January 29, 2013

U.S. Drone Base Headed For North Africa

After months of speculation that concrete plans would begin to take shape, the theoretical is finally nearing reality in an undecided North African location.

For more than a decade U.S. military and intelligence officials have laid the groundwork of a "light" but vast network across the Sahel region, chasing al-Qaeda affiliates that have spun off their own franchises. In order to counter impressions of colonialism, utilize local forces and intelligence, and keep large numbers of U.S. troops off the continent, this process hinges on bi-lateral and multi-lateral relations with cooperative African states. Included are a series of joint forward operating bases constructed through the Sahel, and training programs between national and U.S. forces.

The same program that failed amid Mali's coup and left Washington to patch together a emergency response, as reported by The New York Times earlier this month: "American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against."

The next logical step of a bigger presence in North Africa is drone bases in friendly (and needy) countries, and that is where the Obama administration and its partners are headed. Neighboring Niger has been designated as the leading candidate - few African leaders have urged a quicker NATO intervention than President Mahamadou Issoufou - followed by Burkina Faso. The latter currently serves as the base for clandestine PC-12 surveillance aircraft.

The military necessities of a drone base or, more likely, a series of bases around Mali is clear enough. American military commanders and intelligence analysts have good reason to complain about “sorely lacking" information in northern Mali, a territory roughly the size of France and many times more extreme. This environment has already created hurdles for logistics and overflights, and plays into the hands of militants in control of mountainous desert until international air-power scales up (at which point guerrillas lose their advantage).

The task will increase in difficulty when Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in North Africa (MUJAO) fall back to their mountain bases along the Algerian border.

America is the only state capable of delivering the level of surveillance required to effectively coordinate African ground forces with Western air power; eliminate U.S. support and NATO's mission in Mali will collapse. However U.S. officials won't be as candid about the litany of questions and concerns that drones entail. Suffice to say, drone bases function as instruments of control and are never built without strings attached. This manipulation goes both ways too, especially when an unpopular government makes use of U.S. support to buttress its international standing (Yemen and Ethiopia being primary examples). Some observers suspect that Issoufou is operating along these lines.

Mali's conflict has now afforded the perfect opportunity to begin building the first of several "lily pads" in the desert, a plan that is designed to synchronize with greater numbers of U.S. Special Forces and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials say that the drones will fly unarmed over Mali, but Mali is bigger than Mali to both the international community and al-Qaeda's ideology. Each side is thinking in decades, not months or years, and U.S. drones will eventually be armed. Consider the force brought to bear in Yemen, a smaller and more accessible country that houses a similar number of al-Qaeda militants.

Everything is a matter of time in North Africa. A NATO intervention in Libya that, according to the opinion of U.S. intelligence, overwhelmed U.S. military planners in Mali is now being trailed by a spine of bases into the Sahara. Within the alleged chaos lies a chain reaction so precise and efficient that it belies the region's unpredictability.


  1. I heard this morning that the deal for drone bases and immunity for American troops [you know the ones we will not have on the ground] :-) was made with Niger.
    This will only be the beginning.
    But it should really not surprise any one.
    We talked about this long ago.

  2. Niger is basically the only option and certainly the best for the U.S. Can't go into Algeria, Libya or Mauritania, and Niger is closest to northern Mali and more centralized than coastal bases. Meaning multiple uses - Sudan, Nigeria, possibly Libya.

    My understanding is that these types of installations can be up and running within six months. Waiting for the second base to drop now, but that could be a few years.