|Brigadier General James Linder and other military officials at the closing ceremony for a US-led international training mission for African militaries (Reuters/Joe Penney)|
That the US military is expanding its efforts in Africa shouldn't be a shock anymore. For years now, the Pentagon has been increasing its missions there and promoting a mini-basing boom that has left it with a growing collection of outposts sprouting across the northern tier of the continent. This string of camps is meant to do what more than a decade of counterterrorism efforts, including the training and equipping of local military forces and a variety of humanitarian hearts-and-minds missions, has failed to accomplish: transform the Trans-Sahara region in the northern and western parts of the continent into a bulwark of stability.
Still, US support continued.
In September of 2013, the US military organized meetings with Chad's senior-most military leaders, including Army chief General Brahim Seid Mahamat, Minister of Defense General Bénaïndo Tatola and counterterror tsar Brigadier General Abderaman Youssouf Merry, to build solid relationships and support efforts at "countering violent extremist operations objectives and theater security cooperation programs." This comes from a separate set of documents concerning "IO," or Information Operations, obtained from the military through the Freedom of Information Act. French officials also attended these meetings, and the agenda included the former colonial power's support of "security cooperation with Chad in the areas of basic and officer training and staff procedures," as well as "French support [for] US security cooperation efforts with the Chadian military." Official briefing slides also mention ongoing "train and equip" activities with Chadian troops.
All of this followed on the heels of a murky coup plot by elements of the armed forces last May to which the Chadian military reacted with a crescendo of violence. According to a State Department report, Chad's "security forces shot and killed unarmed civilians and arrested and detained members of parliament, military officers, former rebels, and others."
After Chad reportedly helped overthrow the Central African Republic's president in early 2013 and later aided in the 2014 ouster of the rebel leader who deposed him, it sent its forces into that civil war–torn land as part of an African Union mission bolstered by US-backed French troops. Soon, Chad's peacekeeping forces were accused of stoking sectarian strife by supporting Muslim militias against Christian fighters.
Then, on March 29, a Chadian military convoy arrived in a crowded marketplace in the capital, Bangui.
There, according to a United Nations report, the troops "reportedly opened fire on the population without any provocation. At the time, the market was full of people, including many girls and women buying and selling produce. As panic-stricken people fled in all directions, the soldiers allegedly continued firing
In all, thirty civilians were reportedly killed and more than 300 were wounded. Amid criticism, Chad angrily announced it was withdrawing its troops. "Despite the sacrifices we have made, Chad and Chadians have been targeted in a gratuitous and malicious campaign that blamed them for all the suffering" in the Central
African Republic, declared Chad's foreign ministry.
In May, despite this, the United States sent eighty military personnel to Chad to operate drones and conduct surveillance in an effort to locate hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in neighboring Nigeria. "These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area," President Obama told Congress. The force, he said, will remain in Chad "until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required."
In July, AFRICOM admitted that it had reduced surveillance flights searching for the girls to focus on other missions. Now AFRICOM tells TomDispatch that, while "the United States continues to help Nigeria address the threat posed by Boko Haram, the previously announced ISR support deployment to Chad has departed." Yet more than seven months after their abduction, the girls still have not been located, let alone rescued .
In June, according to the State Department, the deputy commander of US Army Africa (USARAF), Brigadier General Kenneth H. Moore Jr., visited Chad to "celebrat[e] the successful conclusion of a partnership between USARAF and the Chadian Armed Forces." Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus arrived in that landlocked country at the same time to meet with "top Chadian officials." His visit, according to an embassy press release, "underscore[d] the importance of bilateral relations between the two countries, as well as military cooperation." And that cooperation has been ample.
Earlier this year, Chadian troops joined those of the United States, Burkina Faso, Canada, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom and host nation Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise for TSCTP nations . At about the time Flintlock was concluding, soldiers from Chad, Cameroon, Burundi, Gabon, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, the Netherlands and the United States took part in another annual training exercise, Central Accord 2014.
The Army also sent medical personnel to mentor Chadian counterparts in "tactical combat casualty care," while Marines and Navy personnel traveled to Chad to train that country's militarized anti-poaching park rangers in small-unit tactics and patrolling.
As for US Army Africa, it sent trainers as part of a separate effort to provide Chadian troops with instruction on patrolling and fixed-site defense as well as live-fire training. "We are ready to begin training in Chad for about 1,300 soldiers—an 850 man battalion, plus another 450 man battalion," said Colonel John Ruffing, the Security Cooperation director of US Army Africa, noting that the United States was working in tandem with a French private security firm.
In September, AFRICOM reaffirmed its close ties with Chad by renewing an Acquisition Cross Servicing Agreement, which allows both militaries to purchase from each other or trade for basic supplies. The open- ended pact, said Brigadier General James Vechery, AFRICOM's director for logistics, "will continue to strengthen our bilateral cooperation on international security issues…as well as the interoperability of the armed forces of both nations."
The Base That Wasn't and the Deployment That Might Be In the months since the Chadian armed forces' massacre in Bangui, various US military contract solicitations and related documents have pointed toward an even more substantive American presence in Chad. In late September, the Army put out a call for bids to sustain American personnel for six months at those "base camp facilities" located near N'Djamena.
After AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated email requests for further information, I called up Chief of Media Operations Benjamin Benson and asked about the base camp. He was even more tight-lipped than usual. "I personally don't know anything," he told me.
"That's not saying AFRICOM doesn't have any information on that." In follow-up emails, Benson eventually told me that the "base camp" is strictly a temporary facility to be used by US forces only for the duration of the upcoming Flintlock 2015 exercise. He stated in no uncertain terms: "We are not establishing a base/forward presence/contingency location, building a US facility, or stationing troops in Chad."
Benson would not, however, let me speak with an expert on US military activities in Chad. Nor would he confirm or deny the continued presence of the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance liaison team deployed to Chad in 2013 to support the French mission in Mali, first reported on by TomDispatch this March. "[W]e cannot discuss ISR activities or the locations and durations of operational deployments," he wrote. If an ISR team is still present in Chad, this would represent a substantive long-term deployment despite the lack of a formal US base.
The N'Djamena "base camp" is just one of a series of Chadian projects mentioned in recent contracting documents. An Army solicitation from September sought "building materials for use in Chad," while supporting documents specifically mention an "operations center/multi-use facility." That same month, the Army awarded a contract for the transport of equipment from Niamey, Niger, the home of another of the growing network of US outposts in Africa, to N'Djamena. The Army also began seeking out contractors capable of supplying close to 600 bunk beds that could support an American-sized weight of 200 to 225 pounds for a facility "in and around the N'Djamena region." And just last month, the military put out a call for a contractor to supply construction equipment—a bulldozer, dump truck, excavator and the like—for a project in, you guessed it, N'Djamena.
This increased US interest in Chad follows on the heels of a push by France, the nation's former colonial overlord and America's current premier proxy in Africa, to beef up its military footprint on the continent. In July, following US-backed French military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic, French President François Hollande announced a new mission, Operation Barkhane (a term for a crescent-shaped sand dune found in the Sahara). Its purpose: a long-term counterterrorism operation involving 3,000 French troops deployed to a special forces outpost in Burkina Faso and forward operating bases in Mali , Niger and, not surprisingly, Chad.
"There are plenty of threats in all directions," Hollande told French soldiers in Chad, citing militants in Mali and Libya as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria. "Rather than having large bases that are difficult to manage in moments of crisis, we prefer installations that can be used quickly and efficiently." Shortly afterward, President Obama approved millions in emergency military aid for French operations in Mali, Niger and Chad, while the United Kingdom, another former colonial power in the region, dispatched combat aircraft to the French base in N'Djamena to contribute to the battle against Boko Haram.
From Setback to Blowback?
In recent years, the US military has been involved in a continual process of expanding its presence in Africa.
Out of public earshot, officials have talked about setting up a string of small bases across the northern tier of the continent. Indeed, over the last years, US staging areas, mini-bases and outposts have popped up in the contiguous nations of Senegal, Mali , Burkina Faso, Niger and, skipping Chad, in the Central African Republic, followed by South Sudan, Uganda , Kenya , Ethiopia and Djibouti . A staunch American ally with a frequent and perhaps enduring American troop presence, Chad seems like the natural spot for still another military compound—the only missing link in a long chain of countries stretching from west to east, from one edge of the continent to the other—even if AFRICOM continues to insist that there's no American "base" in the works.
Even without a base, the United States has for more than a decade poured copious amounts of money, time and effort into making Chad a stable regional counterterrorism partner, sending troops there, training and equipping its army, counseling its military leaders, providing tens of millions of dollars in aid, funding its military expeditions, supplying its army with equipment ranging from tents to trucks, donating additional equipment for its domestic security forces, providing a surveillance and security system for its border security agents and looking the other way when its military employed child soldiers.
With Chad, the United States finds itself more deeply involved with yet another authoritarian government and another atrocity-prone proxy force. In this, it continues a long series of mistakes, missteps and mishaps across Africa. These include an intervention in Libya that transformed the country from an autocracy into a near-failed state , training efforts that produced coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso, American nation-building that led to a failed state in South Sudan, anti-piracy measures that flopped in the Gulf of Guinea , the many fiascos of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, the training of an elite Congolese unit that committed mass rapes and other atrocities, problem-plagued humanitarian efforts in Djibouti and Ethiopia, and the steady rise of terror groups in US-backed countries like Nigeria and Tunisia.