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Behind Closed Doors, the Pentagon Is Talking About America's 'War' in Africa

The U.S. is making a terrible mess. Is anyone paying attention?

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The Master Plan

After my brush off by General Bostick, I interviewed an Army Corps of Engineers Africa expert, Chris Gatz, about construction projects for Special Operations Command Africa in 2013.  “I’ll be totally frank with you,” he said, “as far as the scopes of these projects go, I don’t have good insights.” 

What about two projects in Senegal I had stumbled across?  Well, yes, he did, in fact, have information about a firing range and a “shoot house” that happened to be under construction there.  When pressed, he also knew about plans I had noted in previously classified documents obtained by TomDispatch for the Corps to build a multipurpose facility in Cameroon.  And on we went.  “You’ve got better information than I do,” he said at one point, but it seemed like he had plenty of information, too.  He just wasn’t volunteering much of it to me.

Later, I asked if there were 2013 projects that had been funded with counter-narco-terrorism (CNT) money.  “No, actually there was not,” he told me.  So I specifically asked about Niger. 

Last year, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed to TomDispatch that the U.S. was conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, drone operations from Base Aérienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger.  In the months since, air operations there have only increased.  In addition, documents recently obtained by TomDispatch indicated that the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on two counter-narco-terrorism projects in Arlit and Tahoua, Niger.  So I told Gatz what I had uncovered.  Only then did he locate the right paperwork.  “Oh, okay, I’m sorry,” he replied.  “You’re right, we have two of them... Both were actually awarded to construction.”

Those two CNT construction projects have been undertaken on behalf of Niger’s security forces, but in his talk to construction industry representatives, AFRICOM’s Rick Cook spoke about another project there: a possible U.S. facility still to be built.  “Lately, one of our biggest focus areas is in the country of Niger.  We have gotten indications from the country of Niger that they are willing to be a partner of ours,” he said.  The country, he added, “is in a nice strategic location that allows us to get to many other places reasonably quickly, so we are working very hard with the Nigeriens to come up with, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a base, but a place we can operate out of on a frequent basis.” 

Cook offered no information on the possible location of that facility, but recent contracting documents examined by TomDispatch indicate that the U.S. Air Force is seeking to purchase large quantities of jet fuel to be delivered to Niger's Mano Dayak International Airport. 

Multiple requests for further information sent to AFRICOM’s media chief Benjamin Benson went unanswered, as had prior queries about activities at Base Aérienne 101.  But Colonel Aaron Benson, Chief of the Readiness Division at Air Forces Africa, did offer further details about the Nigerien mini-base.  “There is the potential to construct MILCON aircraft parking aprons at the proposed future site in Niger,” he wrote, mentioning a specific type of military construction funding dedicated to use for “enduring” bases rather than transitory facilities.  In response to further questions, Cook referred to the possible site as a “base-like facility” that would be “semi-permanent” and “capable of air operations.”

Pay to Play

It turns out that, if you want to know what the U.S. military is doing in Africa, it’s advantageous to be connected to a large engineering or construction firm looking for business.  Then you’re privy to quite a different type of insider assessment of the future of the U.S. presence there, one far more detailed than the modest official pronouncements that U.S. Africa Command offers to journalists.  Asked at a recent Pentagon press briefing if there were plans for a West African analog to Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, the only "official" U.S. base on the continent, AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez was typically guarded.  Such a “forward-operating site” was just “one of the options” the command was mulling over, he said, before launching into the sort of fuzzy language typical of official answers.  “What we're really looking at doing is putting contingency locating sites, which really have some just expeditionary infrastructure that can be expanded with tents,” was the way he put it.  He never once mentioned Niger, or airfield improvements, or the possibility of a semi-permanent "presence.”

 
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