Kenyan siege will increase U.S. military footprint in Africa

Published September 25, 2013.

One result of the siege of the Kenyan shopping mall occupied by Islamic militants will be to reinforce Washington’s determination to continue expanding its controversial military presence in Africa. 

The take-over of the up-market Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, by fighters claiming to be from the al-Shabaab militant group in neighbouring Somalia, will add to the belief among security analysts in Washington that Africa is emerging as the main battleground against Islamic terrorism.

Successive United States governments have significantly increased their military and diplomatic focus on Africa over the past decade, in part as a counterweight to China’s growing influence and economic involvement in the continent.

To that has been added more recently the perceived need to counter the growing spread of Islamic extremism in north, west and east Africa.

This focus in Washington saw the creation of the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. This was the time when Somalia, which had had no functioning government since the ouster of the dictator Siad Barre in 1991, was emerging as a refuge for Islamic militants looking for a new haven as American and allied forces attacked their refuges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At the same time, al-Shabaab, a loose organization of young Islamic militant fighters, was beginning to capture large parts of southern Somalia from the largely ineffectual, and under-resourced, United Nations-backed transitional government in Mogadishu.

But AFRICOM was conceived in Washington as a different kind of approach to institution-building, and for countering both the march of extremism and insecurity in Africa.

The theory – now much disparaged – was that in many African countries the military is the only functional institution. If American forces concentrated on training local militaries, they could not only inject logistical skills into African administrations, but also lessen the likelihood of coups by instilling the culture of a professional, non-political military.

Detracters point out that in many cases this approach has only resulted in African countries spending more on their militaries, and there is little evidence of the organizational skills imparted by the American trainers being adopted by the civilian administrations.

In a recent report the British-based global analysis and risk-assessment advisory company, Oxford Analytica, said “military-focussed counter-terrorism and terrorism prevention strategies may yet prove to have exacerbated rather than mitigated radicalisation and other threats, where policing and justice system-based approaches would hold more longer-term promise.”

The evidence on the ground supports this view.

Although AFRICOM’s public descriptions of its efforts still emphasise building schools, constructing bridges and administrative capacity-building in the 49 African countries in which it operates, it has swiftly returned to its cultural background as a fighting force.

The rise of al-Shabaab in Somalia and the country’s role as a haven for al-Qaida terrorists and its associates was the first stimulus for AFRICOM’s shift in approach. That shift is clearly seen in AFRICOM’s now close relationship with the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command.

There are several reliable reports in recent years of suspected foreign and local militants in Somalia being assassinated by missile-armed unmanned drones or other aircraft.

The assumption is these attacks were launched from the hub of AFRICOM’s actions in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, the former French colony, crammed into the Red Sea coast between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somaliland, the former northern region of Somalia that declared independence in 1991.

Camp Lemonnier is called the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, and has about 2,000 military personnel assigned to it. AFRICOM’s official web site says Camp Lemonnier’s mandate is to “enhance partner national capacity, promote regional security and stability, dissuade conflict, and protect U.S. and coalition interests.”

The Djibouti base is, however, only part of AFRICOM, whose network of operations bases and support structure has developed significantly since the onset of the North African regional revolutions called the Arab Spring.

Recent reports say AFRICOM has established relationships with the governments in Niger, Uganda and Burkina Faso. These allow AFRICOM to use airports in those countries to launch unarmed surveillance drones from their airports and to use them for small-scale special forces operations.

In about 26 other African countries, American forces have negotiated landing and refuelling rights.

AFRICOM’s headquarters is in Stuttgart, Germany, which is also the base for the Marine Corps forces assigned to the unit.

Regular U.S. Army units attached to AFRICOM are based in Vicenza, Italy, and the naval wing is also based in Italy, at Naples.

Air operations flow out of MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and the British Royal Air Force’s airfield at Molesworth in England.

AFRICOM took the lead role for the U.S. in the allied air operations in Libya, which led to the rebel overthrow of leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The unit also provided key logistic support earlier this year for French troops who wrested northern Mali in West Africa from al-Qaida-linked Tuareg rebels.

As well as in the Horn of Africa, Islamic militants are now operating in several countries of West Africa’s Sahara Desert region. In northern Nigeria there is something close to a civil war as government forces attempt to contain local Muslim terrorists known as Boko Haram.

Last month there were newspaper reports in Washington that the Pentagon is thinking of eliminating AFRICOM as a cost-cutting measure. The reports said its responsibilities would be absorbed by European and Central Commands.

But while AFRICOM remains controversial in Washington and among critics, and it is held up as evidence of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy in Africa, the events of the last few days in Nairobi have probably guaranteed its survival as an independent operation. 

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe