On US Bases in Africa

The Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock published an article yesterday entitled “U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa.” The piece is a sequel of sorts to one he and Greg Miller wrote some nine months ago, entitled “U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say.” As with that last article, there is a mix of old and new information; while the 2011 article focused on East Africa, and was particularly noteworthy for passages on Ethiopia, the new article is noteworthy especially for passages on Burkina Faso and Mauritania – although as the article points out, US forces and contractors have been operating in those countries for half a decade or more.

The following passage not only highlights the length of the US military’s tenure in Burkina Faso, it also hints at the political complexities, both within the US government and between the US government and its partners, of having such a presence:

The U.S. military began building its presence in Burkina Faso in 2007, when it signed a deal that enabled the Pentagon to establish a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment in Ouagadougou. At the time, the U.S. military said the arrangement would support “medical evacuation and logistics requirements” but provided no other details.

By the end of 2009, about 65 U.S. military personnel and contractors were working in Burkina Faso, more than in all but three other African countries, according to a U.S. Embassy cable from Ouagadougou. In the cable, diplomats complained to the State Department that the onslaught of U.S. troops and support staff had “completely overwhelmed” the embassy.

In addition to Pilatus PC-12 flights for Creek Sand, the U.S. military personnel in Ouagadougou ran a regional intelligence “fusion cell” code-named Aztec Archer, according to the cable.

Burkina Faso, a predominantly Muslim country whose name means “the land of upright men,” does not have a history of radicalism. U.S. military officials saw it as an attractive base because of its strategic location bordering the Sahel, the arid region south of the Sahara where al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate is active.

Unlike many other governments in the region, the one in Burkina Faso was relatively stable. The U.S. military operated Creek Sand spy flights from Nouakchott, Mauritania, until 2008, when a military coup forced Washington to suspend relations and end the surveillance, according to former U.S. officials and diplomatic cables.

The article is very much worth reading in full.

In my view having bases in a country involves the US in (or exposes the US to, if you prefer) local politics, one way or another. US military involvement in local politics, including in Africa, is nothing new. But it is worth pointing out, time and again, that most of the key partner countries for the military in Africa are run by presidents/prime-ministers-for-life: Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi (in power since 1995), Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore (in power since 1987), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986), Djibouti’s Ismael Omar Guellah (in power since 1999), etc. The contradictions between such partnerships and stated US ideals of democracy promotion are now so familiar as to be hardly worth mentioning. A more pragmatic point may be that the stability won through decades of rule by one person or clique can often prove quite brittle when put to the test. Sub-Saharan African leaders who faced strong protest movements in 2011 (or in years previous) tended, unlike their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, to survive those tests (this includes Compaore), but sub-Saharan African protest movements have at least shown the potential for serious tension to break out in places where the Pentagon might not have expected it to. The example of how the 2008 coup in Mauritania disrupted US operations there merits reflection.

I have not seen much of a reaction to the Washington Post story in different African countries’ online press so far, save this article on a Malian site (French). The Nigerian papers often track US news quite closely, so we will see if they pick up this story in the coming days.

11 thoughts on “On US Bases in Africa

  1. Pingback: Latest Developments, June 14 | Beyond Aid

  2. Great post, Alex. Although I giggled at the “Burkina Faso = no radical history” part – apparently AFRICOM and/or Whitlock didn’t read about Thomas Sankara? Or they mean Islamic radicalism, Marxists be damned.

      • Few people think about far-left violence in Africa now. It’s either for-profit violence, Islamist-inspired or both.

  3. Considering the state of Africa for decades democracy really couldn’t be taken into consideration. The people who were serious about it tended not to have any guns backing them. State and regime stability still should be investigated better.

  4. Pingback: okay, security cooperation in africa is sketchy: where do we go from here? « Securing Rights

  5. Quite very interesting. People know that Flintlock 2010 or 2011 was run from Ouagadougou, but thought the whole thing moved somewhere else. I am a little amazed that officially since 2007 the whole area was still observed from the air from Ouagadougou and from nouakchott before that, but AQIM was let moving, killing freely and kidnapping easily. So these groups were under close surveillance – and I guess countries let know about their whereabouts – but no action taken, besides Mauritaina engaging AQIM from time to time.

    My question is what is then the puropose of this surveillance? They should have seen coming the kidnapping of the French AREVA people in Arlit as well as seen who is giving logistics – petrol, gas, food – to AQIM/Ansar Dine/MUJAO that is occupying Northern Mali.

    Curious to know what has been playing around the secession of Mali. Read today that AQIM/Ansar Dine/MUJAO shot a fire at 2 planes circling above northern Mali and they were probably coming from Ouagadougou.

    If this is true and I know it is true, so mali is divided for ever. But why let the djihadistes take over? To crush them later? Why all this in the first place?

  6. You write: Burkina Faso, a predominantly Muslim country
    There is a joke in Burkina saying: 50% of Christian, 50% of Muslim, 100% Animist 🙂
    I wouldn’t say that Burkina is predominantly Muslim.

  7. US bases established in 2007 to use the land for airbases army barracks base of operations communications center for American military/civilian personnel in Burkina-Fassou as part of the political and military interests in Western Africa since the war on terror began in 9-11-2001 12 years ago
    a landlocked country in Western Africa predominately Sunni Muslim in Africa
    all other religions Christian(Protestant /Roman Catholic/Mormon)animist and others monetary unit is the CFA franc Africa’s answer to Euro used in neighboring African countries and the current leader Pres.Dr.Blaise Compaore
    a center-left president and head of state for several decades since the military coup and a constitutional republic in world history.thanks for the information for your comments in your opinion .From:Wayne

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