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

President Barack Obama’s recent foreign policy pronouncements have emphasized that the era of war the Bush administration presided over is coming to a close. “After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home,” Obama said triumphantly at his State of Union address in February.

But the intensification of the global “war on terror” has continued apace during Obama’s second term. One front the administration has focused on more intently is Africa; specifically the northern region and what is known as the Sahel -- the narrow strip of land that stretches across countries such as Mali, Algeria, Niger and Chad.

While a sustained and large military presence on the ground in these parts of Africa has been ruled out--a war-weary American public wouldn’t accept it--North Africa and the Sahel are being targeted by the Obama administration’s favored tools of war: drones, small contingents of troops and intelligence-sharing with allies. The “war on terror” may never see the commitment of hundreds of thousands of troops to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan again. But the Obama administration’s way of making war—exposing American troops to minimal risk while targeting Islamist militants with drones--appears to be accelerating in Africa. And the consequences of these actions could include increased violence in the region and blowback targeted at the United States. Important legal questions related to the never-ending global war the Obama administration has continued to pursue will also come into play if the U.S. continues to intensify its military adventurism in the region.

The Obama administration is ramping up its militarized presence in North and West Africa. This intensified intervention can be seen in Mali and Niger, though the roots of these militarized campaigns in Africa come from Bush administration efforts implemented after the September 11 attacks. These moves are yet another indication that the administration continues to plan for a never-ending war with no geographic boundaries in its effort to battle Islamist militants and bolster U.S. allies.

In Mali, the U.S. has decided to increase its assistance to the French-led military campaign aimed at driving Islamist militants from the north of the country. In early March, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S.-operated Reaper drones have “provided intelligence and targeting information” to the French military to carry out airstrikes in Mali. The unarmed drones, according to the newspaper, “played a key role in the recent offensive in which French and Chadian forces succeeded in homing in on and ambushing a group of militants in the Adrar Tigharghar mountains of northern Mali, near the border with Algeria.”

In Niger, the U.S. has set up a drone base with 100 troops on the ground to help facilitate intelligence sharing and conduct surveillance in the region. President Obama announced the move in late February in a letter to Congress after the U.S. and Niger signed a bilateral agreement for the base. For now, the U.S. government says the drones launched from the base will be unarmed and will help out the French-led military campaign in Mali. But the New York Times, which notes that the move “is an indication of the priority Africa has become in American antiterrorism efforts,” reports that American officials “have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.”

Mali, a former French colony, is at the epicenter of Western-led military efforts against Islamists. In January, France initiated a military campaign of airstrikes and ground troops after the Malian government requested help. A Tuareg-led group of people captured large swathes of northern Mali with the aim of establishing an autonomous zone, and Islamist radicals -- some under the banner of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- allied with them. But soon after the north of Mali was captured, the Islamists overtook the Tuareg-led movement.

The presence of an Al Qaeda-linked group in the region attracted international attention and deeply worried France and the U.S. The French-led campaign was swift, and drove the Islamist radicals out of the north, where they had instituted a fundamentalist form of sharia law.

But while France, with U.S. help, has initially been successful – and was welcomed by many Malians -- the fighting is likely not over. Islamist radicals have reportedly pulled back, but some remain embedded in the local population. Sustained guerrilla warfare could be next for the international forces currently occupying Mali, which include Western-allied African troops as well.

Blowback, with deadly consequences, has already occurred. After the French-led military campaign in Mali, militants in neighboring Algeria took foreign workers at a gas plant hostage. The militants reportedly entered from Libya and northern Mali, and invoked the French campaign in Mali as the reason for taking the plant, although some reports suggest that the attack was planned before the intervention. The Algerian military’s attempt to free the hostages led to fighting at the plant that resulted in 39 foreigners dying, including three Americans. Algeria's harsh military operation to free the hostages came under criticism from Britain and Japan, which argued that the hostage crisis could have been handled much differently.

“You get terrorists, or armed groups also in the region, invoking Mali when they carry out acts of violence,” Alex Thurston, an expert on the Sahel region and a PhD student at Northwestern University, told AlterNet. “There are consequences, including really unpredictable consequences, that come about because of intervention.”

Guardian writer Seumas Milne also warned of intense blowback in a column he wrote in the aftermath of the Algerian hostage taking. “The opening of a new front in the war on terror in north Africa and the Sahel, accompanied by another murderous drone campaign, is a potential disaster for the region and risks a new blowback beyond it,” wrote Milne.

Thurston, who writes the Sahel Blog, emphasized that “a narrow focus on counter-terrorism can impede looking at some of the real political and humanitarian challenges of Mali and the broader region.” These problems include recurring food crises and the displacement of people who have flowed into Niger and Burkina Faso.

One of the reasons for the crisis in Mali is the Western-led intervention in Libya in 201. Cast as a “humanitarian intervention” to stop one-time Western ally Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering his people who had risen up in the spirit of the Arab Spring, NATO airstrikes drove the Libyan army back. The Gaddafi regime was overthrown, and the West played a major role. While there was a grassroots element to the Libyan uprising, Vijay Prashad, author of the book Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, has said that the West hijacked the revolt to install a friendly government that would implement neoliberal economic policies. And the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi reframed American involvement in Libya as necessary in order to battle terrorism.

During the Gaddafi regime, the dictator used African troops to bolster his army. Some of those African troops were Tuaregs. But after he fell, Tuaregs from Libya streamed into Mali, where they started an armed rebellion that led to the takeover of parts of Northern Mali. As the Guardian’s Milne put it, the NATO intervention “played the decisive role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. In the ensuing maelstrom, Tuareg people who had fought for Gaddafi went home to Mali and weapons caches flooded over the border.”

But the roots of the larger American intervention in Africa traces back to the Bush administration. In the aftermath of September 11, Bush administration officials fretted about where the next safe haven for Al Qaeda plotters would be. While they directly went after Iraq and Afghanistan, Africa became a focal point for other, less troop-intensive anti-terrorist efforts. In 2002, the Bush administration focused on training local militaries in Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania as part of the Pan-Sahel Initiative. Africa expert David Gutelius argued in the Christian Science Monitor in 2003 that the Bush administration's actions were failing. “Administration mismanagement of the war on terror has deeply undermined stability across Africa in the past year. In its African incarnation, that war has managed to produce almost exactly the opposite of what was intended,” wrote Gutelius. “US foreign policy in Africa has inspired radicalism, discredited moderate African Muslims, and fomented political instability in key nations.”

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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