Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Special Series: Part 1 - Exploring U.S. military presence in Africa

This is a special report on the United States military involvement in Africa. The report will explore the changing militant landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, American motives for creating military bases, and a look at where and how those bases are functioning.

Part 1 explores the evolving militant backdrop, the United States’ reaction and approach to those changes, and how the latest agreement with Niger places the U.S. strategically in the middle of the militant threat.

Africa: The new front against terror?

Since 2011, the United States has been involved militarily in 26 African countries. Some deployments have made headlines while others remain largely anonymous. Washington’s rumoured agreement with Niger to set up a new drone base in the country is only the latest instalment of a renewed foreign policy focus for the continent. The United States’ African concentration is multi-pronged with both short-term and long-term goals.

U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper UAV (Credit: AP/Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)
The basing deal with Niger is purported to be unconditional with no leasing time-limit in place for U.S. personnel stationed in the country. It has been in negotiation for over a year and could see anywhere from a few hundred to potentially a few thousand U.S. troops moving through the new base. Intelligence collection is slated as the primary task for both the drones and other military units, but that mission could expand if the local security situation develops.

Washington, especially under the Obama administration, has increasingly relied upon drones to wage its conflicts in hard-to-reach places around the world. As a result, drone bases are springing up all over Africa as apparently part of an aggressive new strategy combating al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

The Obama administration prefers drones to other forms of warfare because using them limits both the potential for pilot deaths (and error) and collateral damage due to their heightened accuracy. Speaking to the Bloomberg press a few days ago, Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said if the U.S. conducts drone strikes in Mali, it probably wouldn’t be controversial in the U.S. “Its boots on the ground that generates controversy,” he said.

Still, air power “can only go so far in these types of conflicts,” Hoffman said. “It’s still about winning over the local population and providing them security against terrorist retribution. That’s a French and Malian responsibility, not ours.”

Although it is unlikely Africa will become the so-called “new front” against terror groups, just when the threat of transnational terrorism finally shows signs of cooling, the region has nevertheless attracted the attention of Washington.

Militant groups such as al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in both Algeria and Mali have each made headlines in the past few years conducting expanding operations throughout Africa. The infamous Joseph Kony, leader of the militant Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Central African Republic, was the effigy gleefully hated by idealistic teenagers for a few weeks back in early 2012. Kony himself is the focus of a cross-border manhunt led by American Special Forces units and local African forces.

However, not all is straightforward. Washington is concerned if it gets too involved too early in the current Malian conflict, the various militant groups in Africa could link up and form some sort of “grand alliance of criminal and terrorist networks”, according to Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Like-minded Islamist groups would then range from the Gulf of Aden near Yemen all the way through to the West African coast, threatening the entire region’s stability.

A NATO study released in December 2012 outlined “clear indications” of increasing “collaboration and synchronization among the various violent extremist organizations” in Mali. Instability, if it proceeds and migrates from Mali, threatens to impact the oil and natural gas sectors in Libya, Nigeria, Ghana, and Algeria, a possibility the United States would wish to avoid.

But the militant threat is probably not in a positive feedback loop yet, and apart from a few anomalies, certainly is not a transnational threat. At least not in the way Washington is painting the danger. Not only do the groups lack the technical competency to conduct effective attacks halfway around the globe, the groups have local focus, preferring to concentrate their ambitions at their own government or neighbouring African governments.

(dpa-infografik/dpa-Grafik/Newscom) via http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com
Watching these groups closely is the prudent path for Washington, regardless of how great the existential threat from terrorism is for the United States or Europe. The planned base in Niger will house various makes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), of which all will be unarmed reconnaissance craft. Whether the UAV’s are armed in the future is entirely dependent on the spread of militancy and the effectiveness of the French operation, but Washington’s right hand sometimes does not know the actions of its left hand and secrecy abounds whenever drones are concerned.

This is not to say the United States will rapidly increase military presence on the continent or become embroiled in the various recurring African conflicts. The Obama administration has made it perfectly clear that U.S. foreign affairs policy will now be isolationist and non-interventionist, divorcing itself from the pre-emptive policies of the Bush-era presidency to avoid Afghanistan-esque mission-creep in conflict zones. And even though Africa is currently a small, but wise, investment militarily, committing too many troops and treasure in the continent is not in Washington’s interest at the moment. Keeping a low profile is, and drones are the current weapon of choice.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in response to last week’s AQIM hostage drama in Algeria that it is America’s “responsibility to go after al Qaeda wherever they are,” pointing out hintingly that the Islamic terror franchise is right now crawling around North Africa and Mali.

As with the drone campaign in Yemen and Pakistan, for which the Obama administration has received much criticism, there is high probability the drones in North Africa could be the beginning of another open-ended campaign against militants.

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