Against backdrop of Russia’s Wagner Group’s atrocities in Africa, same concerns are also being raised over US Africom

Against backdrop of Russia’s Wagner Group’s atrocities in Africa, same concerns are also being raised over US Africom

Editors choice

What’s the US military doing in Africa? It’s an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, straitjacketed in secrecy and hogtied by red tape. Or at least it would be if it were up to the Pentagon.

Ten years ago, I embarked on a quest to answer that question at TomDispatch, chronicling a growing American military presence on that continent, a build-up of both logistical capabilities and outposts, and the possibility that far more was occurring out of sight. “Keep your eye on Africa,” I concluded. “The US military is going to make news there for years to come.”

I knew I had a story when US Africa Command (Africom) failed to answer basic questions honestly. And the command’s reaction to the article told me that I also had a new beat.

Not long after publication, Africom wrote a letter of complaint to my editor, Tom Engelhardt, attempting to discredit my investigation. (I responded point by point in a follow-up piece.) The command claimed the United States was doing little on that continent, had one measly base there, and was transparent about its operations.

“I would encourage you and those who have interest in what we do to review our website, and a new Defense Department Special Web Report on US Africa Command at this link,” wrote its director of public affairs, Col Tom Davis.

A decade later, the link is dead; Davis is a functionary at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona; and I’m still keeping an eye on Africom.

A few months ago, in fact, I revealed the existence of a previously unknown Africom investigation of an airstrike in Nigeria that killed more than 160 civilians. A formerly secret 2017 Africa Command document I obtained called for an inquiry into that “US-Nigerian” operation that was never disclosed to Congress, much less the public.

Since then, Africom has steadfastly refused to offer a substantive comment on the strike or the investigation that followed and won’t even say if it will release relevant documents to members of Congress. Last month, citing my reporting, a group of lawmakers from the newly formed Protection of Civilians in Conflict Caucus called on Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to turn over the files on, and answer key questions about the attack. The Pentagon has so far kept mum.

Has Africom then, as Davis contended so long ago, been transparent? Is its website the go-to spot for information about US military missions on that continent? Did its operations there remain few and innocuous? Or was I onto something?

From its inception, according to its first commander, General William Ward, Africom was intended to be a different kind of command: less hardcore, more Peace Corps. “Africom’s focus is on war prevention,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for African Affairs Theresa Whelan said in 2007, “rather than warfighting.”

In 2012, Ward’s successor, Gen Carter Ham, told the House Armed Services Committee that “small teams” of American personnel were conducting “a wide range of engagements in support of US security interests.”

Years later, retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc, who served at Africom from 2013 to 2015 and headed Special Operations Command Africa until 2017, would offer some clarity about those “engagements.”

Between 2013 and 2017, he explained, American commandos saw combat in at least 13 African countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, and Tunisia. US troops, he added, were killed or wounded in action in at least six of them.

Between 2015 and 2017, there were at least 10 unreported attacks on American troops in West Africa alone. A month after that January 2017 Nigerian air strike, in fact, US Marines fought Al Qaeda militants in a battle that Africom still won’t admit took place in Tunisia. That April, a US commando reportedly killed a member of warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic.

The next month, during an advise, assist and accompany mission, 38-year-old Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other Americans were wounded in a raid on a militant camp in Somalia. That same year, a Navy SEAL reportedly shot and killed a man outside a compound flying an Islamic State (ISIS) flag in Cameroon.

And that October, Africom was finally forced to abandon the fiction that US troops weren’t at war on the continent after ISIS militants ambushed American troops in Niger, killing four and wounding two more.

“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, then a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after meeting with Pentagon officials about the attack.

In the 2010s, I would, in fact, help reveal that the United States had conducted at least 36 named operations and activities in Africa – more than anywhere else on earth, including the Middle East. Among them were eight 127e programmes, named for the budgetary authority that allows Special Operations forces to use foreign military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions.

More recently, I would report on 11 of those proxy programmes employed in Africa, including one in Tunisia, code-named Obsidian Tower and never acknowledged by the Pentagon, and another with a notoriously abusive Cameroonian military unit connected to mass atrocities.

Five of those 127e programmes were conducted in Somalia by US commandos training, equipping, and directing troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda as part of the fight against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. In 2018, 26-year-old Alex Conrad of the Army’s Special Forces was killed in an attack on a small US military outpost in Somalia.

Such outposts have long been a point of contention between Africom and me. “The US maintains a surprising number of bases in Africa,” I wrote in that initial TomDispatch article in July 2012. Colonel Davis denied it.

“Other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,” he claimed, “we do not have military bases in Africa.” I had, he insisted, filed that article before Africom could get me further outpost material. “If he had waited, we would have provided the information requested, which could have better informed his story.”

  • Nick Turse is a fellow at Type Investigations and the author of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan.
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