Why Is the U.S. Air Force Ordering Tents for an Airstrip in Niger?

U.S. forces are attacking ISIS fighters in Iraq and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. But today's surest sign that the Obama administration is widening the endless War On Terror™ may be an Air Force bid for 18 tan canvas tents, to be shipped to an airbase in Niamey, Niger.

A French-language defense blog first flagged the order last week after it showed up on the U.S. government's contracting solicitations website, FedBizOpps.gov. It doesn't sound like much—15 Quonset huts and 3 larger tents, to be usable "interchangeably with current/existing shelter systems"—but it's evidently part of a larger move by Uncle Sam into Western and Central Africa.

Since early last year, the U.S. Air Force has maintained a contingent of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles in Niamey. The Washington Post just reported this morning that Niger's government has finally agreed to allow a second U.S. drone base, in "the mud-walled desert city of Agadez." The new tents are likely meant to accommodate that presence, or to grow it.

What are we doing in Niger, far removed from well-known hotspots like Libya, Somalia or the wider Middle East? A whole hell of a lot. For several years before the Americans got there, Niamey had already been hosting a squadron of French military UAVs:

Why Is the U.S. Air Force Ordering Tents for an Airstrip in Niger?

But beyond the drones, U.S. operations in Africa are suddenly off the chain. This spring, Africom—the umbrella command for U.S. military units in Africa—organized its annual "Operation Flintlock" joint exercise with 10 other nations. It was "hosted" by Niger, in Niamey:

Why Is the U.S. Air Force Ordering Tents for an Airstrip in Niger?

[U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jessica Inigo]

The purpose of the exercise was to practice "small-unit combined counter-terrorism training, along with humanitarian relief operations," according to Africom. Apparently, that required Navy Seabees, a ton of C-130s, Texas-based special operations forces, and West Virginia National Guard paratroopers:

Why Is the U.S. Air Force Ordering Tents for an Airstrip in Niger?

[U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Eugene Crist]

That's a pretty big commitment. So, what missions could U.S. and U.S.-trained forces be performing in West Africa? Is this "Kony 2014"? The Post explains:

In Niamey, Niger's capital, U.S. and French forces set up neighboring drone hangars last year to conduct reconnaissance flights over Mali, where about 1,200 French soldiers are trying to suppress a revolt that erupted in 2012.

In Chad, the U.S. Air Force has been flying drones and other aircraft from a French military base to search for hundreds of schoolgirls abducted by Islamic militants in northern Nigeria.

The White House approved $10 million in emergency aid on Aug. 11 to help airlift French troops and provide midair refueling for French aircraft deployed to West Africa. Analysts said the monetary sum was less important than what it symbolized: U.S. endorsement of a new French plan to deploy 3,000 troops across the region.

So while the world focuses on crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, the U.S.—along with France—is still steadily increasing its military footprint in Africa. Much of its work has flown under the radar, but as the presence grows, it's likely to come in for a lot more scrutiny.

[All photos not otherwise attributed are via AP Images.]