Seven years ago the Pentagon formed an Africa Command led by a four-star general to oversee a quiet expansion of military operations and partnerships across the continent.
The far-flung operations center wasn’t an accident. At the time it was established, the U.S. couldn’t find any African country willing to host the command, and a German base allowed the U.S. military to avoid having too high of a profile where the perception of imperialism is still a risk.
Gen. David Rodriguez, who took control of the U.S. African Command last year, has said the history of colonialism in Africa is one reason “why we should not go in there in force and everything else, and just use a small footprint with creative and innovative solutions.”
But as the U.S. seeks broader business ties to Africa, the role of the military on the continent could change.
Plans for a U.S. military expansion in Africa weren’t on the official agenda for the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this week. The schedule includes just one session Wednesday afternoon, to be led by President Obama, on developing peace and regional stability.
In previewing the session, the White House was careful about calling any military collaboration a "partnership" and focused its message on helping African government become more self-sufficient.
"U.S. assistance seeks to enable African governments to protect civilians, strengthen security forces that respect human rights, and move away from the need for costly outside intervention," the White House said Tuesday evening. "The discussion also will broach ways to build African capacity in terms of peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and maritime security, among other areas."
But in competing with China for greater trade ties, the U.S. isn’t being shy about the security strengths it has to offer, making Africa even more attractive to international investment.
“We see enormous opportunities in Africa as it continues to advance its own economic development … and African countries continue to develop their capabilities as security partners of the United States and as democratic partners of the United States,” deputy White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters ahead of the summit.
The role of the U.S. Africa Command has expanded over the last several years to include sensitive drone operations to remote locations and special task forces that can mobilize quickly and stealthily against warlords and militants, along with units that can provide airborne security when the U.S. needs to evacuate its embassies, as it did recently in Libya.
With Libya’s dissent into violence chaos, terrorists controlling northern Mali and continued unrest in South Sudan, some defense officials see an opportunity to expand U.S. military operations on the continent to fight extremists and al Qaeda elements.
They cite positive experiences working with African governments that have welcomed U.S. military involvement in such high-profile operations as the hunt for central African warlord Joseph Kony and the 200 girls kidnapped this year by the militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Right now there are about 5,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground in Africa, with the largest concentration at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
But some defense officials are looking to expand the camp and have long eyed the possibility of establishing a base in Nigeria, which boasts the biggest economy in Africa and whose rich oil reserves could attract even broader business interest with a more stable security environment.
Sensitive to the aftermath of U.S. military invasion in Iraq and complaints from Pakistan about his U.S. military partnership since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Nigeria rebuffed attempts to establish the U.S. Africa Command there seven years ago.
But some U.S. officials remain hopeful that current Nigerian government may change its mind as it struggles to beat back the threat of Boko Haram.
During the three-day summit, the White House and other high-level officials gave Nigeria and its already developed economy special recognition. President Goodluck Jonathan met privately with several key lawmakers as well as Vice President Joe Biden over last few days.
The chairmen of the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., respectively, huddled with Jonathan on Monday to discuss funding for the Nigeria Security Forces fight against Boko Haram.
On Tuesday, Biden followed with his own meeting with Jonathan and the two discussed the U.S. commitment to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram, among other topics, according to a White House read-out of the meeting.