Of the 3,300 airfields on the continent identified in a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency review, the Air Force has surveyed only 303 of them and just 158 of those surveys are current. Of those airfields that have been checked out, half won't support the weight of the C-130 cargo planes that the U.S. military leans heavily on to transport troops and materiel. These limitations were driven home during Natural Fire 2010, one of that year's joint training exercises hosted by AFRICOM. When C-130s were unable to use an airfield in Gulu, Uganda, an extra $3 million was spent instead to send in Chinook helicopters.
In addition, diplomatic clearances and airfield restrictions on U.S. military aircraft cost the Pentagon time and money, while often raising local suspicion and ire. In a recent article in the military trade publication Army Sustainment, Air Force Major Joseph Gaddis touts an emerging solution: outsourcing. The concept was tested last year, during another AFRICOM training operation, Atlas Drop 2011.
"Instead of using military airlift to move equipment to and from the exercise, planners used commercial freight vendors," writes Gadddis. "This provided exercise participants with door-to-door delivery service and eliminated the need for extra personnel to channel the equipment through freight and customs areas." Using mercenary cargo carriers to skirt diplomatic clearance issues and move cargo to airports that can't support U.S. C-130s is, however, just one avenue the Pentagon is pursuing to support its expanding operations in Africa.
Another is construction.
The Great Build-Up
Military contracting documents reveal plans for an investment of up to $180 million or more in construction at Camp Lemonnier alone. Chief among the projects will be the laying of 54,500 square meters of taxiways "to support medium-load aircraft" and the construction of a 185,000 square meter Combat Aircraft Loading Area. In addition, plans are in the works to erect modular maintenance structures, hangers, and ammunition storage facilities, all needed for an expanding set of secret wars in Africa.
Other contracting documents suggest that, in the years to come, the Pentagon will be investing up to $50 million in new projects at that base, Kenya's Camp Simba, and additional unspecified locations in Africa. Still other solicitation materials suggest future military construction in Egypt, where the Pentagon already maintains a medical research facility, and still more work in Djibouti.
No less telling are contracting documents indicating a coming influx of "emergency troop housing" at Camp Lemonnier, including almost 300 additional Containerized Living Units (CLUs), stackable, air-conditioned living quarters, as well as latrines and laundry facilities.
Military documents also indicate that a nearly $450,000 exercise facility was installed at the U.S. base in Entebbe, Uganda, last year. All of this indicates that, for the Pentagon, its African build-up has only begun.
The Scramble for Africa
In a recent speech in Arlington, Virginia, AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham explained the reasoning behind U.S. operations on the continent: "The absolute imperative for the United States military [is] to protect America, Americans, and American interests; in our case, in my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent." As an example, Ham named the Somali-based al-Shabaab as a prime threat. "Why do we care about that?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, al-Qaeda is a global enterprise... we think they very clearly do present, as an al-Qaeda affiliate... a threat to America and Americans."
Fighting them over there, so we don't need to fight them here has been a core tenet of American foreign policy for decades, especially since 9/11. But trying to apply military solutions to complex political and social problems has regularly led to unforeseen consequences. For example, last year's U.S.-supported war in Libya resulted in masses of well-armed Tuareg mercenaries, who had been fighting for Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, heading back to Mali where they helped destabilize that country. So far, the result has been a military coup by an American-trained officer; a takeover of some areas by Tuareg fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, who had previously raided Libyan arms depots; and other parts of the country being seized by the irregulars of Ansar Dine, the latest al-Qaeda "affiliate" on the American radar. One military intervention, in other words, led to three major instances of blowback in a neighboring country in just a year.
With the Obama administration clearly engaged in a twenty-first century scramble for Africa, the possibility of successive waves of overlapping blowback grows exponentially. Mali may only be the beginning and there's no telling how any of it will end. In the meantime, keep your eye on Africa. The U.S. military is going to make news there for years to come.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author/editor of several books, including the recently published Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt). This piece is the latest article in his series on "the changing face of American empire," which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Tumblr. To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which he discusses the Pentagon's shadowy, but fast-expanding mission in Africa, click here or download it to your iPod here.
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Copyright 2012 Nick Turse