Since its launch in 2007, the United States Military Command for Africa, known as Africom, has been controversial. Nevertheless, the US's military footprint on the continent has been growing, a trend that is set to continue.
The sceptic reaction from African leaders and governments to the news of a dedicated US military command for Africa saw the Pentagon quickly shelve plans to have Africom’s headquarters located somewhere on the continent.
It has since been difficult to make the message stick that Africom is "in Africa by invitation. The US does not impose itself on the continent; the US believe in partnership instead of unilateral action; it has shared security objectives with Africa; and is ready and willing to assist African states and regional organisations to strengthen their defence capabilities”, Africom says.
During a visit by South African journalists to Africom’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, their host, outgoing commanding officer Gen. Carter Ham, said in his briefing that a large US military presence in Africa is “not appropriate” and not “particularly helpful” to achieving the “shared security objectives of the United States and its African partners”.
But two developments seem to indicate the opposite.
Marines for Africa
In the latest of a series of developments directed at improving Africom’s capability and fire-power an Africa-focused Marine rapid reaction force of 550 marines was announced.
They will be stationed at Morón, in Spain. It is foreseen that this unit could eventually be repositioned in Africa if such an arrangement could be made. This move is part of a plan, already in the making for some time, to deploy a special-purpose 'marine air ground task force' (MAGTF) to bolster the striking power of Africom.
While the new Spain-based MAGTF will also contribute to Africom’s training responsibilities with African armies, its primary purpose is to serve as a reaction force to be deployed in times of crisis.
The deployment of marines in Spain is also underpinned by geopolitical realities and the perceived threats to the interests of the US and its allies by radical groups in northwest Africa and the Maghreb (Usually defined as much or most of the region of Northwest Africa, west of Egypt).
The need for a rapid reaction force was underscored in September 2012 when the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, came under attack from extremists leaving four Americans, including the ambassador, dead.
Without its own special commandos, Africom had to wait for reinforcements to be flown in from Sigonella naval base in Sicily to take control of the situation in Benghazi. It was then decided that Africom should have its own rapid reaction force, or a so-called 'commander-in-extremis force' or CIF.
Sensitivity surrounding the stationing of US troops in Africa makes the US military reluctant to discuss the location of Africom’s CIF, except that it will be based at Fort Carson, Colorado, home to the '10th special forces group'. It is believed that CIF members will, however, spend most of their time in forward-deployment in Africa at various locations, ready to respond to any call-up.
The 550 marines in Spain will bolster the 5 000 US forces already deployed in Africa, with 2 700 of them in Djibouti at Camp Lemonnier.
For all practical purposes, Camp Lemonnier is Africom’s Africa headquarters. Since moving into the former French military base in 2003, Africom has developed Camp Lemonnier into a fully operational military base.
Besides keeping track of fundamentalists in Somalia and Yemen and using it as a base to build security and stability in East Africa, Camp Lemonnier is also home to Africom's 'combined joint task force'; 'horn of Africa and most recently, a base for the Obama administration’s weapon of choice, drones, with on average 16 surveillance flights a day.
Drones are set to become a familiar sight in the African skies and are also operating from bases in the Seychelles, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya and lately Niger to improve surveillance and intelligence gathering.
Then, almost unnoticed, on December 25 last year the Pentagon announced a plan to use a specialised US Army brigade to give training to 35 African nations, as part of its intensifying effort to battle extremist groups on the continent.
Africom has scheduled at least 100 military exercises in Africa for this year. 'Dagger brigade', stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, will, under Africom's guardianship, play a prominent role in many of these exercises. 'Dagger brigade' is expected to carry out specialised training courses for targeted countries such as Libya, Sudan, Algeria and Niger, where al Qaeda-linked groups have been active. It will also assist nations like Kenya and Uganda, which have been battling al-Shabab militants in Somalia.
According to Africom, reports claiming that the 4000 'dagger brigade' troops will be deployed to Africa en masse areincorrect. It emphasised that small brigade-teams will travel to African nations to conduct training activities and return to Fort Riley when these are finished.
In one of his first public appearances since being appointed as the new commanding officer of Africom, Gen. Rodriguez, a battle-tested officer fresh from Afghanistan, reiterated that US military involvement and training in Africa will be carried out with "a very small footprint to get the high payoff”. This does not mean, however, that at any given time there will be an almost permanent presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of American troops on active duty in Africa.
These developments nullify any suggestions that Africom might, in the light of recently announced defence cuts, downscale on its African activities. On the contrary, the opposite seems more likely to happen.