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The US Military and the Unraveling of Africa

In the wake of 9/11, the continent has become increasingly violent and unsettled.

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 8:28 PM EDT

Another critical location is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, home to a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment and the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative that, according to military documents, supports "high risk activities" carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that the initiative provides "emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel," although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for just 10% of monthly flight hours.

While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents indicate that it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December of last year, for example, the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative flew 233 sorties. In just the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.

AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson has confirmed to TomDispatch that US air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 in Niamey, the capital of Niger, were providing "support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region." Refusing to go into detail about mission specifics for reasons of "operational security," he added that, "in partnership with Niger and other countries in the region, we are committed to supporting our allies… this decision allows for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations within the region."

Benson also confirmed that the US military has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the "transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities" like training missions. He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. All told, the US military now has agreements to use 29 international airports in Africa as refueling centers.

Benson was more tight-lipped about air operations from Nzara Landing Zone in the Republic of South Sudan, the site of one of several shadowy forward operating posts (including another in Djema in the Central Africa Republic and a third in Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo) that have been used by US Special Operations forces. "We don't want Kony and his folks to know… what kind of planes to look out for," he said. It's no secret, however, that US air assets over Africa and its coastal waters include Predator, Global Hawk and Scan Eagle drones, MQ-8 unmanned helicopters, EP-3 Orion aircraft, Pilatus planes, and E-8 Joint Stars aircraft.

Last year, in its ever-expanding operations, AFRICOM planned 14 major joint-training exercises on the continent, including in Morocco, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria. One of them, an annual event known as Atlas Accord, saw members of the US Special Forces travel to Mali to conduct training with local forces. "The participants were very attentive, and we were able to show them our tactics and see theirs as well," said Captain Bob Luther, a team leader with the 19th Special Forces Group.

The Collapse of Mali

As the US-backed war in Libya was taking down Qaddafi, nomadic Tuareg fighters in his service looted the regime's extensive weapons caches, crossed the border into their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that country. Anger within the country's armed forces over the democratically elected government's ineffective response to the rebellion resulted in a military coup. It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who had received extensive training in the US between 2004 and 2010 as part of the Pan-Sahel Initiative. Having overthrown Malian democracy, he and his fellow officers proved even less effective in dealing with events in the north.

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 US counterterrorism efforts. "This spectacular failure reveals that the US 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 US 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 US 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 US-backed Malian military fighting alongside the French were cited for gross human rights violations in their bid to retake control of their country.

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 US 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 US 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 US, 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US-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 US-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was only the first in a series of blowback responses to US 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 US through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program. The country has also been a beneficiary of US Foreign Military Financing, which provides grants and loans to purchase US-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.

The situation has grown so serious that President Goodluck Jonathan recently declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out about "credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism." After a Boko Haram militant killed a soldier in the town of Baga, for example, Nigerian troops attacked the town, destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing an estimated 183 people.

Similarly, according to a recent United Nations report, the Congolese army's 391st Commando Battalion, formed with US support and trained for eight months by US Special Operations forces, later took part in mass rapes and other atrocities. Fleeing the advance of a recently formed, brutal (non-Islamic) rebel group known as M23, its troops joined with other Congolese soldiers in raping close to 100 women and more than 30 girls in November 2012.

"This magnificent battalion will set a new mark in this nation's continuing transformation of an army dedicated and committed to professionalism, accountability, sustainability, and meaningful security," said Brigadier General Christopher Haas, the head of US Special Operations Command Africa at the time of the battalion's graduation from training in 2010.

Earlier this year, incoming AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee that a review of the unit found its "officers and enlisted soldiers appear motivated, organized, and trained in small unit maneuver and tactics" even if there were "limited metrics to measure the battalion's combat effectiveness and performance in protecting civilians." The U.N. report tells a different story. For example, it describes "a 14 year old boy… shot dead on 25 November 2012 in the village of Kalungu, Kalehe territory, by a soldier of the 391 Battalion. The boy was returning from the fields when two soldiers tried to steal his goat. As he tried to resist and flee, one of the soldiers shot him."

Despite years of US military aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo, M23 has dealt its army heavy blows and, according to AFRICOM's Rodriguez, is now destabilizing the region. But they haven't done it alone. According to Rodriguez, M23 "would not be the threat it is today without external support including evidence of support from the Rwandan government."

For years, the US aided Rwanda through various programs, including the International Military Education and Training initiative and Foreign Military Financing. Last year, the US cut $200,000 in military assistance to Rwanda—a signal of its disapproval of that government's support for M23. Still, as AFRICOM's Rodriguez admitted to the Senate earlier this year, the US continues to "support Rwanda's participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa."

After years of US assistance, including support from Special Operations forces advisors, the Central African Republic's military was recently defeated and the country's president ousted by another newly formed (non-Islamist) rebel group known as Seleka. In short order, that country's army chiefs pledged their allegiance to the leader of the coup, while hostility on the part of the rebels forced the US and its allies to suspend their hunt for Joseph Kony.

A strategic partner and bulwark of US counterterrorism efforts, Kenya receives around $1 billion in US aid annually and elements of its military have been trained by US Special Operations forces. But last September, Foreign Policy's Jonathan Horowitz reported on allegations of "Kenyan counterterrorism death squads... killing and disappearing people." Later, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the Kenyan military's response to a November attack by an unknown gunman that killed three soldiers in the northern town of Garissa. The "Kenyan army surrounded the town, preventing anyone from leaving or entering, and started attacking residents and traders," the group reported. "The witnesses said that the military shot at people, raped women, and assaulted anyone in sight."

Another longtime recipient of US support, the Ethiopian military, was also involved in abuses last year, following an attack by gunmen on a commercial farm. In response, according to Human Rights Watch, members of Ethiopia's army raped, arbitrarily arrested, and assaulted local villagers.

The Ugandan military has been the primary US proxy when it comes to policing Somalia. Its members were, however, implicated in the beating and even killing of citizens during domestic unrest in 2011. Burundi has also received significant US military support and high-ranking officers in its army have recently been linked to the illegal mineral trade, according to a report by the environmental watchdog group Global Witness. Despite years of cooperation with the US military, Senegal now appears more vulnerable to extremism and increasingly unstable, according to a report by the Institute of Security Studies.

And so it goes across the continent.

Success Stories

In addition to the Gulf of Guinea, AFRICOM's chief spokesman pointed to Somalia as another major US success story on the continent. And it's true that Somalia is more stable now than it has been in years, even if a weakened al-Shabaab continues to carry out attacks. The spokesman even pointed to a recent CNN report about a trickle of tourists entering the war-torn country and the construction of a luxury beach resort in the capital, Mogadishu.

I asked for other AFRICOM success stories, but only those two came to his mind—and no one should be surprised by that.

After all, in 2006, before AFRICOM came into existence, 11 African nations were among the top 20 in the Fund for Peace's annual Failed States Index. Last year, that number had risen to 15 (or 16 if you count the new nation of South Sudan).

In 2001, according to the Global Terrorism Database from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, there were 119 terrorist incidents in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, there were close to 500. A recent report from the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies counted 21 terrorist attacks in the Maghreb and Sahel regions of northern Africa in 2001. During the Obama years, the figures have fluctuated between 144 and 204 annually.

Similarly, an analysis of 65,000 individual incidents of political violence in Africa from 1997 to 2012, assembled by researchers affiliated with the International Peace Research Institute, found that "violent Islamist activity has increased significantly in the past 15 years, with a particular[ly] sharp increase witnessed from 2010 onwards." Additionally, according to researcher Caitriona Dowd, "there is also evidence for the geographic spread of violent Islamist activity both south- and east-ward on the continent."

In fact, the trends appear stark and eerily mirror statements from AFRICOM's leaders.

In March 2009, after years of training indigenous forces and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on counterterrorism activities, General William Ward, the first leader of US Africa Command, gave its inaugural status report to the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was bleak. "Al-Qaeda," he said, "increased its influence dramatically across north and east Africa over the past three years with the growth of East Africa Al-Qaeda, al Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)."

This February, after four more years of military engagement, security assistance, training of indigenous armies, and hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding, AFRICOM's incoming commander General David Rodriguez explained the current situation to the Senate in more ominous terms. "The command's number one priority is East Africa with particular focus on al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda networks. This is followed by violent extremist [movements] and al-Qaeda in North and West Africa and the Islamic Maghreb. AFRICOM's third priority is Counter-LRA [Lord's Resistance Army] operations."

Rodriguez warned that, "with the increasing threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, I see a greater risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively." In addition to that group, he declared al-Shabaab and Boko Haram major menaces. He also mentioned the problems posed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine. Libya, he told them, was threatened by "hundreds of disparate militias," while M23 was "destabilizing the entire Great Lakes region [of Central Africa]."

In West Africa, he admitted, there was also a major narcotics trafficking problem. Similarly, East Africa was "experiencing an increase in heroin trafficking across the Indian Ocean from Afghanistan and Pakistan." In addition, "in the Sahel region of North Africa, cocaine and hashish trafficking is being facilitated by, and directly benefitting, organizations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leading to increased regional instability."

In other words, 10 years after Washington began pouring taxpayer dollars into counterterrorism and stability efforts across Africa and its forces first began operating from Camp Lemonnier, the continent has experienced profound changes, just not those the US sought. The University of Birmingham's Berny Sèbe ticks off post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of Mali, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the coup in the Central African Republic, and violence in Africa's Great Lakes region as evidence of increasing volatility. "The continent is certainly more unstable today than it was in the early 2000s, when the US started to intervene more directly," he told me.

As the war in Afghanistan—a conflict born of blowback—winds down, there will be greater incentive and opportunity to project US military power in Africa. However, even a cursory reading of recent history suggests that this impulse is unlikely to achieve US goals. While correlation doesn't equal causation, there is ample evidence to suggest the United States has facilitated a terror diaspora, imperiling nations and endangering peoples across Africa. In the wake of 9/11, Pentagon officials were hard-pressed to show evidence of a major African terror threat. Today, the continent is thick with militant groups that are increasingly crossing borders, sowing insecurity, and throwing the limits of US power into broad relief. After 10 years of US operations to promote stability by military means, the results have been the opposite. Africa has become blowback central.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here. His website is You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.

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