When a cargo plane carrying U.S. troops made an emergency landing in July on a Ugandan highway, it snarled traffic, drew crowds and caused a sheepish-looking Marine Corps colonel to apologize on local television. But it also highlighted the U.S. military's quiet expansion in Africa, seven years after it started a new command run by a four-star general to oversee military operations across the continent.
U.S. Africa Command, now led by Army Gen. David Rodriguez, was established in 2007 and was billed by U.S. defense officials as a good way to coordinate growing relationships with friendly African militaries. Its scope has widened to include drone operations from remote bases, task forces that can respond quickly in times of crisis, and involvement in operations such as the hunt for central African warlord Joseph Kony and the search for more than 200 girls who were kidnapped this year in Nigeria by the militant group Boko Haram.
The expansion isn't expected to be a primary focus as nearly 50 African heads of state convene on Washington this week for the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, held by the Obama administration. The event is expected to focus heavily on growing the economic potential of the continent, but will put African leaders in close proximity to the Pentagon and Washington's national security complex. The summit's schedule includes one session Wednesday afternoon held by the State Department on developing peace and regional stability.
U.S. defense officials say the Pentagon's expansion in Africa is necessary as the United States grapples with the spread of extremism and violence in countries such as South Sudan and Libya, both of which have had U.S. embassies evacuated this year. But it also runs the risk of inflaming civilian sentiment against the United States, said Laura Seay, an Africa analyst and political scientist at Colby College in Maine.
"I think where the U.S. runs into a lot of challenges is that a lot of these activities seem innocuous to them and to have a small footprint, but are actually seen by a lot of people there, especially African civilians, as much bigger than that and much more insidious," she said. "It's seen as plotting neocolonial activity."
But U.S. officials consider it necessary, said Benjamin Benson, a spokesman in Germany for AFRICOM, which is based in Stuttgart. The organization is adapting its strategy not only to partner with African militaries, but to grapple with instability and transnational security threats, including al-Qaida, he said.
"The African continent presents significant opportunities and challenges, including those associated with military-to-military relationships," Benson said.
It's difficult to track the growth of U.S. military operations in Africa. AFRICOM has about 2,000 personnel assigned to it full time, 1,500 of whom work at the Stuttgart headquarters, Benson said. That's up from an initial plan released in 2008 that called for about 1,300 personnel, half of whom were to be civilian employees.
That does not take into account all the U.S. troops who deploy to Africa temporarily, however. They visit countries from Senegal to Malawi, teaching everything from rifle marksmanship to vehicle maintenance before quietly redeploying weeks later. There also are an undefined number of U.S. Special Operations troops, who perform missions such as the hunt for Kony alongside local forces but also train African commandos in Chad, Niger, Nigeria and other countries.
The number of U.S. personnel on the ground fluctuates, but it is often about 5,000 across the continent, Benson said.
The largest presence is at Camp Lemonnier, a former outpost of the French Foreign Legion tucked into Africa's northeastern corner in Djibouti. The Pentagon's first major unit in Afghanistan, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, established a camp there in 2003 with a few hundred Marines sleeping in tents. It has expanded greatly since, and in 2012 the Defense Department presented Congress with a plan for $1.4 billion in enhancements to the base. Military officials now openly discuss whether families could eventually join troops on longer assignments there.
From Lemonnier, the United States responded to the crisis in South Sudan and removed hundreds of U.S. personnel from the capital city of Juba beginning in December. Among other units, the Pentagon used a group known as the East Africa Response Force, which was established last year to respond quickly to emergencies. It primarily comprises U.S. soldiers, although other American troops also were involved in the operation, defense officials said.
The Marine Corps established a task force with a similar role for northern Africa last year and called on it to provide airborne security recently when the United States evacuated its embassy in Libya. It is based in Moron, Spain, but frequently operates out of a closer Navy base in Sigonella, Italy, when a crisis in the region emerges.
In expanding its reach, the U.S. military can help provide short-term stability in areas experiencing crisis, creating space for political dialogue that can lead to peace, said John Mukum Mbaku, a Cameroonian-born economist and Africa analyst at Weber State University in Utah. That can go only so far, though, he added.
"You have to ask yourself this question: How can you get people to live together peacefully?" he said. "The main problem in most of these countries is that . . .you have people who were brought together involuntarily by colonialism. You cannot force people to live together peacefully if they don't want to work together peacefully."