In June, an American Green Beret was reportedly strangled to death in Mali by U.S. Navy SEALs, allegedly in connection with a shadowy money-skimming scheme. (The military is currently investigating.) In July, The Intercept, the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture, and Amnesty International revealed that a drone base used by U.S. forces in Cameroon was also a site for illegal imprisonment, brutal torture, and even killings on the part of local forces. (The military is investigating.) In August, according to a blockbuster investigation by the Daily Beast, U.S. Special Operations forces took part in a massacre in which 10 Somali civilians were killed. (The military is investigating.) In October, four Special Operations soldiers were killed in murky circumstances during an ambush by militants in Niger. (The military is investigating.)
This spate of questionable, scandalous, or even criminal activity involving U.S. forces in Africa should come as little surprise. Over the last decade and a half, operations on that continent have been expanding and evolving at an exponential rate. A token number of U.S. troops has grown into a cast of thousands now carrying out about 10 separate missions per day, ranging from training to combat operations, which are up 1,900% since last year alone. U.S. commandos sent to that continent have jumped from 1% of special ops forces deployed overseas in 2006 to nearly 17% today, the highest total outside the Middle East. There have also been numerous indications of U.S. forces behaving badly from one side of the continent to the other. Few in the mainstream media or among those tasked with oversight of such operations have, however, taken any significant notice of this.
“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the wake of the ambush in Niger. More recently, Congressman Ted Lieu of the House Foreign Affairs Committee added, “From combating al-Shabaab in Somalia to Boko Haram in Nigeria, U.S. military personnel are deployed across the African continent with little public scrutiny or awareness.” This attention deficit helped set the stage for the recent scandals that have forced lawmakers and the public to take some notice.
The situation of the U.S. military in Africa is, in some respects, not unlike that in California, where TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon begins her latest article. There, climate-change-charged dry weather and unseasonably warm temperatures made the state a tinderbox that recently burst into a series of devastating wildfires. The U.S. military has created its own tinderbox in Africa, where longtime expansion without oversight has led to a series of blazing scandals. And all of this is just a small part of the larger story told by Gordon — of a world filled with the dry underbrush of decades of failed U.S. policies and of a president with a penchant for setting fires. Once, ignoble political calculations, futile strategies, ideological idiocy, and intellectual ineptitude provided flashpoints capable of sparking foreign policy failures, conflicts, or ruinous domestic policies. Today, writes Gordon, the commander-in-chief functions as a one-man flamethrower, setting blazes the world over as a matter of whim and embracing the inferno as an end in itself.