The US government's heightened preoccupation with "terrorists" is out of proportion with the threat these groups actually pose to the United States. So what exactly is America's military adventures in Africa about?
America's "war on terror" now has brought us deep into tropical Africa and the Sahel. We learned last week that Washington is engaged in an expansive project to hunt down an array of local "terrorists", could-be "terrorists" and mayhem makers in general. Nearly all of the numerous groups cited are no more than loose bands incapable of threatening the United States. Most have parochial interests whose focus and attention span fluctuates; they are driven by personal ambitions, tribal animosities, avarice and an appetite for raw power. To suppress them means establishing political order and the rule of law over vast territories, which have known little of either. Yet this is the implied burden the United States has assumed under plans drawn and executed by the three year old United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM). The Army is in charge with the CIA Operations Division as an auxiliary. The State Department is derogated to a supporting role that involves local public relations and serving up the diplomatic refreshments. A good portion of the work, and the money, is assigned to the mercenary companies of Iraq/Afghanistan fame.
The blanket justification is that al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQM) and al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa (AQHA) are out there plotting against us. These outfits are declared an ideological and political cancer that could spread to other locations. AQM in fact is shorthanded for a ramshackle bunch of loosely connected groups in and around the Sahara who are of no danger to American interests. The latter is code for the fundamentalist al-Shabaab (Harakat Shabaab al-Mujahidin, to give it its full name) in Somalia, which has been fighting a civil war for a decade or more. It has sought to inflate its importance by rebranding itself as an al-Qaeda affiliate. Al-Shabaab officially signed a franchise contract with the al-Qaeda family of enterprises only in February of this year. In the local mix may be a few of the people allegedly involved in the U.S. embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania more than a decade ago. Also highlighted by Washington are the eleven American citizens who, it is claimed, have gone over to take part in the tribal wars - although it is unclear why Washington considers that a matter of great consequence.
The COIN reaction to those two insurgencies is the pivot of "Operation Africa." The heightened importance accorded AQM and AQHA is disproportionate to the danger they pose to the United States. To date, they have not caused the death of a single American. We have killed hundreds of them. Still, the United States has orchestrated a multi-party intervention in Somalia by a half dozen countries including Christian Ethiopia (for the second time). There, as in the Sahel too, the Pentagon provides intelligence, logistical support and training, and the occasional helping hand on the ground. Those programs now have been extended to parts of non-Muslim Africa - the prominent example being the dispatch of a Special Forces team to the eastern Congo to track down Joseph Kony, head of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army - a bandit gang responsible for numerous atrocities. Kony is a nasty piece of work, but why the United States should be operating a string of forward bases in the heart of moral darkness to liquidate him is another matter.
Somalia in particular has made steady progress moving up the ladder of terrorist worry spots. It is now right up there with Afghanistan and Yemen - surpassing long forgotten Iraq with its still active al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The latter is more potent than any African group: it killed hundreds of Americans, we spent billions trying to crush it, and it is more critically located than the rest. Yet, it is no longer in vogue within Washington counter-terrorism circles. It is barely mentioned, and - in the ultimate disparagement - few if any of its leaders have prices on their heads. One reason for this neglect is that we can do absolutely nothing about them since we have been shown the door by Maliki and had it slammed shut behind us. This thinking amounts to looking for a lost object only under the lamppost because that is where the light is. Compare to Somalia. There, as a sign of al-Shabaab's new-found prominence, the State Department this week offered $7 million for information leading to the capture of its founder and commander Ahmed Abdi Aw-Mohamed, through its Rewards for Justice bounty program. In contrast, the U.S. had offered only $1 million for Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed in a U.S. strike in Pakistan last week and was described by U.S. officials as a bin Laden confidante and al-Qaeda's second-in-command. Either State suddenly finds itself flush with money or the New al-Qaedas are now valued more highly than Original al-Qaeda for reasons that are a mystery.
The scope of this entire daunting enterprise, as reported in the Washington Post, is breath-takingly broad. Not just in geographical range. It encompasses four categories of activity. One is the training and supply of local forces deemed politically reliable and potentially competent to undertake counter insurgency. There is the ulterior objective of knitting ties with military officers who could be a pro-American political force were their time to come. Egypt is a model; Iraq is not. The second activity is engagement in military operations in the field. Special Forces already have been trekking around the fringes of the Sahara in the company of local constabulary for some time. So too in Somalia and now Yemen - as Obama admitted last Friday. A new wrinkle is the building of a small galaxy of airfields in the bush from which single engine prop planes can undertake surveillance of "enemy" movements. Their value in the age of drones and satellite electronic imaging is unexplained. Perhaps, political conditions are not yet ripe for installation of the necessary high tech support structure. Obviously, though, this crop duster squadron will be manned mainly by mercenary companies.
There is intelligence gathering. This goes beyond operational intelligence or the identifying of bad guy networks. Rather, it covers the political mapping of entire countries, which USAFRICOM visualizes as the basis for long-term American strategy aimed at winning friends and influencing people. Such activities normally fall in the purview of the State Department; this is yet another sign of State being eclipsed by the Pentagon/Intelligence powerhouse that rules American foreign policy nowadays. Finally, there is the element of people to people confidence building ties between Americans and the locals. It is a tactic that carries over from our vain efforts along these lines elsewhere. Never say
The budget is classified; the project's duration is as far as the mind can imagine. There is one thing that we can be sure of. Operation Africa is self-perpetuating since there will be a steady supply of murderers, extortionists and Islamic radicals in this tormented environment that we never will be able to suppress. Our efforts, moreover, will generate the inevitable anti-Americanism and retaliation such ventures spawn - as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. So why launch this latest enterprise of dubious value? Well, when you have created an USAFRICOM, when you have staffed it with a few thousand personnel, when you have a Special Forces corps numbering 60,000, when you have a vastly expanded CIA Operations Division, and when American strategic thinking is still locked in the auto-pilot mode set in September 2001 - when all these forces are at work, there will be action. Trained to rumble people will not be content doing push-ups while watching the Military Channel. Their superiors will not be content thumbing through Jeune Afrique - and thinking about what they read.
Add to the above politicians who live in dread of being accused of being soft on terrorists or on anyone else who dislikes America.
Most of this, of course, has been classified ultra secret. Secret from whom is unclear. After all, the parties in on the secret include: leadership of AQLM and AQHA; the governments of the countries involved - or, at least, their militaries; the African Union "peacekeeping" force in Somalia; UN officials in the region; humanitarian organizations and coffee shop habitués from Ouagadougou to Mombasa. As for Mr. John Q. Public here at home, it looks like he is the only one who cannot be trusted with this ultra secret information.
Japanese spiritual culture is filled with various supernatural demi-gods. Shoki, the demon-slayer, is a favourite. He is depicted in human form with a wild countenance, flying hair and armed with a powerful broadsword. His fierce dedication to purging an array of malevolent creatures is manifest. He is high-spirited and exults in his good works. He is a theatrical figure. Shoki is fabled as returning from Hell with a mission to cleanse the world of Evil - especially as embodied by malign spirits and ghosts. They are legion; indeed, their number seems to grow to meet the demand for ever-more marvellous feats by the fiery protector of the good and virtuous. He is at once guardian and existential reassurance against the menacing forces that surround us. An emotional security blanket. Shoki is here - and there, and everywhere. So rest assured - go shopping.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.