by Peter Feuilherade
15 August 2012
Peter Feuilherade, a former BBC
World Service Journalist, is a UK-based writer specialising in
Middle East affairs.
Peter Feuilherade sheds light
on the Pentagon's ongoing operations in Africa and the continent's
growing strategic importance to US interests…
America's new and still evolving defence strategy is strongly focused on
Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, as well as heralding a new phase of
restraint in military spending.
Over the next 10 years, the Pentagon faces
budget cuts of $487bn.
On his first visit to Japan as Pentagon Chief in October 2011, US Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta stated that America would remain a global
economic and military power despite the cuts, and that the Asia-Pacific
region would be central to the US national security strategy.
Washington's shift in focus towards Asia is in
response to China's growing military power.
But the expanding US military presence in Africa suggests that Washington is
also increasingly concerned about the expansion of transnational terrorism
into the sub-Saharan region of the continent.
US forces or advisers are active in the Horn of Africa, and East and Central
Africa, while in at least 10 countries in the Maghreb, the Sahel and West
Africa US personnel are providing counterterrorism training and building up
Countering extremists is the top military priority for the continent, says
General Carter Ham, Commander of the US Africa Command (Africom).
Africom's mission, its website notes, is to,
'protect and defend the national security
interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities
of African states and regional organizations and, when directed, conduct
military operations, in order to deter and defeat transnational threats
and to provide a security environment conducive to good governance and
Responsible for US military relations with 54
African countries, Africom's operational launch took place in 2008.
With President George W Bush facing
almost unanimous opposition from African leaders to hosting the command on
the continent, its HQ was located in Stuttgart, Germany instead.
Africom typically has fewer than 5,000 troops in
Africa at any time.
The US media spotlight turned briefly to Africa in 2011 when the US sent 100
military advisers, mostly Army Special Forces, to help soldiers from four
Central African countries - Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central
African Republic - fight the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and capture its
leader Joseph Kony.
But for several years, the US Air Force has been
flying drones over Northeast Africa and Yemen from bases in Djibouti and
more recently southern Ethiopia and the Seychelles.
In combating the Somalia-based Islamic insurgent group al-Shabaab, only a
handful of US troops are involved directly, usually special forces who enter
the country on clandestine missions to kill militant targets.
However, America has funded 9,000 African Union
troops from Uganda and Burundi, and provided background support to invading
Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, all involved in military operations against al-Shabaab.
In March 2012, General Ham told the US House of Representatives Armed
Services Committee that al-Qaeda affiliates in East and Northwest Africa
posed the greatest security threat to the US.
Noting that al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab (which has
recruited and trained dozens of American citizens) had publicly formalized
their longstanding merger, he described the stated intention of the leaders
of these extremist groups to work more closely together as "his greatest
On the other side of the continent, the US is conducting counterterrorism
training and equipping armies in,
US involvement could escalate if events confirm
reports that some members of al-Qaeda's core leadership have moved to North
Africa from Pakistan after suffering heavy losses in US drone attacks there.
US officials say there are 'clear indications' that al-Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is involved in trafficking arms from Libya, and
that the upheavals in Libya and Tunisia have created opportunities for AQIM
to establish new 'safe havens'.
The US, along with several European countries,
is concerned that AQIM and Boko Haram, the militant group from northern
Nigeria formed in the 1990s, together with al-Shabaab, are,
"attempting to share training and to
collaborate in other ways in pursuit of their goal of attacking the US
and other foreign targets", according to a September 2011 speech by
Some analysts dismiss such an alliance as
unlikely, given the cultural and ethnic differences that separate the three
Both AQIM and separatist Tuareg insurgents in northern Mali opposed to the
Malian government received sophisticated weapons from Libya in 2011,
allowing Tuareg rebels to resume armed operations inside Mali in January
In March, a group of Malian junior officers, angered by the lack of
government support to help the army fight the rebels, seized control in a
coup, before agreeing to the return of civilian rule in mid-April. At the
time of writing, rebel groups remained in control of northern Mali, their
ranks reportedly swelled by foreign Islamist militants.
The whole country was also mired in a regional
humanitarian crisis, with over 1.4 million Malians in need of emergency food
assistance, according to EU estimates.
The New York Times recently described Mali as 'an impoverished desert
nation' and, 'an important American ally against the regional al-Qaeda
Mounting insecurity there, and fears that destabilization could
spread to Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel region, suggest that the American
military mission in Mali is likely to have its work cut out combating
The US will share similar concerns to France, which has warned that the
seizure of northern Mali by Tuareg separatists, in a loose alliance with
Islamic militants, could turn the region into an AQIM stronghold.
US military operations in Africa face a range of difficulties, including a
lack of bases and international agreements on flight paths, limited
communications and the reluctance of many African countries to have any
significant US force within their borders.
One option for the US is increasing the use of
sea-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
As the Pentagon cuts back on traditional military operations in the
post-Iraq and Afghan war era, and after defence budget cuts kick in, it will
rely increasingly on smaller elite units to carry out targeted operations.
US special operations forces (SOF) will
expand to maintain a continuous presence around the globe.
'begin to return to its roots as expert
trainers of counterterrorism forces in other countries',
...with a large portion of the worldwide SOF
presence focusing on Africa and the Pacific, according to Pentagon
However, public opinion and legislators in the US are concerned about the
costs of military forays into Africa at a time of budget cuts, while the
deployment of advisers has prompted comparisons with the escalation of US
involvement in South Vietnam in the 1960s.
In Africa too, the growing US presence is regarded with some suspicion.
"After the Libyan case of 2011 (the
imposition of the no-fly zone) some African leaders, intellectuals and
policymakers are advocating change in the way international
organizations or individual states intervene in African political
Some issues that make Africans suspicious
about US involvement include the increased deployments of special
forces, trainers and military contractors by the Pentagon, and the
political objectives behind some of the interventions," Dr Petrus De
Kock, Senior Researcher at the South African Institute of International
Affairs, told DMJ.
America's critics, meanwhile, see Africa
becoming a battleground where the US and its European allies jostle for
access to the continent's strategic oil and mineral resources with China,
which has been striking commercial deals with governments across Africa for
The last few years have seen significant new oil and natural gas discoveries
reported across East Africa, from the Horn of Africa in the northeast, down
to Tanzania and Mozambique in the south, and inland in Uganda and the
Democratic Republic of Congo around Lake Albert.
As General Ham stated in March 2012:
"With six of the world's fastest growing
economies in the past decade, combined with democratic gains made in a
number of African nations in 2011, Africa's strategic importance to the
United States will continue to grow."
For all parties involved, the stakes are high