By arrangement with TomDispatch.

They call it the New Spice Route, an homage to the medieval trade network that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia, even if today’s “spice road” has nothing to do with cinnamon, cloves, or silks. Instead, it’s a superpower’s superhighway, on which trucks and ships shuttle fuel, food, and military equipment through a growing maritime and ground transportation infrastructure to a network of supply depots, tiny camps, and airfields meant to service a fast-growing U.S. military presence in Africa.

Few in the U.S. know about this superhighway, or about the dozens of training missions and joint military exercises being carried out in nations that most Americans couldn’t locate on a map. Even fewer have any idea that military officials are invoking the names of Marco Polo and the Queen of Sheba as they build a bigger military footprint in Africa. It’s all happening in the shadows of what in a previous imperial age was known as “the Dark Continent.”

In East African ports, huge metal shipping containers arrive with the everyday necessities for a military on the make. They’re then loaded onto trucks that set off down rutted roads toward dusty bases and distant outposts.

Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces are engaged in missions against the Lord’s Resistance Army from a rugged camp in Obo in the Central African Republic, but little is said about that base either.

On the highway from Djibouti to Ethiopia, for example, one can see the bare outlines of this shadow war at the truck stops where local drivers take a break from their long-haul routes. The same is true in other African countries. The nodes of the network tell part of the story: Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya; Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda; Bangui and Djema in the Central African Republic; Nzara in South Sudan; Dire Dawa in Ethiopia; and the Pentagon’s showpiece African base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, among others.

According to Pat Barnes, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Camp Lemonnier serves as the only official U.S. base on the continent. “There are more than 2,000 U.S. personnel stationed there,” he told TomDispatch recently by email. “The primary AFRICOM organization at Camp Lemonnier is Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). CJTF-HOA’s efforts are focused in East Africa and they work with partner nations to assist them in strengthening their defense capabilities.”

Barnes also noted that Department of Defense personnel are assigned to U.S. embassies across Africa, including 21 individual Offices of Security Cooperation responsible for facilitating military-to-military activities with “partner nations.” He characterized the forces involved as small teams carrying out pinpoint missions. Barnes did admit that in “several locations in Africa, AFRICOM has a small and temporary presence of personnel. In all cases, these military personnel are guests within host-nation facilities, and work alongside or coordinate with host-nation personnel.”

Shadow Wars

In 2003, when CJTF-HOA was first set up there, it was indeed true that the only major U.S. outpost in Africa was Camp Lemonnier. In the ensuing years, in quiet and largely unnoticed ways, the Pentagon and the CIA have been spreading their forces across the continent. Today—official designations aside—the U.S. maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa. And “strengthening” African armies turns out to be a truly elastic rubric for what’s going on.

Under President Obama, in fact, operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years: last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders. And this only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.

To support these mushrooming missions, near-constant training operations, and alliance-building joint exercises, outposts of all sorts are sprouting continent-wide, connected by a sprawling shadow logistics network. Most American bases in Africa are still small and austere, but growing ever larger and more permanent in appearance. For example, photographs from last year of Ethiopia’s Camp Gilbert, examined by TomDispatch, show a base filled with air-conditioned tents, metal shipping containers, and 55-gallon drums and other gear strapped to pallets, but also recreation facilities with TVs and videogames, and a well-appointed gym filled with stationary bikes, free weights, and other equipment.

Continental Drift

After 9/11, the U.S. military moved into three major regions in significant ways: South Asia (primarily Afghanistan), the Middle East (primarily Iraq), and the Horn of Africa. Today, the U.S. is drawing down in Afghanistan and has largely left Iraq. Africa, however, remains a growth opportunity for the Pentagon.

The U.S. is now involved, directly and by proxy, in military and surveillance operations against an expanding list of regional enemies. They include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa; the Islamist movement Boko Haram in Nigeria; possible al-Qaeda-linked militants in post-Qaddafi Libya; Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan; Mali’s Islamist Rebels of the Ansar Dine, al-Shabaab in Somalia; and guerrillas from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.

A recent investigation by the em>Washington Post revealed that contractor-operated surveillance aircraft based out of Entebbe, Uganda, are scouring the territory used by Kony’s LRA at the Pentagon’s behest, and that 100 to 200 U.S. commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay. Additionally, U.S. drones are being flown out of Arba Minch airport in Ethiopia and from the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, while drones and F-15 fighter-bombers have been operating out of Camp Lemonnier as part of the shadow wars being waged by the U.S. military and the CIA in Yemen and Somalia. Surveillance planes used for spy missions over Mali, Mauritania, and the Sahara desert are also flying missions from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and plans are reportedly in the works for a similar base in the newborn nation of South Sudan.

U.S. special operations forces are stationed at a string of even more shadowy forward operating posts on the continent, including one in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and others in Nzara in South Sudan and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.S. also has had troops deployed in Mali, despite having officially suspended military relations with that country following a coup.

According to research by TomDispatch, the U.S. Navy also has a forward operating location, manned mostly by Seabees, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops, known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. U.S. military documents indicate that there may be other even lower-profile U.S. facilities in the country. In addition to Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military also maintains another hole-and-corner outpost in Djibouti—a Navy port facility that lacks even a name. AFRICOM did not respond to requests for further information on these posts before this article went to press.

Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces are engaged in missions against the Lord’s Resistance Army from a rugged camp in Obo in the Central African Republic, but little is said about that base either. “U.S. military personnel working with regional militaries in the hunt for Joseph Kony are guests of the African security forces comprising the regional counter-LRA effort,” Barnes told me. “Specifically in Obo, the troops live in a small camp and work with partner nation troops at a Ugandan facility that operates at the invitation of the government of the Central African Republic.”

And that’s still just part of the story. U.S. troops are also working at bases inside Uganda. Earlier this year, elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) trained soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defense Force, which not only runs missions in the Central African Republic, but also acts as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia in the battle against the Islamist militants known as al-Shabaab. They now supply the majority of the troops to the African Union Mission protecting the U.S.-supported government in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

In the spring, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National Defense Force (BNDF), the second-largest contingent in Somalia. In April and May, members of Task Force Raptor, 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment, of the Texas National Guard took part in a training mission with the BNDF in Mudubugu, Burundi.

In February, SPMAGTF-12 sent trainers to Djibouti to work with an elite local army unit, while other Marines traveled to Liberia to focus on teaching riot-control techniques to Liberia’s military as part of what is otherwise a State Department-directed effort to rebuild that force.

In addition, the U.S. is conducting counterterrorism training and equipping militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. AFRICOM also has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012, including operations in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria.

The size of U.S. forces conducting these joint exercises and training missions fluctuates, but Barnes told me that, “on an average basis, there are approximately 5,000 U.S. Military and DoD personnel working across the continent” at any one time. Next year, even more American troops are likely to be on hand as units from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, known as the “Dagger Brigade,” are scheduled to deploy to the region. The roughly 3,000 soldiers in the brigade will be involved in, among other activities, training missions while acquiring regional expertise. “Special Forces have a particular capability in this area, but not the capacity to fulfill the demand; and we think we will be able to fulfill the demand by using conventional forces,” Colonel Andrew Dennis told a reporter about the deployment.

Air Africa

Last month, the Washington Post revealed that, since at least 2009, the “practice of hiring private companies to spy on huge expanses of African territory… has been a cornerstone of the U.S. military’s secret activities on the continent.” Dubbed Tusker Sand, the project consists of contractors flying from Entebbe airport in Uganda and a handful of other airfields. They pilot turbo-prop planes that look innocuous but are packed with sophisticated surveillance gear.

America’s mercenary spies in Africa are, however, just part of the story.

While the Pentagon canceled an analogous drone surveillance program dubbed Tusker Wing, it has spent millions of dollars to upgrade the civilian airport at Arba Minch, Ethiopia, to enable drone missions to be flown from it. Infrastructure to support such operations has been relatively cheap and easy to construct, but a much more daunting problem looms—one intimately connected to the New Spice Route.

“Marco Polo wasn’t just an explorer,” Army planner Chris Zahner explained at a conference in Djibouti last year. “[H]e was also a logistician developing logistics nodes along the Silk Road. Now let’s do something similar where the Queen of Sheba traveled.” Paeans to bygone luminaries aside, the reasons for pouring resources into sea and ground supply networks have less to do with history than with Africa’s airport infrastructure.

Of the 3,300 airfields on the continent identified in a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency review, the Air Force has surveyed only 303 of them and just 158 of those surveys are current. Of those airfields that have been checked out, half won’t support the weight of the C-130 cargo planes that the U.S. military leans heavily on to transport troops and materiel. These limitations were driven home during Natural Fire 2010, one of that year’s joint training exercises hosted by AFRICOM. When C-130s were unable to use an airfield in Gulu, Uganda, an extra $3 million was spent instead to send in Chinook helicopters.

In addition, diplomatic clearances and airfield restrictions on U.S. military aircraft cost the Pentagon time and money, while often raising local suspicion and ire. In a recent article in the military trade publication Army Sustainment, Air Force Major Joseph Gaddis touts an emerging solution: outsourcing. The concept was tested last year, during another AFRICOM training operation, Atlas Drop 2011.

“Instead of using military airlift to move equipment to and from the exercise, planners used commercial freight vendors,” writes Gadddis. “This provided exercise participants with door-to-door delivery service and eliminated the need for extra personnel to channel the equipment through freight and customs areas.” Using mercenary cargo carriers to skirt diplomatic clearance issues and move cargo to airports that can’t support U.S. C-130s is, however, just one avenue the Pentagon is pursuing to support its expanding operations in Africa.

Another is construction.

The Great Build-Up

Military contracting documents reveal plans for an investment of up to $180 million or more in construction at Camp Lemonnier alone. Chief among the projects will be the laying of 54,500 square meters of taxiways “to support medium-load aircraft” and the construction of a 185,000 square meter Combat Aircraft Loading Area. In addition, plans are in the works to erect modular maintenance structures, hangers, and ammunition storage facilities, all needed for an expanding set of secret wars in Africa.

Other contracting documents suggest that, in the years to come, the Pentagon will be investing up to $50 million in new projects at that base, Kenya’s Camp Simba, and additional unspecified locations in Africa. Still other solicitation materials suggest future military construction in Egypt, where the Pentagon already maintains a medical research facility, and still more work in Djibouti.

No less telling are contracting documents indicating a coming influx of “emergency troop housing” at Camp Lemonnier, including almost 300 additional Containerized Living Units (CLUs), stackable, air-conditioned living quarters, as well as latrines and laundry facilities.

Military documents also indicate that a nearly $450,000 exercise facility was installed at the U.S. base in Entebbe, Uganda, last year. All of this indicates that, for the Pentagon, its African build-up has only begun.

The Scramble for Africa

In a recent speech in Arlington, Virginia, AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham explained the reasoning behind U.S. operations on the continent: “The absolute imperative for the United States military [is] to protect America, Americans, and American interests; in our case, in my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent.” As an example, Ham named the Somali-based al-Shabaab as a prime threat. “Why do we care about that?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, al-Qaeda is a global enterprise… we think they very clearly do present, as an al-Qaeda affiliate… a threat to America and Americans.”

Fighting them over there, so we don’t need to fight them here has been a core tenet of American foreign policy for decades, especially since 9/11. But trying to apply military solutions to complex political and social problems has regularly led to unforeseen consequences. For example, last year’s U.S.-supported war in Libya resulted in masses of well-armed Tuareg mercenaries, who had been fighting for Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, heading back to Mali where they helped destabilize that country. So far, the result has been a military coup by an American-trained officer; a takeover of some areas by Tuareg fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, who had previously raided Libyan arms depots; and other parts of the country being seized by the irregulars of Ansar Dine, the latest al-Qaeda “affiliate” on the American radar. One military intervention, in other words, led to three major instances of blowback in a neighboring country in just a year.

With the Obama administration clearly engaged in a twenty-first century scramble for Africa, the possibility of successive waves of overlapping blowback grows exponentially. Mali may only be the beginning and there’s no telling how any of it will end. In the meantime, keep your eye on Africa. The U.S. military is going to make news there for years to come.

Nick Turse

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning investigative journalist, he has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Nation, and is a contributing writer for the Intercept. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism. 

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.

One Comment on “Obama’s Scramble for Africa

  1. This post is a comment to an article about American activities in Africa on www., see the URL

    I have no idea if people who read my blog would care less about secret aid to African nations, but if not, just skip over this.

    The article I am responding to contains a fair number of reports of American financing of infrastructure in order to provide logistics for activities in Africa, all expressed in the tone of vast conspiracy and evil intent.

    Dear Nick Turse,

    I read your article “Obama’s Scramble for Africa” and it seems to be accurate on most of the points, although I am in no position to really check whether such-and-such airfield has been upgraded, for example. But let us say for the sake of argument that they are all correct reports and that airfields have been improved, runways built, contractors hired to do reconnaisance, and so forth.

    My responses to this article are these:

    1. Its not a superhighway, its a jungle trail. Now truly, if you have a complete absence of infrastructure in a country that has not been able to put together the minimum road network, or air network, then a jungle trail may indeed seem like a superhighway by comparison. But it is not, and saying it is just sounds like you are trying to be inflammatory and exaggerate what is going on. In fact, I think you are being deliberately inflammatory and exaggerating what is going on.

    2. Your article always tries to take the most evil, most negative, and most suspicious point of view on what is happening. Maybe that is deserved where the USA is concerned, but I certainly don’t think so. For example, you quote the Washington Post that contractors have been hired to spy on the countryside. Ok, that is one way to put it. But another way to put it is this. “In cooperation with and with the permission of the local government, the USA is paying contractors to do aerial reconnaissance of the contryside which is not under the complete control of the local government and where elements hostile to that government operate”.

    3. So far as I know, each of these activities are performed with the approval and cooperation of the legal government of these areas. Now I admit, this can be a dicey thing to judge without a lot of study, that is, how legitimate the local government may in fact be. But to the best of my knowledge we are not doing anything like supporting rebels against governments in place, for example. And if you believe that a government in place is in fact not legitimate and that their goals (with the USA) are not valid or moral, perhaps that is the point you should be making.

    4. But even so, why do you object to the USA spending money to improve parts of the infrastructure of Africa? Its true, this may not be the right priority of infrastructure upgrades, e.g. why this airport vs another one might say, but at the end of the day, America has no desires for territory in Africa, nor for resources that are not sold on the open market, so far as I know. So if we pay for your infrastructure, well, we will be gone one day and the locals will have access to the improvements, is that so bad ? In fact, don’t I ususally hear complaints that the West has failed to provide the capital to improve Africa (something many people do not agree with) so why do they object when such monies are in fact made available ?

    5. You seem very suspicious of the secrecy involved, and I suspect many American’s will be as well. But there are several things you should keep in mind, and which I do not think (at least I do not notice) in your article.

    5a. The first is that indeed, as you point out, the activities involve the military. They are trying to deal with groups of people who are violent and armed, this is a military action. By definition the military tries to keep a lot of the details of their logistics and plans secret, it allows them to create the element of surprise which is one of those vague platitudes that are so important in military actions throughout history. If you add the fact that the selected means of our action is special forces (something that will be discussed below), then the need for secrecy in operations is that much greater.

    5b. The use of special forces in Africa, whether for good or evil, will be and is, controversial for a variety of reasons, although I do not think you cover these reasons in your article. But the evolution and increase in special forces comes in part from a desire to take action in a place or situation where using the standard military is prohibitively expensive. There was discussion in the Clinton administration, for example, of doing something about Bin Laden in Afghanistan who had threatened to murder US citizens but years and years before he actually succeeded in doing so in quantity (he had killed Americans, several hundred by this time, but this was pre Sept 11, 2001). But the US Military refused to be involved unless they could go in with massive force, and that, in the period before 911 happened, was unacceptable. Things have evolved since then, and the increase in capability of our special forces is in part a reaction to that situation and other similar events. It is to make such actions more practical that the special forces have increased. Now whether that is good or bad is a good question, but it is a consequence of this that secrecy is even more a part and parcel of their activities. Yet you object mightily to the secrecy of the details of our work in Africa and imply it is necessarily evil. It isnt. Your real objection probably should be why the local governments are working with the US on these activities. Are these activities for the good of the people and areas involved or not ? Your article does not say, not that I noticed, but on the surface of things it seems like they might be good goals.

    5c. I think that the best reason for objecting to the secrecy of these activities, from an American point of view, is because it short-circuits the public debate on these activities in America. And I think it is likely, not too sure, but likely, that most Americans would be unwilling to spend money and lives to help Africa with their own self-generated problems and disasters. These process of approving and overseeing these activities does involve
    public consent, but only indirectly. And the normal process of public debate is short circuited. That is a problem with special forces and intelligence in general, and it is an issue that continues to evolve in the USA. Generally these topics do eventually become topics of public debate but it is not always in a timely manner, nor to everyone’s satisfaction.

    6. If you seek to prove with your article that the USA has very nefarious motives here, the newest grab for Africa as it were, you fail to give any motivation for it, or even compelling arguments to support it. What are those motives, what nasty thing are we trying to do beyond helping local governments deal with criminals and building up your transportation infrastructure ?

    7. If we did have a public debate about whether or not the USA should be halping Africa, I am not sure how it would turn out. The Somalia “peace keeping” disaster was very important in forming public opinion in this country, I think. Why spend American lives on the sewer of Somailia if that is how the people of Somalia respond (many Americans might wonder) ? Why not just let them starve and kill each other, if they hate us being there to feed them so much ? I think this is a good argument and although I think Clinton pulled out too fast, I think that the general philosophy of letting Somalia rot in its own hell had a lot of merit.

    8. Any attempt to blame the west for Africa’s problems will fall on deaf ears. No one believes it. Yes, the colonial powers did a fair amount to screw up Africa, but that was long ago and there has been a ton of money pumped into the place since then, and more will be available, maybe not in the lucious quantities of the cold war, but available nevertheless in the future. Try not to fuck it up this time, ok ? I admit that the amount of money may not be sufficient to the extent of the problems as they exist today, but the various countries of Africa, each of them diverse and individual, each with their personalities and contradictions, do not have a great track record for working with western aid, and that has led to a reduction of aid because of the general impression of the futility and uselessness of providing this aid. If this is not true, or if this has changed, then unfortunately the burden of proof is on the African nations themselves to make that case. I admit, the impression you have given the world that aid to Africa is a waste of time and money, may be a very hard one to change.

    In conclusion …

    I am leading up to a surprising (at least to me) conclusion here: that you should be actually happy about the secrecy and maybe even work to continue it. Why ? Because the USA is paying for useful infrastructure because of whatever it is they are doing, and if things were subjected to a public debate then I bet you, I just bet you, that Americans will want to stop it. Why spend money improving African infrastructure ? Whats the upside ?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *