Previously secret documents from the Pentagon and the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) obtained by The Intercept sheds light on the extent of American military bases and outposts across Africa, with the greatest concentration in the Sahelian west and in the Horn of Africa. Maps included with these documents show an official count of twenty-seven bases across fifteen countries, a decrease from thirty-four bases in 2018. As The Intercept notes, however, the 2019 AFRICOM planning documents also makes reference to spaces used by United States Army Africa forces at “host nation facilities” in Senegal and Uganda, despite not being listed on the map, raising the question whether there are more than the officially recognized twenty-seven sites.
These bases either house drones for aerial bombings or serve as training platforms for counterterrorism operations, usually a combination of American special forces providing guidance and occasional assistance to counterterrorism units from partnering African nations. Somalia, in particular, has received greater attention, with the secret documents revealing a desire by AFRICOM to further expand its presence in the region. This comes amid talks by Defense Secretary Mark Esper of reducing American troop numbers in Africa, currently at around six thousand, though no shift has taken place yet. The proposal has drawn widespread, bipartisan criticism from members of Congress, who believe withdrawing troops would undermine security efforts in the region.
For William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, the rationale put forward by members of Congress appears irrational. “The current overly militarized approach to fighting terrorism in Africa is not working,” Hartung said to The Intercept. There are currently twenty-five active militant Islamist groups in Africa, up from five in 2010. There has been an increase in violent attacks by these groups of more than 1,000 percent since 2009, with 3,471 documented incidents in 2019 alone. Deaths from these attacks also grew by 7 percent since last year to 10,460.
The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General has also acknowledged the bleak situation: Al-Shabab has not been weakened despite a record number of air strikes in 2019, and has in fact grown as a threat to American military personnel in the region. AFRICOM’s report to the Inspector General found that the security situation in West Africa has continued to deteriorate and that “VEOs [violent extremist organizations] in West Africa are not degraded nor contained to the Sahel and Lake Chad region”. Given this, Hartung believes the United States needs to fundamentally rethink its approach. Since 9/11, violence in Africa from extremist groups has increased at around the same pace as the United States’ military presence, drawing skepticism about the efficacy of the current “more is better” strategy.
Why It Matters
The Al-Shabab attack on a military airfield Manda Bay, Kenya, in January, which killed three American servicemen, and the 2017 attack in Niger that killed four Green Berets brought into stark focus the reality that the United States is actively involved in conflict zones in Africa. Most media attention is paid to the nearly twenty-year war in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East, but there has been little focus on America’s role in Africa despite tens of billions of dollars being spent bolstering security arrangements with African partners and maintaining the archipelago of bases across the continent. And yet, the expanding threat of jihadist violence and persistence of terrorist groups like Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, along with the creation of new groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Maghreb and Ansar al-Sunna in northern Mozambique, shows that these billions are doing little to curb the danger, and in some ways only seem to exacerbate the problem.
Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta recently took the initiative to negotiate directly with the leaders of two jihadist organizations operating in the Sahel in an effort to quell the endemic violence. This tactic has been both lauded and heavily criticized within Mali and by the country’s neighbors, but it presents a possible option in addressing terrorism. Malian security forces, alongside African partners and France, have been waging war against jihadist groups in the region since 2012, with little evidence that these groups have been significantly deterred, further proving that new thinking is needed.