U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa: Oil and Commandoes

Monday, March 24, 2014
Brega oil refinery in Libya (photo: Hussein Malla, AP)

When the U.S. military raided a renegade Libyan tanker on March 16 in the Mediterranean Sea, the mission was successful by all accounts. About 30 Navy Seals managed to storm the Morning Glory—which was loaded with 234,000 stolen barrels of crude oil worth about $20 million— and take control without anyone getting hurt. The fragile interim government of Libya was delighted to get its oil back after rebels in Cyrenaica tried selling it to the highest bidder.


Aside from going off without a hitch, the stealthy mission provided a rather noticeable example of what American foreign policy in Africa is all about these days: Special Forces and oil.


Africa has become a new strategic priority for Washington, which historically has not put the continent high on its list of key concerns. During the Cold War years of the 20th century, the entire region of Africa was arguably never a top concern. Certain nations were on the radar of policymakers, such as Egypt and its relationship with Israel, or Libya and Muammar Gaddafi, or South Africa with Apartheid and Soviet-backed movements in neighboring countries.


But the rest of Africa was often ignored by the White House, simply because there wasn’t a realpolitik reason to devote time or American resources to nations like Niger, Burkina Faso, Burundi and dozens of others.


This disregard for most of the continent began to change around the turn of the 21st century, partly because of the events of September 11, 1001, and concerns over terrorism movements in the Horn of Africa and other hot spots.


But another, even more widespread development really got the attention of U.S. officials, both those in elected offices and in corporate boardrooms: Africa had oil. Lots and lots of oil.


Three countries in particular, Angola, Libya and Nigeria, have been major oil producers for decades. The rest of the continent, though, wasn’t considered a player in the petroleum business.


That has changed dramatically in recent years. In fact, these days it’s not a matter of which countries are developing or exploring for oil—but which ones aren’t.


The Economist reported two years ago that only five of Africa’s 55 nations were not drilling for “black gold.”


The U.S. Department of Energy has projected that African oil production would soar 91% percent between 2002 and 2025. Currently, Libya’s and Nigeria’s oil reserves, for example—at 39 billion and 36 billion barrels respectively—are each roughly twice the size of the U.S. and China reserves. Of all crude oil imported to the U.S. in 2006, 22% came from Africa; nearly a third of China’s oil imports currently come from that continent. It has been projected that those percentages will increase for both countries.


African oil is particularly desirable to refiners because it tends to be high-quality with a low amount of sulfur, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


During the George W. Bush administration, U.S. oil imports from Africa doubled in quantity, putting the continent on par with the Middle East and its exports.


Not surprisingly perhaps, U.S. military involvement in Africa took an unprecedented turn during the Bush years as oil became a key economic issue. In 2006, the Department of Defense, for the first time in its history, created a major new combatant command solely focused on the continent: United States Africa Command (or AFRICOM).


AFRICOM oversees a regular and growing deployment of American military personnel, primarily Special Ops units, all throughout the continent.


In fact, it’s difficult to find an African country where the U.S. hasn’t put boots on the ground, whether it’s those worn by Army Rangers, Navy Seals or Force Recon Marines.


An investigation last year by TomDispatch.com revealed that the U.S. military has become involved in no less than 49 African nations.


Here’s just a sampling of what American forces have been up to:


Operation Flintlock is an annual military exercise run by U.S. Special Forces to train African militaries. More than 1,000 troops from 18 countries participated in this year’s three-week event. American commandoes also conduct regular training for soldiers in Niger, Mauritania, Senegal and Chad. Niger also serves as a base for U.S. drones helping to counter Islamic militants in the Sahara region.


Mali: This West African nation was the site of two major embarrassments for the American military. First, a Malian captain who received training from the U.S led a coup that toppled the government in 2012 and fomented Islamic unrest in the north. The Obama administration denounced the takeover and supposedly ordered U.S. forces out of the country. But a month after the alleged withdrawal, three Army commandoes were killed when their Toyota Land Cruiser ran off a bridge and plunged into the Niger River. Inside the recovered vehicle were the American soldiers and three dead prostitutes.


Djibouti: Squeezed between Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, this small country hosts the U.S. military’s largest and only permanent base on the continent: Camp Lemonnier. Its Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa established its presence here 12 years ago, while the Pentagon’s East Africa Response Force was set up in Djibouti more recently. A former French Foreign Legion outpost, Camp Lemonnier has quickly become a sprawling operation along the Red Sea. The Defense Department has sunk at least half a billion dollars into developing the home for 4,000 personnel. The base features brand new barracks, dining halls, hangars and runways, as well as its own electric power plant, water storage and treatment facilities. An entire section of Camp Lemonnier is cordoned off for Special Ops teams that stage missions into Somalia and other countries.


Ethiopia: The U.S. is also sinking money into another base, Camp Gilbert, in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. It features air-conditioned tents, metal shipping containers, heavy equipment, recreation facilities and a gym filled with stationary bikes and free weights. In addition to Camp Gilbert, American drones are operating out of Arba Minch airport.


Burkina Faso: On the other side of the continent, this small West African country hosts an airbase outside the capital city of Ouagadougou for the Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative. Nick Turse of TomDispatch says the “initiative” supports “high-risk activities” performed by the Joint Special Operations Task Force -Trans Sahara.


While the U.S. military commitment to Africa shows no signs of slowing down, the importation of African oil did nosedive during the first five years of the Obama administration. Figures from the Energy Information Administration show that the U.S. slashed its purchases from both big and small producers, from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea. In many cases, the reductions were as great as 50% to 70%.


Oil analysts attributed the shift in import strategy to the oil shale boom happening in the U.S., where hydraulic fracturing has allowed a substantial increase in domestic production that made African petroleum less inviting.


But that shift may be coming to an end.


Reuters reported this month that American imports of West African crude were recovering during the first quarter of 2014 following the five-year downturn.


Regardless of how the rest of the year shapes up, the long-term outlook for the oil-shale boom is not good, according to Maria van der Hoeven, chief executive of the International Energy Agency.


She says the growth in oil shale production will level off and even decrease by 2025, forcing the U.S. to once again return to buying more foreign oil, whether it is from old sources like the Middle East or new ones in Africa.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

US Navy Seals Take Over Oil Tanker Seized By Libyan Rebels (by Chris Stephen, The Guardian)

Navy SEALS Board, Take Control of Rogue Libya Tanker (Fox News)

With Training and Partnerships, U.S. Military Treads Lightly in Africa (by David Lewis, Reuters)

Mysterious Fatal Crash Offers Rare Look at U.S. Commando Presence in Mali (by Craig Whitlock, Washington Post)

America's Shadow Wars in Africa (by Nick Turse, TomDispatch)

The Startling Size of US Military Operations in Africa (by Nick Turse, TomDispatch)

US Military Steps Up Operations in the Horn of Africa (by Frank Gardner, BBC News)

Africa, China, the United States, and Oil (by David Shinn, Center for Strategic and International Studies)

Show Us the Money (The Economist)

AFRICOM's Gigantic "Small Footprint" (by Nick Turse, TomDispatch)

Africa’s Booming Oil and Natural Gas Exploration and Production: National Security Implications for the United States and China (by David Brown, Strategic Studies Institute) (pdf)

European, African Oil Flows to US as Arbitrage Re-opens (by Simon Falush and Selam Gebrekidan, Reuters)

U.S. Imports by Country of Origin (Energy Information Administration)

IEA Chief: Only a Decade Left in US Shale Oil Boom (by David Unger, Christian Science Monitor)

America’s Proxy Wars in Africa (by Nick Turse, The Nation)

Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa (by Lauren Ploch, Congressional Research Service) (pdf)


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