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Military presence increasing in African nations

| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 6:00 p.m.
A French soldier stands one kilometer from a controlled explosion of ammunition found in houses in Gao, northern Mali, Thursday Feb. 14, 2013. Malian forces have stepped up security around the port and the main market, in an effort to stop the infiltration of rebel fighters in the town. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

WASHINGTON — In his first term, President Obama instructed the Pentagon to pivot its forces and reorient its strategy toward fast-growing Asia. Instead, the military finds itself drawn into a string of messy wars in another, much poorer part of the world: Africa.

Over the past two years, the Pentagon has become embroiled in conflicts in Libya, Somalia, Mali and central Africa. Meanwhile, the Air Force is setting up a fourth African drone base, while Navy warships are increasing their missions along the coastlines of East and West Africa.

In scope and expense, the military involvement in Africa still barely registers when compared with its presence in Asia, let alone the Middle East or Afghanistan. On any given day, there are only about 5,000 U.S. troops scattered across all of Africa, while 28,000 are stationed in South Korea alone.

But it is becoming more common for the Pentagon to deploy troops to parts of Africa that many Americans would be hard-pressed to locate on a map, such as Djibouti, the Central African Republic and now the West African country of Niger, where the military is planning a base for Predator drones.

Pentagon officials said their expanded involvement in Africa is necessary to combat the spread of al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa and Somalia.

While U.S. military leaders have sought to downplay their rudimentary network of bases on the continent, there are signs that they are planning for a more robust presence.

In a written statement provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who is poised to become the next leader of the Pentagon's Africa Command, estimated that the military needs to increase its intelligence-gathering and spying missions in Africa by nearly 15-fold.

“I believe additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are necessary to protect American interests and assist our close allies and partners,” he wrote in the statement, which was released Thursday during his confirmation hearing. “The recent crises in North Africa demonstrate the volatility of the African security environment.”

Rodriguez said the Africa Command needs additional drones, other surveillance aircraft and more satellite imagery. It receives only half of its “stated need” for North Africa and only 7 percent of its total “requirements” for the entire continent, he said.

When military officials established the Africa Command in 2007, they insisted they did not have plans to build bases or move troops to the continent.

Since then, however, the Pentagon has gradually assembled a network of small staging bases, including drone installations in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, and a forward operating base for special operations forces in Kenya.

The Pentagon has expanded operations and construction at the only permanent base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which serves as a hub for counterterrorism missions in Somalia and Yemen.

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