Al Qaeda doesn’t care about borders. Neither does the Islamic State or Boko Haram. Brigadier General Donald Bolduc thinks the same way.
“[T]errorists, criminals, and non-state actors aren’t bound by arbitrary borders,” the commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) told an interviewer early this fall. “That said, everything we do is not organized around recognizing traditional borders. In fact, our whole command philosophy is about enabling cross-border solutions, implementing multi-national, collective actions and empowering African partner nations to work across borders to solve problems using a regional approach.”
A SOCAFRICA planning document obtained by TomDispatch offers a window onto the scope of these “multi-national, collective actions” carried out by America’s most elite troops in Africa. The declassified but heavily redacted secret report, covering the years 2012–2017 and acquired via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), details nearly 20 programs and activities—from training exercises to security cooperation engagements—utilized by SOCAFRICA across the continent. This wide array of low-profile missions, in addition to named operations and quasi-wars, attests to the growing influence and sprawling nature of US Special Operations forces (SOF) in Africa.
How US military engagement will proceed under the Trump administration remains to be seen. The president-elect has said or tweeted little about Africa in recent years (aside from long trading in baseless claims that the current president was born there). Given his choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn—a former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command who believes that the United States is in a “world war” with Islamic militants—there is good reason to believe that Special Operations Command Africa will continue its border-busting missions across that continent. That, in turn, means that Africa is likely to remain crucial to America’s nameless global war on terror.
Publicly, the command claims that it conducts its operations to “promote regional stability and prosperity,” while Bolduc emphasizes that its missions are geared toward serving the needs of African allies. The FOIA files make clear, however, that US interests are the command’s principal and primary concern—a policy in keeping with the America First mindset and mandate of incoming commander-in-chief Donald J. Trump—and that support to “partner nations” is prioritized to suit American, not African, needs and policy goals.
Shades of Gray
Bolduc is fond of saying that his troops—Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, among others—operate in the “gray zone,” or what he calls “the spectrum of conflict between war and peace.” Another of his favored stock phrases is: “In Africa, we are not the kinetic solution”—that is, not pulling triggers and dropping bombs. He also regularly takes pains to say that “we are not at war in Africa—but our African partners certainly are.”