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Chinese Troops Moving Next Door to U.S. Base in Horn of Africa

Rivals winning influence as Trump chooses bombs over bread across continent.

WASHINGTON—Djibouti, a 14,600 square mile country in the Horn of Africa, is getting a little crowded. The Chinese have forged an agreement with the local government to build a military base and have already dispatched troops there, bringing them cheek-to-jowl with the 15-year-old U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier.

It is the first time in modern history that a “peer competitor” like China has had such a close proximity to a U.S. base, and not surprisingly, American military officials are taking a territorial tone, noting the “security concerns” this raises—like they own the place.

But in a way, they are owners. In exchange for tens of millions of dollars, the Americans have maintained their permanent installation without strategic competition for so long it must seem like this “lily pad” is an American island of its own—and the Chinese, known for building their own islands, are encroaching upon it. In fact, it is their first “forward presence” in the region, and houses a reported 4,000 service members and civilians, a sophisticated intel-gathering facility, and a drone base which can launch attacks on Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

But wait, here come the Saudis, who are currently in negotiations to establish their own base in Djibouti, with an eye toward thwarting their Iranian-backed enemies 20 miles away across the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb Strait (“Gate of Tears” in Arabic) in Yemen. Ironically, tens of thousands of refugees have been coming across that same passage to Djibouti in rickety wooden boats to escape Saudi bombings, which have spurred mass starvation and the worst cholera epidemic on record in Yemen.

There goes the neighborhood.

Unfortunately for the Americans, the Trump Administration has chosen this very time to start chintzing on all of those neighborly things that might make life a little easier for their long beleaguered hosts, the African people—like aid to counter the horrific effects of famine, or development assistance to bolster decimated economies, or public health resources to fight raging epidemics. As of 2016, there were over 12 million people internally displaced in Africa due to war and famine—that’s 30 percent of the 65 million displaced persons worldwide. Instead of helping to address this head-on, however, the Trump administration has decided to focus on bombs over bread.

According to recent reporting, the military is getting a $52 billion boost in President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, with an undisclosed amount headed for new AFRICOM training programs, including joint exercises with other African militaries, and more funds for counterterrorism efforts, which no doubt incorporate new infrastructure and support costs for the expanding footprint and uptick in U.S. airpower in the region. This comes on the heels of Trump relaxing the combat rules that were put in place in 2013 to protect civilians in Somalia, a failed state suffering from drought-related famine and continuing violence by the Islamist terror group Al Shabaab. Somalia has been a virtual hell hole since a power vacuum was created during the Bush Administration after 9/11, which allowed extremists to flourish as the U.S. used Somalia as both a target for its drone wars and a site for the CIA’s secret interrogation facilities. There have been two strikes against reported Shabaab targets there since the rules were relaxed in March.

According to Nick Turse, by far the most dogged reporter of the U.S. military operations in Africa, Americans are building another drone base some 2,335 miles west of Djibouti in the desert town of Agadez in Niger, which he calls “a West African paradise for people smugglers and a way station for refugees and migrants intent on reaching Europe’s shores by any means necessary.”

Meanwhile, the budget proposes cutting humanitarian and development assistance to $5.2 billion in the 2018 fiscal year from $8 billion now. This comes at a time when an estimated 26 million people in Africa are in need of food aid with famine stretching across four countries—the worst such conditions since World War II.

“Trump’s FY2018 budget slashes funding for anti-malaria programs (in Africa) by more than 40 percent. More than $1 billion for programs that provide antiretroviral drugs to people infected with HIV are slated to be cut, too,” Turse wrote TAC in a recent email. “Those and other proposed reductions in aid assure major increases in mortality.”

Ironically, the height of humanitarian focus on Africa was not during the Obama Administration, led by the first president of African descent, but President George W. Bush, who, while launching the Global War on Terror, introduced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which provided antiretroviral treatment and care for HIV/AIDS patients and is credited with saving millions of lives. He also launched a $1.2 billion anti-malaria campaign and increased food and development aid primarily in Africa—a program also believed to have saved millions. He also increased total food and development aid by 640 percent, apparently the most of any U.S. president.

Obama’s administration, while continuing to widen the U.S. military footprint across Africa—nearly 50 outposts in more than 24 countries by the end of 2016, according to Turse—has been more lackluster in his attention to the suffering, critics say. According to Anakwa Dwamena, writing in October in The New Republic:

Nearly eight years later, there is a palpable sense that Obama’s legacy in Africa is not what it could have been. It is not only that his administration has failed to produce a single policy that could rival the success of PEPFAR; it has actually cut funding for the program, leading critics to warn that Obama may have set back progress on AIDS by years.

She goes on to say Obama waited until the end of his term to start initiating big projects and the ones he did—like Power Africa and the African Growth and Opportunity Act—have failed to meet their high expectations.

But what Trump is doing is leaving all pretense of a humanitarian balance in Africa behind. It doesn’t matter than his Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spent last week scolding global leaders for their “collective failure” to address the famine in Africa. While the U.S. announced $466 million dollars in aid in July, this hardly squares with the slashing of the budget by billions, and what seems to be complete disinterest in confirming the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department, which is the top U.S. envoy to the continent. In June, the White House rescinded its offer to a respected 20-year Air Force colonel for the key Africa post on the National Security Council. Meanwhile, Africa-watchers are still talking about how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “blew off” the chairman of the African Union after inviting him to the U.S. in April.

“Which in diplomatic terms is bad. It’s insane,” noted Reuben Brigety, a former U.S. Representative to the AU, who spoke recently at an event at the Center for American Progress. He says the kind of military partnerships that have been fostered over the years with African nations “is a good thing, but it’s become problematic when there is no countervailing civilian component on the other side.” 

Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was more blunt with the New York Times, saying, “we are radically narrowing the definition of why and how Africa matters to U.S. national interests, and that does not include elevating humanitarian and development there.”

This is what happens when the Pentagon is driving Africa policy, says Turse. While there are plenty of people who say the military would rather not, they are in fact doing so, and Trump appears comfortable with that approach. “What we have, instead, is a four-star general commanding U.S. Africa Command reporting to a retired four-star general (Secretary of Defense James Mattis) who reports to a commander-in-chief who has bragged about giving ‘his’ generals ‘total authorization’,” says Turse.

“As with so much else with this administration, it’s unclear exactly what it means,” Turse added. “But it sure sounds like a recipe for continuation—and most likely escalation—of a military-driven U.S. agenda in Africa.”

Meanwhile, China and Saudi Arabia are no less selfish in their interests in the continent. The Chinese want to capitalize on their resources and influence, while the Saudis want the strategic advantage in their war with Iran and its supporters. In fact, they have already convinced Djibouti to side with the the Gulf States in their growing dispute against the Qataris. But unlike the U.S., both seem at least prepared to cement these new relationships with “soft power” offerings. China has embarked on a much-lauded $60 billion capital investment program tied to local development. And according to reports, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are pouring resources into refugee relief (for a problem the Saudis caused in the first place), public works, new mosques, and other projects in Djibouti.

It’s ultimately about keeping up with the Joneses. U.S. military leaders seem to get it, but increasing reports indicate that the White House does not. Not only will it cede authority and influence to rivals, but bombs over bread will mean more violence down the road. Maybe at some point, then-Gen. Mattis’s 2013 words to Congress will finally hit their mark: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.’’

Kelley Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative.



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