Let me explain why writing the introduction to today's post by TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse is such a problem. In these intros, I tend to riff off the ripples of news that regularly surround whatever subject an author might be focusing on. So when it comes to the U.S. military, if you happen to be writing about the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia," really, no problem. Background pieces on that pile up daily. How could you resist, for instance, saying something about the U.S. refusal to send an aircraft carrier to China for a parade of Pacific fleets (after the Chinese refused to allow Japanese ships to participate)? It's mean girls of the Pacific, no? Have an interest in the Ukrainian crisis? Piece of cake, top of the news any time -- like those curious pro-Russian protestors in eastern Ukraine who tried to liberate an opera house in the city of Kharkiv, mistaking it for city hall, or the hints that U.S. troops might soon be stationed in former Soviet satellite states. Or, say, you're writing about threats in cyberspace -- couldn't be simpler! Not when you have Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel offering an amusing assurance that the country that launched the first cyberwar and is ramping up its new cybercommand at warp speed "does not seek to militarize cyberspace." And, of course, any day of the week U.S.-Iranian relations are a walk in the park (in the dark). At the moment, for instance, the Iranian nominee for U.N. ambassador -- previously that country's ambassador to Belgium, Italy, Australia, and the European Union, but once a translator for the group that took U.S. embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979 -- has been declared "not viable" by the Obama administration. In a remarkable act of congressional heroism, the U.S. Senate, led by that odd couple Ted Cruz and Chuck Schumer, has definitively banned him from setting foot in the country. Mean girls of Washington? Who could resist such material?
Unfortunately, there's one place in that city's global viewfinder that never seems to provides much of anything to riff off of, and so no fun whatsoever: Africa. Yes, today and Tuesday, Nick Turse continues his remarkable coverage of the U.S. military pivot to that continent, which promises a lifetime of chaos and blowback to come. Admittedly, what's happening isn't your typical, patented, early twenty-first-century-style U.S. invasion, but it certainly represents part of a new-style scramble for Africa -- with the U.S. taking the military path and the Chinese the economic one. By the time U.S. Africa Command is finished, however, one thing is essentially guaranteed: a terrible mess and a lifetime of hurt will be left behind. This particular pivot is happening on a startling scale and yet remains just below the American radar screen. Explain it as you will, with the rarest of exceptions the U.S. media, riveted by Obama's so far exceedingly modest pivot to Asia, finds the African one hardly worth a moment's notice, which is why, today, without the usual combustible mix of what's recently in the news and what's newsmaking in Turse's two pieces, I have no choice but to skip the introduction. Tom
AFRICOM Goes to War on the Sly
U.S. Officials Talk Candidly (Just Not to Reporters) about Bases, Winning Hearts and Minds, and the "War" in Africa
By Nick Turse
What the military will say to a reporter and what is said behind closed doors are two very different things -- especially when it comes to the U.S. military in Africa. For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has maintained a veil of secrecy about much of the command's activities and mission locations, consistently downplaying the size, scale, and scope of its efforts. At a recent Pentagon press conference, AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez adhered to the typical mantra, assuring the assembled reporters that the United States "has little forward presence" on that continent. Just days earlier, however, the men building the Pentagon's presence there were telling a very different story -- but they weren't speaking with the media. They were speaking to representatives of some of the biggest military engineering firms on the planet. They were planning for the future and the talk was of war.
I recently experienced this phenomenon myself during a media roundtable with Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When I asked the general to tell me just what his people were building for U.S. forces in Africa, he paused and said in a low voice to the man next to him, "Can you help me out with that?" Lloyd Caldwell, the Corps's director of military programs, whispered back, "Some of that would be close hold" -- in other words, information too sensitive to reveal.
The only thing Bostick seemed eager to tell me about were vague plans to someday test a prototype "structural insulated panel-hut," a new energy-efficient type of barracks being developed by cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He also assured me that his people would get back to me with answers. What I got instead was an "interview" with a spokesman for the Corps who offered little of substance when it came to construction on the African continent. Not much information was available, he said, the projects were tiny, only small amounts of money had been spent so far this year, much of it funneled into humanitarian projects. In short, it seemed as if Africa was a construction backwater, a sleepy place, a vast landmass on which little of interest was happening.
Fast forward a few weeks and Captain Rick Cook, the chief of U.S. Africa Command's Engineer Division, was addressing an audience of more than 50 representatives of some of the largest military engineering firms on the planet -- and this reporter. The contractors were interested in jobs and he wasn't pulling any punches. "The eighteen months or so that I've been here, we've been at war the whole time," Cook told them. "We are trying to provide opportunities for the African people to fix their own African challenges. Now, unfortunately, operations in Libya, South Sudan, and Mali, over the last two years, have proven there's always something going on in Africa."
Cook was one of three U.S. military construction officials who, earlier this month, spoke candidly about the Pentagon's efforts in Africa to men and women from URS Corporation, AECOM, CH2M Hill, and other top firms. During a paid-access web seminar, the three of them insisted that they were seeking industry "partners" because the military has "big plans" for the continent. They foretold a future marked by expansion, including the building up of a "permanent footprint" in Djibouti for the next decade or more, a possible new compound in Niger, and a string of bases devoted to surveillance activities spreading across the northern tier of Africa. They even let slip mention of a small, previously unacknowledged U.S. compound in Mali.
The Master Plan
After my brush off by General Bostick, I interviewed an Army Corps of Engineers Africa expert, Chris Gatz, about construction projects for Special Operations Command Africa in 2013. "I'll be totally frank with you," he said, "as far as the scopes of these projects go, I don't have good insights."
What about two projects in Senegal I had stumbled across? Well, yes, he did, in fact, have information about a firing range and a "shoot house" that happened to be under construction there. When pressed, he also knew about plans I had noted in previously classified documents obtained by TomDispatch for the Corps to build a multipurpose facility in Cameroon. And on we went. "You've got better information than I do," he said at one point, but it seemed like he had plenty of information, too. He just wasn't volunteering much of it to me.
Later, I asked if there were 2013 projects that had been funded with counter-narco-terrorism (CNT) money. "No, actually there was not," he told me. So I specifically asked about Niger.
Last year, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed to TomDispatch that the U.S. was conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, drone operations from Base Aérienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger. In the months since, air operations there have only increased. In addition, documents recently obtained by TomDispatch indicated that the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on two counter-narco-terrorism projects in Arlit and Tahoua, Niger. So I told Gatz what I had uncovered. Only then did he locate the right paperwork. "Oh, okay, I'm sorry," he replied. "You're right, we have two of them... Both were actually awarded to construction."
Those two CNT construction projects have been undertaken on behalf of Niger's security forces, but in his talk to construction industry representatives, AFRICOM's Rick Cook spoke about another project there: a possible U.S. facility still to be built. "Lately, one of our biggest focus areas is in the country of Niger. We have gotten indications from the country of Niger that they are willing to be a partner of ours," he said. The country, he added, "is in a nice strategic location that allows us to get to many other places reasonably quickly, so we are working very hard with the Nigeriens to come up with, I wouldn't necessarily call it a base, but a place we can operate out of on a frequent basis."
Cook offered no information on the possible location of that facility, but recent contracting documents examined by TomDispatch indicate that the U.S. Air Force is seeking to purchase large quantities of jet fuel to be delivered to Niger's Mano Dayak International Airport.