US Special Operations forces (SOF) — including Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Marine Corps Raiders are active in 22 African nations, making the continent its second-largest military footprint after the Middle East, a new report reveals.
And although “US commandos operate on the African continent with the agreement of host governments, ordinary Africans are rarely told about the full extent of US activities — nor offered a say in how and why Americans are active in their countries,” the investigation by the Mail & Guardian (M&G) found.
The report adds that even basic information, like the sweep and scope of deployments by elite US troops and clandestine combat by American commandos on the continent, is mostly unreported across Africa.
But the under-the-radar deployments of US soldiers to Africa are as prominent as ever. Elite special operations forces were present in 22 African nations last year, including in de facto combat missions, the newspaper’s probe found, and for the first time revealing where US special operators have been active on the continent which have largely been kept under wraps.
US military footprint in Africa is extensive
Last year, M&G, found, US forces were present in Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Côte D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania and Tunisia.
Donald Bolduc, a retired brigadier general and head of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) until 2017, shed further light on these operations.
He said as of 2017, US Special Operations forces had seen combat in 13 African nations. America’s most elite troops continued to be active in 10 of those countries — Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia and Tunisia — last year.
“With boots on the ground in almost half of Africa’s 54 nation states, the continent accounts for over 14 percent of US commandos deployed overseas.”
This is the largest concentration of US troops in the world, with the exception of the greater Middle East, the report said.
Formerly classified 2019 AFRICOM planning documents show that there were 29 bases located in 15 different countries or territories, with the highest concentrations in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Another major theatre of US special operations is northwest Africa, the report said.
“Much of the world, for example, first became aware of US military operations in Africa in October 2017, after the Islamic State (IS) ambushed American troops near Tongo Tongo in Niger, killing four US soldiers — two of whom were Green Berets. Those troops belonged to Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212, an 11-man unit working with a Nigerien force under the umbrella of Juniper Shield.”
Juniper Shield is the United States’ marquee counterterrorism effort in northwest Africa, involving 11 nations: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.
But not all of the places where US commandos operate in Africa are in or near war zones, such is the case of Botswana — one of the continent’s most established and peaceful democracies.
In response to questions from the M&G, the US embassy’s public affairs officer in Botswana, Ineke Margaret Stoneham, said the US Military enjoys a strong bilateral security cooperation relationship with the Botswana Defence Force (BDF).
Stoneham referenced a three-week training event held in June 2019 at the Thebephatshwa Air Base in Molepolole involving 200 National Guardsmen from the North Carolina National Guard and an unspecified number of soldiers from the BDF.
“The US military is tight-lipped about exactly what its elite forces do in each country, but special operators have long conducted missions that range from capture-or-kill commando raids to training missions,” said the M&G.
Comfort Ero, the International Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director, said the extent of US Special Operations forces in Africa illustrates the “creeping build-up” of the US military on the continent.
Although, she added, it’s a mixed message: “There’s a build-up on the one hand, and restraint on the other. It’s clear that the US does not want to be on the frontline.”
Ero said the lack of transparency ― from both US and African governments ― on the US military’s presence in Africa is a cause for concern, as is their apparent willingness to work with authoritarian governments.
A lack of transparency in African deployments both by the US and the host nations has contributed to this problem, the report noted.
“It does feed into that broader concern that some states are being propped up … the US is seen as legitimising and further prolonging authoritarian tendencies, or states [that] are not seen as having legitimacy.”
Temi Ibirogba, a programme and research associate with the Africa Program at the Center for International Policy, warned that training, equipping and assisting the militaries of nations accused of human rights abuses empowers them and provides justifications for the violations.
“If the most powerful democratic nation in the world is supporting your military, you’ll surely believe that the human rights violations you’ve committed are excusable,” she told the M&G.