Is Obama moving the war on terror to Africa?

2014-06-03 06:00

Despite talk of a pivot to Asia, the US military’s gaze has settled on Africa.

That isn’t news for anyone who has followed the expansion of the US Africa Command (Africom) on the continent. But it’s a decisive shift that until now US officials have been loath to acknowledge.

The veil lifted slightly on Wednesday when President Barack Obama asked Congress for $5?billion (R52.2?billion) to train and equip foreign governments for counterterrorism activities.

Most of the countries he cited are in northern Africa, including Somalia, Libya and Mali. US Special Operations are reportedly already training new counterterrorism units in Libya and Mali, as well as in Niger and Mauritania.

“Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralised al-Qaeda leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralised al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate,” Obama said.

“We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin or stir up local resentments.”

The Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, as the administration dubbed the programme, would apparently add more money and a new name to an existing slate of security cooperation programmes. Over the past few years, the US has spent millions training proxy forces to combat local insurgents in Africa.

One example is a $500?million operation called the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative, which provides training and equipment to 10 African partners.

According to journalist Nick Turse, who has covered Africom extensively for TomDispatch, the number of operations, programmes and missions conducted by the US military in Africa has increased by more than 200% since the command was established in 2008.

In 2012 alone, the US planned 14 major training operations across the continent, including in Mali, Morocco, Uganda, Botswana, Lesotho, Senegal and Nigeria.

“Africom talks about this like it’s small-scale and low-key, but when you listen to what they’re saying in private, it’s really startling,” Turse said. He’s heard officers refer to Africa as “the battlefield of tomorrow, today”.

One Africom official acknowledged to a room full of private contractors that the command had “shifted from our original intent of being a more congenial combatant command to an actual war-fighting combatant command”.

Counterterrorism cooperation sounds innocuous enough, particularly when presented rhetorically as an alternative to ground wars. However light-footed, the strategy Obama made explicit on Wednesday nevertheless endorses expanded US military activity on the continent.

Unfortunately, the president was not so much signalling the end of the era of military adventurism as directing it towards a new arena in fresh packaging.

And as with more conventional military endeavours, deeper involvement in Africa carries risks of blowback, particularly by drawing large militant networks into local conflicts.

Recent experiences in Libya and Mali – two countries Obama cited on Wednesday as presenting opportunities for expanded military cooperation – are instructive.

The US-backed operation to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya empowered a handful of militant groups and helped turn the country into a training ground for radical guerrillas.

Meanwhile, arms from Gaddafi’s arsenal made their way to Mali, where they enabled a coup led by a captain named Amadou Haya Sanogo, who had received extensive military training in the US.

In turn, weapons and militants from Mali now appear to be boosting the insurgency in Nigeria.

Obama’s speech has been widely interpreted as hailing a “new, postwar foreign policy”, marking the start of a new era focused on “facilitating partner countries on the front lines”.

But deriding the “costly mistakes” of large-scale military intervention is not a new position for Obama. It’s what got him elected.

Obama wasn’t announcing a novel position this week – he was defending his policies, including drone strikes and deepening engagement in Africa.

In doing so, Obama spoke as if overt intervention and behind-the-scenes meddling were not two sides of the same coin. Fundamentally, both are military solutions. The US’s fights in Iraq and Afghanistan may be almost over, but it’s short-sighted to call policy “postwar” if it’s dedicated to perpetuating the “war on terror”.

The good news is that by asking Congress to fund the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, Obama has created an opportunity for lawmakers and

the public to ask tough questions about the objectives and risks of expanding the military’s footprint in Africa, and with dubious partners. Let’s hope they take it.

– The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

» Carpenter writes for The Nation from Washington, DC

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