We know about the not-so-secret US military installation in Djibouti, where drones take off and land often bound for Yemen or Somalia, but with the situation in Mali, the US is looking to get better eyes on what's going on. With that in mind, Africom commander, General Ham, has begun seeking a military partnership with either Niger or Burkina Faso that would allow a permissive environment and base for US drones to launch from.
At this point the reported intention is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), which is to say the drones won't be armed. Of course that could change quickly. It's good we're seeking military partnerships before operating in North Africa, but I share concerns by some in the State Department that it will feel like we're militarizing Africa. Even if they are meant for intelligence gathering, drones are military hardware and that just doesn't help the public image of the US abroad. It also feels a bit like taking the easy way out. We can't get on the ground intelligence, so we send up drones. Certainly it keeps members of the American intelligence community out of harm's way, but it also limits our knowledge while damaging our public image.
Side note: As much as I'm not a fan of this policy, I like that Africom is increasing military cooperation with countries on the continent. Activated less than four years ago (yeah, we didn't have a command for Africa until 2008), it's great to see it moving forward. I'm hoping that maybe these negotiations might lead to a permanent base on the continent that would allow Africom to be based in Africa, instead of Germany.