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U.S. Africa Command Debates TomDispatch

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I appreciate your regard for the "great deal of research" that I conducted and am grateful for the information that your command released to me.  I do, however, object to your assertion that the article contained "several inaccuracies and misrepresentations."  Most of your "refutations" actually seem to corroborate my assertions and I believe that, by and large, your objections have largely to do with semantics and differences of interpretation.  But let me respond, point by point: 

"They call it the New Spice Route": I'm glad to have you confirm this fact.  I do, however, find it odd that you refer to this as an informal term, since this is how the supply network was referred to in an official military publication (Army Sustainment).  In fact, the article by Lieutenant Colonel David Corrick was even titled "The New Spice Route for Africa."  To describe it as consisting of "primarily land shipments from Djibouti" also seems to run counter to the information in Lieutenant Colonel Corrick's article.  A map of "The New Spice Route" that appeared with his article indicates that the supply network consists of land and sea routes linking Mombasa, Kenya, and Manda Bay, Kenya; Mombasa and Garissa, Kenya; Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya; Nairobi and Entebbe, Uganda; Mombasa and a Djiboutian port; and a Djiboutian port with Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.  To complain about my calling it a "superpower's superhighway," on the basis of the total percentage of cargo that travels along the route, strikes me as nitpicking over a difference of interpretation. 

Quite obviously, this is not how you would characterize it and I respect that.  I see the matter differently, however.  The United States is still a superpower -- on this, I suspect, we would both agree -- and this is the network by which it speeds food, fuel, and equipment to keep its operations in Africa running.  I would also hasten to add that military personnel associated with the program characterize it not as some second-rate Djiboutian trucking effort, but as "innovative," "high-tech," and "transformational."  This is their language, not mine.  Moreover, Lieutenant Colonel Corrick writes that the network is growing and that it "will eventually span all of Africa." 

"Fast-growing U.S. military presence in Africa": You question this phrasing in my piece.  Once again, your complaint about inaccuracy seems to me to be based on what is, at best, a matter of opinion -- although I obviously believe that the facts demonstrate otherwise.  To base the bulk of your contentions strictly on troop-level increases strikes me as a very limited way of assessing growth.  The U.S. military "presence" anywhere is much more that simply a question of troop levels.  (Nevertheless, given that the U.S. is technically not "at war" in Africa, the more than 200% increase in U.S. personnel there since 2005 seems striking to me.) 

Back in 2003, the U.S. military hardly had a foothold in Africa.  Today, there is a major base in Djibouti (now slated for many improvements and expansion), contingents of U.S. personnel have been deployed to the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, South Sudan, and the Seychelles Islands; troops have conducted operations in Burundi, Liberia, Somalia, and Uganda.  Then there's that expanding supply network I wrote about.  There's also the growing Tusker Sand program of aerial surveillance missions that the Washington Post exposed.  You even state that AFRICOM conducts "some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent."  The list goes on and on.  I stand by this assessment and consider it well-documented.

 "The U.S. maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa":  You deny that the places I identified are "bases."  I understand that you don't label them as such, but that doesn't mean others don't.  Let me start by noting this: I was more than fair in making certain that readers knew AFRICOM and I differed in our interpretations.  At the beginning of my article, I explicitly noted: "According to Pat Barnes, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Camp Lemonnier serves as the only official U.S. base on the continent." 

Shortly thereafter, I again drew attention to this distinction, and our differing interpretations of what constitutes a base, when I wrote: "Today -- official designations aside -- the U.S. maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa."  Neither you personally nor the U.S. military are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes a base.  You have your own definition, nothing more.  Webster's begins its relevant entry on "base" as "the place from which a military force draws supplies""  That seems to encompass a good many facilities along that "New Spice Route" in Africa.  But resorting to dictionaries, either yours or Webster's, seems beside the point.  When the Washington Post first wrote about U.S. operations in Obo in the Central African Republic, it began its article this way: "Behind razor wire and bamboo walls topped with security cameras sits one of the newest U.S. military outposts in Africa. U.S. Special Forces soldiers with tattooed forearms and sunglasses emerge daily in pickup trucks that carry weapons, supplies and interpreters""  Whether you call that an "outpost," a "base," or a "camp" matters little.  It is clearly a protected compound that houses military personnel, supplies, and equipment.  If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck"

Additionally, your letter could be read to imply that I claim the U.S. had outposts at Thebephatswa Airbase in Molepolole, Botswana, or Mombasa International Airport in Kenya.  To be clear, I never wrote any such thing.  I asked your command for comment for my article about these and other sites, but none was offered until your note, which arrived more than a week after the article was published.  As such, I did not publish anything about these facilities.  It seems that, just as I suspected, they have been or are currently integral to the U.S. military project in Africa, so I appreciate the information. 

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You will note that, in regard to Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, and a Navy port facility in Djibouti, I specifically mentioned in my article that "AFRICOM did not respond to requests for further information on these posts before this article went to press."  To this day, no one has responded to my requests for information about these possible bases.  What should I make of this pregnant silence?

"100 to 200 U.S. commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay": You will need to take this up with the Washington Post.   The sentence, in full, reads: "A recent investigation by the Washington Post revealed that contractor-operated surveillance aircraft based out of Entebbe, Uganda, are scouring the territory used by Kony's LRA at the Pentagon's behest, and that 100 to 200 U.S. commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay."  Specifically, the Washington Post states: "Manda Bay, Kenya: More than 100 U.S. commandos are based at a Kenyan military installation." 

To be clear, I did not want to rely on the Washington Post's reporting, but was left with no choice.  Ten days before my article was published, I specifically asked your spokesman about the troops stationed at Manda Bay as well as the nature of the operations there, but my questions were never answered.  I asked in a slightly different manner six days before publication, but again received no answer.  Your letter to my editor, more than a week after publication, was the first response I received on the subject from AFRICOM.

"The U.S. also has had troops deployed in Mali": It seems that we are in total agreement that this statement is true.    

"Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces are engaged in missions against the Lord's Resistance Army":  We seem to be in agreement on this as well.  I wrote nothing about tactical operations, gun battles, or anything of the sort.  In fact, I even quote an AFRICOM spokesman who said, "U.S. military personnel working with regional militaries in the hunt for Joseph Kony are guests of the African security forces comprising the regional counter-LRA effort."  I don't know how much clearer I could have been about that.  What is very clear is that U.S. troops are thoroughly engaged in missions against the LRA.  As an article by the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service explicitly noted: "U.S. troops are providing information- and intelligence-sharing, logistics, communications and other enabling capabilities for host-nation troops pursuing Kony in Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Republic of the Congo."

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"And that's still just a part of the story": Given that, in your letter, you chronicle missions above and beyond those that I exposed, I'd say we agree on this point as well.

"Next year, even more American troops are likely to be on hand": You begin by stating, "The 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division will not deploy to Africa."  I never said otherwise, only -- and very specifically -- that elements of this BCT would deploy.  I never spoke of the full contingent, only units from it.  As far as the numbers go, I apologize if these are incorrect.  They are, however, publicly reported figures to which I explicitly provided a link as a form of citation. That article, in Army Times, is titled: "3,000 soldiers to serve in Africa next year."

Once again, I did not want to have to use figures from a third party in assessing the size of the American contingent in Africa.  In fact, I asked the AFRICOM spokesman at the Pentagon, in an email dated July 6th, whether the U.S. military presence (which he had already told me was approximately 5,000 at this moment) would grow, shrink, or stay about the same next year, but he never offered an answer.  Nor did AFRICOM personnel at your headquarters, to whom he assured me that he passed along my questions, respond.  In fact, weeks later, they still have not responded.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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