American Commandos Don’t Care About Africa’s Borders
Across the continent, elite troops pursue U.S. aims
by NICK TURSE
Al Qaeda doesn’t care about borders. Neither does Islamic State or Boko Haram. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc thinks the same way.
“[T]errorists, criminals, and non-state actors aren’t bound by arbitrary borders,” the commander of Special Operations Command Africa — aka SOCAFRICA — told
an interviewer early this fall. “That said, everything we do is not organized around recognizing traditional borders.”
“In fact, our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multi-national, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach.”
obtained a SOCAFRICA planning document that offers a window onto the scope of these “multi-national, collective actions” America’s most elite troops have carried out in Africa. The declassified, but heavily redacted secret report, covering the years 2012 to 2017 and acquired via the Freedom of Information Act , details nearly 20 programs and activities — from training exercises to security cooperation engagements — utilized by SOCAFRICA across the continent.
This wide array of low-profile missions, in addition to named operations and quasi-wars, attests to the growing influence and sprawling nature of U.S. special operations forces — or SOF — in Africa.
How U.S. military engagement will proceed under the Trump administration remains to be seen. The president-elect has said or tweeted little
in recent years — aside from long trading in baseless claims
that the current president was born
Given his choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn
— a former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command
who believes that the United States is in a “world war
” with Islamic militants — there is good reason to believe that SOCAFRICA will continue its border-busting missions across that continent. That, in turn, means that Africa is likely to remain crucial to America’s nameless global war on terror.
Publicly, the command claims
that it conducts its operations to “promote regional stability and prosperity,” while Bolduc emphasizes that its missions are geared toward serving the needs of African allies. The FOIA files make clear, however, that U.S. interests are the command’s principal and primary concern — a policy in keeping with the America First mindset and mandate of incoming commander-in-chief Donald Trump — and that support to “partner nations” is prioritized to suit American, not African, needs and policy goals.
Shades of gray
Bolduc is fond of saying
that his troops — U.S. Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, among others — operate in the “gray zone
,” or what he calls “the spectrum of conflict between war and peace.” “In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution” — that is, not pulling triggers and dropping bombs — is another of his favored stock phrases
also regularly takes pains
that “we are not at war in Africa — but our African partners certainly are.” That is not entirely true.
Earlier this month, in fact, a White House report made it clear
, for instance, that “the United States is currently using military force” in Somalia. At about the same moment, The New York Times revealed
an imminent Obama administration plan to deem Al Shabab “to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials,” strengthening President-elect Donald Trump’s authority to carry out missions there in 2017 and beyond.
As part of its long-fought shadow war against Al Shabab militants, the U.S. has carried out commando raids
and drone assassinations
there — with the latter markedly increasing
in 2015–2016. On Dec. 5, 2016, Pres. Obama issued
his latest biannual “war powers” letter to Congress which noted that the military had not only “conducted strikes in defense of U.S. forces” there, but also in defense of local allied troops.
U.S. personnel “occasionally accompany regional forces, including Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia … forces, during counterterrorism operations,” the president also acknowledged.
Obama’s war powers letter also mentioned
American deployments in Cameroon, Djibouti and Niger, efforts aimed at countering Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, a long-running mission by military observers in Egypt and a continuing deployment of forces supporting “the security of U.S. citizens and property” in rapidly deteriorating South Sudan.
The president offered only two sentences on U.S. military activities in Libya, although a full-scale American air war, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, against Islamic State militants, especially those in the city of Sirte, had joined long-running
special ops and drone campaign
there. Since Aug. 1, 2016, in fact, the United States has carried out nearly 500 air strikes in Libya, according to figures supplied
by U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM.
Odyssey Lightning is, in fact, no outlier. While some redacted the “primary named operations” involving America’s elite forces in Africa from the declassified secret files in TomDispatch
’s possession, a November 2015 briefing by Bolduc, which they obtained via a separate FOIA request, reveals that his command was then involved in seven such operations on the continent.
These likely included at least some of the following: Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa, Octave Shield
, and/or Juniper Garret
, all aimed at East Africa; New Normal
, an effort to secure U.S. embassies and assets around the continent; Juniper Micron
, a U.S.-backed French and African mission to stabilize Mali following a 2012 coup there by a U.S.-trained officer and the chaos that followed; Observant Compass
, the long-running effort to decimate the Lord’s Resistance Army, which recently retired AFRICOM chief U.S. Army Gen. David Rodriguez derided
as expensive and strategically unimportant; and Juniper Shield
, a wide-ranging effort — formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara — aimed
at Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. A 2015 briefing document by SOCAFRICA’s parent unit, U.S. Special Operations Command — aka SOCOM — also lists an ongoing “gray zone” conflict in Uganda
On any given day, between 1,500 and 1,700 American special operators and support personnel are somewhere on the continent. Over the course of a year they conduct missions in more than 20 countries.
According to Bolduc’s November 2015 briefing, Special Operations Command Africa carries out 78 separate “mission sets.” These include activities
that range from enhancing “partner capability and capacity” to the sharing of intelligence.
Most of what Bolduc’s troops do involves working alongside and mentoring local allies. SOCAFRICA’s showcase effort, for instance, is Flintlock, an annual training exercise in Northwest Africa involving elite American, European, and African forces, which provides the command with a plethora
More than 1,700 military personnel from 30-plus nations took part
in Flintlock 2016. Next year, the exercise is expected “to grow to include SOF from more countries, [as well as] more interagency partners,” according to Bolduc.
While censors redacted the information, the SOCAFRICA strategic planning document — produced in 2012 and scheduled to be fully declassified in 2037 — indicates the existence of one or more other training exercises. Bolduc recently mentioned
two: Silent Warrior
and Epic Guardian
In the past, the command has also taken part in exercises like Silver Eagle 10 and Eastern Piper 12
. AFRICOM did not respond to requests for comment on these exercises or other questions related to this article.
Such exercises are, however, just a small part of the SOCAFRICA story. Joint Combined Exchange Training missions — better known simply as JCETs — are a larger one. Officially authorized to enable U.S. special operators to “practice skills needed to conduct a variety of missions, including foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism,” JCETs actually serve as a backdoor method of expanding U.S. military influence and contacts in Africa, since they allow
for “incidental-training benefits” to “accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost.”
As a result, JCETs play an important role in forging and sustaining military relationships across the continent. Just how many of these missions the U.S. conducts in Africa is apparently unknown — even to the military commands involved. As TomDispatch reported
earlier this year, according to SOCOM, the U.S. conducted 19 JCETs in 2012, 20 in 2013, and 20, again, in 2014.
AFRICOM, however, claims that there were nine JCETs in 2012, 18 in 2013, and 26 in 2014. Whatever the true number, JCETs are a crucial cog in the SOCAFRICA machine