Pentagon has increased military operations in Africa
By DAVID S. CLOUD AND W.J. HENNIGAN | Tribune Washington Bureau (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 20, 2015
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Pentagon has dramatically stepped up operations in Africa in recent years, insisting that a greater U.S. military presence is necessary to help counter threats from militants such as those who took hostages at a hotel in Mali.
But U.S. Africa Command, which oversees the operations, has only a handful of permanent bases in Africa. Fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops are usually on the continent.
Most are sent on short-term deployments to help train African military forces or to conduct targeted drone strikes against militants from mostly Islamist groups linked to al-Qaida or Islamic State.
Most U.S. forces that operate in Africa are based in Europe or back in the United States.
Only 26 U.S. military personnel were in Mali this week, for example, including 10 assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping force, officials said.
Pentagon officials said two of the Americans assisted during the raid to free the hostages at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital.
One helped escort guests to safety at the hotel, while the other worked to pass along information to French forces from a nearby joint operations base.
U.S. forces did not participate in the raid itself, which was conducted by French and Malian forces.
However, five Defense Department personnel were in the hotel when the militants attacked. All the Americans exited safely.
The U.S. military sent a drone to Bamako, apparently from neighboring Niger, to provide surveillance. But the hostage rescue had ended by time the drone arrived, the officials said.
In 2014, the Pentagon deployed unarmed surveillance drones to Niger, along with around 120 military personnel, to help search for militants in northern Mali and other remote parts of west Africa.
The Pentagon also has sent troops to Nigeria to train its military to fight Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that has killed thousands of villagers and controls large areas of northern Nigeria.
Small teams of U.S. special operations troops also are assigned to help hunt for Joseph Kony, a notorious warlord believed to be hiding in a lawless area between Sudan and South Sudan.
Around 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed at a U.S. base in Djibouti in east Africa, and around 75 are deployed in Somalia, where they are assisting an African Union forces that is battling al-Shabab rebels there.
Using drones and small U.S. special operations teams, the U.S. has carried out numerous raids against suspected militants in Somalia and Libya in recent years.
The Pentagon also deployed medical and support troops to assist overwhelmed governments in west Africa during the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
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U.S. Army soldiers with Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa's East Africa Response Force (EARF), unload gear and supplies from a U.S. Air Force C-130J Hercules in Juba, South Sudan, Jan. 22, 2014. The EARF is part of a Defense Department initiative of regionally aligned forces, which provides the commander of the U.S. Africa Command an additional capability to respond to crises and contingencies within East Africa.
STACI MILLER/U.S. AIR FORCE