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)
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria.
Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
The Syrian state is starving. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has helped to plunge Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.