By Peter Feuilherade
America's new and still-evolving defence strategy is strongly focused on Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, as well as heralding a new phase of restraint in military spending. Over the next 10 years the Pentagon faces budget cuts of 487 billion dollars.
On his first visit to Japan as Pentagon chief in October 2011, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said America would remain a global economic and military power despite the cuts, and the Asia-Pacific region would be central to US national security strategy. Washington's shift in focus towards Asia is in response to China's growing military power.
But the expanding US military presence in Africa suggests that Washington is also increasingly concerned about the expansion of transnational terrorism into sub-Saharan Africa.
This article was first published in Defence Management Journal – Summer 2012 issue
US forces or advisers are active in the Horn of Africa, East and Central Africa, while in at least 10 countries in the Maghreb, the Sahel and West Africa US personnel are providing counterterrorism training and building up national armies.
Countering extremists is the top military priority for the continent, says General Carter Ham, commander of the US Africa Command (Africom), which oversees US military operations across the continent but is based in Stuttgart, Germany.
Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the biggest US base in Africa, hosts the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, set up a decade ago to counter Al-Qaeda's growth in East Africa. "By 2003, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command were also establishing an operational presence in the Horn. Their mission was focused on killing or capturing senior members of Al-Qaeda in East Africa," recalls Sean D. Naylor, senior staff writer of the US website Army Times.
2008 saw the operational launch of Africom, responsible for US military relations with 54 African countries. With President George W. Bush facing almost unanimous opposition from African leaders to hosting it on the continent, its HQ was located in Germany instead. Africom's mission, its website notes, is to "protect and defend the national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states and regional organizations and, when directed, conduct military operations, in order to deter and defeat transnational threats and to provide a security environment conducive to good governance and development." Africom typically has fewer than 5,000 troops in Africa at any time.
The US media spotlight turned briefly to Africa in 2011 when the US sent 100 military advisers, mostly Army Special Forces, to help soldiers from four Central African countries - Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic - fight the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and capture its leader Joseph Kony. But for several years, the US Air Force has been flying drones over north-east Africa and Yemen from bases in Djibouti and more recently southern Ethiopia and the Seychelles.
In combating the Somalia-based Islamic insurgent group Al-Shabaab, only a handful of US troops are involved directly, usually special forces who enter the country on clandestine missions to kill militant targets. However, America has funded 9,000 African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi, and provided background support to invading Kenyan and Ethiopian troops, all involved in military operations against Al-Shabaab.
In March 2012, the Africom chief told the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee that Al-Qaeda affiliates in east and north-west Africa posed the greatest security threat to the US. Noting that Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab (which has recruited and trained dozens of American citizens) had publicly formalized their long-standing merger, he described the stated intention of the leaders of these extremist groups to work more closely together as "his greatest concern".
On the other side of the continent, the US is conducting counterterrorism training and equipping armies in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. US involvement could escalate if events confirm reports that some members of Al-Qaeda's core leadership have moved to North Africa from Pakistan after suffering heavy losses in US drone attacks there.
US officials say there are "clear indications" that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is involved in trafficking arms from Libya, and that the upheavals in Libya and Tunisia have created opportunities for AQIM to establish new "safe havens". The US, along with several European countries, is concerned that AQIM and Boko Haram, the militant group from northern Nigeria formed in the 1990s, together with Al-Shabaab, are "attempting to share training and to collaborate in other ways in pursuit of their goal of attacking the US and other foreign targets", according to a September 2011 speech by General Ham. Some analysts dismiss such an alliance as unlikely, given the cultural and ethnic differences that separate the three groups.
Both AQIM and separatist Tuareg insurgents in northern Mali opposed to the Malian government received sophisticated weapons from Libya in 2011, allowing Tuareg rebels to resume armed operations inside Mali in January 2012.
In March, a group of Malian junior officers angered by the lack of government support to help the army fight the rebels seized control in a coup, before agreeing to the return of civilian rule in mid-April. At the time of writing, rebel groups remained in control of northern Mali, their ranks reportedly swelled by foreign Islamist militants. The whole country was also mired in a regional humanitarian crisis, with over 1.4 million Malians in need of emergency food assistance, according to EU estimates.
The New York Times recently described Mali as "an impoverished desert nation, an important American ally against the regional Al-Qaeda franchise". Mounting insecurity there, and fears that destabilization could spread to Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel region, suggest that the American military mission in Mali is likely to have its work cut out combating regional terrorism.
The US will share similar concerns to France, which has warned that the seizure of northern Mali by Tuareg separatists, in a loose alliance with Islamic militants, could turn the region into an AQIM stronghold.
US military operations in Africa face a range of difficulties, including a lack of bases and international agreements on flight paths, limited communications and the reluctance of many African countries to have any significant US force within their borders. One option for3the US is increasing the use of sea-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
As the Pentagon cuts back on traditional military operations in the post-Iraq and Afghan war era and after defence budget cuts kick in, it will rely increasingly on smaller elite units to carry out targeted operations. US special operations forces (SOF) will expand to maintain a continuous presence around the globe. SOF will "begin to return to its roots as expert trainers of counter-terrorism forces in other countries", with a large portion of the worldwide SOF presence focusing on Africa and the Pacific, according to Pentagon officials.
However, public opinion and legislators in the US are concerned about the costs of military forays into Africa at a time of budget cuts, while the deployment of advisers has prompted comparisons with the escalation of US involvement in South Vietnam in the 1960s.
In Africa, the growing US presence is regarded with some suspicion too. "After the Libyan case of 2011 (the imposition of the no-fly zone) some African leaders, intellectuals and policy makers are advocating for change in the way international organizations or individual states intervene in African political crises. Some issues that make Africans suspicious about US involvement include the increased deployments of special forces, trainers and military contractors by the Pentagon, and the political objectives behind some of the interventions," Dr Petrus De Kock, Senior Researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told Defence Management Journal.
America's critics, meanwhile, see Africa becoming a battleground where the US and its European allies are jostling for access to the continent's strategic oil and mineral resources with China, which has been striking commercial deals with governments across Africa for decades.
The last few years have seen significant new oil and natural gas discoveries reported across East Africa, from the Horn of Africa in the northeast, down to Tanzania and Mozambique in the south, and inland in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo around Lake Albert.
As Africom chief General Ham said in March 2012: "With six of the world's fastest growing economies in the past decade, combined with democratic gains made in a number of African nations in 2011, Africa's strategic importance to the United States will continue to grow."
For all parties involved, the stakes are high and rising.