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General News    H2'ed 4/14/14

Nick Turse, AFRICOM Becomes a "War-Fighting Combatant Command"

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Multiple requests for further information sent to AFRICOM's media chief Benjamin Benson went unanswered, as had prior queries about activities at Base Aérienne 101.  But Colonel Aaron Benson, Chief of the Readiness Division at Air Forces Africa, did offer further details about the Nigerien mini-base.  "There is the potential to construct MILCON aircraft parking aprons at the proposed future site in Niger," he wrote, mentioning a specific type of military construction funding dedicated to use for "enduring" bases rather than transitory facilities.  In response to further questions, Cook referred to the possible site as a "base-like facility" that would be "semi-permanent" and "capable of air operations."

Pay to Play

It turns out that, if you want to know what the U.S. military is doing in Africa, it's advantageous to be connected to a large engineering or construction firm looking for business.  Then you're privy to quite a different type of insider assessment of the future of the U.S. presence there, one far more detailed than the modest official pronouncements that U.S. Africa Command offers to journalists.  Asked at a recent Pentagon press briefing if there were plans for a West African analog to Djibouti's Camp Lemonnier, the only "official" U.S. base on the continent, AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez was typically guarded.  Such a "forward-operating site" was just "one of the options" the command was mulling over, he said, before launching into the sort of fuzzy language typical of official answers.  "What we're really looking at doing is putting contingency locating sites, which really have some just expeditionary infrastructure that can be expanded with tents," was the way he put it.  He never once mentioned Niger, or airfield improvements, or the possibility of a semi-permanent "presence."

Here, however, is the reality as we know it today.  Over the last several years, the U.S. has been building a constellation of drone bases across Africa, flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions out of not only Niger, but also Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the island nation of the Seychelles.  Meanwhile, an airbase in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as of the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative.  According to military documents, that "initiative" supports "high-risk activities" carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara.  U.S. Army Africa documents obtained by TomDispatch also mention the deployment to Chad of an ISR liaison team.  And according to Sam Cooks, a liaison officer with the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

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U.S. Facility near Gao, Mali.  This austere compound is thought to have been overrun by Islamist forces in 2012.  Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
U.S. Facility near Gao, Mali. This austere compound is thought to have been overrun by Islamist forces in 2012. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
(Image by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
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U.S. Facility near Gao, Mali.  This austere compound is thought to have been overrun by Islamist forces in 2012.  Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As part of the webinar for industry representatives, Wayne Uhl, chief of the International Engineering Center for the Europe District of the Army Corps of Engineers, shed light on shadowy U.S. operations in Mali before (and possibly after) the elected government there was overthrown in a 2012 coup led by a U.S.-trained officer.  Documents prepared by Uhl reveal that an American compound was constructed near Gao, a major city in the north of Mali.  Gao is the site of multiple Malian military bases and a "strategic" airport captured by Islamist militants in 2012 and retaken by French and Malian troops early last year. 

AFRICOM's Benjamin Benson failed to respond to multiple requests for comment about the Gao compound, but Uhl offered additional details.  The project was completed before the 2012 uprising and "included a vehicle maintenance facility, a small admin building, toilet facilities with water tank, a diesel generator with a fuel storage tank, and a perimeter fence," he told me in a written response to my questions. "I imagine the site was overrun during the coup and is no longer used by U.S. forces."

America's lone official base on the African continent, Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion post in Djibouti, has been on a decade-plus growth spurt and serves a key role for the U.S. mission.  "Camp Lemonnier is the only permanent footprint that we have on the continent and until such time as AFRICOM may establish a headquarters location in Africa, Camp Lemonnier will be the center of their activities here," Greg Wilderman, the Military Construction Program Manager for Naval Facilities Engineering Command, explained.

"In 2013, we had a big jump in the amount of program projects," he noted, specifically mentioning a large "task force" construction effort, an oblique reference to a $220 million Special Operations compound at the base that TomDispatch first reported on in 2013.

According to documents provided by Wilderman, five contracts worth more than $322 million (to be paid via MILCON funds) were awarded for Camp Lemonnier in late 2013.  These included deals for a $25.5 million fitness center and a $41 million Joint Headquarters Facility in addition to the Special Operations Compound.  This year, Wilderman noted, there are two contracts -- valued at $35 million -- already slated to be awarded, and Captain Rick Cook specifically mentioned deals for an armory and new barracks in 2014.

Cook's presentation also indicated that a number of long-running construction projects at Camp Lemonnier were set to be completed this year, including roads, a "fuel farm," an aircraft logistics apron, and "taxiway enhancements," while construction of a new aircraft maintenance hangar, a telecommunications facility, and a "combat aircraft loading area" are slated to be finished in 2015.  "There's a tremendous amount of work going on," Cook said, noting that there were 22 current projects underway there, more than at any other Navy base anywhere in the world.

And this, it turns out, is only the beginning. 

"In the master plan," Cook said, "there is close to three quarters of a billion dollars worth of construction projects that we still would like to do at Camp Lemonnier over the next 10 to 15 years."  That base, in turn, would be just one of a constellation of camps and compounds used by the U.S. in Africa.  "Many of the places that we are trying to stand up or trying to get into are air missions.  A lot of ISR... is going on in different parts of the continent.  Generally speaking, the Air Force is probably going to be assigned to do much of that," he told the contractors.  "The Air Force is going to be doing a great deal of work on these bases" that are going to be built across the northern tier of Africa."

Hearts and Minds

When I spoke with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers, the first projects he mentioned and the only ones he seemed eager to talk about were those for African nations.  This year, $6.5 million in projects had been funded when we spoke and of that, the majority were for "humanitarian assistance" or HA construction projects, mostly in Togo and Tunisia, and "peacekeeping" operations in Ghana and Djibouti. 

Uhl talked about humanitarian projects, too.  "HA projects are small, difficult, challenging for the Corps of Engineers to accomplish at a low, in-house cost" but despite all this, HA projects are extremely rewarding," he said.  "The appreciation expressed by the locals is fantastic."  He then drew attention to another added benefit: "Each successful project is a photo opportunity."

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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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