These outposts -- of which forward operating sites are the most permanent and contingency locations the least so -- form the backbone of U.S. military operations on the continent and have been expanding at a rapid rate, particularly since the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The plans also indicate that the U.S. military regularly juggles locations, shuttering sites and opening others, while upgrading contingency locations to cooperative security locations in response to changing conditions like, according to the documents, "increased threats emanating from the East, North-West, and Central regions" of the continent.
AFRICOM's 2017 posture statement notes, for example, a recent round of changes to the command's inventory of posts. The document explains that the U.S. military "closed five contingency locations and designated seven new contingency locations on the continent due to shifting requirements and identified gaps in our ability to counter threats and support ongoing operations." Today, according to AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, the total number of sites has jumped from the 36 cited in the 2015 plans to 46 -- a network now consisting of two forward operating sites, 13 cooperative security locations, and 31 contingency locations.
Location, Location, Location
AFRICOM's sprawling network of bases is crucial to its continent-wide strategy of training the militaries of African proxies and allies and conducting a multi-front campaign aimed at combating a disparate and spreading collection of terror groups. The command's major areas of effort involve: a shadow war against the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia (a long-term campaign, ratcheting up in the Trump era, with no end in sight); attempts to contain the endless fallout from the 2011 U.S. and allied military intervention that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the neutralizing of "violent extremist organizations" across northwest Africa, the lands of the Sahel and Maghreb (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the degradation of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin nations of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad (a long-term effort -- to the tune of $156 million last year alone in support of regional proxies there -- with no end in sight); countering piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (a long-term effort with no end in sight), and winding down the wildly expensive effort to eliminate Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa (both live on, despite a long-term U.S. effort).
The U.S. military's multiplying outposts are also likely to prove vital to the Trump administration's expanding wars in the Middle East. African bases have long been essential, for instance, to Washington's ongoing shadow war in Yemen, which has seen a significant increase in drone strikes under the Trump administration. They have also been integral to operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where a substantial (and deadly) uptick in U.S. airpower (and civilian casualties) has been evident in recent months.
In 2015, AFRICOM spokesman Anthony Falvo noted that the command's "strategic posture and presence are premised on the concept of a tailored, flexible, light footprint that leverages and supports the posture and presence of partners and is supported by expeditionary infrastructure." The declassified secret documents explicitly state that America's network of African bases is neither insignificant nor provisional. "USAFRICOM's posture requires a network of enduring and non-enduring locations across the continent," say the 2015 plans. "A developed network of FOSes, CSLs, and non-enduring CLs in key countries... is necessary to support the command's operations and engagements."
According to the files, AFRICOM's two forward operating sites are Djibouti's Camp Lemonnier and a base on the United Kingdom's Ascension Island off the west coast of Africa. Described as "enduring locations" with a sustained troop presence and "U.S.-owned real property," they serve as hubs for staging missions across the continent and for supplying the growing network of outposts there.
Lemonnier, the crown jewel of America's African bases, has expanded from 88 acres to about 600 acres since 2002, and in those years, the number of personnel there has increased exponentially as well. "Camp Lemonnier serves as a hub for multiple operations and security cooperation activities," reads AFRICOM's 2017 posture statement. "This base is essential to U.S. efforts in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula." Indeed, the formerly secret documents note that the base supports "U.S operations in Somalia CT [counterterrorism], Yemen CT, Gulf of Aden (counter-piracy), and a wide range of Security Assistance activities and programs throughout the region."
In 2015, when he announced the increase in cooperative security locations, then-AFRICOM chief David Rodriguez mentioned Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon as staging areas for the command's rapid reaction forces. Last June, outgoing U.S. Army Africa commander Major General Darryl Williams drew attention to a CSL in Uganda and one being set up in Botswana, adding, "We have very austere, lean, lily pads, if you will, all over Africa now."
CSL Entebbe in Uganda has, for example, long been an important air base for American forces in Africa, serving as a hub for surveillance aircraft. It also proved integral to Operation Oaken Steel, the July 2016 rapid deployment of troops to the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as that failed state (and failed U.S. nation-building effort) sank into yet more violence.
Libreville, Gabon, is listed in the documents as a "proposed CSL," but was actually used in 2014 and 2015 as a key base for Operation Echo Casemate, the joint U.S.-French-African military response to unrest in the Central African Republic.
AFRICOM's 2015 plan also lists cooperative security locations in Accra, Ghana; Gaborone, Botswana; Dakar, Senegal; Douala, Cameroon; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Mombasa, Kenya. While officially defined by the military as temporary locales capable of being scaled up for larger operations, any of these CSLs in Africa "may also function as a major logistics hub," according to the documents.
The formerly secret AFRICOM files note that the command has designated five contingency locations as "semi-permanent," 13 as "temporary," and four as "initial." These include a number of sites that have never previously been disclosed, including outposts in several countries that were actually at war when the documents were created. Listed among the CLs, for instance, is one in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, already in the midst of an ongoing civil war in 2014; one in Bangui, the capital of the periodically unstable Central African Republic; and another in Al-Wigh, a Saharan airfield in southern Libya located near that country's borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria.
Officially classified as "non-enduring" locations, CLs are nonetheless among the most integral sites for U.S. operations on the continent. Today, according to AFRICOM's Prichard, the 31 contingency locations provide "access to support partners, counter threats, and protect U.S. interests in East, North, and West Africa."
AFRICOM did not provide the specific locations of the current crop of CLs, stating only that they "strive to increase access in crucial areas." The 2015 plans, however, provide ample detail on the areas that were most important to the command at that time. One such site is Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, also mentioned in a 2013 internal Pentagon study on secret drone operations in Somalia and Yemen. At least two manned surveillance aircraft were based there at the time.