Skip Navigation

How Secret Wars Happen: AFRICOM and Militarization Disguised as Humanitarianism

From 2006 to 2016, deployments of US Special Operations Command units to Africa climbed by a staggering 1600 percent. This militarization – with the exception of occasional muted outcries over drone usage – has gone largely unrecognized and unquestioned by the US public. The Pentagon, trying to quell warning calls of their growing presence, holds firm that there is only one US military base on continental Africa. This is grossly manipulative – and maybe even an outright lie. Regardless of the existence of formal bases, investigative reporting has shown that the US has run expansive and undocumented operations in at least 49 countries in Africa. 

From West Africa to the Horn of Africa, the Sahel to the Maghreb, the coastal islands to the Sahara, the US military is making itself very much at home – and we know almost nothing about it. And if secrecy is a strategy to evade civil society’s objections or condemnations, then this is a troubling trend.

The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) was born out of the aftermath of 9/11 and the “War on Terror,” a global project to amplify military presence in regions where US officials believed terror cells might emerge. Added to the already existing “jurisdictions” of US military commands that reach around the world (with no international consent or recognition), the US Africa Command was created on February 6, 2007. When President George W. Bush announced the initiative, he offered the first glimpse into how drastically different the public presentation of this Command would be – namely, nonmilitary:

“The Africa Command will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our own common goals of development, health, education, democracy and economic growth in Africa.”

Paternalistic overtones aside, this presentation offers important clues about AFRICOM’s intended public perception. With word choice emphasizing themes of cooperation, partnership, altruism, and benevolence, the military initiative seems intrinsically humanitarian. This was absolutely intentional: By portraying AFRICOM as mutually beneficial to both the US and African nations while emphasizing a humanitarian mission rather than a military one, US officials hoped it would be received warmly by African leaders. This was – predictably and understandably – not the case. History has been too encumbered with heavy-handed American militarization, interventions, and natural resource extractions for African leaders not to be skeptical of this alleged promotion of “peace” and “common goals.”

An important purpose of the strategic presentation of AFRICOM as a program of partnership, peacekeeping, and development was the tactical appropriation of development “speak” to encourage a more positive reception of the initiative. AFRICOM proudly touted its innovative organizational structure as a crucial part of its “nonmilitary” approach: The Command was supposed to incorporate equal numbers of USAID and Department of State personnel in addition to the traditional Department of Defense officials. Their own communication of their “interagency approach” as “novel” reads on their website:

“U.S. AFRICOM was the first regional command to integrate from its inception advisors and experts from other U.S. government agencies…The non-Department of Defense representation…is one of the broadest of any Combatant Command. Using a novel approach, AFRICOM’s non-D.O.D. representatives are placed throughout the Command and embedded directly with D.o.D. staff, where their subject matter expertise can best be used.”

This “whole of government” makeup supposedly emphasized the prioritization of diplomacy and development and the relatively smaller influence of defense. This was never actualized; current estimates show fewer than 40 members of the 2,000 total personnel employed by AFRICOM were hired outside the DoD. If this is the “whole of government” approach, it seems pretty unbalanced.

The alleged incorporation of development-oriented, humanitarian initiatives into the “whole of government” structure – the justification for merging USAID and State Department personnel with Defense officials in the first place – has also fallen flat. The most notable nonmilitary initiative sponsored by AFRICOM is their Partner Military HIV/AIDS program, which supposedly draws on USAID’s expertise in public health and medical humanitarianism. This is a bit of a mischaracterization, though. The program does work to combat HIV/AIDS, but only among soldiers and other army personnel. This is not an innovative collaboration between USAID and Defense ideologies and skillsets; it’s simply placing basic USAID programs and strategies within a strictly military context.

The Pentagon has stressed that AFRICOM would “work to enhance security cooperation, extend humanitarian assistance, and build partner capacity.” The strategic way AFRICOM capitalized on the link between security and development is critical to understanding how its military operations have operated without oversight. If they are “extending humanitarian assistance” and “working in cooperation,” can criticisms of militarization be applied? What does the average American make of a US military mission claiming to also be peace practitioners?

AFRICOM operates in shadowy secrecy, with an alarming degree of unaccountability. The independent journalists who investigate AFRICOM – admittedly few in number – have revealed that only a small fraction of the Command’s operations are reported in press releases. Of those that are, almost no details are given – sometimes they include fabrications, sometimes total inaccuracies. It is safe to say the American public knows very little of AFRICOM’s wars in Africa, but it is also increasingly clear that Congress doesn’t know much either. Perhaps no one outside AFRICOM’s guarded, taciturn ranks does.

There is probably no better example of the disconnect between public presentation and real action in AFRICOM’s engagement in Africa than the Horn of Africa. Somalia has long grappled with the presence of the al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist faction al-Shabab within its borders, and AFRICOM has seized this opportunity to insert itself into the domestic defense landscape. Claiming to promote security within Somalia by providing logistical support, surveillance, intelligence sharing, and advising to the Somalian military, AFRICOM is actually doing far more.

Although all the publicly accessible sources coming from AFRICOM – including mission statements, website pages, interviews with personnel, and statements to Congress – claim that it is solely engaged in these “partnership” measures, investigative journalists have uncovered far greater military involvement than just advising or information sharing. Though AFRICOM has never admitted to this publicly, independent investigations show that more than 16 US drones and four fighter jets leave their Djibouti air base every day. The particularly high-profile incident in March of last year when a US drone killed 150 Somalians – allegedly members of al-Shabab, but AFRICOM never provided evidence of this – provided a rare moment of insight into US military overreach in Africa.

If the highly militarized operations in Somalia – and AFRICOM’s attempts to conceal and deny them – are any indication of American military operations in the rest of Africa, it is clear that AFRICOM is doing a lot more than playing a simple “supportive role” to local governments in their efforts to develop their own security measures as it claims to be doing. In fact, cases like Somalia show that this mandate can easily turn into a guise for accomplishing illegal military objectives.

It is tempting to believe that AFRICOM’s heavily militarized presence in Africa was simply representative of President Bush’s aggressive and interventionist foreign policy stances, but this is untrue. Although Bush’s administration may be responsible for the implementation of AFRICOM, it should not be credited with AFRICOM’s continuation and, arguably, its expansion under his successor. President Obama, in many ways, broadened the legacy of Bush’s presentation of AFRICOM. In a visit to Ghana in 2009, he said, “And let me be clear: Our Africa Command is not focused on establishing a foothold on the continent, but on confronting these common challenges to advance the security of America, Africa, and the world.” Again, themes of commonality and universality were invoked to refute concerns of military imperialism. In his last year in office, Obama’s administration requested even more annual funding for counterterrorism programs in AFRICOM.

When AFRICOM was first announced, it was presented as an ambitious, non-traditional, cooperative version of the traditional US military command structure, seemingly focused on preventing wars through partnerships instead of engaging in them. Understandably, long legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and interventions have instilled deep-rooted concerns over US military presence on African soil. These fears were assuaged by AFRICOM’s smooth portrayal of their goals: They claimed to be just as focused on development as they were on traditional security measures, incorporating perspectives and knowledge from USAID and the Department of State to temper the Defense strategies. But this incorporation has simply created a structure where a few development programs can distract from the overwhelming focus on military operations.

With an overwhelming sense of secrecy and a calculated, purposeful public relations framing of the program, AFRICOM offers insight into how secret American wars in Africa have happened.

By appropriating language and concepts typically associated with development, AFRICOM has created a false sense of legitimacy with which US military missions can be freely conducted with fewer questions and less scrutiny. A language of “partnerships,” “cooperation,” and “humanitarian assistance” do not incite the same apprehension as a language of bases, weaponry, and interventions.

Development and diplomacy find themselves as peripheral concerns within AFRICOM’s supposedly cohesive formations and operations. Its presentation as primarily nonmilitary has protected it from traditional misgivings and suspicions of military overreach – and the processes of accountability that usually follow, such as Congressional investigations into the accuracy of press releases and consistent reporting from assigned foreign correspondents.

Unchecked by Congress and only more empowered by budget increases (although we have yet to see what Trump’s giant Defense budget inflation will do for global militarization), US military presence is spreading across Africa with almost no interrogation from the American public. Then again, maybe that was always the aim.