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Tomgram: Nick Turse, A Shadow War and an American Drone Unit Under Wraps

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Am I the only person who still remembers how Pentagon officials spoke of the major military bases already on the drawing boards as the invasion of Iraq ended in April 2003? It was taboo back then to refer to those future installations as "permanent bases." No one wanted to mouth anything that had such an ugly (yet truthful) ring to it when it came to the desires of the Bush administration to occupy and dominate the Greater Middle East for generations to come. Charmingly enough, however, those Pentagon types sometimes spoke instead of "enduring camps," as if a summer frolic in the countryside was at hand. Later, those enormous installations -- Balad Air Base, the size of a small American town, had its own Pizza Hut, Subway, and Popeye's franchises, "an ersatz Starbucks," a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges, and four mess halls -- would be relabeled "contingency operating bases." They were meant to be Washington's ziggurats, its permanent memorials to its own power in the region. With rare exceptions, American reporters would nonetheless pay almost no attention to them or to the obvious desire embedded in their very construction to control Iraq and the rest of the Greater Middle East.

In all, from the massive Camp Victory outside Baghdad to tiny outposts in the hinterlands, not to speak of the three-quarters-of-a-billion dollar citadel Washington built in Baghdad's green zone to house an embassy meant to be the central command post for a future Pax Americana in the region, the Pentagon built 505 bases in Iraq. In other words, Washington went on a base-building bender there. And lest you imagine this as some kind of anomaly, consider the 800 or more bases and outposts (depending on how you counted them) that the U.S. built in Afghanistan. Eight years later, all 505 of the Iraqi bases had been abandoned, as most of the Afghan ones would be. (A few of the Iraqi bases have since been reoccupied by American advisers sent in to fight the Islamic State.)

Nonetheless, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out long ago (and TomDispatch regular David Vine has made so clear recently), this was the U.S. version of empire building. And in this century, despite the loss of those Iraqi bases and most of the Afghan ones, Washington has continued its global base-building extravaganza in a big way. It has constructed, expanded, or reconfigured a staggering set of bases in the Greater Middle East and on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and has been building drone bases around the world. Then there's the remaining European bases that came out of World War II, were expanded in the Cold War years, and have, in this century, been driven deep into the former Eastern European imperial possessions of the old Soviet Union. Add in another structure of bases in Asia that also came out of World War II and that are once again added to, reconfigured, and pivoted toward. Toss in as well the 60 or so small bases, baselets, sites, storage areas, and the like that, in recent years, the U.S. military has been constructing across Africa. Throw in some bases still in Latin America and the Caribbean, including most infamously Guanta'namo in Cuba, and you have a structure for the imperial ages.

But like some madcap Dr. Seuss character, the Pentagon can't seem to stop and so, the New York Times recently reported, it has now presented the White House with a plan for a new (or refurbished) "network" of bases in the most "volatile" regions of the planet. These shadowy "hubs" are meant mainly for America's secret warriors -- "Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions for the foreseeable future" against the Islamic State and its various franchisees. This will undoubtedly be news for Times readers, but not for TomDispatch ones. For several years, Nick Turse has been reporting at this site on the building, or building up of, both the "hubs" and "spokes" of this system in southern Europe and across Africa (as well as on the way the U.S. military's pivot to Africa has acted as a kind of blowback machine for terror outfits). Today, he's at it again, revealing wars secretly being fought in our name from this country's ever-changing, ever-evolving empire of bases. Tom

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America's Secret African Drone War Against the Islamic State
Predators and the "Neutralization" of 69 People in Iraq and Syria
By Nick Turse

On October 7th, at an "undisclosed location" somewhere in "Southwest Asia," men wearing different types of camouflage and dun-colored boots gathered before a black backdrop adorned with Arabic script. They were attending a ceremony that mixed solemnity with celebration, the commemoration of a year of combat that left scores of their enemies slain. One of their leaders spoke of comraderie and honor, of forging a family and continuing a legacy.

While this might sound like the description of a scene from an Islamic State (IS) video or a clip from a militia battling them, it was, in fact, a U.S. Air Force "inactivation ceremony." There, Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Drake handed over to Colonel John Orchard the "colors" of his drone unit as it slipped into an ethereal military limbo. But that doesn't mean the gathering had no connection to the Islamic State.

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It did.

Within days, Drake was back in the United States surprising his family at a Disney "musical spectacular." Meanwhile, his former unit ended its most recent run having been responsible for the "neutralization of 69 enemy fighters," according to an officer who spoke at that October 7th ceremony. Exactly whom the unit's drones neutralized remains unclear, but an Air Force spokesman has for the first time revealed that Drake's force, based in the Horn of Africa, spent more than a year targeting the Islamic State as part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the undeclared war on the militant group in Iraq and Syria. The Air Force has since taken steps to cover up the actions of the unit.

Base-Building in the Horn of Africa

From November 20, 2014, until October 7, 2015, Drake commanded the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, a unit operating under the auspices of U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), which flew MQ-1 Predator drones from Chabelley Airfield in the tiny sun-baked African nation of Djibouti. For the uninitiated, Chabelley is the other U.S. outpost in that country -- the site of America's lone avowed "major military facility" in Africa, Camp Lemonnier -- and a key node in an expanding archipelago of hush-hush American outposts that have spread across that continent since 9/11.

Last week, in fact, the New York Times reported on new Pentagon plans to counter the Islamic State by creating a hub-and-spoke network of bases and outposts stretching across southern Europe, the Greater Middle East, and Africa by "expanding existing bases in Djibouti and Afghanistan -- and" more basic installations in countries that could include Niger and Cameroon, where the United States now carries out unarmed surveillance drone missions, or will soon."

Weeks earlier, TomDispatch had revealed that those efforts were already well underway, drawing attention to key bases in Spain and Italy as well as 60 U.S. military outposts, port facilities, and other sites dotting the African continent, including those in Djibouti, Niger, and Cameroon. The Times cited a senior Pentagon official who noted that some colleagues are "advocating a larger string of new bases in West Africa," a plan TomDispatch had reported on early last year. The Times didn't mention Djibouti's secret drone base by name, but that airfield, Drake's home for almost a year, is now a crucial site in this expanding network of bases and was intimately involved in the war on the Islamic State a year before the Times took notice.

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A few years ago, Chabelley was little more than a tarmac in the midst of a desert wasteland, an old French Foreign Legion outpost that had seemingly gone to seed. About 10 kilometers away, Camp Lemonnier, which shares a runway with the international airport in Djibouti's capital, was handling America's fighter aircraft and cargo planes, as well as drones carrying out secret assassination missions in Yemen and Somalia. By 2012, an average of 16 U.S. drones and four fighter jets were taking off or landing there each day. Soon, however, local air traffic controllers in the predominantly Muslim nation became incensed about the drones being used to kill fellow Muslims. At about the same time, those robotic planes taking off from the base began crashing, although the Air Force did not find Djiboutians responsible.

In February 2013, the Pentagon asked Congress to provide funding for "minimal facilities necessary to enable temporary operations" at Chabelley. That June, as the House Armed Services Committee noted, "the Government of Djibouti mandated that operations of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) cease from Camp Lemonnier, while allowing such operations to relocate to Chabelley Airfield." By the fall, the U.S. drone fleet had indeed been transferred to the more remote airstrip. "Since then, Chabelley Airfield has become more permanent. And it appears to have grown," says Dan Gettinger, co-founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College and the author of a guide to identifying drone bases from satellite imagery.

Despite the supposedly temporary nature of the site, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) "directed an expansion of operations" at Chabelley and, in May 2014, the U.S. signed a "long-term implementing arrangement" with the Djiboutian government to establish the airfield as an "enduring" base, according to documents provided to the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year by the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller).

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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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