America’s Quest for Africa

Africa has been thrusted into the spotlight yet again thanks to the Libyan intervention. Due to the power vacuum in Libya, weapon depots have been looted dry and weapons of all sorts from Libya have been turning up on the black market. Fear of Islamists taking charge in Tripoli has been exacerbated by near hysteria over al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Africa seems to be engulfed in crisis–nothing new here.

Terrorism of any kind, no matter how irrelevant to the US or its interests is now seen as a greater threat than the Red Scare. The United States, of course, must and will act. Or so says AFRICOM commander General Carter Ham. General Ham considers al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, terrorist groups with mostly domestic grievances, to be very similar to AQIM, a group with a distinctly international flavor.

“Each of those three independently, I think, presents a significant threat not only in the nations in which they primarily operate but regionally and … to the United States,” Ham told defense reporters on Wednesday. “Those three organizations have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target Westerners and the U.S. specifically.”

Ham’s assessment of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab’s targets is extremely misguided. Al-Shabaab has only once attacked outside of Somalia, which was in Uganda in response to the country’s peacekeeping operations in Somalia. As Jeremy Scahill noted, American policy was counterproductive in that it radicalized many Somalis:

Rather than working with the Somali government to address what Somalia experts considered a relatively minor threat, the United States turned to warlords like Qanyare, and went down a path that would lead to an almost unthinkable rise in the influence and power of Al Qaeda and the Shabab.

Additionally, Boko Haram attacked its first international target just three weeks ago, the UN mission in Abuja. Even this attack, though directed at Westerners and a western organization–Boko Haram’s ideology stems from complete opposition to western education–was within Nigerian borders. While the precision, efficacy, and hardware used in the bombing was certainly characteristic of al-Qaeda, the links between the two organizations is still very difficult to connect. Despite the lack of hard evidence, Ham is ready to act:

“The Africans are better at addressing this [terrorism] than we are. In some cases they need some assistance and where we can provide that, we seek to do so,” he said, citing the example of Mali, where the United States has provided training and equipment to help them counter AQIM.

The effort in Mali was done under the guise of the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), an effort to combat terrorism and secure borders in Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, signed into law by the Bush administration in November 2002. In reality, the initiative focused on training and equipping American compliant armies as “[k]ey aspects of the training include basic marksmanship, planning, communications, land navigation, patrolling and medical care. This foreign internal defense training, officials said, will help the countries involved better protect their own borders and regions.” The PSI was a relatively small effort of $7 million, but laid the essential framework of which a much larger and more important counterterrorism initiative would be based: the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP).

The TSCTP was established during the Bush administration as a 5 year, $500 million project and is now under the authority of the fledgling AFRICOM, which is a mere 4 years old and is currently headed by General Carter Ham (the Department of Defense, USAID, the FBI, and Department of the Treasury also assist in the effort, as does the African Union and the Union of West African States). The goals of TSCTP are not surprising considering how terrorism of all kinds, even that unrelated to the United States, is looked upon in a paranoid fashion:

The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) is a multi-faceted, multi-year U.S. Government (USG) program aimed at defeating terrorist organizations by:

• strengthening regional counterterrorism capabilities,

• enhancing and institutionalizing cooperation among the region’s security forces,

• promoting democratic governance,

• discrediting terrorist ideology, and

• reinforcing bilateral military ties with the United States.

As this laundry list of objectives indicates, it appears that the US is approaching terrorism in Africa from many different perspectives. Mirroring America’s foreign policy, however, the TSCTP places too much emphasis on hard rather than soft power. An American diplomat from Senegal explains:

The current TSCTP program focuses too much on military and security assistance… [W]e believe that in Senegal the bulk of our TSCTP activities should be these &soft8 programs rather than military ones… In Senegal, the objective is to prevent terrorist attacks.  We are not at the stage yet where we need to find, fix and destroy terrorists.

The diplomat’s assessment is spot on: what sense does it make to approach terrorism militarily when the threat of terrorism against the United States by African groups is next to nonexistent? It’s also worth questioning why America even cares one iota about terrorism in Senegal or Burkina Faso. Neither country has ever experienced a terrorist attack, nor is either predisposed to terrorism.

The military component of the program is very troublesome. Known as “Operation Enduring Freedom Trans Sahara” (OEF-TS), this little known military initiative is said to reinforce bilateral military ties among its ten members: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.

Given the past actions of the US, which has shown complete willingness to exert control over militaries and security agencies all over the globe, this is hardly surprising.

OEF-TS explicitly states that its role is advisory, emphasis mine: “OEF-TS fosters collaboration and communication among participating countries. Furthermore, OEF-TS strengthens counterterrorism and border security, promotes democratic governance,reinforces bilateral military ties, and enhances development and institution building.”

Likewise, the TSCTP site makes clear that the US is participating from the sidelines, “The overall goals are to enhance the indigenous capacities of governments in the Pan-Sahel…to confront the challenge posed by terrorist organizations in the region.”

Recent events, however, have called into question American dedication to taking a backseat role, especially with the hysterical calls of danger coming from General Ham.

The recent bombing in of the UN mission in Abuja, Nigeria by Boko Haram saw heavy handed American involvement. The FBI was promptly on the ground assisting in operations, though many Nigerians balked at this and declared that they had not only run roughshod over Nigerian investigators, but had completely taken over the investigation. There is no better way to “foster collaboration and communication” than to hijack an investigation.

For all the talk of encouraging cooperation and respect among allies in order to eradicate terrorism, American calls for good faith seem to be, more than anything, a disguise for commanding around foreign countries. Cables obtained by Wikileaks show that the US continues to use one of the oldest tricks in the book for those not fully cooperating with the TSCTP: the power of the purse and well monied insiders.

The American friendly Ben Ali regime, when compared to other members of the TSCTP, was not doing all that well.

We will want to emphasize to Grira that while we value our relationship with Tunisia, shrinking resources will be prioritized for those countries that are willing to work with the U.S., particularly in regional security efforts such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Program (TSCTP) and NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor.  Tunisia’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) will drop from $15 million in FY-2010 to $4.9 million in FY-2011.

Congress was also unimpressed with Tunisia’s performance as a partner in counterterrorism, and “would need to see concrete benefits coming from the assistance… [and] a willingness to increase engagement…” in order to receive more funding. But perhaps what irked the United States the most, and really threw a wrench in the gears of the military component of TSCTP, Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara (OEF-TS), was the lack of a status of force agreement between the US and Tunisia.

 As they stood up to depart, the DCMA told the Defense Minister that the U.S. was still interested in establishing a SOFA [status of force agreement] for U.S. military forces in Tunisia and that Congress considers a SOFA very important in judging the strength of a relationship. Grira said that he was aware of the issue, but that the Tunisians were waiting for the U.S. to respond to their proposal for text changes.

The US, yet again, was more focused on responding to terrorism rather than preventing it.

The policy of leading from behind has also seemed to have been abandoned in Mauritania. The government of Mauritania unveiled a plan called “Social and Economic Aspects of the National Strategy Against Terror.” Rather than supplementing the strategy already established, the TSCTP “parallels the GIRM’s [Government of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania] SNLT [Strategie Nationale de Lutte contre le Terrorisme], but goes a step further.” In little Mauritania, American policy has supplanted that of the host country. Leading from behind? Hardly.

The man responsible for Mauritania and America’s close “cooperation” is “Ministry of Economy and Finance Director for Cooperation Mohedyne Sidi Baba, who has been the Mission’s primary counterpart on USAID’s Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.” Baba’s is indebted to and very comfortable with the financial organizations of all kinds:

Mohedyne Ould Sidi Baba has been a vital player in building Mauritania’s relations with the IMF, World Bank and donors. His tireless work was instrumental to Mauritania’s consideration for the MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation] and re-establishing confidence with the IMF.

Baba, in other words, has shown so much willingness to act on the behalf of the United States because they keep the money flowing to poverty stricken Mauritania.

The recent establishment of AFRICOM, TSCTP and OEF-TS were created in the aftermath of 9/11 paranoia. Any threat of terrorism, real or otherwise, had to be scrutinized and, whenever possible, acted upon. While al-Qaeda had attacked US interests in Kenya and Tanzania years before, there was never once an existential threat to the US from African terrorist groups. American officials, in their crusade to destroy a war tactic, are now onto Africa.

It looks as though Africa is being colonized yet again, but not by those searching for diamonds or by loan sharks from the IMF. Rather, the United States, acting as a partner in the War on Terror, seems dedicated to crafting and shaping malleable countries throughout the turbulent and eternally hopeless continent.