Recently, many of us learned that the US has troops stationed in Niger and in other African nations. The news came as a surprise to many—not the least of whom was Sen. Lindsay Graham [R-SC], who is a long-time member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and who often touts his credentials as a foreign policy wonk.
“I didn’t know there was 1,000 troops in Niger,” Graham told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. “They are going to brief us next week as to why they were there and what they were doing.”
It has to make you wonder: Where else in Africa does the US have troops? How many are there? And what is their mission?
One person who seems to know a great deal about this subject is Nick Turse, who writes at Tom Dispatch.com, and who published a book in 2015 called Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. A summary of the book says:
You won’t see segments about it on the nightly news or read about it on the front page of America’s newspapers, but the Pentagon is fighting a new shadow war in Africa, helping to destabilize whole countries and preparing the ground for future blowback. Behind closed doors, U.S. officers now claim that “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”
What is AFRICOM?
The US military presence is not new. US troops have been stationed in African nations since 2007, mostly as part of Special Operations units. They are overseen by U.S. Africa Command [AFRICOM], a unit that is only now, in light of the recent ambush in Niger, beginning to get press coverage. AFRICOM’s headquarters is in Stuttgart, Germany, rather than in Africa, because, according to an NPR report, “While many African nations welcome the U.S. assistance, they aren’t interested in a high-profile U.S. presence.”
Much of the US’s engagement in African nations comes by way of Joint Combined Exchange Training, known informally as JCET missions. The budget for these operations in Africa has been growing in recent years, and that budget escalation reflects a steady rise in the number of special operations forces deployed in African nations.
According to CBS News,
The US has roughly 800 military personnel temporarily deployed to Niger, and roughly 6,000 military personnel spread across the continent.
Turse reports that on average,
Special Operations are “routinely engaged in about half of Africa’s 54 nations… Special Operations Command Africa [SOCAFRICA], is busy year round in 22 partner nations.”
As an example of the scope of US presence, U.S. Special Operations forces conducted 20 JCETs in Africa during 2014, according to documents obtained from SOCOM. These missions were carried out in 10 countries, up from eight a year earlier. Four took place in both Kenya and Uganda; three in Chad; two in both Morocco and Tunisia; and one each in Djibouti, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania.
A few nations host the bulk of US military personnel. CBS News reports that:
Djibouti is one of the world’s smallest countries, but it currently hosts more US military personnel than any other African nations. Roughly 4,000 U.S. military personnel on the continent are temporarily deployed to Djibouti.
U.S. troops have been in Djibouti for years. Camp Lemonnier is the only permanent U.S. base in Africa, and serves as a key outpost for surveillance and combat operations against al Qaeda and other extremist groups in the region.
The country with the second most U.S. military personnel deployed there is Niger, with roughly 800, according to AFRICOM. Next comes Somalia, Djibouti’s neighbor, with roughly 400 U.S. military personnel. The fourth nation in terms of U.S. military personnel is Cameroon, with more than 100.
Reportedly, the US has one drone base in Niger, and is working on a second one.
It should be noted, though, that exact figures are hard to come by, and Turse points out the many discrepancies in counts that come from different military sources. The question then becomes, “does anyone really know what America’s most elite force are doing in Africa?”
What are we doing?
The Pentagon says that US troops are in Africa “support African partners, alongside allies like France, with the goal of increasing the African nations’ own security capabilities and stabilize the region.”
In almost all of the missions, the Americans are there to advise, assist and train African militaries—and not to take part in combat. The operations tend to be small; they are carried out largely below the radar, and most are focused on a specific aim: rolling back Islamist extremism…Still, those supporting roles can often take US forces into the field with their African partners, as was the case in Niger…It’s hard to say it’s not a combat mission when there’s the potential for conflict and combat as they accompany African troops.
“Africa is an enduring interest for the United States,” said the commander of AFRICOM in a statement. “Small, but wise investments in the capability, legitimacy, and accountability of African defense institutions offer disproportionate benefits to Africa, our allies, and the United States, and importantly, enable African solutions to African problems.”
It’s hard to decipher what the first part of that crypto-statement actually means–and the obfuscation is probably intentional. But the part about enabling “African solutions to African problems?” That sounds eerily, worryingly, and dangerously familiar.