AFRICANGLOBE – More than three years after killing Osama bin Laden and claiming that the core of al-Qaeda had been decimated, the Obama administration is waging a protracted war with his disciples across north and equatorial Africa.
The enemy isn’t a nation or an alliance, but a diverse, mobile and adaptive collection of groups loosely united by the goal of overthrowing the region’s governments and replacing them with strict Islamic rule.
Militants returning to the continent after fighting in the Middle East are linking up with local groups and attacking governments in the continent already struggling to control their territories, says retired U.S. Army General Carter Ham, the former head of the U.S. Africa Command.
“Those borders might as well not exist,” Ham said of the porous region abutting Libya, Tunisia, Niger and Algeria. Militants are thriving in northern Africa’s “weak, ungoverned spaces,” and more of them are returning from Syria and Iraq “with battlefield experience and credibility.”
African governments don’t want American combat troops any more than the U.S. wants to deploy them after losing more than 6,800 lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. military is training governments across the continent to confront militant groups.
U.S. efforts to provide such training are complicated by the reality that some of America’s allies are authoritarian regimes that use their militaries as private armies and some have blotted human-rights records.
“The problem is that African states often exist for the elites, and the military exists also for the purpose of these elites,” said Hussein Solomon, a political studies professor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. “I’m asking for a more nuanced American engagement in Africa and a more nuanced perspective, an understanding that the state itself is problematic.”
With no realistic alternative, though, the U.S. war against Somali pirates, Nigerian kidnappers, Libyan militias and nomadic Islamic extremists remains focused on training and advising African militaries.
Across north Africa, terrorist groups are exploiting ancient transit corridors and the limited capability of states to provide border security, said Amanda Dory, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs.
“The trade routes through the Sahel into the Maghreb that have existed for thousands of years for commerce of all types are increasingly being used for a variety of trafficking,” including weapons, people and “most recently the increased flow of extremists” into and out of the region, Dory said in an interview.
The American military effort is spearheaded by the U.S. Africa Command, set up in 2007 and based in Stuttgart, Germany, its distant location a reflection of sensitivity in Africa toward a large U.S. military profile. The command has ratcheted up the American military presence on the continent with about 4,000 U.S. troops, civilians and contractors at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa.
An additional 1,000 or so U.S. troops and military advisers conduct short-term missions at the invitation of African nations, often working alongside local forces, Army Lieutenant Colonel Vanessa Hillman, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. She declined to provide a breakdown of U.S. forces by country.
The U.S. provided advisers and reconnaissance drones to aid in efforts to rescue more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April as the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls used by first lady Michelle Obama went viral online. The schoolgirls still haven’t been found.
One of the primary lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq is that wars against Islamic extremism can’t be won by military means alone, and U.S. officials say their strategy reflects that. Still, economic aid fell from 2009 to 2012 as military financing rose, according to the most recent State Department data available.
In 2009, U.S. economic and other non-military aid for all of Africa was $10.4 billion, compared with $8.26 billion in military assistance through the Foreign Military Financing program. In 2012, economic
aid dropped to $8.1 billion while military financing rose to $16.8 billion.
The U.S. military’s budget for Africa Command peaked at $273.7 million in 2010. Since then, it’s declined to $261.6 million in 2014. For the coming year, the Pentagon is seeking $244.5 million.
Economic development in Africa will be on the agenda at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that Obama is hosting in Washington next week. The three-day conference includes a daylong U.S.- Africa Business Forum on Aug. 5 hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.S. Commerce Department. Bloomberg Philanthropies is led by Mike Bloomberg, the Jewish founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
Solomon said that the U.S. should use its leverage to push for democratic reform and anti-corruption efforts and that counterterrorism strategy must be tailored to the political context of each country.
“The U.S. military is an essential but not a decisive component,” Ham said. “What the U.S. military is good at is tactical training. We’re less good at institution-building or ethical values training. That was one of our weaknesses in Mali, where we focused exclusively on small-unit tactical training and not on institutions to exercise civilian control.”
Mali’s military led a coup in 2012 seeking better resources to fight separatists. The Arab and Tuareg rebels, who want a separate nation in the north, initially aligned themselves with al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. African nations sent troops to Mali last year to repel the advance of the Islamist militants.
Some militant groups across the continent have expanded their ambitions from local grievances to global goals, said U.S. Representative Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican and a member of the House Intelligence committee who specializes in Africa.
“You’ve got these al-Qaeda affiliates who are trying to outdo each other to show that they’re worthy of funding and operational help,” LoBiondo said in an interview. “Their recruitment is soaring. They’re getting the funds necessary to do the bad things which at some point are going to come back to the U.S.”