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U.S. Africa Command Debates TomDispatch

Posted on Jul 26, 2012
USACE Europe District (CC BY 2.0)

The AFRICOM logo.

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Because of its unusual content and form, an explanation from TomDispatch editor Tom Engelhardt appears at the beginning.

On July 12th, TomDispatch posted the latest piece in Nick Turse’s “changing face of empire” series: “Obama’s Scramble for Africa.” It laid out in some detail the way in which the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has, in recent years, spread its influence across that continent, establishing bases and outposts, sending in special operations forces and drones, funding proxy forces on the continent, and so on. As last week ended, TomDispatch received a “letter to the editor” from Colonel Tom Davis, director of the U.S. Africa Command Office of Public Affairs, disputing in some detail a number of Turse’s points. (Colonel Davis also sent a copy of the letter to the Nation Institute, which supports this website.)

As readers know, it’s quite possible to write this editor.  I read everything that arrives at TomDispatch with appreciation and answer when I can. There is, however, no “comments” section, nor a place for letters to the editor at TD.  In this case, however, I found the obvious time and effort AFRICOM took to respond to the Turse piece of interest and so, today, we’re posting Colonel Davis’s full letter, and a response from Turse. After all, whatever highlights the changing U.S.  military position in Africa, about which Americans know remarkably little, seems well worth the time and space.

Two things remain to be said: first, beneath the detailed critique and response that follows lies an obvious difference of opinion that seems worth highlighting. Like a number of other TomDispatch writers, I believe that the U.S. military should not be responsible for Planet Earth; that it is not in our interest for the Pentagon to be dividing the globe, like a giant pie, into six “slices” covering almost every inch of the planet: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), the U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and a touch of North Africa), NORTHCOM (North America),  SOUTHCOM (South America and most of the Caribbean), and AFRICOM (almost all of Africa).  Nor should the U.S. military be garrisoning the planet in the historically unprecedented way it does.  This imperial role of ours has little or nothing to do with “defense” and creates many possibilities for future blowback. Instead, it seems far more sensible to begin to shut down or cut back radically on our vast array of global bases and outposts (rather than, as in Africa, expanding them), and downsize our global mission in a major way.  AFRICOM would obviously disagree, as would the Pentagon and the Obama administration, and the results of that basic disagreement about the role of the U.S. military in the world can be seen in what follows.

Second, one of Colonel Davis’s criticisms below is of a passage in my introduction to Turse’s piece. “[O]nly the other day,” I wrote, “it was revealed that three U.S. Army commandos in a Toyota Land Cruiser had skidded off a bridge in Mali in April. They died, all three, along with three women identified as ‘Moroccan prostitutes.’”  The Colonel questions the accuracy of that word “revealed,” since his command had issued a brief press release on April 20th stating: “Three U.S. military members and three civilians died in a vehicle accident in Bamako, Mali today.”


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In the Washington Post piece I linked to, however, reporter Craig Whitlock identified the three “military members” as “U.S. Army Commandos” and those three “civilians” as “Moroccan prostitutes” and raised the following questions: “What the men were doing in the impoverished country of Mali, and why they were still there a month after the United States suspended military relations with its government, is at the crux of a mystery that officials have not fully explained even 10 weeks later.” It seems to me that, if you compare the press release to the later article, “revealed” is not too strong a word.  With that, let me turn the proceedings over to Colonel Davis and Nick Turse. Tom


FROM:  Colonel Tom Davis

Director, U.S. Africa Command Office of Public Affairs

Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany

TO:  Mr. Tom Engelhardt, Editor


Dear Mr. Engelhardt,

We read the recent article “Secret Wars, Secret Bases, and the Pentagon’s ‘New Spice Route’ in Africa” with great interest. It is clear the author, Nick Turse, conducted a great deal of research, including reaching out to us, and we welcomed the opportunity to highlight U.S.  Africa Command’s mission and activities.  However, there were several inaccuracies and misrepresentations that we would like to address. My hope is that you, through your publication, will correct the record.  As a thought provoking, responsible, and professional journalist, I know that you would want to ensure all reporting was based on facts, not innuendos or misperceptions.

Below are the items U.S. Africa Command would like to address:

“They call it the New Spice Route”: This was a term used informally by a few of our logistics specialists to describe the intra-theater transportation system, primarily land shipments from Djibouti, which provides logistical support for U.S. military activities in Africa. The network is officially called the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network. However, to call it a “superpower’s superhighway”  is very misleading.  The U.S. military cargo transported along these different transportation nodes represents only a mere fraction—i.e., a handful of trucks per week intermixed among the thousands of others— of the total amount of fuel, food, and equipment transported along these routes each day.

“Fast-growing U.S. military presence in Africa”: While the size of the U.S. military footprint in Africa has increased since the creation of U.S. Africa Command in October 2008, to call it “fast-growing” is an exaggeration. At the end of October 2008, there were about 2,600 U.S. military personnel and Department of Defense civilians on the African continent or on ships within the command’s area of responsibility.  The number today is about 5,000, more than half of which represents the service members who serve tours at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, with the remainder serving on a temporary basis ranging from a few days to a few weeks.  Much of this change is attributable to an increase in the number of exercises and military-to-military engagement programs in order to better enable African nations and regional organizations to strengthen their defense capabilities. On a much smaller scale, it also reflects a modest increase in the staff sizes of DOD offices resident in U.S. embassies, which average just a small number of staff members.   But even 5,000 personnel—about the military population of a small Air Force Base in the U.S.—spread across an area that covers 54 countries and major portions of two oceans can hardly be called a “scramble for Africa.”

In our view, this is very positive, and testament to our desire to be a security partner of choice in Africa. It reflects an increase in military assistance engagement activities—all of which are requested and approved by the host nation.  While we work to advance the security interests of the U.S., we are together addressing what are clearly shared security interests.

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