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The U.S. Military’s New Normal in Africa

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Posted on May 15, 2014

Photo by US Army Africa (CC BY 2.0)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

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.

Square, Site wide
Ever Less New, Ever More Normal

Since 9/11, the U.S. military has been ramping up missions on the African continent, funneling money into projects to woo allies, supporting and training proxy forces, conducting humanitarian outreach, carrying out air strikes and commando raids, creating a sophisticated logistics network throughout the region, and building a string of camps, “cooperative security locations,” and bases-by-other-names.

All the while, AFRICOM downplayed the expansion and much of the media, with a few notable exceptions, played along.  With the end of the Iraq War and the drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan, Washington has, however, visibly “pivoted” to Africa and, in recent weeks, many news organizations, especially those devoted to the military, have begun waking up to the new normal there.

While daily U.S. troop strength continent-wide hovers in the relatively modest range of 5,000 to 8,000 personnel, an under-the-radar expansion has been constant, with the U.S. military now conducting operations alongside almost every African military in almost every African country and averaging more than a mission a day.

This increased engagement has come at a continuing cost.  When the U.S. and other allies intervened in 2011 to aid in the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, for instance, it helped set off a chain reaction that led to a security vacuum destabilizing that country as well as neighboring Mali.  The latter saw its elected government overthrown by a U.S.-trained officer.  The former never recovered and has tottered toward failed-state status ever since.  Local militias have been carving out fiefdoms, while killing untold numbers of Libyans—as well, of course, as U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in a September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the “cradle” of the Libyan revolution, whose forces the U.S. had aided with training, materiel, and military might.


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