July 3, 2013: One aftereffect of last September’s attack on American diplomats in Libya (killing the U.S. ambassador) is the establishment of a quick reaction force to deal with any similar attacks in the future. One part of this force will be based in Spain and consist of 500 marines and six V-22 tilt rotor transports. The other part of the force will be based in Djibouti (the northwestern neighbor of Somalia) and consist of 200 army troops using helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to get around. The U.S. Navy has long maintained bases in Spain. The Djibouti base is a joint French-American operation. The new quick reaction force will be available for all manner of disasters and emergencies in Africa. The basic idea is if you can get a small force of troops to a rapidly developing hot spot, you can prevent it from becoming a larger or more intense disaster.
The problem with Benghazi, however, was more a matter of policy than resources. There were small teams of Special Forces available to get to Benghazi in time last September, but State Department policy was to employ a very light touch when it came to security for its staff in Libya. This ignored the very visible Islamic terrorist presence in Benghazi and caused senior State Department officials to hesitate in taking action. Setting up a quick reaction force is easy, ensuring that it will be used in time is much more difficult.
The new reaction force was organized and is maintained by U.S. AFRICOM (Africa Command). This organization has its headquarters (1,500 personnel) in Germany. AFRICOM has been unable to establish its headquarters anywhere in Africa and has been in a temporary headquarters in Germany until someplace in Africa was found. Failing that, the plan was to move the headquarters back to the U.S. But AFRICOM commanders pointed out that Germany was closer to African hotspots than the United States and, more importantly, closer to European nations that are also involved in African peacekeeping and counter-terror operations. Germany is also in the same time zone as most of Africa.
AFRICOM is similar in organization to other commands (CENTCOM, for the Middle East, and SOUTHCOM, for Latin America, etc). AFRICOM coordinates all American military operations in Africa. Before AFRICOM was created those operations were coordinated between two other commands (the one covering Europe and the one covering Latin America). The establishment of AFRICOM means more money for counter-terror operations in Africa and more long range projects like the quick reaction force. No country in Africa had sufficient infrastructure for AFRICOM headquarters and few wanted to risk the political blowback from hosting a major American military headquarters. This is not uncommon, as few of these headquarters are located outside the United States.
Last year the U.S. admitted what everyone already knew: American warplanes (UAVs, fighter-bombers, and helicopters) have been making precision attacks on Islamic terrorists in places like Yemen and Somalia. About the same time separate revelations detailed the growing number of intelligence operations in Africa. All this can be better managed from a European headquarters and that’s what AFRICOM is doing.
This is an organization that has personnel and equipment spread around a vast continent. Office and support facilities for the AFRICOM, which was created five years ago, are in its headquarters outside Stuttgart, Germany. There are a growing number of official and unofficial AFRICOM bases throughout the continent.
There is one official U.S. military base in Africa, in Djibouti. France and the United States SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have had special operations forces (commandos and special aircraft) stationed in Djibouti for years. France has had commandos there for over a decade and the U.S. moved in after September 11, 2001. But you don't hear much about this corner of the War on Terror, despite the numerous terror groups in the region (especially Yemen and Somalia). Why is that? Well, it's complicated.
France has been building up their special operations capability in Djibouti during the last six years in anticipation of problems in Eritrea and Somalia, both of which are involved in disputes with Ethiopia. The Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)-Djibouti railroad is pretty lucrative for Djibouti and France (because it is Ethiopia's main outlet to the sea), and fighting between Ethiopia and either of its neighbors could create problems there. American Special Forces in Djibouti have a base near the main French one. It's pretty easy to spot on Google Earth. Less easy to spot is the fact that France and SOCOM also have access to one or more Ethiopian air bases. American UAVs operate from Ethiopia and Djibouti. The UAVs are sometimes armed with missiles. Some of these armed UAVs are believed to have also operated out of Yemen air bases. When not attacking al Qaeda targets in Yemen, these UAVs are sometimes seen across the water in Somalia. UAVs are operating out of a new base in Niger, to cover Mali.
U.S. forces in Djibouti were increased after resistance collapsed in Iraq six years ago. There is even a small, and unofficial, CIA base in Mogadishu, the traditional capital of Somalia. The CIA, and similar outfits from other nations, also work from Djibouti. But most of the effort is directed at monitoring what is going on in the region (mainly Somalia and Yemen but also Eritrea, Mali, Libya, Kenya, and Ethiopia) not at interfering with the local terrorists. Not much, anyway. The Djibouti base supports operations throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, which stretches from the Atlantic to Somalia).
The U.S. also has a number of other airports in central and southern Africa where it has agreements to quietly allow its military and contractor aircraft to operate. American warplanes (especially the very-long range F-15E) operate out of Persian Gulf air bases and have apparently carried out smart bomb attacks in Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps elsewhere in Africa. Throughout the region there are often large explosions at night. If a smart bomb was dropped from a high enough altitude, there would just be the explosion and yet another mystery no one was keen to solve.