WASHINGTON -- In his first term, President Barack Obama instructed the Pentagon to pivot its forces and reorient its strategy toward fast-growing Asia. Instead, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Pentagon officials say their expanded involvement in Africa is necessary to combat the spread of al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa and Somalia and other guerrillas, such as Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. And 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 much 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 U.S. 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, released during his confirmation hearing this week. "The recent crises in North Africa demonstrate the volatility of the African security environment."
Pressure is building to add more bases in North and West Africa. Lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon for being ill-positioned to respond quickly to the September attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador. The Pentagon is also drawing up plans to base drones in Niger, a poor West African nation. Niger borders Mali, Libya and Nigeria, all of which are dogged by growing threats from al-Qaida affiliates and other Islamist militants.