Drones over Djibouti

With 34 military bases, the U.S. is scrambling for influence in Africa

A shorter version of this article appears in the print version of Democratic Left. -Eds.

On August 7, 1998, simultaneous explosions at the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam claimed the lives of 212 Kenyan and Tanzanian citizens; 12 Americans, mostly embassy staff, were killed, too. The bombs were hidden in cars driven by members of a small group of Muslim extremists called al-Qaeda. Already ten years old, it was led by three men: an engineer and ex-police officer named Mohammed Atef; a physician, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, a Saudi multimillionaire. Though they had met in Afghanistan in the CIA-backed mujahideen during the Soviet invasion, the men had since come to view the United States, bulwark of the House of Saud and staunch ally of Israel, as an existential threat to the Islamic revival they hoped to inspire.

Today, of course, we know the three as the architects of the September 11th hijackings in New York and Washington, D.C. In the twenty years since, the United States has invaded three countries outright (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya), one more discreetly (Syria), and carried out low-profile tactical military operations — often without pretext — in countless others. These wars have spawned a vast network of bases, 4,800 by some counts, at a cost of anywhere from $85 to $100 billion a year. And the very idea of a war against ‘terror,’ against an enemy neither definite nor definable, has inured the American public to war not as a discretely bounded event but instead as a continuous and continual state of being — one that has become indistinguishable from normalcy itself.

In 1998, most Americans knew nothing about al-Qaeda, Nairobi, or Dar-es-Salaam. As for the idea that war on civilizational scale was imminent? Far-out fantasy amidst the cheap credit and cheaper moral panics of the Clinton years. Then the towers came down, and the Pentagon burned, and suddenly, the legions of fanatics “sent to hide in countries around the world to plot evil and destruction” were no longer treated like so much filmic hyperbole. America’s defense establishment seemed to leap into action, invading Afghanistan before the year was done. But that was because its preparations had begun much earlier — three years, one month, and four days earlier — set in motion by events thousands of miles away from Arlington and Fulton Street, in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. As Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House in 1998, put it in a speech to Congress while dust still hung over both embassies’ remains, “[this] is a dangerous world as we enter the 21st century.”

The bombings were a revelation for U.S. defense planners; it was clear that they had no grasp of the strategic realities of the post-Cold War world. Regions that had been of secondary or even tertiary importance in their eyes were now incubating effective resistance to American power projection. The African continent had been an almost deliberate blind spot; it never even merited a unified command, one of the coordinating bodies established after the Second World War to harmonize regional operations between all five branches of the military. These were meant to prevent balkanization, joining defense and intelligence assets together with traditional instruments of foreign policymaking. Africa, alone among continents, was passed around in chunks between commands, and sometimes not at all. By the beginning of the ‘70s, most African countries were excluded from the unified command system completely. In 1983, the Department of Defense, realizing its oversight, finally assigned the lion’s share, including Tanzania, to U.S. European Command (EUCOM). Egypt, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and Kenya,  however, went to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which handled the Middle East.

These jurisdictional divisions had a predictable effect on coordination between U.S. agencies. Embassy officials in Nairobi were warned about a bomb threat several months in advance, by an informant who claimed to have had a hand in planning the attack. But the CIA station in Kenya deemed the source unreliable, and no permanent security measures were taken. That same informant then arrived in Tanzania and, according to local authorities, took part in the planning and execution of the bombing in Dar. His confession was never reported to embassy staff there.

The sting of the humiliation spurred defense planners to radically rethink their plans. So U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, was born. A decade in the making, after several more in absentia, it has more than made up for lost time. Today it is the second most expensive unified command after CENTCOM and the most active militarily by number of combat operations, with at least 30 publicly acknowledged since 2015. And as of last year, on the back of the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy sidelining the war on terror in favor of “inter-state strategic competition,” it finds itself at the center of force projection for a new era of American power.

Under Bush and then Obama, AFRICOM exemplified war-on-terror thinking, borrowing combat personnel from special operations forces like the Rangers and Green Berets. Few in number — a thousand at any one time — they were deployed on a brief, tactical basis, and always with low visibility. This last point has been especially important: the public has been deliberately kept in the dark about their activities. The foreign policy establishment is wary of being seen as colonialist — or was, until last year, when all that seemed to change.

As Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM’s commanding general since 2016, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, “[What] we really need are some predictable general purpose forces that can do things with regular armies on a somewhat episodic but yet predictable basis.” The measure of ‘predictability’ here is the basis of deployment: in this case, the most ‘predictable’ forces are those which are there for the long haul. His remarks came on the back of a Pentagon proposal to cut staff at all unified commands, AFRICOM included. Waldhauser agreed to the downsizing, with a large part of the cuts coming from combat personnel. But that was only because there was a bargain implicit in his assent: in exchange for giving up these special operators, AFRICOM wanted an open and abiding U.S. military presence on the continent.

The committee, for its part, sympathized. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who took over from John McCain as Chairman of Armed Services after the Arizona senator was diagnosed with brain cancer last year, suggested creating a “Security Force Assistance Brigade” or SFAB, dedicated solely to Africa. SFABs are a clever solution to the PR problems which are attendant on having boots on the ground. Officially classed as “advisory units,” they are in fact identical in composition and armament to a standard 800-person Army combat brigade.

Another issue that came up at the hearing was AFRICOM’s headquarters — currently in Europe, they are a logistical challenge to the command’s independence. Would they be moved onto the African continent, the committee asked? Inhofe, though aware of the rhetorical dangers “perceived colonialism” might have on the U.S.’s reputation, was in favor of the idea. Waldhauser was more circumspect; he mentioned the possible logistical and technical challenges of moving out of Stuttgart, but was silent on its strategic implications. Still, he was open to debate.

The Bush administration had wanted AFRICOM to be headquartered in Africa, but backlash from African governments, and a lack of suitable facilities, forced the plan to be shelved. The world has moved on quite a bit in the decade since. As the Intercept and other outlets have reported over the past two years, the military is now spoiled for African real estate: at least 34 sites across the continent are under its direct supervision. One, at Agadez in Niger, is reported to have cost over $100 million, a price tag comparable to some of the fortified megabases the U.S. operates in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But nowhere has the Pentagon invested more in guaranteeing “predictability” than in the Horn of Africa. Even as the new National Defense Strategy admitted that terrorist groups “might not necessarily be a risk to the homeland,” Vice reported last year that the military was adding 800 beds to its Baledogle base in Somalia, as well as building six new facilities inside the country. These are meant to accommodate the estimated 500 U.S. special operations troops who are now on active deployment in Somalia, a dramatic increase from the meager 50 that AFRICOM acknowledged just two years ago. 

But it is at Camp Lemonnier, a few minutes drive from Djibouti City, that the scale of America’s military investment in Africa is most viscerally and visibly felt. Lemonnier is for all intents and purposes detached from the country surrounding it: U.S. personnel are forbidden to leave the base without special permission. 88 acres when it was first leased by Bush’s administration in 2001, today it has swelled to over 600, hosting both the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa and Special Operations Command (Forward) – East Africa. With 4,000 military personnel and private contractors, it is the largest U.S. military base in Africa and among the largest in the world. It has also spawned a second base at nearby Chabelley Airfield, with one of the world’s biggest drone operations — deployed, most recently and most infamously, in support of the horrific Saudi-led invasion of Yemen.

All of this manpower and material is said to be part of an aggressive war against al-Shabaab, a radical religious militia whose aim is to reconstitute Somalia as an Islamic state. One wonders if Somalian instability really demands such expensive attention. Piracy is a persistent problem, and both Kenya and Ethiopia, staunch American allies with large Muslim populations and non-Muslim governments, have no interest in having a radical Islamic state across their borders. But these are important regional considerations, not supraregional ones. It’s been twenty years since Nairobi and Dar; even the war in Yemen will eventually end. The logic of Lemonnier lies elsewhere.

Djibouti happens to lie on one side of the Bab el-Mandeb, the straits that control entrance to the Red Sea. Anywhere from 12 to 20 percent of world trade passes by it every year, including 5 million barrels of oil a day. With less than a million inhabitants, the straits have nevertheless allowed Djibouti to take on an outsized role in regional diplomacy. The French, Italians, and the Japanese have their own bases in or near the capital — and, as of 2017, the People’s Republic of China does, too. It opened its first overseas military facility in the world near the port of Doraleh northwest of Djibouti City — and right on the Bab el-Mandeb, too.

The Chinese state has invested heavily in soft-power projection over the past two decades, and nowhere more so than in Africa. Twelve percent of the continent’s industrial production now flows through Chinese businesses, and the PRC has signed more than $500 billion in new construction and procurement contracts with African governments since 2013. It has spent generously on its Doraleh facility, too: $590 million by some estimates, and is negotiating for exclusive use of the port after Djibouti’s government seized control of it from Dubai-based DP World.

The National Defense Strategy calls out China specifically for being a “strategic competitor” whose “military modernization” and “predatory economics” are intended “to achieve global preeminence” at the expense of the United States. In prepared statements, however, the Pentagon has been more cautious about linking its African expansion to a policy of Chinese containment. “At this point in time, it’s too early to make that leap,” Waldhauser told the Armed Services Committee when asked if Doraleh signaled a shift from soft- to hard-power diplomacy on China’s part. But, he added, “Djibouti is not the first, and it won’t be the last port.” 

That national defense planners have responded to Chinese trade diplomacy with further militarization should surprise no one. It is a logical consequence of two decades of militarizing American foreign policy. In Africa, there are now seven Department of Defense employees for every one U.S. government civilian; the majority of U.S. officials interfacing with African governments are attached to the National Security Administration. In practice, this means that the military has taken over roles it is not supposed to play, and it is unlikely to relinquish them any time soon.

Speaking to the Heritage Foundation last December, John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, was candid in this regard. After announcing a new round of aid and investment, “Prosper Africa,” promising soft-power projection through increased ‘transparency’ and ‘cooperation,’ Bolton got down to brass tacks. “[T]his is a very important point for the U.S. and the West as a whole to wake up [to],” he said; if Djibouti leased the port to the PRC, “the balance of power in the Horn of Africa, a major artery of maritime trade between Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia would shift in favor of China.” Echoes here of Gingrich’s ‘dangerous world.’ We should be under no illusions as to what this kind of talk means, and neither from a man with Bolton’s career. The race to win America’s place in the sun is on, and men like him and Gingrich, men for whom career and conflict are hopelessly blurred, do not intend to be left in the shade.