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AFRICOM Goes to War on the Sly

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Posted on Apr 14, 2014

    Gen. David Rodriguez, center, speaks with subordinates in South Africa in early August 2013. Photo by US Army Africa (CC BY 2.0)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

“In 2013, we had a big jump in the amount of program projects,” he noted, specifically mentioning a large “task force” construction effort, an oblique reference to a $220 million Special Operations compound at the base that TomDispatch first reported on in 2013.

According to documents provided by Wilderman, five contracts worth more than $322 million (to be paid via MILCON funds) were awarded for Camp Lemonnier in late 2013.  These included deals for a $25.5 million fitness center and a $41 million Joint Headquarters Facility in addition to the Special Operations Compound.  This year, Wilderman noted, there are two contracts—valued at $35 million—already slated to be awarded, and Captain Rick Cook specifically mentioned deals for an armory and new barracks in 2014.

Cook’s presentation also indicated that a number of long-running construction projects at Camp Lemonnier were set to be completed this year, including roads, a “fuel farm,” an aircraft logistics apron, and “taxiway enhancements,” while construction of a new aircraft maintenance hangar, a telecommunications facility, and a “combat aircraft loading area” are slated to be finished in 2015.  “There’s a tremendous amount of work going on,” Cook said, noting that there were 22 current projects underway there, more than at any other Navy base anywhere in the world.

And this, it turns out, is only the beginning. 

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“In the master plan,” Cook said, “there is close to three quarters of a billion dollars worth of construction projects that we still would like to do at Camp Lemonnier over the next 10 to 15 years.”  That base, in turn, would be just one of a constellation of camps and compounds used by the U.S. in Africa.  “Many of the places that we are trying to stand up or trying to get into are air missions.  A lot of ISR… is going on in different parts of the continent.  Generally speaking, the Air Force is probably going to be assigned to do much of that,” he told the contractors.  “The Air Force is going to be doing a great deal of work on these bases… that are going to be built across the northern tier of Africa.”

Hearts and Minds

When I spoke with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers, the first projects he mentioned and the only ones he seemed eager to talk about were those for African nations.  This year, $6.5 million in projects had been funded when we spoke and of that, the majority were for “humanitarian assistance” or HA construction projects, mostly in Togo and Tunisia, and “peacekeeping” operations in Ghana and Djibouti. 

Uhl talked about humanitarian projects, too.  “HA projects are small, difficult, challenging for the Corps of Engineers to accomplish at a low, in-house cost… but despite all this, HA projects are extremely rewarding,” he said.  “The appreciation expressed by the locals is fantastic.”  He then drew attention to another added benefit: “Each successful project is a photo opportunity.”

Uhl wasn’t the only official to touch on the importance of public perception in Africa or the need to curry favor with military “partners” on the continent.  Cook spoke to the contractors, for instance, about the challenges of work in austere locations, about how bureaucratic shakedowns by members of African governments could cause consternation and construction delays, about learning to work with the locals, and about how important such efforts were for “winning hearts and minds of folks in the area.”

The Naval Facilities Engineering Command’s Wildeman talked up the challenges of working in an environment in which the availability of resources was limited, the dangers of terrorism were real, and there was “competition for cooperation with [African] countries from some other world powers.”  This was no doubt a reference to increasing Chinese trade, aid, investment, and economic ties across the continent.  

He also left no doubt about U.S. plans.  “We will be in Africa for some time to come,” he told the contractors.  “There’s lots more to do there.” 

Cook expanded on this theme. “It’s a big, big place,” he said.  “We know we can’t do it alone.  So we’re going to need partners in industry, we’re going to need… local nationals and even third country nationals.” 

AFRICOM at War

For years, senior AFRICOM officers and spokesmen have downplayed the scope of U.S. operations on the continent, stressing that the command has only a single base and a very light footprint there.  At the same time, they have limited access to journalists and refused to disclose the number and tempo of the command’s operations, as well as the locations of its deployments and of bases that go by other names.  AFRICOM’S public persona remains one of humanitarian missions and benign-sounding support for local partners. 

“Our core mission of assisting African states and regional organizations to strengthen their defense capabilities better enables Africans to address their security threats and reduces threats to U.S. interests,” says the command.  “We concentrate our efforts on contributing to the development of capable and professional militaries that respect human rights, adhere to the rule of law, and more effectively contribute to stability in Africa.”  Efforts like sniper training for proxy forces and black ops missions hardly come up.  Bases are mostly ignored.  The word “war” is rarely mentioned.


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