’s plentiful resources.

As China increases economic ties with African countries (an example of its soft power), the U.S. will utilize military power in Africa to counter it. Obama’s new military strategy, entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense”, emphasizes the need to counter China’s power. The new strategy also calls for investing heavily in special operations forces, drone aircraft, and cyber-warfare, while retaining full-spectrum superiority in other arenas. America is also expanding its forces in the Asia-Pacific to assert its power and counter China. Therefore, the creation of AFRICOM, expanding drone and air warfare, secret prisons, use of private military contractors, training African militaries, arming and supporting authoritarian governments, opportunistically backing invasions, and secret spying operations should be seen in this light. It’s not just about fighting terrorism. Securing access to vital resources, global trade, and countering China’s influence are the key geopolitical motivations behind America’s increasing militarism in Africa.

In the end, this will lead to more problems in Africa. The U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is an example how militarism in Africa does more harm than good. After the fall of Qadhafi, largely thanks to the NATO intervention, Libya is still mired in reprisals and violence. In addition, an unintended consequence of the NATO intervention in Libya was a coup in Mali, a U.S. ally in the War on Terror. After the war, Tuareg fighters from Qadhafi’s military left the Libya and began an uprising in Mali that has created instability and uncertainty in the Sahel region. Backing authoritarian regimes stifles the growth of indigenous democracy and self-determination on the African continent. Militaristic policies, such as drone and air warfare, running secret prisons, using private military contractors, and backing oppressive governments lead to more human rights abuses and unintended consequences that destabilize the continent and create new problems. While militarism is geopolitically beneficial to the United States and its multinational corporations, the people of Africa receive the short end of the stick.


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2 responses to “U.S. expands its shadow wars in Africa

  1. Chase

    November 26, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Specifically, how does the US military aid help the Horn of Africa? Does it also help counter-terrorism? Or maybe, does it fund the drone operations?


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