Next Stop Mali?

Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), stood at a podium in Algeria and addressed the deteriorating security conditions in the neighboring country of Mali.

(For those geographically-challenged, remember when you were a kid and people used to say, “that’s way out in Timbuktu”? Well, this is that place, literally).

“The first step, and necessary step is the re-establishment of legitimate government in Bamako,” Ham told the foreign press corps on Sept. 30.

However, he added, “the one course of action that we are not considering is U.S. boots on the ground in Mali.”

Then why, Gen. Ham, are you there?

As he finished the brief exchange with reporters, he reiterated, “ultimately, the situation in northern Mali can only be resolved politically or diplomatically.” We ask again, Gen. Ham, then why are you there?

In my view, there is — there is likely to be some military component to address the concerns in northern Mali, but the military component will be — is not sufficient, nor will it be decisive.”

That’s better. As long as there is a slim chance of military intervention in Mali and no doubt at some point, in some way, there will be — the U.S. military is on the case, giving press conferences at the same time as the State Department guy (who was in New York, not Algeria), both insisting that that America is on the sidelines, for now.

But isn’t this how all our African forays begin? Since that presser, Assistant State for Africa Johnnie Carson has already suggested that a Somalia-style intervention might be in the cards (U.S.-backed foreign armies going into Mali). The wheels were put into motion on Friday, when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution asking Mali’s West African neighbors to speed up plans for an intervention with UN and European Union assistance. No word, yet, on how the U.S. may help, though the two countries already have a lengthy history of military cooperation: U.S. personnel involved in “military-to-military engagement activities” were only pulled out of Mali in March, after a coup upended the U.S.-friendly government there (apparently not all U.S. forces left right away, however).

According to investigative journalist Nick Turse, who spoke with last week, the U.S. military has some stake — either with boots on the ground or through proxy operations — in more than a dozen African countries today. But aside from the generous shoe leather Turse and other reporters have expended to cast a light on “the U.S. Shadow Wars in Africa,” little is publicly known about the true extent of American military involvement, making the Victorian adage, “the Dark Continent” quite apropos.

“There are these military interventions that are going on, unbeknownst to ordinary Americans,” Turse said. “They (military) are putting up infrastructure, they are building bases — although they recoil at that term — they are putting up this entire transportation system to move military hardware and resources … I think the moniker ‘shadow war’ kind of captures what is going on here — there is something happening, we can’t quite see it, but if you look closely enough it is there. With that much military manpower and hardware it’s hard to surmise it’s anything else.”

For those who care — and we suggest you do — the democratically-elected government of Mali was thrown out in March by a faction of nomadic people living in the north of the country called the Tuareg. But the separatist Tuareg got more than they bargained for when they asked a local Islamist militant group, the Rebels of the Ansar Dine, to help. They helped all right: they called in their friends, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which swiftly moved to displace the Tuareg, imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law on the moderate Sufi Muslims there in the north, and rendered Timbuktu — an ancient, bustling center of trade and tourism — a “ghost town.”

By the way, according to reports, the Ansar Dine and AQIM are apparently “flush” with weapons, thanks to the looting that occurred after the U.S.-led regime change in Libya. Furthermore, the leader of the Tuareg military coup, which opened the doors to what Bruce Riedel calls al Qaeda’s largest foothold “since the fall of Afghanistan in 2001,” was none other than Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, who came to the United States several times for “professional military education, including basic officer training,” according to The Washington Post.

So Mali has become a major flashpoint out of several in which al Qaeda figures somewhat prominently today. This gives the U.S. military and Central Intelligence Agency more reason to burrow into the continent, even though it is getting harder to parse out how much of the current crises drawing us further in are unintended consequences — or just plain blowback to our encroaching militarism and outright meddling over the last decade.

Take Somalia for instance. The CIA under the Bush Administration practically created the Islamic terror al Shabab. Then after several attempts, the U.S. engages in a multi-year drone campaign and spends $550 million to arm and train an African Union force culled from Somalia’s neighbors to restore a semblance of order, for now. This leads Carson to tout Somalia as a model for what the U.S. may do for Mali. The mind reels.

But this is just a piece of it. AQIM, now armed to the teeth, has been implicated in the reportedly premeditated attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11. In a story by The Washington Post on Oct. 1, “White House secret meetings examine al-Qaeda threat in North Africa,” it’s suggested that officials are considering the use of drones to go after AQIM militants, helping “regional militaries confront al Qaeda.” Meanwhile, Kimberly Dozier of The Associated Press reported on Oct. 2 that small teams of special operations forces had already been setting up shop “at American embassies throughout North Africa in the months before” the Libyan attack, but were not prepared to stop it.

The Special Operations Command spokesman would not tell Dozier how many troops are in North Africa today, only that they are “conducting missions” in 75 countries throughout the world “daily.” How comforting.

Well it may have been difficult, but Turse has cobbled together a picture of where much of the U.S. military and intelligence has been staging — and where its drones have already been flying and attacking— since 2001, and especially in recent years. Other insightful reporting includes Jeremy Scahill’s 2011 discovery of an underground prison and CIA spy network in Somalia, and the Washington Post’s report in 2011 that found the military was assembling secret drone bases in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

And in August, David Axe at Wired examined the full parameters of the drone war being waged in East Africa since 2007.

Thanks to media accounts, indirect official statements, fragmentary crash reports and one complaint by a U.N. monitoring group, we can finally begin to define — however vaguely — the scope and scale of the secret African drone war…

Since 2007, Predator drones and the larger, more powerful Reapers — reinforced by Ravens and Scan Eagle UAVs and Fire Scout robot helicopters plus a small number of huge, high-flying Global Hawks — have hunted Somali jihadists on scores of occasions. It’s part of a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise-missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as Uganda’s.

Bottom line: “this is not a new threat they see,” Turse said about the latest Washington furor over al Qaeda in North Africa. “They’ve been finding threats all over Africa in some way — one could say they’ve been causing threats all over Africa in some way. This is the new method of warfare. A light footprint, air power —especially drones — the idea that you can conduct a clean campaign and there won’t be blowback from it. But I think we are seeing that there are a lot of unintended consequences when you have military conflict everywhere.”

And when you have U.S. soldiers everywhere. In April, The New York Times reported that 100 U.S. Special Operations troops were “advising and assisting” in the search for Joseph Kony, the murderous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, from one of two U.S. posts in the Congo. Kony has yet to be found.

A few months earlier, the Marine Corps Times published an article entitled, “Corps’ Africa mission may be growing.” It talked about the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-12 (SPMAGTF-12), “team building with militaries” in the Trans-Sahel region, which on the map stretches from the west coast at Senegal across the north of the country to the east coast at Eritrea. SPMAGTF-12 is assisted by a ground combat element, air support, and Marines from other active duty and reserve units. “Literally, we have a little bit of everything,” Maj. Dave Wittacker, executive officer for the task force, told Marine Corps Times. “From mortarmen, reconnaissance men, tankers, all the way up to [explosive ordinance disposal technicians] and logisticians …if the Marine Corps has it, we’ve probably got one of them.”

The story also enthused over an 18-member team that just returned from a 75-day training stint in West Africa. They spent their time with local troops who before then had little exposure to America. “Basically, we’re putting a presence in another country,” Master Sgt. Bill Simpson said. “We’re putting a face for the United States of America.”

That “presence” has extended to training in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger, according to Turse’s reporting. This year major joint training exercises were planned in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal and Nigeria. The Marines have also trained members of the Burundi National Defense Force and the African Union, which are both fighting in Somalia to take down al Shabab. In August, the Marines boasted about training Djibouti’s Group d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale, or premier paramilitary response force, getting them familiar with “American weapon systems and American medical skills.”

The military has been quite open and enthusiastic (at least in the military press) about its growing number of training sorties, and its hardening foothold in the continent. What could easily be ascertained as “mission creep,” or worse, neo-colonialism, has been neatly spun as another critical endeavor in the Global War Against Terrorism. As Gen. Ham said in a speech in June, “the absolute imperative for the United States military [is] to protect America, Americas, and American interest, in our case, I my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent.”

Not that our government allies don’t get anything out if it: in return for allowing us to march in (not only to train their troops, but to set up airfields, outposts, airstrips for drones), they get aid, including weapons and technology they would never have access to otherwise. “It’s a symbiotic relationship is so many ways,” noted Turse.

“The U.S. military is pretty unabashed about it,” Turse added. “This is the way alliances are built now. Less and less money is going to old-style diplomacy or having contacts within the State Department.”

The major (and only official) base on the continent for AFRICOM is at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where more than 2,000 US personnel were stationed as of this summer. This is the hub of the U.S. footprint, and the “nodes of the network” according to Turse and the military’s own press releases, include stations in Kenya, Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others.

Outside Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. presence is spread thin along these places, which are mere outposts, not than bases, assured Col. Tom Davis, spokesman for AFRICOM, in response to Turse’s piece. As of the summer, there were about 5,000 U.S. personnel planted across the AFRICOM area of operations (which covers 54 countries), noted Davis. “(That) can hardly be called a “scramble for Africa,” he quipped.

But Turse points out there are tens of millions of dollars in new construction planned for Camp Lemonnier and other places — like airstrips and emergency housing for troops — which indicate the scramble is indeed on, just more subtly than an army marching down Main Street.

The larger question here is whether any of this is actually working. For all of this groundwork being laid to “protect America, Americas, and American interests” why was the consulate in Benghazi so unprepared for what turned out to be the first significant attack on the U.S. abroad since the so-called shadow war in Africa began?

No doubt President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will talk about the consulate attack during tonight’s debate. But what won’t be discussed is whether our militaristic foreign policy in Africa is keeping al Qaeda alive and spreading to new vacuums of security. We know now our intervention in Libya has unleashed a number of unintended consequences, and that our allies don’t always do what we’d like, once we give them guns and professional training. Now we turn to Mali, another thicket fueled in part by the instability in Libya … and then what?

“I don’t think people connect what happened in Libya with what is going on in Mali and why we might now have to go into Mali. I think it is important that people try to connect the dots as much as possible,” said Turse.

“The military conflict (in Libya) has led to a lot of disastrous consequences, and there is no reason to believe there won’t be more and more meddling in Africa, and it won’t lead to much of the same.”

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.