In his first term, President Obama instructed the Pentagon to pivot its forces and reorient its strategy toward fast-growing Asia. Instead, the U.S. military finds itself drawn into a string of messy wars in another, much poorer part of the world: Africa.
Over the past two years, the Pentagon has become embroiled in conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Mali and central Africa. Meantime, the Air Force is setting up a fourth African drone base, while Navy warships are increasing their missions along the coastlines of East and West Africa.
In scope and expense, the U.S. military involvement in Africa still barely registers when compared with its presence in Asia, let alone the Middle East or Afghanistan. On any given day, there are only about 5,000 U.S. troops scattered across all of Africa, while 28,000 are stationed in South Korea alone.
But it is becoming more common for the Pentagon to deploy troops to parts of Africa that many Americans would be hard-pressed to locate on a map, such as Djibouti, the Central African Republic and now the West African country of Niger, where the U.S. military is planning a base for Predator drones.
Pentagon officials say their expanded involvement in Africa is necessary to combat the spread of al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and Somalia and other guerrillas such as Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. And while U.S. military leaders have sought to downplay their rudimentary network of bases on the continent, there are signs that they are planning for a much more robust presence.
In a written statement provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who is poised to become the next leader of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, estimated that the U.S. military needs to increase its intelligence-gathering and spying missions in Africa by nearly 15-fold.
“I believe additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are necessary to protect American interests and assist our close allies and partners,” he wrote in the statement, which was released Thursday during his confirmation hearing. ”The recent crises in North Africa demonstrate the volatility of the African security environment.”
Rodriguez said the Africa Command needs additional drones, other surveillance aircraft and more satellite imagery adding that it currently receives only half of its “stated need” for North Africa and only 7 percent of its total “requirements” for the entire continent.
When U.S. military officials created the Africa Command in 2007, they insisted they did not have plans to create bases or move troops to the continent. Since then, however, the Pentagon has gradually assembled a network of small staging bases, including drone installations in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, and a forward operating base for special operations forces in Kenya.
The Pentagon has also expanded operations and construction at the only permanent U.S. base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which serves as a hub for counterterrorism missions in Somalia and Yemen.
Now pressure is building to add more bases in North and West Africa.
Lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon for being ill-positioned to respond quickly to the September attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Since then, the Defense Department has approved a small rapid-reaction force for Africa Command, though it remains unclear where the unit will be stationed.
The Pentagon is also drawing up plans to base drones in Niger, a poor West African nation. Niger borders Mali, Libya and Nigeria, all of which are dogged by growing threats from al-Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist militants.
At Rodriguez’s confirmation hearing Thursday, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the committee, pressed the general to answer how the military would respond to “a crisis” in sub-Saharan Africa.
“You’re going to have a hard time getting there,” Inhofe pointed out.
“Because of the time and the distance and the basing challenges that we have, that’s going to continue to be a challenge,” Rodriguez acknowledged.
Unlike the Pentagon’s military commands for other parts of the globe, Africa Command has only a handful of troops regularly assigned to it and must borrow planes and personnel on a temporary basis.
Africa Command’s headquarters has been in Stuttgart, Germany, since it was created in 2007.
The site was supposed to be temporary until a new home could be found in Africa, but the search quickly ran into roadblocks. Instead of rolling out a welcome mat, African countries expressed concern that the Pentagon was seeking to militarize U.S. policy or infringe on their sovereignty.
With Africa Command stuck in Germany, some lawmakers have lobbied to relocate the headquarters — staffed by 1,300 military personnel and civilians — to the United States, saying the move could bring back jobs and reduce costs. The Pentagon has resisted, arguing that Germany is a better site because it is closer to Africa.
A Defense Department study presented to Congress last month found that moving the headquarters to the United States could cut annual expenses from $130 million to as low as $60 million and could indirectly create up to 4,300 jobs — an economic plum for lawmakers looking to boost employment in their districts.
But the study concluded that the economic benefits would be outweighed by the “critical” operational drawbacks of moving farther away from Africa.