The Washington Post reports today that U.S. military operations in Africa are expanding into a wide-reaching network of air bases, spy planes, and Special Operations units targeting terrorist and guerrilla groups across the continent. The paper says a dozen "air bases" have been established in Central Africa since 2007, though they are typically small-operations run out of civilian airports by a few dozen soldiers. Many of them are also run by civilian contractors hired by the Pentagon.
Though the expanded operations are ostensibly about tracking and catching al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists, like al-Shabab in Somalia or the Boko Haram in Nigeria, the close involvement with other African forces makes it easy for American troops to insert themselves (intentionally or not) into other regional conflicts. For example, the report says there are around 100 Special Operations troops aiding in the hunt for Joseph Kony and our unmanned spy drones — disguised to look like harmless prop planes — monitor the continuing conflict between North and South Sudan. Even when U.S. interests are not directly affected, the ability to quietly influence events on the ground becomes remarkably easy the more our presence grows.
There's also the danger of a backlash against American forces, similar to what has been seen in Yemen and Pakistan, where frequent U.S. drone strikes anger civilians and create al-Qaeda sympathizers. The bases in Africa are meant to blend in, not just for espionage reasons, but also so that friendly governments aren't seen to be too cozy with the Americans. Unfortunately, even in civilian clothes American contractors tend to stand out and the CIA's track record on the continent is not a pleasant one.