AFRICOM’s sole base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti was previously used by U.S. Central Command due to its close proximity to Yemen.
Despite the need to travel great distances, AFRICOM spokesman Pat Barnes says the military intentionally chose not to create a new base in Africa.
“When AFRICOM was stood up, one of the key components of it standing up was we would have something called a very small footprint. Given the history and colonialism and things, you maybe wouldn’t want to have a large standing presence on the continent,” said Barnes.
Barnes says AFRICOM’s major focus is building defense capabilities. It carries out hundreds of exercises for African governments each year, teaching everything from how to load a C-130 aircraft to how soldiers operate under civilian authority.
“It may not get as much attention, but it really is the bellwether for what we do in terms of engagements,” he said.
What does get the most attention, of course, is AFRICOM’s military operations. The African continent is plagued by extremist threats, including al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaida-linked groups in northern Mali.
But Barnes says AFRICOM’s only has three people in Somalia and less than a dozen in Nigeria to support intelligence sharing and logistics. Critics say a nation as powerful as the United States should do more to help, but for AFRICOM’s, it is not that simple.
“We will only send people where they are requested, so it’s not like we can go in and make our own requests,” said Barnes.
Dan Hampton, a professor of security at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, says the Boko Haram issue was further complicated in Nigeria by the recently-concluded presidential election, and the negative perceptions of using foreign support to fight an internal problem.
“I think there is going to be an opportunity now with the elections over. I think and I hope you’ll see more and better cooperation between Nigeria and the U.S. in tackling this problem in the near future,” said Hampton.
To help ease the burden of such a small force, Africom and the U.S. European Command recently developed a plan to quickly share forces without first going through a lot of bureaucratic red tape.
General Philip Breedlove, head of European Command, says it is a model for the future of the U.S. military.
“So literally, just about everything in EuCom and just about everything in Africom can be shared left and right if we have to do that,” said Breedlove.
But with Russia’s increased aggression and a nearly 300 percent jump in U.S. military activities on the African continent in the last eight years, the force size and structure could become an issue.
“I think it is fair to say that we probably ought to look at that force structure and see if it’s now adequate to the task that both Africom and EuCom place on it,” said Breedlove.
For now, AFRICOM is the small but able force of the U.S. military on the continent. As the partnership grows between AFRICOM and African nations, officials say the region will be better prepared to promote security, stability and prosperity.