Pentagon misled Congress about size, scope of US airbases in Africa
Experts believe AFRICOM chief Gen. Michael Langley misled Congress by undermining the size of the US footprint in Africa.
Over 1,000 US troops have been stationed in their Nigerien outposts after the coup in Niger broke out, not to mention being at the US largest drone base in the region, Air Base 201 in Agadez.
The base, having cost a total of $250 million since its construction in 2016, represents a significant surveillance hub for the US in West Africa, but AFRICOM chief Gen. Michael Langley claimed in his testimony before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in March that it was “minimal” and “low cost".
He described two “enduring” US forward operating sites in Africa: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti and a longtime logistics hub on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. “The Command also operates out of 12 other posture locations throughout Africa,” he said, adding, “These locations have minimal permanent U.S. presence and have low-cost facilities and limited supplies for these dedicated Americans to perform critical missions and quickly respond to emergencies.”
Experts believe Langley misled Congress by undermining the size of the US footprint in Africa as at least 18 outposts, in addition to Camp Lemonnier and Ascension Island, exist in AFRICOM’s “posture” on the continent, according to AFRICOM’s secret 2022 theater posture plan, as seen by The Intercept.
A US official familiar with the current footprint on the continent confirmed that the same 20 bases are operating while another two locations in Somalia and Ghana were “under evaluation".
Read next: RS: The fate of US troops in Niger
US taxpayer-paid defense bills
Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University, disclosed to The Intercept, “This is a case of the U.S. military showing a marked lack of transparency by using technicalities to avoid conveying an accurate understanding of the extent of U.S. bases in Africa,” noting that she has "done field research near the sites of some of the ‘contingency locations’ that don’t seem to be part of the general’s official count, and in practice, if not in name, they serve as significant hubs of U.S. military operations. To not include them in an official count is to pull wool over the eyes of Congress and the U.S. public.”
This report comes after a coalition of 20 progressive, humanitarian, and antiwar organizations urged the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to sustain New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s cost of war amendment, which calls for “more transparency around the price of our military presence overseas and public information about our military footprint” in the final version of the 2024 defense spending bill.
Annee Lorentzen of the Washington-based Just Foreign Policy, who led advocacy efforts for the amendment, believes the amendment is critical for Pentagon accountability.
“It is nearly impossible for U.S. taxpayers and even members of Congress to keep track of the vast US military presence in the world. Without basic transparency about the location and costs of US military engagement abroad, including information on the cost of our hundreds of bases and countless partnerships with foreign militaries, legislators cannot have an informed debate about national security priorities,” she told The Intercept. “In a democratic system, voters and their elected representatives should not be in the dark about where their money and military are sent.”
AFRICOM claims that Air Base 201 is not an “enduring” forward operating site but is a “cooperative security location,” as one of the 12 “minimal permanent US presence” and “low-cost” facilities mentioned by Langley.
Entertainment, food, and drones
Air Base 201 comprises a 6,200-foot runway, aprons, taxiways, massive aircraft hangars, multistory living quarters, roads, utilities, munitions storage, and an aircraft rescue and firefighting station, all lying within a 25-kilometer “base security zone.”
It also contains a 13,000-square-foot dining facility, a gym, basketball and volleyball courts, and a recreation center with “bookcases full of movies and games, Wi-Fi, snacks,” according to the Air Force. This is all fence-protected with barriers and upgraded air-conditioned guard towers with custom-made firing ports.
The Pentagon sees it as the largest “airman-built” project in Air Force history and a “low-cost” facility that costs $110 million and is maintained to the tune of $20 to $30 million taxpayer dollars yearly.
“When I went to Agadez on a research trip, I saw a large U.S. drone base that was the opposite of transitory,” said Savell. “None of the base’s neighbors — who see drones flying above their houses every day, and who have seen foreign contracting companies, rather than themselves, reap the profits of servicing a multimillion-dollar facility — would even remotely consider this a minor outpost.”
Cooperative security locations or CSLs contain “little or no permanent US presence,” but Air Base 201 can currently house around 1,000 US military personnel, AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told The Intercept. “The agreement continues in force automatically after its initial ten-year term."
The Pentagon announced on Thursday that a small number of “non-essential personnel” are due to depart Niger “out of an abundance of caution," while other troops are to be repositioned. “This does not change our overall force posture in Niger,” a Defense Department spokesperson revealed to The Intercept.
When asked if the US intends to evacuate troops from Niger, Air Force Gen. James Hecker, the commander of US air forces in Europe and Africa answered, “[T]he goal is to stay... preparing to stay might be a better way to say it because that’s what we’re hoping we’re going to do.”
Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh reiterated the same position. "Niger is a partner, and we don’t want to see that partnership go,” she said. “We’ve invested, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars into bases there, trained with the military there.”
Another US-operated CSL known as Air Base 101 is stationed at the main commercial airport in Niger’s capital, Niamey. A Pentagon spokesperson said they were “repositioning some US personnel and equipment in Niger from Air Base 101 in Niamey to Air Base 201 in Agadez."
A former French Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti is the cherry on top of US bases on the east side of the continent as it is home to Special Operations Forces and operations in Yemen and Somalia for around 4,000 US and allied personnel.
Mogadishu also has a US-operated CSL, which was recently called out by Rep. Matt Gaetz after criticizing Langley’s characterizations as “minimal” outposts. “Look at Somalia. We’re pretty enduring there,” he told The Intercept in a recent interview. “We’ve become the block captain of Mogadishu.”
Langley failed to mention another drone base at Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Bizerte, Tunisia, in which almost 70 Air Force personnel and more than 20 civilian contractors were deployed in 2017, according to documents gathered by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, then-chief of AFRICOM in 2017, said, “You know, flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones out of Tunisia has been taking place for quite some time,” adding, “[W]e fly there, it’s not a secret, but we are very respectful to the Tunisians’ desires in terms of, you know, how we support them and the fact that we have [a] low profile.”
Other locations that Langley failed to mention include facilities in Misrata, Libya; Thebephatshwa, Botswana; Kismayo, Somalia; and Ouallam and Diffa, Niger.
The Intercept first reported on Ouallam six years ago but following an October 2017 attack by ISIS that left four US soldiers and wounded two, AFRICOM announced that the troops in Ouallam were providing “advice and assistance” to Nigerien forces.
“The framers of our Constitution didn’t intend for Congress and the American people to learn about U.S. military missions once servicemembers had already lost their lives,” said Lorentzen, urging, “We need transparency both for our troops’ sake and to permit debate about this military-first approach that scatters hundreds of U.S. military outposts across Africa and the world.”