But over the past year, yellow Caterpillar excavators and compactors have flooded the grounds and rickety secondhand trucks carrying petrol and equipment have bumbled their way daily into the base’s gates. Mounds of red earth have been flattened and tan tents erected in their place.According to the scope of work seen by VICE News, the Department of Defense funded the construction of at least 208 of these beds through the U.S. Army's Logistical Civil Augmentation Program. The other 600 beds are being constructed under the Department of State’s Africa Peacekeeping Program, according to one contractor with knowledge of the project.“The size of the Baledogle has doubled in the last year. There are many more Americans here now, and planes are coming in every day to the base,” one Somali soldier stationed at the base said on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.Military leaders have kept a tight lid on U.S. activity in Somalia, but the recent flood of American resources into the country suggests a deepening involvement beyond the counterterror mission against al-Shabaab. Increasingly, experts and contractors familiar with military activities say, the U.S. is setting its sights on building up Somalia as another key strategic location for American military activity in Africa and the Middle East.
“There are many more Americans here now, and planes are coming in every day to the base.”
An explosive escalation
To support these troops, the U.S. has quietly been building a series of outposts across Africa. AFRICOM has long maintained that its base in Djibouti, Camp Lemmonier, which is home to roughly 4,000 U.S. personnel, is the only permanent forward operating base on the continent, yet in April 2017 it admitted to having 46 U.S. outposts in Africa, 15 of which are designated “enduring locations.”The most well-known outpost in this expansion is the new $110 million American drone base currently being built in Agadez, Niger, though it attracted attention only after the deaths of four U.S. Special Operations in the country last year. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be up and running by 2019, when it will be home to fighter jets and MQ-9 reaper drones with surveillance and striking capabilities that can reach a number of West and North African countries. Currently 800 U.S. military personnel are deployed to Niger, where they are fighting al Qaida and the Islamic State group.
“It’s going to be slow, there is no doubt about it.”
This is to be expected when working alongside local partners, said Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Anywhere that we’re engaged in these operations, their sustainability and the ability of partner forces to operate independently is often questioned, and often we don’t have a positive assessment of their ability to do that,” Hartig told VICE News.And when it comes to Somalia, the U.S. is deeply involved with many partner forces. Today, U.S. operators are training the Somali National Army’s special forces known as Danab and the Somali National Intelligence Security (NISA) known as Gaashaan and Waran. The latter two groups, which also receive training from the CIA, have grown significantly in recent years, VICE News has learned, rousing alarm among local officials.
“The power relationship is one that favors the Americans.”
Waldhauser has said that the goal of the joint U.S.-Somali military activity is to disrupt al-Shabaab operations and thereby create space for state-building necessary to lasting security Somalia. But without similar investment in political solutions, it’s unclear what long-term results increased military investment can yield.“Al-Shabaab is still the most viable alternative to the government,” said Tricia Bacon, a former State Department counterterrorism expert currently researching Somalia. Al-Shabaab remains dominant in much of Southern Somalia, and as long as the group continues to provide public goods and services, she says, their operations may be disrupted but “the source of the group’s strength is still as strong as ever.”With African Union Peacekeepers planning to withdraw from Somalia by 2020, U.S. forces and their Somali counterparts are expected to continue playing a critical role in providing security throughout the country. Yet security officials question Somalia’s ability to secure the country on its own, and worry the task will fall on the U.S. military and its already overstretched special operators.The looming possibility of a yearslong quagmire has earned Somalia a nickname among military officials and locals: “People call Somalia Africa’s Afghanistan,” said one State Department contractor.———————Christina Goldbaum is an independent journalist and producer based in Mogadishu.Cover image: Somalian soldiers are seen during a target practice held by Turkish Armed Forces at Turkish Military Training Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia on January 15, 2018. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
“Al-Shabaab is still the most viable alternative to the government.”