As the Biden administration starts to implement its approach to foreign policy, key issues are to be addressed. Quite disappointingly, a number of problematic counterterrorism policies taken up by the Bush administration are yet to be discontinued. This includes the use of torture to produce intelligence, the periodic use of drone strikes against civilians, and the overlooking of human rights abuses, including the use of child soldiers and mercenaries in combat. All of these reprehensible practices are, unfortunately, an integral part of the American counterterrorism mission in Africa.
The flawed nature of the American approach to counterterrorism and intelligence is exemplified in the “shadow war” in Africa, which is essentially an extension of the United States’ global War on Terror into the greater African continent. It is important to understand the history and goals of the U.S. mission in Africa especially since its shortcomings and failures have impacted American credibility in the region. In particular, an analysis of the U.S. approach to the conflict reveals a lot about the state of the wider American foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
A History of Terrorism and Tension
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a series of terrorist attacks committed by various insurgent and terrorist groups in Africa. This was, in part, serving as a response to the increased American military presence in the MENA, with growing U.S. ties to authoritarian regimes in the Gulf. These attacks became even more frequent and deadly after September 11, 2001, as many religious and political extremist groups were radicalized and inspired by the boldness of al-Qaeda. In fact, soon after the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists bombed a hotel and attempted to down an Israeli commercial airliner near Kenya. Moreover, numerous Islamic regimes were also emerging in various African countries, such as Sudan.
The Response and Escalation
In response to the rise of Islamic extremism in those countries, the United States government decided to deploy troops starting in 2007 in Somalia, Niger, Djibouti, and elsewhere to grow its special operations missions in Africa. This initiative represented a significant expansion of American military interventions on the continent, as previously, the U.S. military had only pursued small military missions in Somalia and Rwanda during the Clinton administration. Then, the Obama administration radically increased military presence in the region, pointing to the troop surge in Iraq and other MENA countries as proof that the terrorist threat could only be dealt with by increasing support and resources. The Trump administration, despite its stated opposition to military interventions (such as the War in Iraq) and its troop withdrawal from Somalia, has increased drone strikes dramatically, thus carving a similar path.
Created in 2007, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), a military command with a given budget of nearly USD $300 million, has been in charge of all American military operations and diplomatic relations with 53 African nations. Several hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in taxpayer money have also been spent on the African drone program. Opposition to AFRICOM has gained enough traction for the U.S government to consider relocating its headquarters. While steps have been taken to move the AFRICOM central command to the African continent, a transition is yet to be made official due to continuing criticism from African governments.
According to investigative reporting by American journalist Nick Turse, the U.S. has used these funds to conduct more than 3,500 military exercises every year across 29 current US military bases in Africa. This extensive presence has allowed the United States to push for regime change and counterinsurgency by training more than 30,000 local operatives through its “African Talents Program.”
Among these operatives are children, often used by foreign militaries and non-state groups in various roles. Since 2006, the U.S. has been sending military aid to the Sudan People’s Defence Force, formerly the SPLA, which uses child soldiers in South Sudan. The U.S. has been providing the SPDF with infrastructure, vehicles, and training in human rights, logistics, administration, medical, military justice, finance, and English. Within the SPDF, girls, often forcibly recruited through coercion, financial reward, or kidnapping, are given to young boys and older soldiers as trophy wives, while many are raped.
This alarming example indicates that U.S. involvement in Africa only seems to be reinforcing the trend of overlooking abuses for a larger strategic purpose, or, in this case, fighting terrorism and bolstering jobs and profits for defence contractors. This political and ideological intervention has also led to local and American casualties, including the death of 4 Special Forces operatives in a Niger ambush in October 2017.
In addition to troop numbers not being scaled back, the U.S. military has built new drone bases quite rapidly. Bases like the Niger Air Base 201, built in 2019 and estimated to cost more than USD$100 million for construction alone, have been used to track and destroy terrorist targets, most prominently al-Qaeda, Islamic State, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram assets in the region. The U.S. officially operates 12 drone bases in Africa, in addition to countless drone bases in the Gulf and South Asia. As a result, there has been a radical augmentation of airstrikes in the region.
For example, there was approximately one airstrike per week in Somalia in 2019 alone. Moreover, the use of surveillance and lethal drones has tremendous downsides, such as increased civilian and non-combatant casualties, greater operational costs, and lower success rates. The American drone program has also yet to be recognized as legal under international law, and target countries argue that drone strikes are a violation of their territorial sovereignty.
Furthermore, in order to scale back the number of reported U.S. military personnel, the American government and intelligence agencies have employed private security contractors. Companies like Academi (formerly known as Blackwater, allegedly behind the infamous Nisour Square massacre), Triple Canopy, and DynCorp have been providing security services as private contractors – essentially soldiers-for-hire – for these missions. Alarmingly, former soldiers and operatives from foreign militaries, particularly French, Canadian, and Israeli soldiers, have been hired by such companies for AFRICOM. This raises concerns about soldier allegiance, sovereignty, legality, and morality. Defence contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing also supply military technology, ammunition, vehicles, and equipment.
Additionally, reports have surfaced depicting unlawful practices of torture, either led or supported by the U.S. government. These statements have unfortunately revitalized suspicions held by many regarding the nature of the U.S.-led War on Terror, plagued by images of the prisons in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and countless CIA Black Sites. All of these accounts represent the worst of counterterrorism and intelligence practices, which are illegal under national and international law, unethical, and ineffective at producing reliable intelligence. In fact, the CIA is reported to operate Black Sites in various African countries, namely Djibouti, where the U.S. currently runs a military base as part of AFRICOM. At such Black Sites, the CIA reportedly employs various interrogation techniques, including torture, against detainees who essentially vanish from the face of the Earth, held without legal accountability or record for an indefinite period of time.
What Comes Next?
Despite the substantial military measures led by AFRICOM, the mission has done very little to retaliate against terrorist groups. On the contrary, the growing U.S. counterterrorist interventions have coincided with an increase of militant Islamic extremist groups in Africa from 5 in 2010 to 25 in 2020. This puts into question the utility of AFRICOM. To sum up, the outcomes of this operation have further destabilized a region already dealing with various conflicts and political instability. What’s more, such instability has largely been caused by past and current Western colonialism, imperialism, and military involvement.
There has been relatively little to no journalistic or academic coverage on this issue since 2017, despite the height of the scandals, abuses, and regional instability associated with AFRICOM. As calls for transparency and accountability on this issue have long been ignored by government officials, victory, as well as the intended goal, have remained undefined, sparking dark reminders of Bush-era policies and programs in the global war on terrorism. What, surely, remains uncertain is whether the best or the worst lies ahead in this seemingly incessant War on Terror.