In recent months, many Americans have been surprised to learn that the U.S. has an extensive military presence in Africa. An intelligence snafu over fitness tracker data produced by U.S. soldiers using Fitbits and other devices while running laps provided a clear snapshot of their deployments. In November 2017, fitness database Strava produced a Global Heatmap showing popular exercise routes as glowing yellow streaks. The streaks revealed loops around airstrips in remote areas across sub-Saharan Africa that are the undeniable traces of U.S. or European troops staying in shape.
While domestic politics continue to dominate American media coverage, the progress of the United States’ two-decade war on terror goes largely unreported. These days, it takes a truly terrible event to capture the public’s attention. The ambush and killing of four U.S. soldiers on a raid in Niger in October of 2017 was such a moment. But because of our collective ignorance of U.S. military activities worldwide, journalists’ questions remained basic: “Where does the U.S. have troops in Africa, and why?”
This is a more complicated problem than it seems at first. Africa was of relatively little concern to the U.S. military during the Cold War, compared to the struggle with the Soviet Union in Eurasia. Its strategic priority increased in the 1990s with the military intervention in Somalia, and counterterrorism operations in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, U.S. military and security agencies have claimed an unlimited mandate to pursue what they deem terrorist threats. After 2001, the Bush administration opened a major military base in Djibouti, at the strategic crossroads of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Although 4,000 troops are stationed there today, the real extent of the American footprint is not in permanent, built infrastructure. Rather, it is in the bilateral Status of Forces Agreements that America has negotiated with many African states, permitting thousands more American troops to arrive to and depart from their airports and national military installations with flexibility.
The leaked Fitbit data reveals isolated U.S. military bases scattered throughout several African nations. David Vine breaks down this “lily pad” deployment strategy. It not only permits the maximum projection of military power with the least commitment, it also allows military commanders to publicly depict all such deployments as “temporary” and to conceal their existence from the public. Taken in the aggregate, the “temporary” lily pads in Mozambique, Tanazania, Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, CAR, Chad, Niger, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Egypt, and Morocco, among other locations U.S. troops have occupied, signify an enduring and imperial-scale military presence. This expanding network was a key reason the military reorganized its world-spanning unified combatant command system in 2008 to place responsibility for the continent of Africa under a single United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM.
As the twenty-first century stretches onward, the U.S. occupation of Africa has become self-justifying. The U.S. military now must stay in Africa to protect the interests of the U.S. military in Africa. Moreover, growing military power displaces and absorbs other U.S. interests in Africa, such as diplomacy, academic research, trade, and investment, which have been important factors in achieving social and state security.
Crowding out Competitors
The concept behind AFRICOM was not just to unify military commands from the European, Pacific, and Central areas, but also to become the lead coordinator of diplomatic and other state functions in Africa, what the military calls a “whole-of-government” approach. AFRICOM has attached senior officials from the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Energy, Commerce, and Justice, among other agencies. A State official told security studies scholar David Wiley that there were seven military employees per civilian employee working on U.S. policy for Africa, and military attachés outnumber diplomats at many embassies across Africa. In addition to running drone surveillance programs, cross-border raids, intelligence, and interrogation, AFRICOM has claimed responsibility for development, public health, professional and security training, and other humanitarian tasks.
There is a considerable intellectual ecosystem of foreign policy interest groups and think tanks promoting AFRICOM hegemony in U.S. policy. Take, for example, the think tank Chatham House’s “America’s Africa Command: Soft Power Warriors.” The article casts AFRICOM’s development as a logical conclusion of political trends as “members of Congress have more to gain politically by funding soldiers… instead of aid workers.” At the same time, it claims “the capabilities of U.S. civilian agencies such as the State Department and USAID remain feeble compared to the military.” The implication is that these independent civilian services are intentionally being weakened so they may serve as PR screens for military activity.
International service scholar A. Carl LeVan demonstrates that the command has sparked resistance in many African states. AFRICOM has maintained its headquarters in Stuttgart in part because no African state has been willing to host it. The South African Minister of Defense and Nigerian House of Representatives both made statements of concern about growing military entanglement. While LeVan found that generally the political class of African countries with higher dependence on U.S. aid were more receptive to AFRICOM operations, there was no such correspondence in public opinion. Indeed, Cameroon and Liberia welcomed U.S. military leaders in 2008, but faced embarrassing public protests and media coverage. LeVan identifies the danger that leaders in such countries will use increased military aid and training from AFRICOM not to fight U.S. enemy terrorists, but rather to repress domestic political opponents. Indeed, the presence of U.S. troops tends to blur the lines between these two categories.
Wiley argues this shift to military dominance has also led to a struggle over the academic study of Africa itself. Social science “area studies” were founded with military and diplomatic federal funding in the Cold War to help the government remedy its ignorance of the wider world. But after the late 1960s, with growing movements against the Vietnam War and, increasingly, apartheid in South Africa, Africa scholars at “Title VI” federally-funded area studies centers at major universities rejected all military and intelligence funding. Among many ethical concerns, sociologists and anthropologists struggled to overcome the view many Africans that any scholar or civilian aid worker was al