The numbers tell the story: 10 exercises, 55 operations, 481 security cooperation activities.
For years, the U.S. military has publicly insisted that its efforts in Africa are small scale. Its public affairs personnel and commanders have repeatedly claimed no more than a "light footprint" on that continent, including a remarkably modest presence when it comes to military personnel. They have, however, balked at specifying just what that light footprint actually consists of. During an interview, for instance, a U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokesman once expressed worry that tabulating the command's deployments would offer a "skewed image" of U.S. efforts there.
It turns out that the numbers do just the opposite.
Last year, according AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez, the U.S. military carried out a total of 546 "activities" on the continent -- a catch-all term for everything the military does in Africa. In other words, it averages about one and a half missions a day. This represents a 217% increase in operations, programs, and exercises since the command was established in 2008.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Rodriguez noted that the 10 exercises, 55 operations, and 481 security cooperation activities made AFRICOM "an extremely active geographic command." But exactly what the command is "active" in doing is often far from clear.
AFRICOM releases information about only a fraction of its activities. It offers no breakdown on the nature of its operations. And it allows only a handful of cherry-picked reporters the chance to observe a few select missions. The command refuses even to offer a count of the countries in which it is "active," preferring to keep most information about what it's doing -- and when and where -- secret.
While Rodriguez's testimony offers but a glimpse of the scale of AFRICOM's activities, a cache of previously undisclosed military briefing documents obtained by TomDispatch sheds additional light on the types of missions being carried out and their locations all across the continent. These briefings prepared for top commanders and civilian officials in 2013 demonstrate a substantial increase in deployments in recent years and reveal U.S. military operations to be more extensive than previously reported. They also indicate that the pace of operations in Africa will remain robust in 2014, with U.S. forces expected again to average far more than a mission each day on the continent.
The Constant Gardener
U.S. troops carry out a wide range of operations in Africa, including airstrikes targeting suspected militants, night raids aimed at kidnapping terror suspects, airlifts of French and African troops onto the battlefields of proxy wars, and evacuation operations in destabilized countries. Above all, however, the U.S. military conducts training missions, mentors allies, and funds, equips, and advises its local surrogates.
U.S. Africa Command describes its activities as advancing "U.S. national security interests through focused, sustained engagement with partners" and insists that its "operations, exercises, and security cooperation assistance programs support U.S. Government foreign policy and do so primarily through military-to-military activities and assistance programs."