Drones over Djibouti

For most Americans, the 2017 death of four Green Berets in a remote village in western Niger begged a very simple question: What were they doing there? Quite a bit, as it turned out, though the grander “why” remained unclear.

The incident prompted several rounds of hand-wringing and soul-searching, which culminated in a new National Defense Strategy, released by the Department of Defense last year. It was a radical document, ending in one fell swoop the decades-long “war on terror.” Henceforth, geopolitics would be guided by a new paradigm: “inter-state strategic competition.” This February, at a hearing of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee on proposed staff cuts at U.S. Africa Command (or AFRICOM, as it is informally known), the DoD offered the public a first glimpse at this new strategic reality. The irony of the occasion—the return of great-power rivalry at a discussion of U.S. military policy in Africa—could not have been lost on its participants.

Created in 2008 by the Bush administration, AFRICOM is a latecomer to the Pentagon’s system of unified regional commands. It has since made up for lost time. Today it is the second most expensive unified command after CENTCOM (which covers the Middle East and Central Asia) and oversees the largest number of combat operations.

Until now, these missions were carried out by various special operations forces: Rangers, Green Berets, and so on. Deployed on a short-term, tactical basis, special-ops troops exemplify war-on-terror thinking. Public awareness of their activities is necessarily limited, relieving the DoD of the obligation to justify its presence in any given region. The secrecy that led even relatives of the dead soldiers to wonder why they were in the line of fire is now over.

At the hearings in February, the DoD made it clear that “[What] we really need are some predictable general purpose forces that can do things with regular armies on a somewhat episodic but yet predictable [sic] basis,” said AFRICOM commander Thomas Waldhauser.

Currently, AFRICOM, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, borrows most of its conventional forces from U.S. Europe Command (EUCOM). What Waldhauser was signaling was that AFRICOM’s objectives could only be accomplished with a real and abiding U.S. military presence in Africa.

The committee, for its part, sympathized. Chair Jim Inhofe (R-OK) suggested creating a “Security Force Assistance Brigade” or SFAB, dedicated solely to Africa. SFABs, officially classed as “advisory units,” are identical in composition and armament to a standard 800-person Army combat brigade. They are a clever way to disguise boots on the ground. He also favored moving AFRICOM’s headquarters from Germany to Africa. The idea has been floated several times over the past decade, but cooler heads, fearing “perceived colonialism” on the part of the United States, have always prevailed. It was noteworthy, then, that this time, no one in the room seemed worried.

The idea of moving AFRICOM comes at a time when the military is heavily invested in African real estate. At least 34 sites, largely in East and West Africa, 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 United States operates in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But nowhere has the Pentagon invested more in guaranteeing “predictability” than in Djibouti, at Camp Lemonnier. With 4,000 military personnel and private contractors stationed there at any given time, Lemonnier is now the largest U.S. military base on the continent, and among the largest in the world. It has even spawned a subsidiary facility at nearby Chabelley Airfield, with one of the largest military drone operations in the world, deployed recently and infamously to support the horrific Saudi-led invasion of Yemen.

This buildup 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 U.S. allies with large Muslim populations and largely non-Muslim governments, have no interest in a radical Islamic state across their borders. But these are important regional considerations, not supraregional ones. Even the war in Yemen will eventually end. The logic of Lemonnier lies elsewhere.

Lying on one side of the Bab-el-Mandeb, the straits that control entrance to the Red Sea, anywhere from 12% to 20% of world trade passes by Djibouti every year. That includes around five million barrels of oil a day. As it happens, in 2017, the People’s Republic of China built its first overseas military headquarters anywhere in the world near the port of Doraleh northwest of Djibouti City—right beside those straits.

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 People’s Republic of China 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.

“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 on China’s part from soft- to hard-power diplomacy. But, he added, “Djibouti is not the first, and it won’t be the last port.”

Speaking to the Heritage Foundation last December, John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, was crystal clear about Washington’s interest in the region. “[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.” We should be under no illusions as to what this kind of language means coming from someone like Bolton. The race to keep our place in the sun is on, and men like him, men for whom career and conflict are hopelessly blurred, do not intend to end up in the shade.

A longer version of this article is available here.