Almost exactly a year ago Secretary Panetta told Congress that “we will probably have to reduce our presence elsewhere, presence perhaps in Latin America, presence in Africa.” Then the White House notified Congress the very next day that it would be deploying up to 100 Special Forces soldiers to advise and assist in the capture of Joseph Kony, one of Central Africa’s most gruesome insurgents.
Flash forward to today. The Associated Press used the following opening for a story this morning on US military activities in North Africa:
Small teams of special operations forces arrived at American embassies throughout North Africa in the months before militants launched the fiery attack that killed the U.S. ambassador in Libya. The soldiers' mission: Set up a network that could quickly strike a terrorist target or rescue a hostage.
As of early September, the special operations teams still consisted only of liaison officers who were assigned to establish relationships with local governments and U.S. officials in the region… Eventually, the Delta Force group will form the backbone of a military task force responsible for combating al-Qaida and other terrorist groups across the region with an arsenal that includes drones. But first, it will work to win acceptance by helping North African nations build their own special operations and counterterror units.
A few special operations forces providing advice and conducting direct action couldn’t be more institutionally different from a paragon of traditional presence, like Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Traditional presence includes highly visible, US-owned bases that permanently house major units and hardware, but these are small-unit deployments conducted in close collaboration with foreign partners, possibly even covertly.
Adding personnel and resources to those missions wouldn’t change any of this, and it would appear to support the strategic shift toward counterterrorism over counterinsurgency. Nevertheless it also marks an increase in the sort of footprint that’s much more common for the US in Africa. The Pentagon has no major installation there, as a quick glance at the Pentagon’s 2012 Base Structure Report will show, but small-unit special operations forces have been a core element of engagement for years.
So back to Panetta’s statement. When the White House announced its Central African mission a day later, we said we looked forward to hearing how Secretary Panetta squares this mission with the priorities he sketched out to Congress. That bears repeating as its still unclear what Panetta meant by “presence in Africa,” how it may be reduced, and how deploying more special operators fits in.