Embedded with AFRICOM/ Dans la base militaire de l’Africom

Embedded with AFRICOM

[AFRICOM recently hosted a media delegation from Mauritania and Algeria. The following article, which appeared originally in Liberte on December 15, 2013, is from one of the Algerian participants who provides a critical, and at times humorous, insight of their trip, AFRICOM personnel, and AFRICOM’s ultimate goals.]

Jabari Lewis is an 11 year old who just won a children’s competition for the best poster demonstrating cyber security. He is part of the children of American military personnel who live, under the giant pines and freezing cold, in Kelly Barracks at the heart of EUCOM (the American high command station in Europe) in Stuttgart, Germany. It is in this microcosm of the Pentagon that we were invited by Africom. There we were “embedded” for a week.

In other places, this child would have certainly drawn Christmas trees. But in the universe of American military personnel, with reinforced security and antiterrorist paranoia, childhood becomes like a package of the Marines: too heavy and too encumbering. In Stuttgart, the Americans are at home. That is to say, not in the colonial sense of the term. At least 29,530 members of the most powerful army in the world [are stationed here]. It must be said that the historical circumstances of their arrival in this industrial, German city, where one can cross as many Porsches as Marutis in Algiers, is embarrassing/annoying to recount. For lovers of statistics concerning WWII, Stuttgart endured 53 massive bombings from the American Air Force, and the inhabitants saw 14,200 bombs drop amongst them. 4,000 civilians were uncovered from the rubble. “There were also 1,100 Jews who were deported from Stuttgart’s train station who were at the heart of the [Nazi rail device]” says an expert of American-German relations. “We almost forgot them. But we cleared 1.14 million tons of debris in 8 years to reconstruct the city”, follows another speaker who refused to be cited and spoke anonymously.

A communication that doesn’t displease the MDN

Beyond the side of undeniable history, the Africom soldiers surprised us with their propensity to say everything anonymously. Furthermore, as soon as our Sunday evening arrival in Stuttgart, as hungry as the Guantanamo detainees that we had just released, the director of communications and public relations slid a pretty explicit note in our program of festivities. The list of forbidden individuals is as long as our border with Mali. It is forbidden to tape, to film the conferences, to take photos with the soldiers without their authorization, to wander in the base or to pose before the base entrance. So much so that when the American soldiers brought us to take photos for Africa in front of the US command station sign, we all rushed to the sign; the photos were taken, and our Facebook accounts were saved.

It must be said that these rules are neither strange nor foreign. The last editorial of El-Djeich comes to mind, with his lot of protests and reprimands about the Army’s new department of communication having adopted the idea of dictating to the Algerian press. Although the list of forbiddens is the same for Africom, the manner is different. As much of the People’s National Army [ANP] are clumsy/inept/maladroit in being directive, so are the communicators of the American army but in a way that the journalist feels “free” albeit in a predetermined area. When it comes down to it, even if the result is the same, the impact on the image of the institution is not identical (one being a form of sympathetic censorship).

The visit in itself is to be in line with the urgency of the Americans wanting to communicate the role of Africom in Africa, in particular one special operation: public relations. But it is a matter of knowing why now, almost seven years after Africom’s creation. An anonymous lieutenant-colonel, resembling Michael Douglas with his glasses, briefed the Algerian-Mauritanian delegation on the first day about the fact that Africom will only intervene, in terms of aid and cooperativity to military formation, when asked by the specific African country of concern. The question of Algeria was not asked, because we never asked that the financial contribution of Africom exceed the one million dollars for mining programs, and the officer of Africom recognized that fact himself. “Algeria has a strong army that succeeds just as well, all alone, in combating domestic terrorism as securing its frontiers.” There, it’s said. We are the best in Maghreb. One, two, three, long live Algeria. But the patriotic enthusiasm fell as much when the officer continued to distribute glowing reports to other countries, including Morocco, which was equally doted on as “a professional army who is our oldest military ally” (the Saharan militants can bear witness to what degree Morocco is). There are other sub-Saharan armies allied with the US!

The fable of the US military base

The second lesson of the communication had just started. Africom talks like the US Department of State, with a diplomatic dialect and a manifest desire to avoid hurting their partners. That includes the armies of the Sahel whose [professional] levels leave much to desire. As Africom had started with their polemic, notably those of the bases to install in Africa, or the accusation of wanting to “militarize the relations with Africans” that the Vice-President of relations of Africom, General Steven Hummer (too bad I cite him) had categorically denied. Seven years later, Africom diagnosed a deficit of images, or of adhesion, on the part of Africans, and passed the high speed so as to explain their real missions in the continent brutalized by the French and transformed into a gigantic park of raw materials by the Chinese. But Africom is also demonstrating a deficit in military action. Needing to cater to humanitarians, technical assistance, and social action, the American soldiers were cut off from their real job. The events in Mali or in Niger gave them an opportunity to deploy between 100 and 300 service members, the majority of which were instructors, military intelligence collectors, and logistics people, but also a mini-base of recon drones in Niger. But this is far from the capacities of Africom. Even though the French army, with their much feebler means, deploys their tanks in Central Africa and their explosions/skirmishes in Mali, the American soldiers take their trouble [take care] patiently focusing on … slides.

In addition, on the second day, the attaché to public relations, named Burns, was very excited to announce to us that the Americans had just lent their assistance to a French operation that was presently occurring in Central Africa. There was going to be action. “The ground troops?” dared a Mauritanian colleague, interrogation specialist. “The Apaches? The Navy seals?” No, the American contribution is a vague air-based support for troop transport or logistics.

A secret agreement with the ANP to track arms

This logic to stay withdrawn is a well-planned strategy. A present diplomat, who didn’t want to be named as a diplomat, insisted furthermore the fact that “war is a last option” and the Americans favor long term cooperation: “There is always a crisis in Africa. But the most important for us is to make a sort that the armies that we assist work to secure their people, to form their troops and do it according to the rules.” A diplomatic philosophy that relegates the most strength and firepower to the military and that the American armies accept and repeat over and over again, especially regarding the Algerians: “The military is under the influence of the civilians.” Opinions from amateurs.  And it is in this insolvable contradiction that Africom seems to exist. An army of over-equipped professionals that seems to have their hands tied by a strategy dictated by Washington. Everything seems delicate to say, to do, and to undertake.

During the conferences that take place between pilots of the US Navy, expert colonels in maritime maneuvers, and the liaisons of the army, the verbs/words are defined clearly like a sniper’s shot. The elements of the language are carefully distilled, whatever the color of the uniform may be. Question: when will there be an American military intervention in Africa? Response: “We prefer African responses to African questions.” Question: Have you sent experts to ensure antiterrorist training on the ground and to accompany the African armies? Response: “We support the training of trainers.” Question: Which outlets take the American military assistance? Response: “We do it so that the Africans work amongst themselves. We prefer the multilateral over the bilateral.” And if by accident we evoked the spiny dossier of furnishing arms to African armies, the strategy of the IMET (military cooperation and training), an expert of planning, we’ll call him Mister S., draws you the obstacle course that one must make to make a request of the African army to lead. And this, after having signed a protocol of following military equipment, a monitoring (Blue, that allows the pentagon to follow the final destination of resources, if every it is resold to a third party); a protocol that the ANP signed confidentially over a year ago according to Africom, that doesn’t seem to have reassured the Americans. Do they not want that their technology leads to… Polisario for example!

More missions, less budget

This bureaucratic procedure that is more complex than the obtainment of an Algerian passport (biometrics) speaks volumes about what affects Africom the most. This military machine destined to reign over the black continent has become a bureaucratic labyrinth. And in order to not waste things, the American soldiers must make do with a budget that is on the decrease. The economies of scale decided on by Washington impact the role of Africom,  that must demonstrate to itself how ingenious it can be in finding money or saving on the feeble budget that remains. In addition, the military lecturers ask openly about the problem of missing money. The program of military cooperation with 53 African countries is not worth more than 50 million dollars. In total, Africom has a global budget of 515 million dollars, which is nothing in comparison to the 7 billion dollar budget of the Department of State to manage their African politics. And in their budget, everything goes. Aerial and maritime maneuvers for the fight against narco-trafficking or narco-terrorism, the fight against maritime pirates, school building, anti-pandemic programs and the fight against… Al Qaïda. And by virtue of having spoken of lacking funds, the American military has become ingenious to render their bills tolerable, to the point of printing pages double-sided and hiring private contractors to manage their kitchens or removing towels from their gyms (too expensive to keep!). But the force of the American military seems as adaptive towards the budgetary consequences as the African threats. And speaking of threats, we, Algerians, were preoccupied by one of our Mauritanian friends.

Amongst the delegation that came to Nouakchott, there emerged two young journalists who were a part of internet agencies ANI and Sahara Medias. These two, who had relayed in real-time the demands of Mokhtar Belmokhtar during the terrorist attacks of Tigentourine and the taking of hostages by this branch of Aqmi, were here in front of us, studiously taking notes.

The coffee break having arrived, we had to convince ourselves mutually to renounce our immediate plan of trapping one of our Mauritanian colleagues in the toilets of the mess hall so as to make him spill the beans: Where is Belmokhtar??

It’s true that we would have pushed the zeal to respond to the call of responsibility, of the boss of the Algerian army, the general Gaïd Salah, a little far, but we would have, at least, the satisfaction of completed homework and of coming back to Algeria with precious information. As heros! In the end, the Mauritanian journalists didn’t go to the toilets and inter-African cooperation was saved.

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