It was astounding to hear Pentagon and State Department leaders, included Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, dissemble during their Oct. 30 testimony regarding the amount of military and covert forces the U.S. has deployed throughout Africa.
Even Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who should have been fully briefed on U.S. operations in Africa as a result of his vice-presidential bid, acknowledged, “I don’t think Congress has necessarily been kept completely up to date, and the American public I think certainly has not.” Several prominent news outlets asked the poignant question, “What are we doing in Niger?”
Nick Turse, one of the best American analysts of U.S. geopolitical and military policies in Africa, in his “Tomorrow’s Battle Field: US Proxy wars and Secret Ops in Africa,” has written about the buildup of U.S. military operations over the past decade after the establishment of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008. By this time, U.S. Special Operations troops were already deployed throughout the continent.
The main thrust of U.S. operations is in three major regions.
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The first region is the Sahel, south of the Sahara Desert, comprising Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Mauritania where France is leading the fight against al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other resistance groups.
France fought a war against these groups in 2012 and 2013. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron announced France is creating a 5,000-strong force to fight “armed groups” in the region. His wording is important as it means that France, the U.S. and NATO allies will fight not just against terrorists but other resisting forces challenging current governments.
Because of the secrecy in which U.S. forces operate, it is not known how many forces the U.S. is currently contributing to the “War for Sahel;” it is speculated to be around 1,000 with another 8,000 to 10,000 distributed around the continent.
The region of the Sahel, as well as West Africa, is important as a significant portion of France’s trade and gross national product is tied to the region. It is also important for the scores of minerals, including rare-earth minerals vital for the production of computer chips, aircraft, missiles, cell phones, drones, and cyber warfare. The U.S. has vital relations with France and other European countries in all of these crucial areas.
The second region of import to the U.S., and its estimated 46 bases and outposts throughout Africa, is the largely Arab countries of North Africa, especially Libya and Tunisia. As a result of civil wars, hundreds of thousands of weapons have been removed from these two countries fueling wars in the Sahel. The U.S., France and the EU want to bring autocrats to power that favor French and U.S. corporations.
The third region is the Horn of Africa comprising Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Two countries — Somalia and Sudan — are engaged in civil war. Djibouti is the most important country as it sits astride the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, the entrance to the Red Sea and Suez Canal through which 20 percent (4.7 million barrels) of global oil supply, largely from the Persian Gulf, passes daily.
In order to protect the Bab al-Mandab region, the U.S. and United Kingdom support Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen. Saudi Arabia thinks it is necessary to dominant Yemen in order to protect the Saudi dynasty. In this effort, the U.S. and France uses its large Djibouti air base (Camp Lemonnier) at which they have and estimated 5,000 troops station from multiple counties to prosecute their wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Saudi Arabia and Israel, who now cooperate closely against Iran, also have bases in Eritrea to ward off potential enemies and to guard against alleged Iranian support for the Houthis — the Shi’i Yemenis fighting against the U.S. and United Kingdom-backed Saudis.
Robert Olson is professor emeritus of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky.