Nick Turse: American ‘success’ and the rise of West African piracy

As American hysteria over events in the Middle East rises, news about whatever grim video the Islamic State (IS) has just released jostles for attention with U.S. bombing runs in Iraq, prospective ones in Syria, and endless confusing statements out of Washington about what the next seat-of-the-pants version of its strategy might be.  These days, such things are endlessly on the American radar screen.  On the other hand, the U.S. military has been moving into Africa big time for years and just about nobody seems to notice.  The Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) now annually engages in one kind of activity or another with 49 of that continent’s 54 countries.  Yet Americans know next to nothing about Washington’s “pivot” to a continent significant parts of which seem to be in a slow-motion process of destabilization that may be linked, at least in part, to U.S. military moves there.

Nearly everywhere in Africa, the U.S. military is in action.  However, except in rare cases, like the recent announcement of an “Ebola surge” in Liberia, you would never know it.  At the moment, for instance, according to the Associated Press, AFRICOM is “preparing to launch a ‘major’ border security program to help Nigeria and its neighbors combat the increasing number and scope of attacks by Islamic extremists.”  We’re talking, of course, about the other “caliphate,” the one in northern Nigeria announced by Boko Haram, an outfit that makes the militants of IS look moderate.  But that’s news you’re unlikely to read in this country, not at least until, at some future moment, things start to go really, really wrong. Similarly, U.S. drone bases are slowly spreading in Africa, but you’d have to have an eagle eye to notice it.  Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the “Pentagon is preparing to open a drone base in one of the remotest places on Earth.”  Tucked away, far from prying eyes, in the middle of the Sahara desert, the U.S. will now be cleared to fly drones out of “the mud-walled desert city of Agadez.”

It was typically incisive coverage of the shadowy doings of AFRICOM by Craig Whitlock, the one mainstream reporter who seems to keep an eye on American military moves there.  Other media outlets from Reuters to Air Force Times followed up with versions of the same story, but it all passed like a blip in the night.  If it caught your attention, I’d be surprised.

Still, if you’re a TomDispatch reader, Washington’s pivot to Africa and the expansion of U.S. air operations there won’t surprise you greatly.  After all, back in April, this site’s managing editor, Nick Turse, who’s had his eye on U.S. military operations in Africa for years, reported that, during a meeting for defense contractors, AFRICOM’s Rick Cook spoke about a future U.S. facility in Niger.  That country, Cook said, “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 the facility, but Turse reported that contracting documents he had examined indicated that “the U.S. Air Force is seeking to purchase large quantities of jet fuel to be delivered to Niger’s Mano Dayak International Airport.”  And just where is Mano Dayak International Airport located? You guessed it: Agadez, Niger.

By the way, it’s not just boots on the continent and drones over it these days.  For the U.S. military, it’s also ships off the coast. But let Nick Turse tell you the rest. Tom Engelhardt 

Pirates of the Gulf of Guinea
In the face of rising maritime insecurity, AFRICOM claims success and Obama embraces a strongman
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

“The Gulf of Guinea is the most insecure waterway, globally,” says Loic Moudouma.  And he should know.  Trained at the U.S. Naval War College, the lead maritime security expert of the Economic Community of Central African States, and a Gabonese Navy commander, his focus has been piracy and maritime crime in the region for the better part of a decade.  

Moudouma is hardly alone in his assessment. 

From 2012 to 2013, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence found a 25% jump in incidents, including vessels being fired upon, boarded, and hijacked, in the Gulf of Guinea, a vast maritime zone that curves along the west coast of Africa from Gabon to Liberia.  Kidnappings are up, too.  Earlier this year, Stephen Starr, writing for the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, asserted that, in 2014, the number of attacks would rise again. 

Today, what most Americans know about piracy likely centers on an attraction at Walt Disney World and the Johnny Depp movies it inspired.  If the Gulf of Guinea rings any bells at all, it’s probably because of the Ebola outbreak in, and upcoming U.S. military “surge” into, Liberia, the nation on the northern edge of that body of water.  But for those in the know, the Gulf itself is an intractable hotspot on a vast continent filled with them and yet another area where U.S. military efforts have fallen short.

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Nick Turse: American monuments to failure in Africa?

In light of recent history, perhaps it’s time to update that classic U.S. Army recruitment campaign slogan from “be all that you can be” to “build all that you can build.”  Consider it an irony that, in an era when Congress struggles to raise enough money to give America’s potholed, overcrowded highways a helping hand, building new roads in Afghanistan proved no problem at all (even when they led nowhere).  In fact, the U.S. military spent billions of taxpayer dollars in both Afghanistan and Iraq on nation-building infrastructural efforts of all sorts, and the Pentagon’s Inspector General (IG) repeatedly reported on the failures, disasters, and boondoggles that resulted.  In 2012, for instance, the IG found that of the $10.6 billion in Afghan funding it examined, $7 billion was “potentially wasted.”  And this has never ended.  In 2014, the IG typically reported that “some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics, and even fire stations built by the Army [in Afghanistan] are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.”

As of this year, more U.S. and NATO money had been “squandered” on the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan than was spent on the full post-World War-II Marshall Plan to put a devastated Europe back on its feet.  And how has all that spending turned out?  One thing is certain: those torrents of money helped create a devastating economy of corruption.  As for reconstruction, the Inspector General found mainly “poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight.”  

As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse, author of the award-winning book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, reminds us today, thanks to the counterinsurgency strategy that the U.S. military has pursued in these years, most of this spending came under the heading of “winning hearts and minds” in the countries the U.S. invaded.  Any American batallion-level commander in an Afghan village could essentially reach into his pocket and pull out the funds to build a schoolhouse.  And yet, in the United States, much of our educational infrastructure, built after World War II for the Baby Boomer generation, is in need of reconstruction funds that are no longer in any pockets.  The same holds true for American airports (none having been built in almost 20 years), bridges (almost half of them needing “major structural investments” in the next 15 years and 11% now considered “structurally deficient”), highways, dams, levees, sewage and water systems, and the like.  In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimated that, to keep the U.S. a fully functioning first-world country, some $3.6 trillion dollars would have to be invested in infrastructural work by 2020. 

Fat chance.  Though no one ever comments on it, the constant spending of money to win hearts and minds in distant lands should be considered passing strange when hearts and minds are at stake in Rhode Island, Arkansas, and Oregon.  Stranger yet, the group designated to do that hearts-and-minds construction is also dedicated to destroying infrastructure in times of conflict.  It shouldn’t be surprising that nation-building, school by school, road by road, might not be its strong point.

Worse yet, as Nick Turse reports, continuing his remarkable ongoing investigation into the U.S. military’s “pivot” to Africa, even after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems that there are hearts and minds still to win out there and all of Africa to build in. Tom Engelhardt

How not to win hearts and minds in Africa
Hushed Pentagon investigation slaps U.S. Africa Command’s humanitarian activities
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Movie night in Mouloud, Djibouti.  Skype lessons in Ethiopia.  Veterinary training assistance in Garissa, Kenya.  And in this country on the east coast of Africa, work on both primary and secondary schools and a cistern to provide clean water.  These are all-American good works, but who is doing them — and why?  

As I sit in a room filled with scores of high-ranking military officers resplendent in their dress uniforms — Kenyans in their khakis, Burundians and Ugandans clad in olive, Tanzanians in deep forest green sporting like-colored berets and red epaulets with crossed rifles on their shoulders — chances are that the U.S. military is carrying out some mission somewhere on this vast continent.  It might be a kidnapping raid or a training exercise.  It could be an airstrike or the construction of a drone base.  Or, as I wait for the next speaker to approach the lectern at the “Land Forces East Africa” conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it could be a humanitarian operation run not by civilians in the aid business, but by military troops with ulterior motives — part of a near-continent-wide campaign utilizing the core tenets of counterinsurgency strategy.

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Nick Turse: Christmas in July and the collapse of America’s great African experiment

On return from his recent reporting trip to Africa, Nick Turse told me the following tale, which catches something of the nature of our battered world.  At a hotel bar in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, he attended an informal briefing with a representative of a major nongovernmental organization (NGO).  At one point, the briefer commented that just one more crisis might sink the whole aid operation.  He thought she was referring to South Sudan, whose bottomless set of problems include unending civil war, no good prospects for peace, impending famine, poor governance, and a lack of the sort of infrastructure that could make a dent in such a famine.  Nick responded accordingly, only to be corrected.  She didn’t just mean South Sudan, she said, but the entire global NGO system.  Given the chaos of the present moment across the Greater Middle East and elsewhere, global aid operations were, she insisted, on the brink. They were all, she told him, just one catastrophe away from the entire system collapsing.

I have to admit that as I watch the civilian carnage in Gaza; catastrophically devolving Iraq; the nightmare of Syria; the chaotic situation in Libya where, thanks to militia fighting, the capital’s international airport is now in ruins; the grim events surrounding Ukraine, which seem to be leading to an eerie, almost inconceivable revival of the Cold War ethos; not to speak of the situation in Afghanistan, where bad only becomes worse in the midst of an election from hell and the revival of the Taliban, I have a similar eerie feeling: just one more thing might tip this planet into… well, what?

And then, of course, I read Nick Turse’s second report from Africa, up-close-and-personal from South Sudan.  It’s another place the U.S. chose as one of its special (un-)nation building projects and has seen it go to hell in a hand basket on a continent parts of which seem to be destabilizing as we watch.  Now, I find myself wondering whether just one more disaster, one political or military catastrophe, might push us all over the edge of… well, who knows what?  Tom Engelhardt

As a man-made famine looms, Christmas comes early to South Sudan
The limits of America’s African experiment in nation building
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

Juba, South Sudan — The soft glow of the dancing white lights is a dead giveaway.  It’s Christmas in July at the U.S. Embassy compound.  Behind high walls topped with fierce-looking metal impediments meant to discourage climbers, there’s a party under way.

Close your eyes and you could be at a stateside summer barbeque or an office holiday party.  Even with them open, the local realities of dirt roads and dirty water, civil war, mass graves, and nightly shoot-to-kill curfews seem foreign. These walls, it turns out, are even higher than they look.

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Nick Turse: An East-West showdown in the heart of Africa?

For the last two years, TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse has been following the Pentagon and the latest U.S. global command, AFRICOM, as they oversaw the expanding operations of the American military across that continent: drones, a special ops surge, interventions, training missions, bases (even if not called bases), proxy wars.  Short of a major conflict, you name it and it’s probably happening.  Washington’s move into Africa seems connected as well to the destabilization of parts of that continent and the rise of various terror groups across it, another subject Nick has been following.  With rare exceptions, only recently have aspects of the Obama administration’s largely below-the-radar-screen “pivot” to Africa made it into the mainstream media.  Even more recently, global chaos from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to Ukraine has driven it out again.  As a result, most Americans have no sense of how their future and Africa’s are being entwined in possibly explosive ways. 

With this in mind, and with the support of the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund (as well as the generosity of Adelaide Gomer), Nick has gone to Tanzania and South Sudan to explore the situation further himself.  Today, as the first fruits of that trip, TomDispatch has a major story on a development that has, until now, remained distinctly below the radar screen: the Africa-wide contest between the globe’s “sole superpower,” the U.S., and its preeminent rising economic power, China, over which will benefit most from the exploitation of that continent. 

Over the next several months, there will be more pieces from Nick on America’s growing stake in and effect on Africa.  The next will address a looming crisis in the world’s youngest nation.  He offers a preview: “My aid agency contacts say that, in September, the United Nations will officially declare a famine in large swaths of South Sudan.  As one humanitarian worker here put it to me, add famine to war and you have a powder keg.  ‘It’s going to get worse,’ says another, ‘before it gets better.’”  Tom Engelhardt

China, America, and a new Cold War in Africa?
Is the conflict in South Sudan the opening salvo in the battle for a continent?
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

Juba, South Sudan — Is this country the first hot battlefield in a new cold war?  Is the conflict tearing this new nation apart actually a proxy fight between the world’s two top economic and military powers?  That’s the way South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth tells it.  After “midwifing” South Sudan into existence with billions of dollars in assistance, aid, infrastructure projects, and military support, the U.S. has watched China emerge as the major beneficiary of South Sudan’s oil reserves.  As a result, Makuei claims, the U.S. and other Western powers have backed former vice president Riek Machar and his rebel forces in an effort to overthrow the country’s president, Salva Kiir.  China, for its part, has played a conspicuous double game.  Beijing has lined up behind Kiir, even as it publicly pushes both sides to find a diplomatic solution to a simmering civil war.  It is sending peacekeepers as part of the U.N. mission even as it also arms Kiir’s forces with tens of millions of dollars worth of new weapons.

While experts dismiss Makuei’s scenario — “farfetched” is how one analyst puts it — there are average South Sudanese who also believe that Washington supports the rebels.  The U.S. certainly did press Kiir’s government to make concessions, as his supporters are quick to remind anyone willing to listen, pushing it to release senior political figures detained as coup plotters shortly after fighting broke out in late 2013.  America, they say, cared more about a handful of elites sitting in jail than all the South Sudanese suffering in a civil war that has now claimed more than 10,000 lives, resulted in mass rapes, displaced more than 1.5 million people (around half of them children), and pushed the country to the very brink of famine. Opponents of Kiir are, however, quick to mention the significant quantities of Chinese weaponry flooding into the country. They ask why the United States hasn’t put pressure on a president they no longer see as legitimate.

While few outside South Sudan would ascribe to Makuei’s notion of a direct East-West proxy war here, his conspiracy theory should, at least, serve as a reminder that U.S. and Chinese interests are at play in this war-torn nation and across Africa as a whole — and that Africans are taking note.  Almost anywhere you look on the continent, you can now find evidence of both the American and the Chinese presence, although they take quite different forms.  The Chinese are pursuing a ruthlessly pragmatic economic power-projection strategy with an emphasis on targeted multilateral interventions in African conflicts.  U.S. policy, in contrast, appears both more muddled and more military-centric, with a heavy focus on counterterrorism efforts meant to bolster amorphous strategic interests. 

For the last decade, China has used “soft power” — aid, trade, and infrastructure projects — to make major inroads on the continent.  In the process, it has set itself up as the dominant foreign player here.  The U.S., on the other hand, increasingly confronts Africa as a “battlefield” or “battleground” or “war” in the words of the men running its operations. In recent years, there has been a substantial surge in U.S. military activities of every sort, including the setting up of military outposts and both direct and proxy interventions. These two approaches have produced starkly contrasting results for the powers involved and the rising nations of the continent.  Which one triumphs may have profound implications for all parties in the years ahead. The differences are, perhaps, nowhere as stark as in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan. 

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Nick Turse: How ‘Benghazi’ birthed the new normal in Africa

Amid the horrific headlines about the fanatical Islamist sect Boko Haram that should make Nigerians cringe, here’s a line from a recent Guardian article that should make Americans do the same, as the U.S. military continues its “pivot” to Africa: “[U.S.] defense officials are looking to Washington’s alliance with Yemen, with its close intelligence cooperation and CIA drone strikes, as an example for dealing with Boko Haram.”

In fact, as the latest news reports indicate, that “close” relationship is proving something less than a raging success.  An escalating drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has resulted in numerous dead “militants,” but also numerous dead Yemeni civilians — and a rising tide of resentment against Washington and possibly support for AQAP.  As the Washington-Sana relationship ratchets up, meaning more U.S. boots on the ground, more CIA drones in the skies, and more attacks on AQAP, the results have been dismal indeed: only recently, the U.S. embassy in the country’s capital was temporarily closed to the public (for fear of attack), the insurgents launched a successful assault on soldiers guarding the presidential palace in the heart of that city, oil pipelines were bombed, electricity in various cities intermittently blacked out, and an incident, a claimed attempt to kidnap a CIA agent and a U.S. Special Operations commando from a Sana barbershop, resulted in two Yemeni deaths (and possibly rising local anger).  In the meantime, AQAP seems ever more audacious and the country ever less stable.  In other words, Washington’s vaunted Yemeni model has been effective so far — if you happen to belong to AQAP.

One of the poorer, less resource rich countries on the planet, Yemen is at least a global backwater.  Nigeria is another matter.  With the largest economy in Africa, much oil, and much wealth sloshing around, it has a corrupt leadership, a brutal and incompetent military, and an Islamist insurgency in its poverty-stricken north that, for simple bestiality, makes AQAP look like a paragon of virtue.  The U.S. has aided and trained Nigerian “counterterrorism” forces for years with little to show.  Add in the Yemeni model with drones overhead and who knows how the situation may spin further out of control. 

In response to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 young women, the Obama administration has already sent in a small military team (with FBI, State Department, and Justice Department representatives included) and launched drone and “manned surveillance flights,” which may prove to be just the first steps in what one day could become a larger operation.  Under the circumstances, it’s worth remembering that the U.S. has already played a curious role in Nigeria’s destabilization, thanks to its 2011 intervention in Libya.  In the chaos surrounding the fall of Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, his immense arsenals of weapons were looted and soon enough AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and other light weaponry, as well as the requisite pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns or anti-aircraft guns made their way across an increasingly destabilized region, including into the hands of Boko Haram.  Its militants are far better armed and trained today thanks to post-Libyan developments.

All of this, writes Nick Turse, is but part of what the U.S. military has started to call the “new normal” in Africa.  The only U.S. reporter to consistently follow the U.S. pivot to that region in recent years, Turse makes clear that every new African nightmare turns out to be another opening for U.S. military involvement.  Each further step by that military leads to yet more regional destabilization, and so to a greater urge to bring the Yemeni model (and its siblings) to bear with… well, you know what effect.  Why doesn’t Washington? Tom Engelhardt

The U.S. military’s new normal in Africa
A secret African mission and an African mission that’s no secret
By Nick Turse

What is Operation New Normal? 

It’s a question without an answer, a riddle the U.S. military refuses to solve. It’s a secret operation in Africa that no one knows anything about. Except that someone does. His name is Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee Magee. He lives and breathes Operation New Normal. But he doesn’t want to breath paint fumes or talk to me, so you can’t know anything about it. 

Confused? Stay with me.

Whatever Operation New Normal may be pales in comparison to the real “new normal” for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). The lower-cased variant is bold and muscular. It’s an expeditionary force on a war footing. To the men involved, it’s a story of growth and expansion, new battlefields, “combat,” and “war.” It’s the culmination of years of construction, ingratiation, and interventions, the fruits of wide-eyed expansion and dismal policy failures, the backing of proxies to fight America’s battles, while increasing U.S. personnel and firepower in and around the continent.  It is, to quote an officer with AFRICOM, the blossoming of a “war-fighting combatant command.” And unlike Operation New Normal, it’s finally heading for a media outlet near you.

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Nick Turse: AFRICOM becomes a ‘war-fighting combatant command’

Let me explain why writing the introduction to today’s post by TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse is such a problem.  In these intros, I tend to riff off the ripples of news that regularly surround whatever subject an author might be focusing on.  So when it comes to the U.S. military, if you happen to be writing about the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” really, no problem.  Background pieces on that pile up daily.  How could you resist, for instance, saying something about the U.S. refusal to send an aircraft carrier to China for a parade of Pacific fleets (after the Chinese refused to allow Japanese ships to participate)?  It’s mean girls of the Pacific, no?  Have an interest in the Ukrainian crisis?  Piece of cake, top of the news any time — like those curious pro-Russian protestors in eastern Ukraine who tried to liberate an opera house in the city of Kharkiv, mistaking it for city hall, or the hints that U.S. troops might soon be stationed in former Soviet satellite states.  Or, say, you’re writing about threats in cyberspace — couldn’t be simpler!  Not when you have Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel offering an amusing assurance that the country that launched the first cyberwar and is ramping up its new cybercommand at warp speed “does not seek to militarize cyberspace.” And, of course, any day of the week U.S.-Iranian relations are a walk in the park (in the dark).  At the moment, for instance, the Iranian nominee for U.N. ambassador — previously that country’s ambassador to Belgium, Italy, Australia, and the European Union, but once a translator for the group that took U.S. embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979 — has been declared “not viable” by the Obama administration.  In a remarkable act of congressional heroism, the U.S. Senate, led by that odd couple Ted Cruz and Chuck Schumer, has definitively banned him from setting foot in the country.  Mean girls of Washington?  Who could resist such material?

Unfortunately, there’s one place in that city’s global viewfinder that never seems to provides much of anything to riff off of, and so no fun whatsoever: Africa.  Yes, today and Tuesday, Nick Turse continues his remarkable coverage of the U.S. military pivot to that continent, which promises a lifetime of chaos and blowback to come.  Admittedly, what’s happening isn’t your typical, patented, early twenty-first-century-style U.S. invasion, but it certainly represents part of a new-style scramble for Africa — with the U.S. taking the military path and the Chinese the economic one.  By the time U.S. Africa Command is finished, however, one thing is essentially guaranteed: a terrible mess and a lifetime of hurt will be left behind. This particular pivot is happening on a startling scale and yet remains just below the American radar screen. Explain it as you will, with the rarest of exceptions the U.S. media, riveted by Obama’s so far exceedingly modest pivot to Asia, finds the African one hardly worth a moment’s notice, which is why, today, without the usual combustible mix of what’s recently in the news and what’s newsmaking in Turse’s two pieces, I have no choice but to skip the introduction. Tom Engelhardt 

AFRICOM goes to war on the sly
U.S. officials talk candidly (just not to reporters) about bases, winning hearts and minds, and the “war” in Africa
By Nick Turse

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 U.S. military in Africa.  For years, U.S. 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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  When I asked the general to tell me just what his people were building for U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Africa Command’s Engineer Division, was addressing an audience of more than 50 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.”

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Ethiopia: How communications technology has become a tool of oppression

One day they arrested me and they showed me everything. They showed me a list of all my phone calls and they played a conversation I had with my brother. They arrested me because we talked about politics on the phone. It was the first phone I ever owned, and I thought I could finally talk freely.
— Former member of an Oromo opposition party, now a refugee in Kenya, May 2013

Human Rights Watch: Since 2010, Ethiopia’s information technology capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds. Although Ethiopia still lags well behind many other countries in Africa, mobile phone coverage is increasing and access to email and social media have opened up opportunities for young Ethiopians—especially those living in urban areas—to communicate with each other and share viewpoints and ideas.

The Ethiopian government should consider the spread of Internet and other communications technology an important opportunity. Encouraging the growth of the telecommunications sector is crucial for the country to modernize and achieve its ambitious economic growth targets.

Instead, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of ethnically-based political parties in power for more than 20 years, continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. It has used repressive laws to decimate civil society organizations and independent media and target individuals with politically-motivated prosecutions. The ethnic Oromo population has been particularly affected, with the ruling party using the fear of the ongoing but limited insurgency by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the Oromia region to justify widespread repression of the ethnic Oromo population. Associations with other banned groups, including Ginbot 7, are also used to justify repression.

As a result, the increasing technological ability of Ethiopians to communicate, express their views, and organize is viewed less as a social benefit and more as a political threat for the ruling party, which depends upon invasive monitoring and surveillance to maintain control of its population.

The Ethiopian government has maintained strict control over Internet and mobile technologies so it can monitor their use and limit the type of information that is being communicated and accessed. [Continue reading...]

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Nick Turse: America’s non-stop ops in Africa

After years in the shadows, U.S. Navy SEALs emerged in a big way with the 2011 night raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Afterward, they were lauded in print as supermen, feted by the president, and praised by the first lady. Soon, some of the country’s most secretive and elite special operators were taking the big screen by storm with 2012’s blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty and a film starring actual Navy Seals, Act of Valor.

Last year, yet another Hollywood smash, Captain Phillips, featured heroic SEALs. This time, the elite mariners weren’t slipping into a compound in Pakistan or on some crazy global quest, but killing pirates off the coast of Africa. The location was telling.

In recent years, as stories of SEAL exploits have bubbled up into the news, the operations of America’s secret military have been on an exponential growth spurt (with yet more funding promised in future Pentagon budgets) — and a major focus of their activities has been Africa.  In 2012, for example, SEALs carried out a hostage rescue mission in Somalia.  Last fall, word of a SEAL mission in that country hit the news after a bid to kidnap a terror suspect went south, and the Americans were driven off under heavy fire.  (That same night, Army Delta Force commandos successfully captured a Libyan militant in a night raid.)  A few months later, three of four SEALs conducting an evacuation mission in South Sudan were wounded when the aircraft they were flying in was hit by small arms fire.  And just recently, SEALs were again in the news, this time for capturing an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen.

By all accounts, SEAL missions in Africa are on the rise, and the Navy’s special operators are far from alone.  For the last several years, Nick Turse, author of the bestseller Kill Anything That Moves, has been covering the expansion of U.S. Africa Command and the quiet, under-the-radar growth of U.S. operations on that continent at TomDispatch.  He has repeatedly broken news about the military’s long African reach, its new bases (even if never referred to by that name), and its creation of a logistics network that now stretches across significant parts of the continent.  Today, Turse offers a revealing look at the quickening pace of U.S. military operations in Africa as the Pentagon prepares for future wars, and the destabilization and blowback it is already helping to sow on that continent. Tom Engelhardt 

U.S. military averaging more than a mission a day in Africa
Documents reveal blinding pace of ops in 2013, more of the same for 2014
By Nick Turse

The numbers tell the story: 10 exercises, 55 operations, 481 security cooperation activities.

For years, the U.S. military has publicly insisted that its efforts in Africa are small scale. Its public affairs personnel and commanders have repeatedly claimed no more than a “light footprint” on that continent, including a remarkably modest presence when it comes to military personnel.  They have, however, balked at specifying just what that light footprint actually consists of.  During an interview, for instance, a U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) spokesman once expressed worry that tabulating the command’s deployments would offer a “skewed image” of U.S. efforts there.

It turns out that the numbers do just the opposite.

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Nick Turse: American proxy wars in Africa

Our major post-9/11 wars are goners and the imagery of American war-making is heading downhill. The Iraq War was long ago left in the trash heap of history, while in Afghanistan the talk is now about “the zero option” — that is, about an irritated Obama administration making a lock, stock, and drone departure from that country as 2014 ends. Meanwhile, back in America, headlines indicate that the U.S. military stands trembling at the brink of evisceration, with the U.S. Army soon to return to pre-World War II levels of troop strength and all the services about to go on a diet in an era of belt-tightening.  The only new arms being promoted are the ones Republicans are “up in” when it comes to the potential destruction of U.S. military might.

As it happens, the impression this leaves bears only the most minimal relationship to the actual U.S. global military posture of this moment.  The Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf buildup around Iran remains massive, even as talks on that country’s nuclear program are underway.  Despite the “zero option” media focus on Afghanistan, Obama administration officials seem determined that a residual force of trainers, mentors, and special operations types will remain in that country to anchor a rump war after combat troops leave this year.  They clearly expect the successor to the recalcitrant President Hamid Karzai to sign the necessary bilateral security pact — even if at the last moment.  As for the axe being taken to the Pentagon budget, it turns out, at worst, to be a penknife.

In the meantime, hardly noticed amid all the hoopla about future cuts to Army strength (which do indicate a genuine no-invasions-no-occupations-on-the-Eurasian-landmass change of strategy initiated in the late Bush years), there has been next to no attention paid to a striking piece of budgetary news: despite speculations about cuts to its fleet of aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy is expected to keep its full contingent of 11 aircraft carrier strike groups — essentially 11 giant floating bases off the world’s coasts.  This fits well with the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia.  As Michael Klare recently explained, that pivot is, at heart, a naval strategy (consonant with those 11 carriers) of ensuring ongoing control over the crucial energy sea lanes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the East and South China Seas through which China is going to have to import staggering amounts of liquid energy in the coming decades.

Finally, on a planet still impressively heavily garrisoned by Washington, hardly noticed by anyone and rarely written about, the U.S. military has for years been quietly moving into Africa in a distinctly below-the-radar fashion.  This represents a major new commitment of American power in a world of supposed cutbacks, but you would never know it.  If you’re a news jockey, every now and then you can catch a report, like David Cloud’s recently in the Los Angeles Times, which offers a brief snapshot of that process with, for instance, a head’s-up that 50 U.S. Special Operations troops have just been put on the ground at a “remote outpost” in Tunisia.  However, only at TomDispatch, thanks to the reporting of Nick Turse, can you find an ongoing account of the U.S. military move into Africa, its planning, its implementation, and the destabilization and blowback that seem to accompany it.  The Pentagon’s newest tactic for Africa, as he documents today: refight the colonial wars in partnership with the French.  Just tell me: What could possibly go wrong? Tom Engelhardt

Washington’s back-to-the-future military policies in Africa
America’s new model for expeditionary warfare
By Nick Turse

Lion Forward Teams? Echo Casemate? Juniper Micron?

You could be forgiven if this jumble of words looks like nonsense to you.  It isn’t.  It’s the language of the U.S. military’s simmering African interventions; the patois that goes with a set of missions carried out in countries most Americans couldn’t locate on a map; the argot of conflicts now primarily fought by proxies and a former colonial power on a continent that the U.S. military views as a hotbed of instability and that hawkish pundits increasingly see as a growth area for future armed interventions.     

Since 9/11, the U.S. military has been making inroads in Africa, building alliances, facilities, and a sophisticated logistics network.  Despite repeated assurances by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) that military activities on the continent were minuscule, a 2013 investigation by TomDispatch exposed surprisingly large and expanding U.S. operations — including recent military involvement with no fewer than 49 of 54 nations on the continent.  Washington’s goal continues to be building these nations into stable partners with robust, capable militaries, as well as creating regional bulwarks favorable to its strategic interests in Africa.  Yet over the last years, the results have often confounded the planning — with American operations serving as a catalyst for blowback (to use a term of CIA tradecraft). 

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Meanwhile, China quietly takes over Zimbabwe

a13-iconTyler Durden writes: While the developed world is focusing on the rapidly deteriorating developments in the Crimean, China, which has kept a very low profile on the Ukraine situation aside from the token diplomatic statement, is taking advantage of this latest distraction to do what it does best: quietly take over the global periphery while nobody is looking.

Over two years ago we reported that none other than Zimbabwe – best known in recent history for banknotes with many zeros in them – was bashing the US currency, and had alligned itself with the Chinese Yuan. This culminated last month with the announcement by Zimbabwe’s central bank that it would accept the Chinese yuan and three other Asian currencies as legal tender as economic relations have improved in recent years. “Trade and investment ties between Zimbabwe, China, India, Japan and Australia have grown appreciably,” said Charity Dhliwayo, acting governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

Business Live reported then:

Exporters and the public can now open accounts in yuans, Australian dollars, Indian rupees and Japanese yen, Dhliwayo said. Zimbabwe abandoned its worthless currency in 2009.

It accepts the US dollar and the South African rand as the main legal tender. Their use has helped to stabilise the economy after world-record inflation threw it into a tailspin.

Independent economist Chris Mugaga said the introduction of the Asian currencies would not make a huge difference to Zimbabwe’s struggling economy.

“It is Zimbabwe’s Look East Policy, which has forced this, and nothing else,” he said.

And now, as a result of the “Look East Policy”, we learn that China has just achieved what every ascendent superpower in preparation for “gunboat diplomacy” mode needs: a key strategic airforce base. [Continue reading...]

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The threat to rhinos also endangers their habitat

rhinos

Rachel Nuwer reports: Some large animals influence their surroundings more than others. Elephants are known as ecosystem engineers for their tendency to push over trees and stomp shrubby areas in the savannah into submission. This keeps forests at bay, which otherwise would overtake open grasslands. Wolves, on the other hand, are apex predators. They keep other species like deer in check, preventing herbivore populations from getting out of hand and eating all the plants into oblivion. Both elephants and wolves are keystone species, or ones that have a relatively large impact on their environment in relation to their actual population numbers.

African rhinos, it turns out, also seem to be a keystone species. According to a recent study published by Scandinavian and South African researchers in the Journal of Ecology, rhinos maintain the diverse African grasslands on which countless other species depend.

Surprisingly, prior to this study no one had looked closely rhinos’ roles in shaping the ecosystem. Most researchers focused on elephants instead. Suspecting that these large animals influence their environment, the authors took a close look at rhinos in Kruger National Park in South Africa. [Continue reading...]

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Greg Grandin: The reparations of history, paid and unpaid

When Americans think about slavery, we think about the Civil War, cotton plantations in Georgia, and the legacy that those centuries of bondage left in the United States. But we forget that, 200 years ago, the institution in various forms extended throughout the world: hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian peasants were in debt bondage to landowners, indigenous slavery was widespread in Africa, and most people in Russia were serfs.

No slaves suffered more, however, than those who were force-marched to the African coast and, if they survived, transported in the packed, suffocating holds of sailing vessels across the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, too, we forget that it was not just to the United States that these ships brought their human cargo.  Far greater numbers of captive Africans in chains were shipped to the West Indies and to Latin America, especially Brazil. There, and in the Caribbean, the tropical climate and its diseases made field labor particularly harsh and the death rate especially high. At one time or another, however, slaves could be found almost everywhere in the Americas where Europeans had settled, from Quebec to Chile.

Slavery was the cornerstone of the modern world in more ways than we can imagine today. The structure of banking, insurance, and credit that underlies international commerce, for instance, has its origins, at least in part, in the “triangle trade”: slaves being transported from Africa to the Americas; slave-cultivated products like cotton and sugar traveling from the Americas to Europe; and trading goods meant to buy yet more slaves moving from Europe to Africa. Because a voyage on any leg of that triangle might last months and risked shipwreck, bankers, merchants, and ship owners wanted systems that both guaranteed payment for losses and protected their investments.   

Historian Greg Grandin is the author of remarkable — and highly readable — books like National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Fordlandia and his most recent work, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Today, he vividly suggests just how the bodies of slaves became something on which our world was built, zeroing in on one connection that we seldom think about — the development of modern medicine. Adam Hochschild

The bleached bones of the dead
What the modern world owes slavery (it’s more than back wages)
By Greg Grandin

Many in the United States were outraged by the remarks of conservative evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, who blamed Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake on Haitians for selling their souls to Satan. Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble — as many as 300,000 died — when Robertson went on TV and gave his viewing audience a little history lesson: the Haitians had been “under the heel of the French” but they “got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.'”

A supremely callous example of right-wing idiocy? Absolutely. Yet in his own kooky way, Robertson was also onto something. Haitians did, in fact, swear a pact with the devil for their freedom. Only Beelzebub arrived smelling not of sulfur, but of Parisian cologne. 

Haitian slaves began to throw off the “heel of the French” in 1791, when they rose up and, after bitter years of fighting, eventually declared themselves free. Their French masters, however, refused to accept Haitian independence. The island, after all, had been an extremely profitable sugar producer, and so Paris offered Haiti a choice: compensate slave owners for lost property — their slaves (that is, themselves) — or face its imperial wrath. The fledgling nation was forced to finance this payout with usurious loans from French banks. As late as 1940, 80% of the government budget was still going to service this debt.

In the on-again, off-again debate that has taken place in the United States over the years about paying reparations for slavery, opponents of the idea insist that there is no precedent for such a proposal. But there is. It’s just that what was being paid was reparations-in-reverse, which has a venerable pedigree. After the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the U.S., London reimbursed southern planters more than a million dollars for having encouraging their slaves to run away in wartime. Within the United Kingdom, the British government also paid a small fortune to British slave owners, including the ancestors of Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, to compensate for abolition (which Adam Hochschild calculated in his 2005 book Bury the Chains to be “an amount equal to roughly 40% of the national budget then, and to about $2.2 billion today”).

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China pillages Africa like old colonialists says Jane Goodall

n13-iconAFP reports: China is exploiting Africa’s resources just like European colonisers did, with disastrous effects for the environment, acclaimed primatologist Jane Goodall has told AFP.

On the eve of her 80th birthday, the fiery British wildlife crusader is whizzing across the world giving a series of lectures on the threats to our planet.

And the rising world power’s involvement on the continent especially raises alarms when it comes to her beloved chimpanzees and wildlife habitats.

During the last decade China has been investing heavily in African natural resources, developing mines, oil wells and running related construction companies.

Activists accuse Chinese firms of paying little attention to the environmental impact of their race for resources.

“In Africa, China is merely doing what the colonialist did. They want raw materials for their economic growth, just as the colonialists were going into Africa and taking the natural resources, leaving people poorer,” she told AFP in an interview in Johannesburg.

The stakes for the environment may even be larger this time round, she warns.

“China is bigger, and the technology has improved… It is a disaster.”

Other than massive investment in Africa’s mines, China is also a big market for elephant tusks and rhino horn, which has driven poaching of these animals to alarming heights.

But Goodall, who rose to fame through her ground-breaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania, is optimistic.

“I do believe China is changing,” she said, citing as one example Beijing’s recent destruction of illegal ivory stockpiles.

“I think 10 years ago, even with international pressure, we would never have had an ivory crush. But they have,” she added.

“I think 10 years ago the government would never have banned shark fin soup on official occasions. But they have.” [Continue reading...]

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Lessons for America: Think you can’t live without plastic bags? Rwanda did it

o13-iconÉmilie Clavel writes: On a recent trip to Rwanda, my luggage was searched at the border, and the authorities confiscated some of my belongings. No, I wasn’t trying to smuggle drugs or weapons. The offenders? Three plastic bags I’d use to carry my shampoo and dirty laundry.

You see, non-biodegradable polythene bags are illegal in Rwanda. In 2008, while the rest of the world was barely starting to consider a tax on single-use plastic bags, the small East African nation decided to ban them completely.

At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones.

The ban was a bold move. It paid off. As soon as I set foot in Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, it struck me. It’s clean. Looking out the window of the bus that was taking me to Kigali, the capital, I could see none of the mountains of rubbish I’d grown accustomed to in other African countries. No plastic carrier bags floating in the wind or stranded on a tree branch.

Upon arrival in Kigali the contrast is even more evident. With its lovely green squares and wide boulevards, the Rwandan capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Africa. And it’s immaculate. Enough to teach a lesson to scruffy – albeit beloved – Western metropolises like New York or London. And the ban on plastic bags is just the start for Rwanda. It’s all part of the Vision 2020 plan to transform the country into a sustainable middle-income nation. [Continue reading...]

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How can so many African leaders ignore Mandela’s legacy?

Patience Akumu writes: The world has stopped for a moment to focus its attention on Africa. This is not something that happens often. No, they are not talking about senseless civil wars, crippling poverty, appalling HIV/Aids statistics or blatant dictators. They are talking about a black man who freed his country from an inhumane regime; who dared to dream of a tolerant, united and poverty-free Africa and dedicated his life to the attainment of this dream. In turn, God rewarded him with 95 years of a robust, purposeful life. If Nelson Mandela was from the Luo ethnicity like me, his death would herald two weeks of drinking, merry-making and dancing to the sounds of ffumbo drums in celebration of the resting of an honourable elder.

Seeing the glowing eulogies fills me with the same unsettling pride that gripped my younger soul as I listened to my high school African nationalism teacher talk about the struggle of great leaders to liberate the continent. She spoke of Mandela in the same breath as Kwame Nkurumah, Julius Nyerere, Daniel Arap Moi, Muammar Gaddafi, Yoweri Museveni and Robert Mugabe.

These are the men who stood up to oppressive regimes and dedicated their lives to fighting injustice and transforming the continent, she told us. The fiery way in which she spoke, and reading about the anti-colonial struggle from authors such as Chinua Achebe and Ousmane Sembène, made me want to leap out of my seat.

I was in awe of these great men and wanted to save a continent that, she informed us, was on the brink of sinking under the weight of endless social, economic and political problems.

Today, 10 years later, listing some of these names alongside Mandela seems quite odd. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that Mandela, Mugabe and Museveni all once sung the same song of liberty, equality and tolerance.

Mandela is one of the few African leaders who sang the song to the very end. [Continue reading...]

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The U.S. Army discovers Africa

Andrew Bacevich writes: On the list of U.S. military priorities, Africa has always ranked right smack at the bottom. Now that appears to be changing. As Eric Schmitt recently reported in the New York Times, “thousands of soldiers once bound for Iraq or Afghanistan are now gearing up for missions in Africa.” Before the gearing up proceeds much further, Americans might want to ask a few questions. Chief among them are these: Why the sudden shift in priorities? What’s the aim? Who stands to benefit? What risks does the militarization of U.S. policy in Africa entail?

Among the various services, the U.S. Army in particular finds the prospect of an expanded Africa presence appealing. As Schmitt observed, with U.S. forces out of Iraq and soon scheduled to leave Afghanistan, “the Army is looking for new missions around the world.” For Army leaders, Africa spells opportunity, a chance to demonstrate continuing relevance at a time when the nation’s appetite for sending U.S. troops to invade and occupy countries has pretty much evaporated.

Thus, we have U.S. Army Africa, or USARAF, the latest in the Pentagon’s ever-growing roster of military headquarters. The mission of this command, which describes itself as “America’s premier Army team dedicated to positive change in Africa,” manages to be at once reassuringly bland and ominously ambitious. On the one hand, USARAF “strengthens the land force capabilities of African states and regional organizations.” On the other, it “conducts decisive action in order to establish a secure environment and protect the national security interests of the United States.”

One might hope that successfully accomplishing the first half of that mission — U.S. troops training and equipping African counterparts — will preclude the second. More likely, however, such efforts will pave the way for “decisive action,” a euphemism for war.

Let’s discard the euphemisms. Here is a classic example of bureaucratic interests displacing strategic calculation, not to mention common sense, as a basis for policy. For the Navy and Air Force, the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” toward East Asia has come as something of a godsend. Addressing the putative threat posed by a rising China promises to keep those services busy (and flush with cash) for decades to come. Yet apart from a possible resumption of the long-dormant Korean War, Asian scenarios involving a large-scale commitment of Army forces are difficult to conjure up. So expanding the “global war on terrorism” into the heart of Africa allows the Army to make its own pivot. [Continue reading...]

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CIA secret prisons: a decade later, justice in Africa?

John Sifton writes: I have just arrived here in the Gambia, in westernmost Africa, to testify before the African Commission of Human Rights about a CIA rendition case involving Djibouti, 4,000 miles east at the mouth of the Red Sea.

The case against Djibouti was brought by Mohammed Abdullah Saleh al-Asad, a Yemeni citizen who was arrested in 2003 in Tanzania and taken on a private flight to Djibouti. There the CIA — with help from Djibouti authorities — detained him short term and then flew him to another CIA facility in Afghanistan. His petition provides evidence that he was subjected to beatings and torture in both locations. The CIA appears to have realized later that al-Asad was not involved in terrorism or al-Qaeda, and returned him to Yemen in 2005.

The al-Asad case is one of several brought to hold the US government and its co-perpetrators accountable for unlawful arrests, detentions, and interrogations carried out by the CIA during the Bush administration — serious abuses that my colleagues and I documented for Human Rights Watch in numerous reports in 2004 to present. Known CIA interrogation techniques included severe sleep deprivation, forced standing, exposure to cold, slapping and hitting, confining detainees in small boxes, and throwing detainees against the wall. Some were waterboarded. [Continue reading...]

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Video: Israel’s new racism — persecution of African migrants in the Holy Land

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