A perspective on power and the globe
Apparently, U.S. Senators were surprised to learn in October 2017 that the U.S. military has over 1,000 troops on the African continent. General Joseph Dunford stated in a press conference held October 23, 2017 that there about 900 troops stationed in Niger and more than 6,000 troops stationed throughout 53 countries on the African continent. For scholars of U.S. foreign policy and its military campaigns globally this comes as no surprise. The ambush of U.S. troops in Niger on October 4, 2017 became a headline for many news outlets and thus came to the knowledge of many Americans. Among the top headlines read: “Senators were shocked to learn the US has 1,000 troops in Africa” (courtesy of Business Insider). Is this really a shock?
Geopolitically the African continent has been of great interest to the United States for decades. The United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) is one of nine unified combat commands of the United States Armed Forces that organizes U.S. military operations, fighting regional conflicts, and fostering military relations with 53 African nations. USAFRICOM was authorized on December 15, 2006 and was established October 1, 2007 and is currently headquartered in Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany.
Prior to the creation of AFRICOM the organization of U.S. military operations in Africa was divided across three different commands: United States European Command (EUCOM) for West Africa, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) for East Africa, and United States Pacific Command (PACOM) for Indian Ocean waters and islands off the east coast of Africa. USAFRICOM was created to centrally organize all military activities conducted on the African continent.
The U.S. military structures its forces into designated zones geographically and has done so since World War II. These commands are established to provide effective command and control of U.S. military forces and are organized geographically as to define responsibility of each command. The commands are as follows:
United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM; established October 1, 2007; headquartered Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany)
United States Central Command (USCENTCOM; established January 1, 1983; headquartered MacDill Air Force Base, Florida)
United States European Command (USEUCOM; established August 1, 1952; headquartered Patch Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany)
United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM; established October 1, 2002; headquartered Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado)
United States Pacific Command (USPACOM; established January 1947; headquartered Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii
United States South Command (USSOUTHCOM; established June 6, 1963; headquartered Doral, Florida
United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM; established April 16, 1987; headquartered MacDill Air Force Base, Florida)
United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM; established June 1, 1992; Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska)
United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM; established July 1, 1987; headquartered Scott Air Force Base, Illionois)
Understanding this structure is important in understanding the operations of the U.S. military on the African continent and the entire globe. AFRICOM spokesman Colonel Mark Cheadle said on May 18, 2016 that the U.S. military looked at 11 locations for small “cooperative security locations” to help African nations fight extremist groups and other security threats. At this point in time (2016), the U.S. had one military base in the east African nation of Djibouti and U.S. forces were also on the ground in Somalia to assist the regional fight against al-Shabab and in Cameroon to help with the multinational effort against Nigeria-based terrorist group Boko Haram. The U.S. military has a myriad of interests to protect in Africa: oil/global trade, HIV/AIDS resources/services, maritime security, various armed conflicts, etc. Issues on the African continent have not always been held as central to U.S. military and foreign policy and U.S. military engagement in Africa has been sporadic, historically. According to analyst Lettia Lawson, “during the Cold War, United States foreign policy towards Sub-Saharan Africa had little to do with Africa.” Many U.S. policymakers thought the U.S. military’s role and responsibility in Africa was to be minimal, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1995 the U.S. Department of Defense outlined its view of Africa and stated that “ultimately we see very little traditional strategic interest in Africa”.
(note: “traditional strategic interest” indicates establishing military bases, securing borders, possible resource protection/extraction)
In 1998, Osama bin Laden organized two terrorist attacks on the U.S. in East Africa; the U.S. Kenyan embassy and the U.S. Tanzanian embassy were both attacked. The U.S. military retaliated and conducted an attack against a pharmaceutical company in Khartoum, Sudan on August 20, 1998. The factory was destroyed by cruise missiles and was thought by Clinton Administration officials to be a factory for producing precursors to chemical weapons. It was a medicine factory and it produced over half of the country’s pharmaceutical products and specialized in anti-malaria drugs. Destroying this factory has crippled Sudan to this day. Both the embassy bombings and the retaliatory strike against Sudan are considered by many analysts to be a turning point on U.S. strategic policy toward the region. The 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. and more recent attacks highlighted the threat of terrorism to the U.S. interests on the continent and thus was used to justify creating AFRICOM.
Since the Twin Towers attacks on September 11, 2001 the number of failed African states has almost doubled and more terrorist groups are operating on the continent. There are notable examples where U.S. foreign and military policy has contributed to the destabilization of Africa. Libya can provide a case study of this. Libya was seen in 2011 as an easy win for the U.S. military; the war would cost less money relative to Afghanistan and Iraq, the military could use drones to minimize the amount of American deaths, and the U.S. reasoned that there were nearby European partners to provide backup.
The revolution in Libya created a migration of mercenaries from Libya into Mali. The Tuaregs were fighting for Gaddafi but they looted the Libyan armories and then moved back to their native Mali and destabilized the government there. In response, a coup was led by a U.S. trained officer in Mali, but it ultimately failed to push back the Tuareg insurgency. This failure emboldened an Islamist insurgency that pushed the Tuaregs aside. The U.S. then backed an African and French force to beat back the Islamists. Once seen as a potential anti-terror bulwark in West Africa, Mali is in a very fragile state present day. Unintended consequences are part and parcel of U.S. foreign and military policy. Similarly, in Somalia, Al-Shabaab was beaten back but now is a regional threat instead of one that was confined to Somalia. The U.S. has historically failed in not understanding the repercussions of its actions down the road.
American journalist Nick Turse disclosed in 2015 that the U.S. has operating military bases in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda. According to the American journalist, US military also had access to locations in Algeria, Botswana, Namibia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Zambia and other countries.
Both France and Germany have a military presence in Niger. An initial U.S. military base in the southern city Niamey, Niger’s capital, led to the creation of an additional military base: Agadez. Agadez, more centrally positioned, is capable of handling large transport aircraft and armed Reaper drones and covers the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact date and time of U.S. military involvement in Niger, however in 2013 USAFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed that the U.S. was conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance/drone operations from Base Aerienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey. Following this, air operations increased and correspondence documents months later indicated that the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on two counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics projects in Arlit and Tahoiua, Niger.
AFRICOM’s Rick Cook spoke about another project there, and gave virtually no specifics about what type of facility it would be, other than that the country “is in a nice strategic location at allows us to get to many other places reasonably quickly.”
The Obama administration sent U.S. forces to Niger in 2013 for strategic purposes: extremists were on the rise in Nigeria, led by Boko Haram. Nigeria lies just south of Niger. Extremists aligned with Al-Qaeda had taken over large parts of Mali, Niger’s neighbor to the west. Libya also is Niger’s neighbor to the north. Niger was held by the U.S. military as a bulwark to anti-terrorism and a major base for protecting its interests.
On October 4, 2017, 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters ambushed U.S. soldiers about a couple dozen kilometers away from the western and remote town Tongo Tongo in Niger. It is thought that the U.S. troops were attacked as they left a meeting with local community leaders. The attack was orchestrated by members of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sharaoui’s group of radical fighters that pledge allegiance to ISIS. Al-Sahraoui’s group calls itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Al-Sahraoui is believed to have born in one of the refugee camps in the south of Algeria and by 2012 he was the spokesperson for the militant coalition that took over northern Mali.
The attack on U.S. armed forced on October 4, 2017 was not anticipated, said the Pentagon’s top general on October 23, 2017. The 12-member Army special forces combat patrol in Niger did not anticipate resistance or an attack, and called for air support one hour after being attacked by ISIS-affiliated militants. French fighter jets arrived but four U.S. soldiers were dead by the time the ambush was shut down. The attackers used small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
Those killed in the attack are as follows:
Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia; Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami, Florida.
On October 19, 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Jim Mattis said that the U.S. military has more than 1,000 personnel in the region (referencing Niger, Mali, and Nigeria). Mattis described the mission as “supporting the French-led and the African troops, in the campaign to throw ISIS and the terrorists, the radicals, those who foment instability and murder and mayhem, off their stride.”
“I didn’t know there were 1,000 troops in Niger,” U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said October 22, 2017. U.S. Senators John McCain and Chuck Schumer echoed the same ignorance. The ignorance continues. And thus do the consequences, both intended and unintended.