Thursday, 7 February 2013

Special Series: Part 2 - 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 2 looks at the current NATO conflict in Mali as a catalyst for further U.S. military engagement, the high NATO collaboration in Mali, the build-up to the conflict itself, and how the encounter will assist the United States strategically.



The Mali and Libya context

The United States’ new drone base in Niger will be placed in the context of the medium-level conflict currently underway in Mali. Al Qaeda-affiliated militants took effective control of the northern reaches of Mali last year and advanced south through the funnel of the hourglass-shaped country at the beginning of the 2013. France decided to intervene in mid-January due to significant French mining investments in Mali and the spectre of militant expansion.

The French are worried about losing control of their former colony and receiving potentially thousands of Malian refugees fleeing into France if the conflict explodes further. Currently the French have sent combat troops, fighter aircraft, and Special Forces into northern Mali.

But Paris has not acted completely alone. American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets are supplying French ground and air units with high-quality information. The U.S. involvement in Mali is so far strictly logistical and advisory, working with the French from a distance. As far as the public knows, there are no U.S. forces currently fighting on the ground in Mali, although some deniable Special Forces teams are likely operating relaying intelligence to ISR assets in a limited role. 

U.S. refuelling aircraft are assisting French warplanes during bombing missions and U.S. transport aircraft have been reported moving French troops between bases and combat staging areas.  

AFP

As well as the Unite States, the U.K. has deployed Special Forces and other military units to the conflict to assist France’s Operation Serval. A few thousand troops from African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are also in theatre, likely shouldering most of the heavy workload.

U.S. officials involved in the Malian intervention warn the conflict could “take years” to stabilise. And as the militants fall back into classic guerrilla tactics, declining combat in the face of larger French military forces, that warning could already be coming true.

Both members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and French commanders will be well aware of recent colourful history of the insurgent campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Each took years to complete, and both have seen limited completion of original goals set by the allied troops. Each side in Mali will be preparing for the long haul in this conflict; although it is unlikely Paris will support an extended campaign with AQIM enjoying the upper-hand of superb terrain knowledge and guerrilla tactics.

Because of this, NATO is approaching the Malian conflict in a different way from their last, poorly-managed, engagement in Libya.

The 2011 war in Libya exposed how militarily limited much of the NATO countries apart from the U.S. had really become. Their air campaign was not able to self-sustain until the United States brought their air/sea assets on station to supplement to fast-depleting munitions stores of French and British warplanes.

The reason for this is clear. The U.S. military has shouldered the majority of defence spending in NATO for many decades. As a result, for European nations such as France, the U.K., and Italy to conduct air sorties and position Special Forces into Libya they had to rely on the United States for support. Originally Washington was not going to assist their NATO allies militarily in Libya, preferring to stay on the side-lines, until it became obvious that Gaddafi was not going to fall unless America intervened and completed the air campaign.

Even though the French military have shown greater competency this time around with multiple successful bombing missions launched from Chad and southern France, and have so far been able to logistically support French ground troops and Special Forces, a few operational holes are obvious. The ISR capabilities of the United States, comprising drone flights, high-altitude manned flights, signals-gathering, and satellite imagery, are far beyond Paris’ military budget. French troops are heavily reliant on American ISR platforms for intelligence in Mali.

Intelligence sharing is an important part of the NATO charter, but the United States’ abilities far outweigh their allies’ capabilities. France and Britain are unable to complement their intervention forces with their own ISR, preferring to accept U.S. assistance. So with these assets on station, beaming real-time imagery and signals intelligence to the French forces, the Americans are truly engaged in Mali, despite what officials in Washington say to the contrary.

Of course, it must be remembered that the NATO intervention in Libya’s Arab Spring uprising is a direct causal link to the spread of militancy in Mali today.

 File Photo by Reuters
After Gaddafi was killed and his army disbanded, Malian troops from nomadic Tuareg tribes, previously fighting for Gaddafi under contract, looted abandoned Libyan armouries. Those Tuareg fighters fleeing U.S.-backed rebel groups, who had set up hunter-killer groups tasked to find all ex-Gaddafi soldiers, then made a quick retreat back to Mali. Once they returned to their homeland in Mali, elements from Tuareg tribes took the opportunity to seize control of a number of northern Mali towns. Their reasoning for doing so appears to stem from a traditional and deeply ingrained nomadic desire to remove themselves from control by a central government.

The ensuing secession precipitated a coup in the southern capital Bamako, and also the sneaky arrival of an equally opportunist AQIM splinter group. Originally, the AQIM group known as Ansar Dine assisted the Tuaregs in their secessionist fight, but it soon became clear the two group’s goals were too dissimilar.

The Islamist group immediately began introducing forced Sharia law into many Tuareg villages and towns, much to the disgust of the locals, and started a campaign to destroy priceless historic artefacts and religious symbols citing Islamic law.

Once control over the secession was wrested away from the Tuareg elements, Ansar Dine and their benefactors, AQIM, along with the other major Islamic group, United Movement for Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, initiated a new drive south to begin taking other Malian towns with the goal to eventually push into Bamako itself and ensure the creation of an Islamic Sharia state.

This low-level violence only gained serious Western attention when the Islamic groups made this drive south.

The NATO Allied Command’s Civil-Military Fusion Center released a study in December 2012 making links between these Malian Islamic groups and others in the region, such as Somalia’s al Shabaab or Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

This study notes that Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and AQIM “appear to be closely coordinating”, pointing out that commanders and fighters of MUJAO and Ansar Dine have come from the ranks of AQIM.

Needless to say, the situation is a tinderbox that international troops may only be exacerbating.

The law of unintended consequences plays a formative role in Mali. What started off as a good-will mission to prevent Gaddafi from slaughtering rebel groups in the east of Libya, turned into a hastily constructed, poorly thought-out, and purposefully constrained intervention. Understandably, the United States did not want to get involved on the ground in Libya and risk another quagmire in the Arab world. But not following through on a complex military and political upheaval has led to emergent dangers down the road for NATO.

In fact, the AQIM troops in Mali presently being hounded by NATO forces are many of the very ones NATO armed and supported during the Libyan civil war. And while today’s scenario was difficult, if not impossible, to predict in 2011 during the Libyan campaign NATO are essentially cleaning up a mess they helped create.

But, as the saying goes, if the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. The United States and allied countries will likely benefit from the Malian conflict.

The conflict in Mali serves U.S. interests. First, the context allows Washington to cash-in favours or deals with multiple Saharan and sub-Saharan countries. The over-played threat of a spread of destabilising Islamic extremism into more African nations is a perfect reason, Washington will say, to begin leasing rights or build new airfield and military bases in strategic areas of Africa. Already, with the recent deal signed between Niger and the United States we see this happening.

Second, it could be cynically pointed out that Africa is resource-rich. Perhaps the continent is not flowing with crude oil as in the Middle East but large quantities of uranium, timber, fresh water, gold, coal, and other precious deposits litter the continent.

Displaying willingness to help in an African time of need, as in Mali, Washington and NATO can prepare for the future when bidding-wars become the new form of combat. Many countries are already heading to Africa to develop the continent and if the United States can ensure preferred status for their private enterprises, the more the better.

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