What is Operation New Normal?
It's a question without an answer, a riddle the U.S. military refuses to solve. It's a secret operation in Africa that no one knows anything about. Except that someone does. His name is Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee Magee. He lives and breathes Operation New Normal. But he doesn't want to breath paint fumes or talk to me, so you can't know anything about it.
Confused? Stay with me.
Whatever Operation New Normal may be pales in comparison to the real "new normal" for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). The lower-cased variant is bold and muscular. It's an expeditionary force on a war footing. To the men involved, it's a story of growth and expansion, new battlefields, "combat," and "war." It's the culmination of years of construction, ingratiation, and interventions, the fruits of wide-eyed expansion and dismal policy failures, the backing of proxies to fight America's battles, while increasing U.S. personnel and firepower in and around the continent. It is, to quote an officer with AFRICOM, the blossoming of a "war-fighting combatant command." And unlike Operation New Normal, it's finally heading for a media outlet near you.
Ever Less New, Ever More Normal
Since 9/11, the U.S. military has been ramping up missions on the African continent, funneling money into projects to woo allies, supporting and training proxy forces, conducting humanitarian outreach, carrying out air strikes and commando raids, creating a sophisticated logistics network throughout the region, and building a string of camps, "cooperative security locations," and bases-by-other-names.
All the while, AFRICOM downplayed the expansion and much of the media, with a few notable exceptions, played along. With the end of the Iraq War and the drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan, Washington has, however, visibly "pivoted" to Africa and, in recent weeks, many news organizations, especially those devoted to the military, have begun waking up to the new normal there.
While daily U.S. troop strength continent-wide hovers in the relatively modest range of 5,000 to 8,000 personnel, an under-the-radar expansion has been constant, with the U.S. military now conducting operations alongside almost every African military in almost every African country and averaging more than a mission a day.
This increased engagement has come at a continuing cost. When the U.S. and other allies intervened in 2011 to aid in the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, it helped set off a chain reaction that led to a security vacuum destabilizing that country as well as neighboring Mali. The latter saw its elected government overthrown by a U.S.-trained officer. The former never recovered and has tottered toward failed-state status ever since. Local militias have been carving out fiefdoms, while killing untold numbers of Libyans -- as well, of course, as U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in a September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the "cradle" of the Libyan revolution, whose forces the U.S. had aided with training, materiel, and military might.
Quickly politicized by Congressional Republicans and conservative news outlets, "Benghazi" has become a shorthand for many things, including Obama administration cover-ups and misconduct, as well as White House lies and malfeasance. Missing, however, has been thoughtful analysis of the implications of American power-projection in Africa or the possibility that blowback might result from it.
Far from being chastened by the Benghazi deaths or chalking them up to a failure to imagine the consequences of armed interventions in situations whose local politics they barely grasp, the Pentagon and the Obama administration have used Benghazi as a growth opportunity, a means to take military efforts on the continent to the next level. "Benghazi" has provided AFRICOM with a beefed-up mandate and new clout. It birthed the new normal in Africa.
The Spoils of Blowback
Those 2012 killings "changed AFRICOM forever," Major General Raymond Fox, commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, told attendees of a recent Sea-Air-Space conference organized by the Navy League, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marine. The proof lies in the new "crisis response" forces that have popped up in and around Africa, greatly enhancing the regional reach, capabilities, and firepower of the U.S. military.
Following the debacle in Benghazi, for instance, the U.S. established an Africa-focused force known as Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response (SP-MAGTF CR) to give AFRICOM quick-reaction capabilities on the continent. "Temporarily positioned" at Morón Air Base in Spain, this rotating unit of Marines and sailors is officially billed as "a balanced, expeditionary force with built-in command, ground, aviation, and logistics elements and organized, trained, and equipped to accomplish a specific mission."
Similarly, Benghazi provided the justification for the birthing of another rapid reaction unit, the Commander's In-Extremis Force. Long in the planning stages and supported by the head of the Special Operations Command, Admiral William McRaven, the Fort Carson, Colorado-based unit -- part of the 10th Special Forces Group -- was sent to Europe weeks after Benghazi. Elements of this specialized counterterrorism unit are now "constantly forward deployed," AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson told TomDispatch, and stand "ready for the commander to use, if there's a crisis."
The East Africa Response Force (EARF), operating from the lone avowed American base in Africa -- Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti -- is another new quick-reaction unit. When asked about EARF, Benson said, "The growing complexity of the security environment demonstrated the need for us to have a [Department of Defense]-positioned response force that could respond to crises in the African region."
In late December, just days after the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Riley, Kansas, arrived in Djibouti to serve as the newly christened EARF, members of the unit were whisked off to South Sudan. Led by EARF's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lee Magee, the 45-man platoon was dispatched to that restive nation (midwifed into being by the U.S. only a few years earlier) as it slid toward civil war with armed factions moving close to the U.S. embassy in the capital, Juba. The obvious fear: another Benghazi.
Joined by elements of the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response and more shadowy special ops troops, members of EARF helped secure and reinforce the embassy and evacuate Americans. Magee and most of his troops returned to Djibouti in February, although a few were still serving in South Sudan as recently as last month.