As I've written elsewhere, what Chalmers Johnson called America's "empire of bases" was "not so much our little secret as a secret we kept even from ourselves" -- at least until Johnson broke the silence and his book Blowback became a bestseller in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In those years, however, if (like Johnson) you actually wanted to know about the way the U.S. garrisoned the world, you could profitably start simply by reading the Pentagon's tabulations of its global garrisons, ranging from military bases the size of small American towns to what were then starting to be called "lily pads," which were small sites in potential global hot spots stocked with pre-positioned materiel and ready for instant occupation. It was all there on the record for those who cared to know. Well, perhaps not quite all there, but enough of it certainly to get a sense of what the "American Raj" (as Johnson called it) looked like from Europe to Asia, Latin America to the Persian Gulf.
And it was impressive, that empire of bases, once you took it in. It represented a garrisoning of the globe unprecedented in the history of empires. That we Americans didn't generally know much about it was, in a sense, a matter of choice, a matter, you might say, of self-blinding behavior. To hazard a guess: as a people, we were uncomfortable enough with the idea of ourselves as a global imperial power that we preferred not to know what "we" were doing, or at least not to acknowledge what we had become, even though every year hundreds of thousands of Americans, military personnel and civilians alike, lived on, worked on, or cycled through those bases. In this context, it was startling how seldom they were part of our everyday news cycle. For those in other countries, they often loomed large indeed as the local face of the United States, but you'd never know that if your source of news was the mainstream media here.
That, of course, hasn't changed. What has changed is Washington's attitude toward the public record. Its latest basing moves are taking place enveloped in a blanket of secrecy, which means that even if you want to know, it's increasingly tough to find out. Washington's latest garrisoning strategy is based on a new premise: a "small footprint," meaning a tiny-bases, rapid-deployment, special-ops and drone-heavy way of war that's being put into place across Africa in the twenty-first century, as TomDispatch's Nick Turse lays out today. While the U.S. has always pursued parts of its imperial strategy in "the shadows," to use a phrase from my Cold War childhood, in this new strategy everyday basing, too, is disappearing into those shadows, which is why Turse's latest piece on the subject is a small reportorial triumph of time and effort.
For this site in these last years, Turse has regularly revealed much that has been out of sight when it comes to Washington's expanding military focus on Africa, including the cascading number of U.S. military missions across that continent, a similar spike in missions to train proxy forces there, and soaring deployments of U.S. Special Operations forces -- that secret military-within-the-military of 70,000 that now thrives solely in a world of shadows. It took a year of his efforts, but today he finishes off his portrait of the garrisoning of a whole continent in a new way with a look at the basing policies of U.S. Africa Command. It's a piece that couldn't be more important or hard-won, and it offers us our first look at how a continent is being prepared for what Turse, in his latest book, has called "tomorrow's battlefield." Tom
Does Eleven Plus One Equal Sixty?
AFRICOM's New Math, the U.S. Base Bonanza, and "Scarier" Times Ahead in Africa By Nick Turse
In the shadows of what was once called the "dark continent," a scramble has come and gone. If you heard nothing about it, that was by design. But look hard enough and -- north to south, east to west -- you'll find the fruits of that effort: a network of bases, compounds, and other sites whose sum total exceeds the number of nations on the continent. For a military that has stumbled from Iraq to Afghanistan and suffered setbacks from Libya to Syria, it's a rare can-do triumph. In remote locales, behind fences and beyond the gaze of prying eyes, the U.S. military has built an extensive archipelago of African outposts, transforming the continent, experts say, into a laboratory for a new kind of war.
So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa? It's a simple question with a simple answer. For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America's only acknowledged "base" on the continent. It wasn't true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.
Take a look at the Pentagon's official list of bases, however, and the number grows. The 2015 report on the Department of Defense's global property portfolio lists Camp Lemonnier and three other deep-rooted sites on or near the continent: U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3, a medical research facility in Cairo, Egypt, that was established in 1946; Ascension Auxiliary Airfield, a spacecraft tracking station and airfield located 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa that has been used by the U.S. since 1957; and warehouses at the airport and seaport in Mombasa, Kenya, that were built in the 1980s.- Advertisement -
That's only the beginning, not the end of the matter. For years, various reporters have shed light on hush-hush outposts -- most of them built, upgraded, or expanded since 9/11 -- dotting the continent, including so-called cooperative security locations (CSLs). Earlier this year, AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez disclosed that there were actually 11 such sites. Again, devoted AFRICOM-watchers knew that this, too, was just the start of a larger story, but when I asked Africa Command for a list of bases, camps and other sites, as I periodically have done, I was treated like a sap.
"In all, AFRICOM has access to 11 CSLs across Africa. Of course, we have one major military facility on the continent: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti," Anthony Falvo, AFRICOM's Public Affairs chief, told me. Falvo was peddling numbers that both he and I know perfectly well are, at best, misleading. "It's one of the most troubling aspects of our military policy in Africa, and overseas generally, that the military can't be, and seems totally resistant to being, honest and transparent about what it's doing," says David Vine, author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.
Research by TomDispatch indicates that in recent years the U.S. military has, in fact, developed a remarkably extensive network of more than 60 outposts and access points in Africa. Some are currently being utilized, some are held in reserve, and some may be shuttered. These bases, camps, compounds, port facilities, fuel bunkers, and other sites can be found in at least 34 countries -- more than 60% of the nations on the continent -- many of them corrupt, repressive states with poor human rights records. The U.S. also operates "Offices of Security Cooperation and Defense Attache Offices in approximately 38 [African] nations," according to Falvo, and has struck close to 30 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers.
There is no reason to believe that even this represents a complete accounting of America's growing archipelago of African outposts. Although it's possible that a few sites are being counted twice due to AFRICOM's failure to provide basic information or clarification, the list TomDispatch has developed indicates that the U.S. military has created a network of bases that goes far beyond what AFRICOM has disclosed to the American public, let alone to Africans.- Advertisement -
U.S. military outposts, port facilities, and other areas of access in Africa, 2002-2015 (Nick Turse/TomDispatch, 2015)
AFRICOM's Base Bonanza
When AFRICOM became an independent command in 2008, Camp Lemonnier was reportedly still one of the few American outposts on the continent. In the years since, the U.S. has embarked on nothing short of a building boom -- even if the command is loath to refer to it in those terms. As a result, it's now able to carry out increasing numbers of overt and covert missions, from training exercises to drone assassinations.