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America's Never-Ending War Intensifies in Africa: Will Blowback and Increased Violence Follow?

The Obama administration is using its favored tools of war: drones, small contingents of troops and intelligence-sharing with allies.

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In 2005, the initiative, this time with a name change, expanded to include even more African countries. And in 2008, the anti-terror initiatives in Africa were transferred over to the authority of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), which was established by the Bush administration in 2007 to focus the military’s anti-terror efforts in Africa. Under the Obama administration, AFRICOM’s activities have expanded greatly.

In addition to a main base in Djibouti, from where drones are launched, U.S. military personnel can be found in a number of other different countries. “Under President Obama, in fact, operations in Africa have accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years,” reported TomDispatch’s Nick Turse in July 2012. In addition to the Libya intervention, Turse pointed to CIA involvement in Somalia, the influx of cash for counter-terrorism operations in East Africa, and the presence of special operations forces in Uganda. “With the Obama administration clearly engaged in a 21st-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,” Turse wrote.

But AFRICOM’s efforts have been full of blunders. In Mali, some AFRICOM-trained Malian army officers defected to the rebels who took over Mali’s north. A U.S.-trained officer also took implemented a coup that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government, “creating a chaos that allowed half the country to fall into the hands of Islamist militants,” according to the New York Times.

“We had this great program, and we put hundreds of millions of dollars into it, and it failed,” one special ops officer involved in African military operations told the Washington Post. The Post noted that “U.S. strategy for the region began to fall apart in 2008. Military leaders in Mauritania and Niger — two countries that bookend Mali — toppled their governments in coups, forcing the Pentagon to cut off military training. That left the United States more dependent on Mali to spearhead its anti-terrorism programs, even as it was becoming clear that Malian troops weren’t up to the task.”

But the Obama administration, despite these failures, continues to forge ahead with its plans for an intensified presence in North Africa. Those plans, though, are bringing up a host of legal questions. The legal basis for the U.S. “war on terror” has been the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was passed by Congress immediately after the 9/11 attacks. That legislation gave the executive branch the authority to carry out a war against the perpetrators of the attacks as well as direct associates of Al Qaeda. That legal interpretation is why the Bush and Obama administrations can carry out drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

But the AUMF would likely not apply to the Al Qaeda-branded but loosely connected groups in Africa, some of which only recently changed their names to include the term “Al Qaeda.” The Obama administration is currently locked in an internal debate over whether to ask Congress for new AUMF legislation to be able to go after these new actors who have a tenuous, at best, connection to the Al Qaeda leaders who attacked the U.S.

“It’s really hard to imagine that the groups that we’re talking about targeting in parts of Africa have a real connection to 9/11,” commented Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.

The Washington Post has reported that the administration has not “ruled out seeking an updated authorization from Congress or relying on the president’s constitutional powers to protect the country. But they said those are unappealing alternatives.”

It remains unclear whether the administration will decide to intervene further in Africa with actual military strikes. For now, the increase in intervention in Africa has been limited to providing intelligence and setting up a permanent base on the ground in Niger for unarmed drones. But that intelligence has been used by France to carry out airstrikes. And the head of AFRICOM told Congress March 15 that “threats from Islamic extremists in Africa are increasing and if unchecked could pose a greater danger to American interests and allies,” as the Associated Press reported.

Sahel expert Alex Thurston says any further militarization in the region is not a good idea. “I don’t think programs of drone strikes have been successful elsewhere in the world,” said Thurston. “Even if they achieved narrow counter-terrorism goals, they would do a great degree of political harm and make things more unpredictable and makes things more chaotic.” 

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