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The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa

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Posted on Jun 19, 2013
babasteve (CC BY 2.0)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

With the country in turmoil, the Tuareg fighters declared an independent state.  Soon, however, heavily-armed Islamist rebels from homegrown Ansar al-Dine as well as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, among others, pushed out the Tuaregs, took over much of the north, instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, and created a humanitarian crisis that caused widespread suffering, sending refugees streaming from their homes. 

These developments raised serious questions about the efficacy of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.  “This spectacular failure reveals that the U.S. probably underestimated the complex socio-cultural peculiarities of the region, and misread the realities of the terrain,” Berny Sèbe, an expert on North and West Africa at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, told me.  “This led them to being grossly manipulated by local interests over which they had, in the end, very limited control.”

Following a further series of Islamist victories and widespread atrocities, the French military intervened at the head of a coalition of Chadian, Nigerian, and other African troops, with support from the U.S. and the British. The foreign-led forces beat back the Islamists, who then shifted from conventional to guerrilla tactics, including suicide bombings. 

In April, after such an attack killed three Chadian soldiers, that country’s president announced that his forces, long supported by the U.S. through the Pan-Sahel Initiative, would withdraw from Mali.  “Chad’s army has no ability to face the kind of guerrilla fighting that is emerging,” he said.  In the meantime, the remnants of the U.S.-backed Malian military fighting alongside the French were cited for gross human rights violations in their bid to retake control of their country.

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After the French intervention in January, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “There is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time.”  Not long after, 10 U.S. military personnel were deployed to assist French and African forces, while 12 others were assigned to the embassy in the Malian capital, Bamako. 

While he’s quick to point out that Mali’s downward spiral had much to do with its corrupt government, weak military, and rising levels of ethnic discontent, the Carnegie Endowment’s Wehrey notes that the war in Libya was “a seismic event for the Sahel and the Sahara.”  Just back from a fact-finding trip to Libya, he added that the effects of the revolution are already rippling far beyond the porous borders of Mali. 

Wehrey cited recent findings by the United Nations Security Council’s Group of Experts, which monitors an arms embargo imposed on Libya in 2011.  “In the past 12 months,” the panel reported, “the proliferation of weapons from Libya has continued at a worrying rate and has spread into new territory: West Africa, the Levant [the Eastern Mediterranean region], and potentially even the Horn of Africa.  Illicit flows [of arms] from the country are fueling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.”

Growing Instability

The collapse of Mali after a coup by an American-trained officer and Chad’s flight from the fight in that country are just two indicators of how post-9/11 U.S. military efforts in Africa have fared.  “In two of the three other Sahelian states involved in the Pentagon’s pan-Sahelian initiative, Mauritania and Niger, armies trained by the U.S., have also taken power in the past eight years,” observed journalist William Wallis in the Financial Times.  “In the third, Chad, they came close in a 2006 attempt.”  Still another coup plot involving members of the Chadian military was reportedly uncovered earlier this spring. 

In March, Major General Patrick Donahue, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, told interviewer Gail McCabe that northwestern Africa was now becoming increasingly “problematic.”  Al-Qaeda, he said, was at work destabilizing Algeria and Tunisia.  Last September, in fact, hundreds of Islamist protesters attacked the U.S. embassy compound in Tunisia, setting it on fire.  More recently, Camille Tawil in the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, wrote that in Tunisia jihadis are openly recruiting young militants and sending them to training camps in the mountains, especially along Algeria’s borders.” 

The U.S.-backed French intervention in Mali also led to a January revenge terror attack on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria.  Carried out by the al-Mulathameen brigade, one of various new al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-linked militant groups emerging in the region, it led to the deaths of close to 40 hostages, including three Americans.  Planned by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a veteran of the U.S.-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was only the first in a series of blowback responses to U.S. and Western interventions in Northern Africa that may have far-reaching implications. 

Last month, Belmokhtar’s forces also teamed up with fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa—yet another Islamist militant group of recent vintage—to carry out coordinated attacks on a French-run uranium mine and a nearby military base in Agadez, Niger, that killed at least 25 people.  A recent attack on the French embassy in Libya by local militants is also seen as a reprisal for the French war in Mali. 

According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Wehrey, the French military’s push there has had the additional effect of reversing the flow of militants, sending many back into Libya to recuperate and seek additional training.  Nigerian Islamist fighters driven from Mali have returned to their native land with fresh training and innovative tactics as well as heavy weapons from Libya.  Increasingly battle-hardened, extremist Islamist insurgents from two Nigerian groups, Boko Haram and the newer, even more radical Ansaru, have escalated a long simmering conflict in that West African oil giant.

For years, Nigerian forces have been trained and supported by the U.S. through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program.  The country has also been a beneficiary of U.S. Foreign Military Financing, which provides grants and loans to purchase U.S.-produced weaponry and equipment and funds military training.  In recent years, however, brutal responses by Nigerian forces to what had been a fringe Islamist sect have transformed Boko Haram into a regional terrorist force


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