The U.S. military has long insisted that it maintains a “light footprint” in Africa, and there have been reports of proposed drawdowns in special operations forces and closures of outposts on the continent, due to a 2017 ambush in Niger and an increasing focus on rivals like China and Russia. But through it all, U.S. Africa Command has fallen short of providing concrete information about its bases on the continent, leaving in question the true scope of the American presence there.
Documents obtained from AFRICOM by The Intercept, via the Freedom of Information Act, however, offer a unique window onto the sprawling network of U.S. military outposts in Africa, including previously undisclosed or unconfirmed sites in hotspots like Libya, Niger, and Somalia. The Pentagon has also told The Intercept that troop reductions in Africa will be modest and phased-in over several years and that no outposts are expected to close as a result of the personnel cuts.
According to a 2018 briefing by AFRICOM science adviser Peter E. Teil, the military’s constellation of bases includes 34 sites scattered across the continent, with high concentrations in the north and west as well as the Horn of Africa. These regions, not surprisingly, have also seen numerous U.S. drone attacks and low-profile commando raids in recent years. For example, Libya — the site of drone and commando missions but for which President Trump said he saw no U.S. military role just last year — is nonetheless home to three previously undisclosed outposts.
“U.S. Africa Command’s posture plan is designed to secure strategic access to key locations on a continent characterized by vast distances and limited infrastructure,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, though he didn’t provide specifics on the number of bases. “Our posture network allows forward staging of forces to provide operational flexibility and timely response to crises involving U. S. personnel or interests without creating the optic that U. S. Africa Command is militarizing Africa.”
According to Adam Moore, an assistant professor of geography at the University of California in Los Angeles and an expert on the U.S. military’s presence in Africa, “It is getting harder for the U.S. military to plausibly claim that it has a ‘light footprint’ in Africa. In just the past five years, it has established what is perhaps the largest drone complex in the world in Djibouti — Chabelley — which is involved in wars on two continents, Yemen and Somalia.” Moore also noted that the U.S. is building an even larger drone base in Agadez, Niger. “Certainly, for people living in Somalia, Niger and Djibouti, the notion that the U.S. is not militarizing their countries rings false,” he added.
For the last 10 years, AFRICOM has not only sought to define its presence as limited in scope, but its military outposts as small, temporary, and little more than local bases where Americans are tenants. For instance, this is how Gen. Waldhauser described a low-profile drone outpost in Tunisia last year: “And it’s not our base, it’s the Tunisians’ base.” On a visit to a U.S. facility in Senegal this summer, the AFRICOM chief took pains to emphasize that the U.S. had no intension of establishing a permanent base there. Still, there’s no denying the scope of AFRICOM’s network of outposts, nor the growth in infrastructure. Air Forces Africa alone, the command’s air component, has recently completed or is currently working on nearly 30 construction projects across four countries in Africa. “The U.S. footprint on the African continent has grown markedly over the last decade to promote U.S. security interests on the continent,” Navy Commander Candice Tresch, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept.
While China, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have increased their own military engagement in Africa in recent years and a number of countries now possess outposts on the continent, none approach the wide-ranging U.S. footprint. China, for example, has just one base in Africa – a facility in Djibouti.
According to the documents obtained by The Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act, AFRICOM’s network of bases includes larger “enduring” outposts, consisting of forward operating sites (FOSes) and cooperative security locations (CSLs), as well as more numerous austere sites known as contingency locations (CLs). All of these are located on the African continent except for an FOS on Britain’s Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Teil’s map of Africa Command’s “Strategic Posture” names the specific locations of all 14 FOSes and CSLs and provides country-specific locales for the 20 contingency locations. The Pentagon would not say whether the tally was exhaustive, however, citing concerns about publicly providing the number of forces deployed to specific facilities or individual countries. “For reasons of operational security, complete and specific force lay-downs are not releasable,” said Commander Tresch.