America’s Global War on Terror has seen its share of stalemates, disasters, and outright defeats. During 20-plus years of armed interventions, the United States has watched its efforts implode in spectacular fashion, from Iraq in 2014 to Afghanistan in 2021. The greatest failure of its “Forever Wars,” however, may not be in the Middle East, but in Africa.
“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated,” President George W. Bush told the American people in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, noting specifically that such militants had designs on “vast regions” of Africa.
To shore up that front, the U.S. began a decades-long effort to provide copious amounts of security assistance, train many thousands of African military officers, set up dozens of outposts, dispatch its own commandos on all manner of missions, create proxy forces, launch drone strikes, and even engage in direct ground combat with militants in Africa. Most Americans, including members of Congress, are unaware of the extent of these operations. As a result, few realize how dramatically America’s shadow war there has failed.
The raw numbers alone speak to the depths of the disaster. As the United States was beginning its Forever Wars in 2002 and 2003, the State Department counted a total of just nine terrorist attacks in Africa. This year, militant Islamist groups on that continent have, according to the Pentagon, already conducted 6,756 attacks. In other words, since the United States ramped up its counterterrorism operations in Africa, terrorism has spiked 75,000%.
Let that sink in for a moment.
A Conflict that Will Live in Infamy
The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq opened to military successes in 2001 and 2003 that quickly devolved into sputtering occupations. In both countries, Washington’s plans hinged on its ability to create national armies that could assist and eventually take over the fight against enemy forces. Both U.S.-created militaries would, in the end, crumble. In Afghanistan, a two-decade-long war ended in 2021 with the rout of an American-built, -funded, -trained, and -armed military as the Taliban recaptured the country. In Iraq, the Islamic State nearly triumphed over a U.S.-created Iraqi army in 2014, forcing Washington to reenter the conflict. U.S. troops remain embattled in Iraq and neighboring Syria to this very day.
In Africa, the U.S. launched a parallel campaign in the early 2000s, supporting and training African troops from Mali in the west to Somalia in the east and creating proxy forces that would fight alongside American commandos. To carry out its missions, the U.S. military set up a network of outposts across the northern tier of the continent, including significant drone bases – from Camp Lemonnier and its satellite outpost Chabelley Airfield in the sun-bleached nation of Djibouti to Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger — and tiny facilities with small contingents of American special operations troops in nations ranging from Libya and Niger to the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
For almost a decade, Washington’s war in Africa stayed largely under wraps. Then came a decision that sent Libya and the vast Sahel region into a tailspin from which they have never recovered.
“We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joked after a U.S.-led NATO air campaign helped overthrow Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime Libyan dictator, in 2011. President Barack Obama hailed the intervention as a success, but Libya slipped into near-failed-state status. Obama would later admit that “failing to plan for the day after” Qaddafi’s defeat was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.
As the Libyan leader fell, Tuareg fighters in his service looted his regime’s weapons caches, returned to their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that nation. Anger in Mali’s armed forces over the government’s ineffective response resulted in a 2012 military coup. It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who learned English in Texas and underwent infantry-officer basic training in Georgia, military-intelligence instruction in Arizona, and was mentored by U.S. Marines in Virginia.
Having overthrown Mali’s democratic government, Sanogo and his junta proved hapless in battling terrorists. With the country in turmoil, those Tuareg fighters declared an independent state, only to be muscled aside by heavily armed Islamists who instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, causing a humanitarian crisis. A joint Franco-American-African mission prevented Mali’s complete collapse but pushed the militants into areas near the borders of both Burkina Faso and Niger.
Since then, those nations of the West African Sahel have been plagued by terrorist groups that have evolved, splintered, and reconstituted themselves. Under the black banners of jihadist militancy, men on motorcycles — two to a bike, wearing sunglasses and turbans, and armed with Kalashnikovs — regularly roar into villages to impose zakat (an Islamic tax); steal animals; and terrorize, assault, and kill civilians. Such relentless attacks have destabilized Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger and are now affecting their southern neighbors along the Gulf of Guinea. Violence in Togo and Benin has, for example, jumped 633% and 718% over the last year, according to the Pentagon.
U.S.-trained militaries in the region have been unable to stop the onslaught and civilians have suffered horrifically. During 2002 and 2003, terrorists caused just 23 casualties in Africa. This year, according to the Pentagon, terrorist attacks in the Sahel region alone have resulted in 9,818 deaths — a 42,500% increase.
At the same time, during their counterterrorism campaigns, America’s military partners in the region have committed gross atrocities of their own, including extrajudicial killings. In 2020, for example, a top political leader in Burkina Faso admitted that his country’s security forces were carrying out targeted executions. “We’re doing this, but we’re not shouting it from the rooftops,” he told me, noting that such murders were good for military morale.
American-mentored military personnel in that region have had only one type of demonstrable “success”: overthrowing governments the United States trained them to protect. At least 15 officers who benefited from such assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel during the war on terror. The list includes officers from Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, and twice in 2022); Chad (2021); Gambia (2014); Guinea (2021); Mali (2012, 2020, and 2021); Mauritania (2008); and Niger (2023). At least five leaders of a July coup in Niger, for example, received American assistance, according to a U.S. official. They, in turn, appointed five U.S.-trained members of the Nigerien security forces to serve as that country’s governors.
Military coups of that sort have even super-charged atrocities while undermining American aims, yet the United States continues to provide such regimes with counterterrorism support. Take Colonel Assimi Goïta, who worked with U.S. Special Operations forces, participated in U.S. training exercises, and attended the Joint Special Operations University in Florida before overthrowing Mali’s government in 2020. Goïta then took the job of vice president in a transitional government officially charged with returning the country to civilian rule, only to seize power again in 2021.
That same year, his junta reportedly authorized the deployment of the Russia-linked Wagner mercenary forces to fight Islamist militants after close to two decades of failed Western-backed counterterrorism efforts. Since then, Wagner — a paramilitary group founded by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hot-dog vendor turned warlord — has been implicated in hundreds of human rights abuses alongside the longtime U.S.-backed Malian military, including a 2022 massacre that killed 500 civilians.
Despite all of this, American military aid for Mali has never ended. While Goïta’s 2020 and 2021 coups triggered prohibitions on some forms of U.S. security assistance, American tax dollars have continued to fund his forces. According to the State Department, the U.S. provided more than $16 million in security aid to Mali in 2020 and almost $5 million in 2021. As of July, the department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism was waiting on congressional approval to transfer an additional $2 million to Mali. (The State Department did not reply to TomDispatch’s request for an update on the status of that funding.)
The Two-Decade Stalemate
On the opposite side of the continent, in Somalia, stagnation and stalemate have been the watchwords for U.S. military efforts.
“Terrorists associated with Al Qaeda and indigenous terrorist groups have been and continue to be a presence in this region,” a senior Pentagon official claimed in 2002. “These terrorists will, of course, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities.” But when pressed about an actual spreading threat, the official admitted that even the most extreme Islamists “really have not engaged in acts of terrorism outside Somalia.” Despite that, U.S. Special Operations forces were dispatched there in 2002, followed by military aid, advisers, trainers, and private contractors.
Since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the U.S. has launched 31 declared airstrikes in Somalia, six times the number carried out during President Obama’s first term, though far fewer than the record high set by President Trump, whose administration launched 208 attacks from 2017 to 2021.
America’s long-running, undeclared war in Somalia has become a key driver of violence in that country, according to the Costs of War Project. “The U.S. is not simply contributing to conflict in Somalia, but has, rather, become integral to the inevitable continuation of conflict in Somalia,” reported Ẹniọlá Ànúolúwapọ Ṣóyẹmí, a lecturer in political philosophy and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. “U.S. counterterrorism policies are,” she wrote, “ensuring that the conflict continues in perpetuity.”
The Epicenter of International Terrorism
“Supporting the development of professional and capable militaries contributes to increasing security and stability in Africa,” said General William Ward, the first chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) — the umbrella organization overseeing U.S. military efforts on the continent — in 2010, before he was demoted for profligate travel and spending. His predictions of “increasing security and stability” have, of course, never come to pass.
While the 75,000% increase in terror attacks and 42,500% increase in fatalities over the last two decades are nothing less than astounding, the most recent increases are no less devastating. “A 50-percent spike in fatalities tied to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel and Somalia over the past year has eclipsed the previous high in 2015,” according to a July report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution. “Africa has experienced a nearly four-fold increase in reported violent events linked to militant Islamist groups over the past decade… Almost half of that growth happened in the last 3 years.”
Twenty-two years ago, George W. Bush announced the beginning of a Global War on Terror. “The Taliban must act, and act immediately,” he insisted. “They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.” Today, of course, the Taliban reigns supreme in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was never “stopped and defeated,” and other terror groups have spread across Africa (and elsewhere). The only way “to defeat terrorism,” Bush asserted, was to “eliminate it and destroy it where it grows.” Yet it has grown, and spread, and a plethora of new militant groups have emerged.
Bush warned that terrorists had designs on “vast regions” of Africa but was “confident of the victories to come,” assuring Americans that “we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” In country after country on that continent, the U.S. has, indeed, faltered and its failures have been paid for by ordinary Africans killed, wounded, and displaced by the terror groups that Bush pledged to “defeat.” Earlier this year, General Michael Langley, the current AFRICOM commander, offered what may be the ultimate verdict on America’s Forever Wars on that continent. “Africa,” he declared, “is now the epicenter of international terrorism.”
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch and a fellow at the Type Media Center.
A U.S. Army Special Forces weapons sergeant observes a Niger Army soldier during marksmanship training as part of Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, Feb. 28, 2017. Niger was one of seven locations to host tactical-level training during the exercise while staff officers tested their planning abilities at a simulated multinational headquarters in N’Djamena, Chad. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Klutts/released)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.