international analysis and commentary

US counterterrorism in Africa: low-profile, but risky

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Even the most casual observer of US foreign policy has probably noticed that there is a certain reluctance in Washington to deploy US troops to fight enemies abroad. Indeed, the phrase “boots on the ground” has almost become a euphemism for costly entanglement in intractable conflicts that are almost impossible to solve, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown. As the need to intervene still exists, however, there is a search for other models of military intervention going on. In Libya, for instance, in 2011 the US provided all kinds of logistical and intelligence support to its NATO allies and even carried out bombings to help the rebels who were fighting to overthrow Muammar Gheddafi. But it kept a decidedly lower profile than it had in Iraq and Afghanistan. The approach that was tried in Libya was not an astounding success – the country still struggling with profound instability – but President Barack Obama did manage to keep the US armed forces out of another quagmire. The same goes for the American involvement in Syria: the results are far from satisfactory, but at least Washington is not being dragged down into another lengthy counterinsurgency campaign.

There is, however, another strand of US defense policy, one with an even lower profile, and that is counterterrorism operations in Africa. Over the last couple of years, the US has silently been stepping up its efforts to fight groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram (essentially the Nigerian counterpart of the Islamic State), and Al-Shabaab (the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization that controls swaths of Somalia). Rather than relying on large-scale military intervention, AFRICOM, the command center in charge of US military operations in Africa, trains and equips other armies to fight jihadist groups. Such training covers, among other things, combat skills, the use of new equipment, logistics and operational intelligence gathering. In the same vein, the State Department provides support to African law enforcement agencies to improve their crime scene investigation, border control and explosives detection capabilities. Recipients of such assistance include Tanzania, Niger, Mauretania, Nigeria, Somalia and Mali.

Another pillar of the strategy to quell terrorism in Africa comprises small strikes and covert actions, which US armed forces carry out to eliminate suspected terrorists or militants. There is a US drone base in Djibouti, and the drone campaign in Somalia has resulted in the death of scores of Al-Shabaab militants, some allegedly from the higher echelons of the organization. Other forms of direct action include raids by US Special Forces, such as the failed attempt in October 2013 to kidnap a high-ranking Al-Shabaab member from the seaside town of Barawe.

At first glance, the low-profile approach that the US is taking in Africa makes sense. It is a way to fight terrorism without having to commit large numbers of ground forces in widely publicized conflicts, and there is less of a chance that the US may have to bear the brunt of the “blowback”, the violent and non-violent responses that typically follow large-scale military intervention. At the same time, though, there is no guarantee that this approach will be any less counterproductive than the more heavy-handed one tried in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First of all, the recent past should have taught the US a thing or two about the risks of training and arming other forces to let them do the fighting. One major snare is the very realistic possibility that the troops receiving the training and equipment will go rogue. Captain Amadou Sanogo, for example, received training from the US military, but went on to lead a coup against the democratically-elected government of Mali in 2012. Similarly, the Nigerian forces that are the US’ trump card against Boko Haram regularly engage in serious human rights violations, and some US-trained Congolese forces have gained notoriety for their involvement in mass rape.

In other cases, US allies have simply been too weak to stand their ground. The most dramatic example is, of course, the Iraqi army, which has failed to put up much of a fight against the Islamic State and whose soldiers fled the battlefield in large numbers last summer, leaving valuable and dangerous weaponry behind. Since these weapons were then seized by the Islamic State, the ironic result of the American training mission to Iraq is that the US turned out to be an indirect weapons supplier to a terrorist group that it is currently fighting. Iraq is certainly not the only such case. The Yemeni government was recently overrun by Houthi rebels, who appear to have seized large amounts of US-supplied military equipment. Also, in May 2014 armed militias in Libya stole hundreds of automatic firearms from a camp where local counterterrorism units underwent US training.

As for the limited strikes, their drawbacks can be gleaned from the drone campaigns in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Smaller strikes, even those against high-profile figures, will have little effect on loosely organized groups like Al-Shabaab and AQIM. Their foot soldiers and even their leaders are easily replaced, and their organizations are held together by tribal loyalty, the need to survive and the prospect of making money by engaging in illegal trade. Taking out the occasional group member will do little to change this. Moreover, it is widely recognized that American drone strikes, especially when gone wrong, can often feed hostility towards the US and thus only strengthen the support base of the militants.

Admittedly, at this point it is hard to tell whether AFRICOM and the State Department are repeating the same mistakes that the US foreign and defense policy establishment has made in other parts of the world. Much of what the US is doing to fight terrorism in Africa is shrouded in secrecy, so there is no real way of knowing, for instance, whether the recipients of US military and law enforcement assistance are adequately vetted and monitored. More openness and public scrutiny would be desirable, because while the fight against terrorism in Africa has a lower profile, it is still posing considerable risks: even targeted strikes and the selective arming and training of other forces in highly volatile environments can easily backfire. In supplying arms and training to local forces in Africa, the US would therefore be wise to take a more risk-averse approach than it has elsewhere. When distributed as thoughtlessly as they were in the Arab world, US arms and training will only strengthen the rogue militias and dysfunctional armies that are responsible for the instability that is currently plaguing the continent.