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Asian Pivot, African Target

Barack Obama loves basketball, and the media loves to analyze his maneuvering of U.S. Foreign Policy as if it were a basketball game.  The first term was the “Asia Pivot,”—Barack backing down China in the lane, clearing out space for U.S. influence in Vietnam and Thailand and Myanmar.  But the White House was actually another running a different play all along, or so the Washington Post now says, a shift to Africa.  While Asia got the U.S. rhetoric down low, it was in Africa where the Pentagon was getting its hands bloody, participating in “a string of messy wars,” as the Post’s excellent Pentagon reporter Craig Whitlock put it.  And while messy wars in Africa are sadly nothing new, the continent-spanning network of military installations that the U.S. has been building is.

Since 2007, the Pentagon has constructed the beginnings of a massive framework of military and spy bases, as many as twelve airfields stretching from the Indian to Atlantic Oceans.  Camp Lemonnier, in tiny Djibouti on the mouth of the Red Sea, is the biggest node in the network, a 500-acre compound housing 3,200 troops, civilians, contractors, as well a large fleet of aircraft and drones.  Moving across Africa, other installations used by the U.S. military as of June 2012 are located in the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania.  From these locations, the U.S. operates a fleet of spy aircraft and drones, participates in small-scale military operations, and leads training exercises with numerous African states.

The Pentagon bureaucracy in control of this network—the African Command, or AFRICOM—is itself a relative baby, announced by George W. Bush in February 2007 and officially formed in October 2008.  But despite its youth, it is following the historical precedent set by other regional commands and immediately fighting a war in its new domain.  For a comparison, the Pentagon created its Pacific Command in 1947 and within three years U.S. troops were fighting on the ground in Korea.  Central Command was officially formed in 1983, and within seven years hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were invading Iraq.  In 1999, when Central Command expanded its scope to include the formerly Soviet Central Asian Republics, it took only two years for the U.S. to invade Afghanistan.  AFRICOM managed to keep the streak alive, providing the manpower, surveillance, and logistical backbone for the 2011 war in Libya.  According to NATO’s own numbers, the U.S. led militaries flew over 26,000 sorties during the eight-month campaign, averaging 120 flights a day from February through October, and deployed 8,000 troops in support (as well as an unknown number of special forces and intelligence operatives and trainers on the ground).  It was no Korean War, but a start nonetheless for AFRICOM.

Most recently, the Pentagon has also announced that it is planning to build a large drone base in Northwest Africa, most likely in the deserts of Niger.  While the Pentagon explains that the new base is related to the conflict in Mali that erupted earlier this year, military officials openly admit that the base will also serve to give Africa Command a more “enduring presence” on the continent.  As no government other than the tiny Djibouti will agree to openly host a permanent U.S. base, the Pentagon has been forced to run its new African operations from a headquarters in Germany.  Although it is unlikely that a new drone base in the Niger desert will become a dystopian AFRICOM headquarters, the ever-increasing U.S. military footprint makes further efforts to increase control inevitable.  As the great Richard Barnet wrote back in 1971, “In the game of international politics, practitioners must be fiercely partisan.  The United States is the client, and the task of the manager is to increase her power and influence in the world, whatever the cost.”

Tellingly, a large expansion is being planned for Camp Lemonnier.  What started as a 1,500 person Special Forces base in 2002, operated by the “Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa,” has doubled in size since then, and is growing still.  In the eyes of the Pentagon, Lemonnier is “an essential regional power projection base,” as General Carter Ham, head of AFRICOM at the time, testified before the House Armed Services Committee in March 2012.  Nick Turse, a researcher and editor for the website Tomdispatch, wrote in a July 2012 article that:

Military contracting documents reveal plans for an investment of up to $180 million or more in construction at Camp Lemonnier alone.  Chief among the projects will be the laying of 54,500 square meters of taxiways “to support medium-load aircraft” and the construction of a 185,000 square meter Combat Aircraft Loading Area.  In addition, plans are in the works to erect modular maintenance structures, hangers, and ammunition storage facilities, all needed for an expanding set of secret wars in Africa.

To truly understand the neo-colonial nature of Djibouti, a French colony until 1977, it has to be compared to its neighbors.  The Republic of Djibouti covers just 9,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey.  Its neighbor, Eritrea, equally as remote in popular imagination, is five times as large.  Somalia and Yemen, the two nearby states being bombed from Camp Lemonnier, both cover over 200,000 square miles, and have coastlines nearly as long as the entire U.S. littoral along the Gulf of Mexico.  Ethiopia is twice as big as these, one quarter the size of the contiguous U.S.  In population terms, the differences are even starker.  Ethiopia, with 86 million people, is the second most populated state in Africa.  Djibouti, with fewer than one million people, is 49th.  The only states on mainland Africa with less people are Equatorial Guinea and the Western Sahara.  Such a low population means that roughly one out of every three hundred people in the country is an employee of the U.S. military, and not subject to local law.

While Mr. Whitlock and the Washington Post have been doing an excellent job over the past years in tracking the new additions to the U.S. empire of bases in Africa, they have missed the bigger story.  The “Asia Pivot” and the “Africa Shift” are not separate but part of the same long-term strategy, an attempt to dominate Zbigniew Brzezinski’s great arc of crisis across the underbelly of Eurasia.  The routes running from Asia to Africa and Europe—both over land and sea—must be examined as one great exercise in power projection, with the energy deposits in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea regions located smack-dab in the middle.  From this perspective, one can see the orientations of todays, and tomorrows, world; flows of natural resources, manufactured goods, and people crossing the planets greatest potential marketplace.  Empires throughout history have always understood this, from Alexander the Great’s Macedonian kingdom to the Mongol Empire, from the Ottomans to the British.  Since the 1970’s, attempting to control this massive global corridor through war and military engagements has also been the principal aim of U.S. foreign policy.  And while the Post may not understand this (or want to tell the public), the Pentagon certainly does.  David Rodriguez, President Obama’s newest nominee to head AFRICOM, responded to Senate questioning on the “Asia Pivot” by highlighting that it increased the importance of U.S. military forces in Africa, stating:

The eastern portion of AFRICOM’s area of responsibility abuts the Indian Ocean, a centrally important component of the global commons, reflecting historic trade ties and encompassing sea lanes of communication that link Africa to the Middle East, Europe, and the rising powers of India and China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Imperialism is a global mindset.  There is no single Asia policy, or Africa policy, or Middle East Policy.  There is only a global attempt to control the resources and populations of the planet.  The “Asia Pivot” and the newly termed “Africa Shift” are but its latest flailing’s.

In a telling sign of the full circle nature that this policy has reached, the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles has now felt a double dipping of U.S. imperialism.  Between 1971 and 1973, when Washington and London colluded to establish a military base at Diego Garcia, another island in the Indian Ocean, they forcibly expelled the 1,500 Chagossians inhabitants of the island, as recounted by anthropologist David Vine in his book Island of Shame.  The Chagossians were sent 1,200 miles across the ocean in cramped boats to the Seychelles, where they were dumped at the dock on Port Louis.  Spread out over the archipelago, the Chagossians have been campaigning for reparations over Diego Garcia ever since.

Now, however, the U.S. military is back, and since 2009 a drone base has been operational on the Seychelles.  In a state department cable from September 2009 released by Wikileaks, State Department Charge d’Affaires Virginia Blaser reported that 77 American personnel would be stationed on the islands, and that U.S. drones would conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights over the Horn of Africa.  And while these drones were not to be armed at that point, it was noted that “should the desire ever arise, the USG would seek discrete, specific discussions with appropriate GOS officials.”

Besides the usual trouble that military bases bring along with them, there have been two drone crashes at the Seychelles, in December 2011 and April 2012.  As such, the Chagossian population of the Seychelles has seen the full scope of modern imperialism, from a British colonial governor executing their dogs with car exhaust to the threat of American military robots crashing down on their heads.  They are poignant examples of the “unpeople,” to steal a phrase from George Orwell, who are the passive victims of U.S. militarization, and there are thousands more like them, from Mauritania to Guam.

Evan Taylor can be reached at: egtayl@gmail.com.

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