They call it the New Spice Route, in homage to the medieval trade network that connected Europe, Africa and Asia, even if today's "spice road" has nothing to do with cinnamon, cloves or silks. Instead, it's a superpower's superhighway, on which trucks and ships shuttle fuel, food and military equipment through a growing maritime and ground transportation infrastructure to a network of supply depots, tiny camps and airfields meant to service a fast-growing US military presence in Africa.
Few in the US know about this superhighway, or about the dozens of training missions and joint military exercises being carried out in nations that most Americans couldn't locate on a map. Even fewer have any idea that military officials are invoking the names of Marco Polo and the Queen of Sheba as they build a bigger military footprint in Africa. It's all happening in the shadows of what in a previous imperial age was known as "the Dark Continent".
According to Pat Barnes, a spokesman for US Africa Command (AFRICOM), the Department of Defence personnel are assigned to US embassies across Africa, including 21 individual Offices of Security Cooperation, responsible for facilitating military-to-military activities with "partner nations".
Barnes did admit that in "several locations in Africa, AFRICOM has a small and temporary presence of personnel. In all cases, these military personnel are guests within host-nation facilities, and work alongside or coordinate with host-nation personnel".
Under President Obama, in fact, operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years. The US is now involved, directly and by proxy, in military and surveillance operations against an expanding list of regional enemies.
They include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa; the Islamist movement Boko Haram in Nigeria; possible al-Qaeda-linked militants in post-Qaddafi Libya; Joseph Kony's murderous Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in the Central African Republic, Congo and South Sudan; Mali's Islamist Rebels of the Ansar Dine, al-Shabab in Somalia; and guerrillas from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen.
A recent investigation by the Washington Post revealed that contractor-operated surveillance aircraft based out of Entebbe, Uganda, are scouring the territory used by Kony's LRA at the Pentagon's behest, and that 100 to 200 US commandos share a base with the Kenyan military at Manda Bay.
The US is conducting counter-terrorism training and equipping militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. AFRICOM also has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012, including operations in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal and Nigeria.
Last month the Washington Post revealed that, since at least 2009, the "practice of hiring private companies to spy on huge expanses of African territory… has been a cornerstone of the US military's secret activities on the continent".
Dubbed Tusker Sand, the project consists of contractors flying from Entebbe airport in Uganda and a handful of other airfields. They pilot turbo-prop planes that look innocuous but are packed with sophisticated surveillance gear. America's mercenary spies in Africa are, however, just part of the story.
In a recent speech in Arlington, Virginia, AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham explained the reasoning behind US operations on the continent: "The absolute imperative for the United States military [is] to protect America, Americans and American interests; in our case, in my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent."
As an example, Ham named the Somali-based al-Shabab as a prime threat. "Why do we care about that?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, al-Qaeda is a global enterprise... we think they very clearly do present, as an al-Qaeda affiliate... a threat to America and Americans."
With the Obama administration clearly engaged in a twenty-first century scramble for Africa, the possibility of successive waves of overlapping blowback grows exponentially. Mali may only be the beginning and there's no telling how any of it will end. In the meantime, keep your eye on Africa. The US military is going to make news there for years to come.