AFRICANGLOBE – What the military will say to a reporter and what is said behind closed doors are two very different things—especially when it comes to the US military in Africa. For years, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has maintained a veil of secrecy about much of the command’s activities and mission locations, consistently downplaying the size, scale and scope of its efforts. At a recent Pentagon press conference, AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez adhered to the typical mantra, assuring the assembled reporters that the United States “has little forward presence” on that continent. Just days earlier, however, the men building the Pentagon’s presence there were telling a very different story—but they weren’t speaking with the media. They were speaking to representatives of some of the biggest military engineering firms on the planet. They were planning for the future and the talk was of war.
I recently experienced this phenomenon myself during a media roundtable with Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers. When I asked the general to tell me just what his people were building for US forces in Africa, he paused and said in a low voice to the man next to him, “Can you help me out with that?” Lloyd Caldwell, the Corps’s director of military programs, whispered back, “Some of that would be close hold”—in other words, information too sensitive to reveal.
The only thing Bostick seemed eager to tell me about were vague plans to someday test a prototype “structural insulated panel-hut,” a new energy-efficient type of barracks being developed by cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point. He also assured me that his people would get back to me with answers. What I got instead was an “interview” with a spokesman for the Corps who offered little of substance when it came to construction on the African continent. Not much information was available, he said, the projects were tiny, only small amounts of money had been spent so far this year, much of it funneled into humanitarian projects. In short, it seemed as if Africa was a construction backwater, a sleepy place, a vast landmass on which little of interest was happening.
Fast forward a few weeks and Captain Rick Cook, the chief of US Africa Command’s Engineer Division, was addressing an audience of more than fifty representatives of some of the largest military engineering firms on the planet—and this reporter. The contractors were interested in jobs and he wasn’t pulling any punches. “The eighteen months or so that I’ve been here, we’ve been at war the whole time,” Cook told them. “We are trying to provide opportunities for the African people to fix their own African challenges. Now, unfortunately, operations in Libya, South Sudan, and Mali, over the last two years, have proven there’s always something going on in Africa.”
Cook was one of three US military construction officials who, earlier this month, spoke candidly about the Pentagon’s efforts in Africa to men and women from URS Corporation, AECOM, CH2M Hill and other top firms. During a paid-access web seminar, the three of them insisted that they were seeking industry “partners” because the military has “big plans” for the continent. They foretold a future marked by expansion, including the building up of a “permanent footprint” in Djibouti for the next decade or more, a possible new compound in Niger, and a string of bases devoted to surveillance activities spreading across the northern tier of Africa. They even let slip mention of a small, previously unacknowledged US compound in Mali.
The Master Plan
After my brush off by General Bostick, I interviewed an Army Corps of Engineers Africa expert, Chris Gatz, about construction projects for Special Operations Command Africa in 2013. “I’ll be totally frank with you,” he said, “as far as the scopes of these projects go, I don’t have good insights.”
What about two projects in Senegal I had stumbled across? Well, yes, he did, in fact, have information about a firing range and a “shoot house” that happened to be under construction there. When pressed, he also knew about plans I had noted in previously classified documents for the Corps to build a multipurpose facility in Cameroon. And on we went. “You’ve got better information than I do,” he said at one point, but it seemed like he had plenty of information, too. He just wasn’t volunteering much of it to me.
Later, I asked if there were 2013 projects that had been funded with counter-narco-terrorism (CNT) money. “No, actually there was not,” he told me. So I specifically asked about Niger.
Last year, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed that the US was conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, drone operations from Base Aérienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger. In the months since, air operations there have only increased. In addition, recently obtained documents indicated that the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on two counter-narco-terrorism projects in Arlit and Tahoua, Niger. So I told Gatz what I had uncovered. Only then did he locate the right paperwork. “Oh, okay, I’m sorry,” he replied. “You’re right, we have two of them… Both were actually awarded to construction.”
Those two CNT construction projects have been undertaken on behalf of Niger’s security forces, but in his talk to construction industry representatives, AFRICOM’s Rick Cook spoke about another project there: a possible US facility still to be built. “Lately, one of our biggest focus areas is in the country of Niger. We have gotten indications from the country of Niger that they are willing to be a partner of ours,” he said. The country, he added, “is in a nice strategic location that allows us to get to many other places reasonably quickly, so we are working very hard with the Nigeriens to come up with, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a base, but a place we can operate out of on a frequent basis.”
Cook offered no information on the possible location of that facility, but recent contracting documents examined indicate that the US Air Force is seeking to purchase large quantities of jet fuel to be delivered to Niger’s Mano Dayak International Airport.
Multiple requests for further information sent to AFRICOM’s media chief Benjamin Benson went unanswered, as had prior queries about activities at Base Aérienne 101. But Colonel Aaron Benson, Chief of the Readiness Division at Air Forces Africa, did offer further details about the Nigerien mini-base. “There is the potential to construct MILCON aircraft parking aprons at the proposed future site in Niger,” he wrote, mentioning a specific type of military construction funding dedicated to use for “enduring” bases rather than transitory facilities. In response to further questions, Cook referred to the possible site as a “base-like facility” that would be “semi-permanent” and “capable of air operations.”
Pay To Play
It turns out that, if you want to know what the US military is doing in Africa, it’s advantageous to be connected to a large engineering or construction firm looking for business. Then you’re privy to quite a different type of insider assessment of the future of the US presence there, one far more detailed than the modest official pronouncements that US Africa Command offers to journalists. Asked at a recent Pentagon press briefing if there were plans for a West African analog to Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier, the only “official” US base on the continent, AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez was typically guarded. Such a “forward-operating site” was just “one of the options” the command was mulling over, he said, before launching into the sort of fuzzy language typical of official answers. “What we’re really looking at doing is putting contingency locating sites, which really have some just expeditionary infrastructure that can be expanded with tents,” was the way he put it. He never once mentioned Niger, or airfield improvements or the possibility of a semi-permanent “presence.”