America’s War on Terror in Africa
November 14, 2011 1 Comment
The piece below is a guest post from Hannah Armstrong, a freelance journalist who has reported from Niger, Mauritania and Morocco. The opinions expressed here are her own.
Reports of a new deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to help subdue Boko Haram in Nigeria, shared by the Guardian and Danger Room last week, are somewhat misleading. The reports are misleading not because they are unconfirmed, but because the United States has been quietly engaging in counterterrorism in a wide range of African countries, including Nigeria, for almost a decade.
The U.S. currently provides counterterrorism assistance to the militaries of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, under the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership, a large-scale expansion of the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which was launched in 2002.
The Africa-focused command center AFRICOM is also active in counterterrorism in Libya, its first military intervention, and Somalia, the first African country to be targeted by American drones launched from new bases in Djibouti and the Seychelles. Obama’s deployment of 100 special operations forces to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, brings the total tally of African countries in which the US is engaged in CT operations to – by my count – 18.
That the theater grew so wide, so quickly, is stunning. Africans were so anxious over potential misuses of the newly-launched AFRICOM in 2007 that rumors of various countries refusing to host bases were a running joke, highlighting the illogicality of a military command centre with evidently humanitarian aspirations.
A few factors explain this turnaround. On the one hand, an uptick in attacks by groups such as Boko Haram and AQIM is generating a lot more noise about terrorism in Africa. This noise is of concern to local governments, foreign investors, tourism industries, and mining operations. On the other hand, local governments have discovered that prioritizing their struggles against fringe militant opposition groups that happen to be Muslim is a great way to fast-track military assistance from the most powerful army on the planet.
“We keep getting asked to do more and more and more, and go to more places,” AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham told Stars and Stripes in September of this year. “More exercises, more military-to-military engagement, more and more requests for interchanges, and I don’t recall anybody saying, ‘We don’t want you to come here anymore.’”
But what’s to stop African governments from directing their freshly trained, capacity-built, equipment-enhanced militaries against domestic opposition? African regimes may perceive non-‘terrorist’ domestic opposition groups as their most urgent threat. In 2007, for instance, U.S. anti-terrorism training and assistance to Mali were deployed against a Tuareg rebellion, leading rebels to fire upon a U.S. military plane delivering food aid to Malian troops.
“The U.S. has really developed an interest in Africa that we just have never seen before. Between all the goings and comings in the Horn of Africa and all this snake-eater (special forces) Sahara stuff, ungoverned territories… it’s all over the place. Since I think an awful lot of it is being run out of Special Operations Command and out of the agency (the CIA), I think it is probably far larger than anyone imagines,” defense analyst John Pike told the AP.
Gen. Ham envisions an arc (crescent?) of Islamic terrorism that stretches from Somalia’s Al-Shabaab in the East to Boko Haram in the West. The petite AQIM – thought to number, at most, a few hundred – shoulders the heavy task of terrorizing the roughly 2000-mile expanse of the Sahel region, including Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Libya.
‘Divide and conquer’ need not be the preferred strategy of empire. British imperialist Cecil Rhodes dreamed of uniting Africa by extending an electrical telegraph line from Cairo to Cape Town. In a grimly austere economic environment, fighting terror in Africa relieves some of the pressure on the Army’s newest command center to prove its relevance and attract funding. Motives for U.S. deployments to eighteen – and counting – African countries should be seen not merely in the context of a globalizing al-Qaeda. The shadow war on terror in Africa is also a pretext for anticipatory military cooperation, one that may be laying the ground for new conflicts that have nothing to do with terrorism.