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Written by Cole Pfeiffer

With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq already completed and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the future of the U.S. military is uncertain. After the rather heavy engagement of the past decade, with an equally heavy budget commitment, the U.S. military is now without a war. The U.S. government should consider what to do with its armed forces in the post-Afghanistan and Iraq era.

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The last U.S. troops leaving Iraq [Photo credit: Martin Bureau, AFP/Getty Images]

It seems to be that for Pentagon hawks, the question is where to go next.

One option that has been recently put forward is to increase U.S. troop presence in Africa. Already, the Pentagon has taken steps to rapidly increase its presence on the continent. As Gen. David M. Rodriguez recently noted, “[a]s we reduce the rotational requirement to combat areas, we can use these forces to great effect in Africa.”

The Pentagon views Africa, namely Somalia and other impoverished nations just south of the Sahara, as the next breeding ground for terrorism. The Pentagon is planning to construct a network of bases across the continent to project American power in nations that are at risk.

These plans are hardly without great expense, however.

Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a small nation bordering Somalia, has seen a significant expansion in recent times. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) plans to spend $1.2 billion on improvements on the base, which already houses a total of 4,000 military and civilian personnel. The base is intended to serve as the keystone of the U.S. mission in Africa, which will include bases in Kenya, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. This U.S. commitment is likely to back the French presence already operating in West and Central Africa.

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The proposed extension to Camp Lemonnier would include improved barracks, a new operations center, and an aircraft hangar [Image copyright: Sabbah Report]

Backing France

Historically, West and Central Africa have been considered as part of France’s sphere of influence. During the Cold War, the U.S. was more than happy to let France play neocolonial power in order to prevent the spread of communism in the region. In recent years, however, it is highly questionable whether France has the capabilities to maintain its vestiges of imperialism. More recently in Mali, France was dependent on U.S. material support to quell the radical Islamist uprisings.

The commitment of U.S. troops to the region is clearly intended to fill the vacuum left by a waning French influence. Camp Lemonnier itself was originally an outpost of the French Foreign Legion. Although France is likely to remain an important power in West and Central Africa in the foreseeable future, it will no longer be the only Western power in the region.

Considerations

To a certain degree, the expansion of the U.S. military presence in Africa is justifiable. Bases like Camp Lemonnier can enable the U.S. to effectively target terrorist movements on the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa. Several countries in these regions are engaged in an active fight against terrorist groups within their borders.

For instance, Kenya and Tanzania have been fighting the Somali al-Shabab militant organization, while Chad and Mauritania face threats from other al-Qaeda offshoots. If the U.S. goal is to fight terrorists wherever they may be, the Sahel will be a good place to maintain a U.S. presence.

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U.S. soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas prepare for deployment to Africa with Live Fire Exercise [Photo credit: Steve Hebert/The New York Times]

However, serious reservations remain. First, it is hardly in the interest of American taxpayers to remain constantly geared up for war. Both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increased the defense budget beyond sustainable levels.

Second, the end goals for engaging our military in Africa are hazy at best. The objective of hunting down terrorists is too simplistic for a mission that seeks to operate across a myriad of countries in multiple regions. For the sake of transparency, the Pentagon should better outline its objectives. A clear set of achievable goals will prevent the United States from committing to conflicts that have few chances of resulting in victory.

Lastly, increasing troop commitments in Africa is somehow reminiscent of neocolonial times. However noble the DOD’s intentions may be, the U.S. mission will probably face widespread international criticism ranging from protests against its drone program to accusations of being primarily interested in mineral extraction.

U.S. interests in Africa’s mineral wealth may provoke allegations that the U.S. government is perhaps more interested in safeguarding U.S. companies, rather than protecting indigenous populations from terrorist threats.

These issues raise serious doubts as to the United States’ proposed military commitment in Africa. The U.S. should learn to operate within certain limits, and the African campaign arguably stretches beyond them.

Recent fiscal trends suggest that the DOD will also have to learn how to carry out its functions with a limited budget, meaning that nonessential programs will have to be cut accordingly. With no clear objectives in Africa and the increasing likelihood of tarnishing America’s image abroad, the Pentagon’s calls to expand operations on the African continent should be treated with severe skepticism.

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One thought on “With wars in the Middle East winding down, Pentagon looks to Africa

  1. Cole, it’s about economics. There has been a rush for foreign investments across the continent. The US just wants to be able to create a stronghold to protect those investments. Investors have been hesitant in the past due to the unstable political nature of many countries, but if the US can quell those hesitations then their interests will feel more confident to move from exporting raw goods to processing them in the country that they produce it in, further lowering costs for the core states (you should look into world systems theory…)

    Miss you guys, I’m glad you guys are doing this. Wish I was there to argue with everyone!

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