Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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United States military presence in Africa

Africa Faith and Justice Network

Very few people, including U.S. Senators, were aware of the U.S. military presence in Africa when news came in October of the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. In response, African Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) published a four-part report in July examining U.S. military presence and activity in Africa by region. The following article is a summary of the report and was published in the September-October 2018 issue of NewsNotes.

In March, General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of AFRICOM, the central command for U.S. military forces in Africa, testified before the House Armed Services Committee that there are 7,200 uniformed personnel, Department of Defense civilians and contractors stationed throughout the continent. He declared that “none of Africa’s challenges can be resolved through the use of military force as the primary agent of change.” 

AFRICOM’s strategy is summarized as the “By, With, and Through” framework, which purportedly describes merely a supporting role for U.S. forces. Operations are to be carried out by partnered security forces, with partnered security forces based on their security needs, and through cooperative security relationships in which the U.S. plays a supporting role. The goal is to find “African solutions to African problems.”

The United States has a military presence in four regions of Africa: Sahel, West Africa, North Africa and East Africa. In the Sahel, the U.S. collaborates with five countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger – called the G5 Sahel Organization, which Waldhauser characterized as “Africa-led, French-assisted, and U.S. supported.” In 2017 there were 1,000 U.S. troops in this region, according to Defense Secretary James Mattis, with the stated purpose of “combatting violent extremism.” These countries have one or several extremist groups present, such as Boko Haram, ISIS-West Africa, ISIS-Greater Sahara and Al-Qaeda. In theory U.S. soldiers are not to engage in combat but merely to advise, assist and train. Critical voices ask how they can avoid combat when they accompany African troops.

Niger has most of the troops, 800 in all, because in addition to poor governance and under-development, there are extremist groups operating in the country. The only U.S. drone base is located in Niger, currently being moved from the capital city of Niamey to Agadez, a location more central for surveillance over a larger area.

In West Africa, there are two crucial areas; one being the area around Lake Chad, which is bordered by Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria. These countries, along with Niger and Benin, make up the Multinational Joint Task Force, which receives advice, assistance, training and equipment from the U.S. The U.S. military also “works closely with the UN and NGOs in providing humanitarian development assistance and stability in the region.” Also of importance is Nigeria, which has the biggest economy in Africa and numerous oil deposits. Unsaid by General Waldhauser is how many troops are there, what their roles are, and what dangers they face.

In North Africa, the country of most concern is Libya, where Al-Qaeda, ISIS-Libya, and other extremist groups are active. The U.S. objectives in Libya are: to degrade terrorist groups that threaten to destabilize the country and the region; and to avert civil war. The U.S. has good relations with other countries in North Africa, namely Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Egypt and Algeria have the two most powerful militaries on the continent and Egypt is the fourth largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in the world, after Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. The U.S. claims not to have any AFRICOM troops stationed in North Africa, but there were reports of U.S. troop deployment in Algeria after the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger and recently 200 National Guardsmen were sent to the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt.

In East Africa, the country of most concern is Somalia, where 500 AFRICOM troops are stationed. In neighboring Djibouti AFRICOM has its only military base, Camp Lemonnier, housing 2,000 U.S. troops. The U.S. is assisted by Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, all of which have troops in Somalia. The U.S. has also used drones in Somalia, only seven attacks according to the U.S. but over fifteen according to outside observers. Drone attacks are intended to eliminate leaders of Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, but many civilians have been killed. Ethiopia is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in Africa, close to a billion dollars a year, and as a result of cooperation with the U.S. the militaries of both Kenya and Uganda are growing. 

The countries creating security concerns in Africa are plagued by endemic poverty and disease, poor governance, persistent corruption, under-development, and growing climatic problems, raising the question whether military options deter diplomatic, social and economic alternatives that offer genuine long-term solutions. And given the interminable presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems justifiable to wonder if an interminable and ever-increasing military presence in Africa is what is in store.