Symposium: Have US military programs made African countries less safe?
Against the backdrop of war, pandemic, and economic crisis, President Biden will be hosting leaders from 49 African countries and the African Union this week in hopes of reaffirming relations with a part of the world that is most often sidelined — if not taken for granted — amid the churn of great power conflict across the globe.
According to the administration, the African Leaders Summit is supposed to “demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa, and will underscore the importance of U.S.-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities.”
A senior administration official told reporters that there will be “major deliverables and initiatives” over the three-day summit, which begins Tuesday. “This is also about defining a global agenda together,” the official said, “where there are opportunities where Africans should — will, must — sit at the table and help us work through some of the most difficult challenges in this consequential decade.”
But just one look at the security landscape, and it’s clear that many of these countries — whether in the Sahel, the Horn, or central Africa — are struggling against fresh waves of violence (either by the state or rising terrorism) every day, despite close partnerships with the U.S. military under the auspices of post-9/11 counterterrorism and related programs. Countries like Nigeria, Somalia, Chad, and Burkina Faso have all experienced military coups or increased violence this year. In many cases, critics say, those military-focused relationships with Washington are contributing, sometimes in a big way, to the problem. A problem that appears to be getting in the way of progress on a number of non-security fronts — including trade and development, poverty alleviation, health, climate, and political stability.
So we asked a mix of foreign policy, regional, and security experts the following question:
“How do you assess U.S. security/counterterrorism programs in Africa over the last two decades, and what changes would you make to improve relations overall?”
When assessing U.S. security/counterterrorism programs in Africa over the last two decades, there is a tendency to focus primarily on the overtly militaristic dimensions of U.S. policy, from AFRICOM to the funding and training of African security forces.
There is no question that the United States needs to re-evaluate its overly militaristic approach to Africa, and to cease its support for endless war in places like Somalia, where drone strikes and other counter-terrorism strategies have backfired, leading to mass displacement and an unknown number of civilian casualties.
But it is equally important to scrutinize U.S. support for civil society programming on the topic of CVE — “countering violent extremism” — which has had a number of negative effects. First, the U.S. government’s preoccupation with questions of security and terrorism has redirected donor funding away from issues of pressing concern to people on the continent (social welfare, education, development, jobs, etc.). Second, U.S.-backed civil society programming on CVE not only normalizes new forms of policing (by promoting the monitoring and surveillance of one’s neighbors and family members), but actively pathologizes those who question it, conflating political frustration with support for political violence. This has the effect of suppressing discussion and debate, and of contributing to the criminalization of dissent.
In short, we must also scrutinize the rhetorical championing of “democracy” and “civil society,” lest it serve as a cover for new forms of repression.
U.S. counterterrorism in Africa has failed. It was evident from the earliest post-9/11 days that the war on terror was seeding what it sought to eliminate. The Pentagon funded and trained soldiers who violated human rights, corrupted public service and mounted coups. Counter-terror support repurposed African regional organizations as military coalitions.
The PATRIOT Act handicapped humanitarian operations in Somalia 11 years ago so much that an entirely preventable famine killed 250,000 people. The military operation that toppled Muammar Gaddafi unleashed a wave of jihadism across a third of the continent.
This dismal U.S. scorecard is especially regrettable because in the decade before 9/11, East African nations had hit on a formula for containing al-Qaida — putting the politics first. A combination of coercion and diplomacy pushed Sudan, the leading state sponsor of terror, into collaborating with its neighbors and the United States and put the region on the road to neutralizing the jihadist threat.
The failings were evident even under the George W. Bush administration, which pulled back from its excesses. What wasn’t established was an alternative. The Trump administration outsourced its Africa policy, putting Israel, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates in the driving seat. The Biden administration has no discernible policy other than timidly hoping for stability.
Today, if the Biden administration is looking for a framework for partnering with Africa that steers a course between militarization and moralizing, it need look no further than Africa’s own norms and principles of governance and democracy. These are aspirational for sure, but aspirations forged in the recovery from conflict, state failure, and despair. They’re enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union, its commitments to democracy, elections and governance, to human rights, and to peace and security.
U.S counter-terrorism efforts in Africa should be judged by what they have yielded. One is hard-pressed to point to an African country where these programs have resulted in the durable suppression of militancy. On the contrary, in many African countries where the U.S. military is active — there are few where it is not — militant groups have proliferated. Militant groups are now active across North Africa, the Sahel, the east coast of Africa, and in large swaths of West Africa.
Not only have these groups spread, but many are better organized, have greater access to sophisticated weapons, and are better integrated into dark networks like smuggling syndicates. In short, the martial, political, and financial sophistication of many of these groups is increasing. If a militant group does not evolve, it dies.
America’s expensive kinetic solutions to suppressing militancy rarely work as they fail to address the real drivers of militancy which are grinding poverty, environmental degradation, and endemic corruption. The United States would achieve far more by working to find, understand, and enable local solutions to these core problems.
Somaliland offers an example worthy of study. It effectively combats al-Shabaab with a miniscule budget by leveraging community-driven interdiction. Whereas in Somalia, despite lavish U.S. funding and military presence, al-Shabaab still controls much of the country, including parts of the capital.
The prioritization of security-counterterrorism programs and policies in U.S. engagement with African countries has been counterproductive as these policies have often exacerbated the armed militancy which they were meant to undercut.
One problem with the security-counterterrorism paradigm is that it functions like a self-fulfilling prophecy by reducing multifaceted and complex local struggles into the single issue of religiously (read Islam) determined militarism and violence. In so doing, U.S. policies help to define and transform what were initially heterogenous movements led by variously placed social actors with conflicting motives informed by divergent socio-political processes into the sole issue of Islamist militancy. Having framed the issue as such, U.S. policy then ensues to delegitimize the movement in question, presenting militarized response as the only possible engagement. Viewed this way, the emergence of internationally informed and networked Islamist militancy in various countries in Africa did not precede the advent of U.S. security-counterterrorism programs in those countries. These policies shape and influence the way many of these conflicts evolve. Moreover, by turning many actors and regions of the African continent into “threats,” these policies structure new interventions that sustain and deepen the long history of unequal power relations between Africa and the United States.
What should be done differently? Perhaps, one could start with examining the consequences of the preoccupation with locating and eliminating threats to U.S. interests. A thorough analysis of these consequences, intended and unintended, might lead to a reassessment of U.S. security-counterterrorism programs in Africa.
Based on available evidence, over the last two decades, U.S. counterterrorism programs in Africa expanded partner country military capacity but did not mitigate terrorism or address structural issues behind the proliferation of terrorist groups.
CT programming in Africa encompasses training and equipping partner military forces, standing up new units, drug interdiction, and U.S.-directed missions. These programs increased partner nation capacity for kinetic military operations, and their ability to employ a broader array of equipment. But partner nations still struggle to account for U.S.-provided equipment and sustain military logistics without the United States. And African military officers receiving U.S. professional military education are more likely
to be involved in coups. Most critically, despite these interventions, terrorism across Africa has increased by 300 percent over the last decade.
No U.S. CT program addresses the social inequality, local power dynamics, historic ethnic tensions, or poor governance that spurred terrorist groups into action in the first place. Even though the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act mandated that security cooperation programs have assessment, monitoring, and evaluation to track their operations, data remains limited and poor. More challenging is the lack of a clear theory of success for American CT programs in Africa and an inability to calculate a return on programmatic investments.
Since 9/11, the U.S. “War on Terror” has served to justify massive military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Africa, the dollars spent and the casualties to U.S. military personnel have been much lower.
Both globally and in Africa, however, counterterrorism has proved both ineffective and counterproductive for U.S. security. For the countries identified as threats, the toll in lives and livelihoods has been high.
To address the causes of violence and insecurity, U.S. policymakers and citizens should give up the illusion of U.S. global leadership. We should instead learn from Prime Minister Mia Mottley of the tiny nation of Barbados.
At COP27 in Egypt and in her speech for the 20th Annual Nelson Mandela lecture in South Africa, Mottley has won global acclaim for her comprehensive agenda to respond to today’s global “polycrisis” of climate change, wars in Europe as well as in Africa, and economic recession.
U.S. programs have probably exacerbated the problem. Terrorist insurgencies have grown by about 300 percent in the past decade. Security sector assistance — training and equipping foreign militaries — has been the primary tool for American counterterrorism efforts, but security forces we’ve supported have been used as tools of domestic political repression and abuse in Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Nigeria, to name a few. This abuse can drive support and recruiting for the same insurgencies we’re helping to fight.
Partners sometimes have less incentive to address the root problems of instability while we’re helping beef up their military force too. The new “U.S. Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa” recognizes the connection between good governance and security, which is a good step. But ensuring that short-term security interests don’t continue to outweigh (and undermine) a focus on good governance is essential for success. Our priority should be to ensure we don’t make bad governance easier to sustain. This means being realistic about our national security interests at stake, ending programs with abusive governments, and focusing on countries that are good partners. Unless it’s essential for our own national security, we shouldn’t be propping up bad actors.
The United States has its task cut out in Africa. In the March 2022 UNGA vote on the Ukraine war, almost half of all African states either abstained, voted no, or did not vote for the U.S.-backed resolution. The count was only a little more supportive of Washington in the October 2022 vote on Moscow’s egregious annexation of parts of Ukraine.
Africa wishes to build ties with the United States but not at the expense of its relations with Russia and China. States in the Sahel are also mostly weary of the French-led war on terror which Washington has supported. Like much of the Global South, Africans want a new bargain with Washington. Such a bargain can also be in the U.S. long-term interest. Helping right-size counterproductive counter-terror efforts in the region, expanding Washington’s laudable efforts on public health and climate change, and proposing a more compelling economic story that involves greater infrastructure investment and market access will enhance African stability and growth and create economic opportunities for the United States. Washington should respond appropriately to preserve its equities on this vast continent.
Counterterrorism programs can harm host countries by empowering authoritarians, abetting corruption, and fueling grievances. Some of these harms have occurred in Africa, with variation across time and place.
The U.S. government typically deprioritizes Africa — a lamentable choice overall, but one that has kept counterterrorism somewhat limited outside of Somalia and Libya. More expansive counterterrorism would have done even more harm. U.S. policymakers have been right, for example, in deciding not to conduct armed drone strikes in the Sahel, despite serious militancy there.
At the same time, existing counterterrorism programs are flawed. The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, covering northwest Africa, has been wasteful and poorly managed, according to audits. The U.S. focus on training, moreover, has contributed to sidelining much-needed conversations about conflicts’ political roots. U.S. prioritization of counterterrorism, meanwhile, has led Washington to overlook abuses by partners: in Niger, then-President Mahamadou Issoufou jailed his main opponent during the 2016 election, and scandals have erupted –— with no accountability —over allegations of extra-judicial killings by soldiers and embezzlement from the security budget. The United States outsources some counterterrorism to regional forces, such as the African Union Mission in Somalia, but various forces have faltered, while others have become open-ended deployments lacking credible plans for resolving conflict.
Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations committee in July, Chidi Blyden, the Defense Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, lamented the recent “spread of VEOs [violent extremist organizations] and an exponential increase in their attacks” in the Sahel region, and called for further U.S. engagement. Blyden failed, however, to place the current situation in the context of almost 20 years of American counterterrorism efforts in the region, including a plethora of counterterrorism and security assistance programs; a steady flow of funds, weapons, equipment, and American advisers; as well as deployments of commandos on low-profile combat missions.
For that, she could have consulted the Pentagon’s own Africa Center for Strategic Studies for useful metrics. The Africa Center found violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel skyrocketed from 76 in 2016 to a projected 2,800 for 2022, a 3,600 percent increase. The spike in fatalities stemming from these attacks has been almost as severe, rising from 223 to 7,052 over that same span. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the exponential rise in terror attacks during a period of significant U.S. counterterrorism operations provides a useful starting point for a reevaluation of U.S. aims and efforts.
Since 9/11 the United States’ relationship with the African continent has primarily revolved around a security and counter-insurgency paradigm. Africa as the world’s only Muslim-majority continent has been visualized as an extension of the Middle East and a vast space in which U.S. special forces needed to engage militant Islamic extremists. Generations of U..S war fighters have made careers fighting in endless wars in places like Somalia.
Yet, while the United States has concentrated on war fighting, its leaders in Washington have increasingly lost sight of African countries’ economic potential. In 2010, the United States lost its position as the main trading partner with the majority of African countries. It was replaced by China, which America increasingly considers a strategic rival. There is an incredible amount of consternation in Washington about the possibility of China trapping African countries in debt as a result of its investments in infrastructure across the continent.
Still, it’s those investments in infrastructure that African economies desperately need. By some projections the continent will be the world’s most populous by the end of the century, replacing Asia — yet even its most industrialized economies like South Africa still suffer from almost daily rolling blackouts. Eksom, the state-owned utility that produces approximately 90 percent of South Africa’s energy, relies on aging coal-powered plants that simply cannot keep up with demand or prepare the country to meet its climate-change targets.
Similar stories exist across the continent. Perhaps the need for infrastructure investment is most pronounced in the mega cities of West Africa. Kinshasa may have 83 million people by the end of the century, while the megalopolis of Lagos, Accra, and Abidjan may soon have half a billion people. The Obama Administration recognized the need to invest in energy infrastructure, but was unable to muster sufficient funds to make a real difference. This challenge has only become more acute in the last decade.