Operation Echo Casemate
Last spring, despite years of US assistance, including support from Special Operations forces advisors, the Central African Republic's military was swiftly defeated and the country's president was ousted by Seleka, a mostly Muslim rebel group. Months of violence followed, with Seleka forces involved in widespread looting, rape, and murder. The result was growing sectarian clashes between the country's Muslim and Christian communities and the rise of Christian "anti-balaka" militias. ("Balaka" means machete in the local Sango language.) These militias have, in turn, engaged in an orgy of atrocities and ethnic cleansing directed against Muslims.
In December, backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and in a bid to restore order, France sent troops into its former colony to bolster peacekeepers from the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA). As with the Mali mission, the US joined the effort, pledging up to $60 million in military aid, pouring money into a trust fund for MISCA, and providing airlift services, as well as training African forces for deployment in the country.
Dubbed Echo Casemate, the operation—staged out of Burundi and Uganda—saw the US military airlift hundreds of Burundian troops, tons of equipment, and more than a dozen military vehicles into that strife-torn land in just the first five days of the operation, according to an AFRICOM media release. In January, at France's request, the US began airlifting a Rwandan mechanized battalion and 1,000 tons of their gear in from that country's capital, Kigali, via a staging area in Entebbe, Uganda (where the US maintains a "cooperative security location" and from which US contractors had previously flown secret surveillance missions). The most recent airlift effort took place on February 6th, according to Benson. While he said that no other flights are currently scheduled, he confirmed that Echo Casemate remains an ongoing operation.
Asked about US training efforts, Benson was guarded. "I don't have that off the top of my head," he told me. "We do training with a lot of different countries in Africa." He offered little detail about the size and scope of the US effort, but a December 2013 briefing document obtained by TomDispatch mentions 84 US personnel, the majority of them based in Burundi, supporting Operation Echo Casemate. The New York Times recently reported that the US "refrained from putting American boots on the ground" in the Central African Republic, but the document clearly indicates that a Lion Forward Team of Army personnel was indeed sent there.
Another US Army Africa document produced late last year noted that the US provided military support for the French mission in that country from facilities in Germany, Italy, Uganda, Burundi, and the Central African Repubilc itself. It mentions plans to detail liaison officers to the MISCA mission and the Centre de planification et de conduite des opérations (the Joint Operations, Planning, and Command and Control Center) in Paris.
As US personnel deploy to Europe as part of Washington's African wars, additional European troops are heading for Africa. Last month, another of the continent's former colonial powers, Germany, announced that some of its troops would be sent to Mali as part of a Franco-German brigade under the aegis of the European Union (EU) and would also aid in supporting an EU "peacekeeping mission" in the Central African Republic. Already, a host of other former imperial powers on the continent—including Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom --are part of a European Union training mission to school the Malian military. In January, France announced that it was reorganizing its roughly 3,000 troops in Africa's Sahel region to reinforce a logistical base in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, transform N'Djamena, Chad, into a hub for French fighter jets, concentrate special operations forces in Burkina Faso, and run drone missions out of Niamey, Niger (already a US hub for such missions).
Operations by French and African forces, bolstered by the US military, beat back the Islamic militants in Mali and allowed presidential elections to be held. At the same time, the intervention caused a veritable terror diaspora that helped lead to attacks in Algeria, Niger, and Libya, without resolving Mali's underlying instability.
Writing in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel, the official publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, analyst Bruce Whitehouse points out that the Malian government has yet to reassert its authority in the north of the country, reform its armed forces, tackle graft, or strengthen the rule of law: "Until major progress is made in each of these areas, little can be done to reduce the threat of terrorism… the underlying causes of Mali's 2012 instability—disaffection in the north, a fractured military, and systemic corruption—have yet to be fully addressed by the Malian government and its international partners."
The situation may be even worse in the Central African Republic. "When France sent troops to halt violence between Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic," John Irish and Daniel Flynn of Reuters recently reported, "commanders named the mission Sangaris after a local butterfly to reflect its short life. Three months later, it is clear they badly miscalculated." Instead, violence has escalated, more than one million people have been displaced, tens of thousands have been killed, looting has occurred on a massive scale, and last month US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper informed Congress that "much of the country has devolved into lawlessness."
It is also quickly becoming a regional arms-smuggling hot spot. With millions of weapons reportedly unaccounted for as a result of the pillaging of government armories, it's feared that weaponry will find its way into other continental crisis zones, including Nigeria, Libya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In addition, the coalition operation there has failed to prevent what, after a visit to the largely lawless capital city of Bangui last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called "ethnic-religious cleansing." Amnesty International found much the same. "Once vibrant Muslim communities in towns and cities throughout the country have been completely destroyed as all Muslim members have either been killed or driven away. Those few left behind live in fear that they will be attacked by anti-balaka groups in their towns or on the roads," the human rights group reported. "While an African Union peacekeeping force, the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA), supported by French troops, has been deployed in the country since early December 2013, they have failed to adequately protect civilians and prevent the current ethnic cleansing from taking place."
French Wine in New Bottles?
"We're not involved with the fighting in Mali," AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson told me, emphasizing that the US military was not engaged in combat there. But Washington is increasingly involved in the growing wars for West and Central Africa. And just about every move it has made in the region thus far has helped spread conflict and chaos, while contributing to African destabilization. Worse yet, no end to this process appears to be in sight. Despite building up the manpower of its African proxies and being backed by the US military's logistical might, France had not completed its mission in Mali and will be keeping troops there to conduct counterrorism operations for the foreseeable future.
Similarly, the French have also been forced to send reinforcements into the Central African Republic (and the U.N. has called for still more troops), while Chadian MISCA forces have been repeatedly accused of attacking civilians. In a sign that the US-backed French military mission to Africa could spread, the Nigerian government is now requesting French troops to help it halt increasingly deadly attacks by Boko Haram militants who have gained strength and weaponry in the wake of the unrest in Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic (and have reportedly also spread into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon). On top of this, Clapper recently reported that Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania were endangered by their support of the French-led effort in Mali and at risk of increased terror attacks "as retribution."
Still, this seems to have changed little for the director of national intelligence. "Leveraging and partnering with the French is a way to go," he told Congress last month. "They have insight and understanding and, importantly, a willingness to use the forces they have there now."
France has indeed exhibited a longstanding willingness to use military force in Africa, but what "insight and understanding" its officials gleaned from this experience is an open question. One hundred and sixteen years after it completed its conquest of what was then French Sudan, France's forces are again fighting and dying on the same fields of battle, though today the country is called Mali. Again and again during the early 20th century, France launched military expeditions, including during the 1928-1931 Kongo-Wara rebellion, against indigenous peoples in French Equatorial Africa. Today, France's soldiers are being killed on the same ground in what's now known as the Central African Republic. And it looks as if they may be slogging on in these nations, in partnership with the US military, for years to come, with no evident ability to achieve lasting results.
A new type of expeditionary warfare is underway in Africa, but there's little to suggest that America's backing of a former colonial power will ultimately yield the long-term successes that years of support for local proxies could not. So far, the US has been willing to let European and African forces do the fighting, but if these interventions drag on and the violence continues to leap from country to country as yet more militant groups morph and multiply, the risk only rises of Washington wading ever deeper into post-colonial wars with an eerily colonial look. "Leveraging and partnering with the French" is the current way to go, according to Washington. Just where it's going is the real question.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He recently won the 2014 Izzy Award for "outstanding achievement in independent media" for his reporting on civilian war casualties from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Turse's pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Nation, at the BBC, 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 (just out in paperback). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here.
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