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)
It’s 2024, and the U.S. has officially run out of money for Ukraine. As Congress debates what to do next, Kyiv’s military position will inevitably degrade, likely leaving the country unable to mount significant attacks within a month or two, according to some experts.
Ukraine, for its part, says it has no “plan B” if U.S. funding runs out. “We are confident in plan A,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday.
It is no great exaggeration to say that what happens on Capitol Hill over the next few weeks could decisively shape the next phase of the war. So let’s dive into what we know.
Senate negotiators are hopeful that they can reach a deal. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) said Wednesday that by next week talks could yield the outline of an agreement that would adopt many Republican-favored border security measures in exchange for funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.
But the Senate has never been the real obstacle. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) argues that House Republicans should only accept a deal that includes H.R. 2, a hard-line immigration bill that lays out the GOP’s ideal approach to border control, including many measures that are unacceptable to Democrats.
Some now speculate that Johnson’s goal is to tank Ukraine aid by tying it to border policy. His strategy, the theory goes, would save the trouble of a solo vote on funding for Kyiv, which would likely draw a significant number of “no” votes from House Republicans.
While this approach may work for fiscal conservatives, it could draw blowback from more hawkish members of Johnson’s caucus, who are eager to increase funding for Israel and Taiwan as well as Ukraine.
The main takeaway is clear: Congress may well fail to pass new funding for Ukraine aid this year. Such a possibility could force the Biden administration to make a push for negotiations to freeze the war along its current lines and find a deal that compromises on key aspects of each side’s stated goals.
But an end to U.S. aid could also hurt Kyiv’s negotiating position at a time when Moscow and Western officials have increasingly begun to express interest in talks, as George Beebe of the Quincy Institute argued in RS last year.
“The United States should not remove cards from its hand by ending aid to Ukraine unilaterally or playing them prematurely,” Beebe wrote.
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky struck back at claims that Russia is winning the war in an interview with the Economist. “Maybe not everything is as fast as someone imagined,” he said, but Russian forces continue to face enormous losses in Avdiivka and other hotspots. On the question of peace talks, Zelensky told reporters that the Kremlin was trying to deceive the West by signaling interest in negotiations “because they don’t have enough missiles, ammunition, or prepared troops.” Notably, he also made clear that Ukraine’s efforts in 2024 would focus on isolating Crimea and preventing Russia from launching new attacks from the peninsula.
— Nearly 500 detainees were freed Wednesday in the first prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine in nearly five months, according to AP News. Some prisoners had been held since 2022. The United Arab Emirates facilitated the talks leading to the deal, which is the largest single prisoner swap since the war began. The swap highlights the potential role of the UAE and other neutral states in future negotiations.
— NATO head Jens Stoltenberg expects Sweden to join NATO before July, when allies will gather for a summit in Washington, according to Politico. It’s unclear whether Stoltenberg’s comment is realistic given continued foot-dragging from Turkey and Hungary, both of which have pushed hard to get concessions from Europe and the U.S. in exchange for allowing Sweden to join the alliance.
— Polish farmers will once again join Polish truckers in a blockade of a border crossing with Ukraine in protest of the economic impact that special rules for imports of Ukrainian goods have had on local workers, according to the Financial Times. The news is a significant step back for new Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who had hoped to leverage his ties with European and Ukrainian leaders to end the protests. The blockade, which began in early November, has led to long waits at the border and a parallel drop in trade that threatens Ukraine’s export markets.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller denied that the U.S. has quietly let go of maximalist goals in Ukraine in favor of setting Kyiv up in a strong position for negotiations. “That is not true,” Miller told reporters.
A U.S. airstrike Thursday in the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad killed Abu Taqwa, a commander of Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba, along with an unranked individual, according to reports .
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Kataib Hezbollah are two of the Iran-aligned militias that have most frequently targeted U.S. forces in Iraq, both before and notably after the start of the Gaza conflict on Oct. 7.
Abu Taqwa also served as the Deputy Commander of Baghdad Belt Operations in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). While formally part of a chain of command led by the prime minister, certain factions within the PMF, particularly Shi’a paramilitary units, operate outside of this structure.
The airstrike targeted a vehicle carrying Taqwa at a logistics center near Iraq’s Interior Ministry in Baghdad. Significantly, this strike occurred shortly after a meeting between Akram Al-Kaabi, Secretary-General of the al-Nujaba militia, and the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Ismail Qaani. Considering the location, timing, and Taqwa’s role within the PMF, this event represents a notable escalation and a clear message to both Iran-aligned militias and the Iraqi government.
The targeted killing occurred against a backdrop of tense relations between Washington and Baghdad. Widely interpreted as a preliminary warning to the Iraqi state, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin specifically addressed attacks by Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba against U.S. forces when he spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani on Dec. 8. Furthermore, during a press conference with the Spanish Prime Minister at the end of December, Sudani mentioned that his government was reassessing the presence of the international coalition in Iraq.
In the near term, it is unlikely that U.S. troops will receive orders to leave Iraq or that Iran and its affiliated militias will launch a significant retaliation within Iraq. However, with each tit for tat escalation, sometimes without formal claims of responsibility, the risk of a broader regional conflict looms larger. If, especially during an election year, a U.S. soldier were to be killed by an Iran-aligned militia, the pressure on the Biden administration to escalate forcefully would be substantial.
The reality is that the United States has limited capacity to deter attacks by Iran-aligned militias in Iraq without diplomatic efforts or a notable increase in kinetic strikes, which would pose the risk of triggering a broader war.
U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria may contribute to strengthening partner forces against ISIS, but they neither contain Iran nor significantly protect the security of the homeland. They are deeply vulnerable to the aftershocks of other conflicts in the Middle East, raising the question of whether the advantages of their force presence outweigh the risks. Disturbingly, it is a war being conducted in the shadows with little Congressional oversight.
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Qassem Soleimani's gravesite. (Mohammad Ali Marizad/ CC BY 4.0)
UPDATE (Jan. 4 at 12:47 p.m.): ISIS claimed responsibility Thursday for the attack in Kerman, saying in a press release that two of its suicide bombers carried out the attack. The group has long been a bitter enemy of Iran, whose government adheres to Shia Islam, which ISIS considers an apostasy. In a subsequent statement, the group contended that Iran's primary goal today is to use Palestinian factions to fight Israel without having to put Iranian soldiers in harm's way.
A pair of explosions tore through a crowd of Iranians marking the fourth anniversary of the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani Wednesday, killing at least 100 people and injuring many others.
The Iranian government described the explosions as a terrorist attack but did not immediately accuse any group of carrying it out. The attack took place during a procession near Soleimani’s gravesite in the southeastern city of Kerman.
Observers immediately pointed to Israel as a possible culprit given its bitter rivalry with Iran and its willingness to attack outside of its borders. But, as AP News noted, such a move would signal a major departure from previous Israeli attacks in Iran, which usually targeted specific officials and caused far fewer casualties than today’s blast.
Another potential attacker is ISIS, which has carried out similar attacks in the past but has not previously struck Kerman, according to AP News.
Iran’s judiciary head said the “agents and perpetrators of this grievous crime will undoubtedly be punished,” adding that he expects officials to track down the attackers and bring them before the courts.
The unprecedented attack comes just hours before the leader of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group that works closely with Tehran, is set to give a speech marking the anniversary of Soleimani’s 2020 killing by U.S. forces in Iraq. The Iranian general had previously served as Tehran’s primary point of contact with Hezbollah as well as Iraqi militia groups.
Analysts are anxiously waiting to see how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will address Israel’s alleged assassination of a Hamas commander with ties to Hezbollah and Iran in Beirut on Tuesday, which marked the Israel Defense Forces’ first attack in central Lebanon in several years. While most experts say Nasrallah hopes to avoid a full-scale war with Israel, news of a highly symbolic potential Israeli attack in Iran could change that calculus.
“This is a very dangerous moment,” argued Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute, which publishes RS. “A region-wide war appears more likely by the day.”
If Israel is indeed behind the attack then Iran may feel forced to respond directly, a move that Tehran has carefully avoided so far.
“[A]s Israel's attacks continue, Tehran's long-game strategy is coming under increasing strain as more voices in Iran argue that the absence of a strong response undermines Iran's deterrence,” Parsi wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Iranian media has so far reported that the pair of bombs were placed in two suitcases that may have been detonated remotely. A witness told Al Jazeera that one explosion came from a trash can.
The U.S. has not yet commented on the attack in Kerman. The Biden administration has generally avoided weighing in on previous attacks alleged to have been carried out by Israel, including a recent strike that killed an Iranian commander in Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey is “deeply saddened” by the “heinous terrorist attacks” and extended his condolences to the Iranian people.
On Wednesday, Israel continued to strike targets in southern Lebanon, the traditional stronghold of Hezbollah, as Hezbollah pledged to respond to the Tuesday attack in Beirut. Spillover from the Gaza war also continued in the Red Sea, where a string of Houthi attacks on merchant ships has forced many cargo vessels to go around Africa instead of transiting the Suez Canal.