It’s been over two decades since George Bush’s speech that promised to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against those who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, a declaration of war not against any individual, organisation, or nation, but an idea. It was not lost on some, at the time, that a war based on a vague idea was one that would be endlessly far reaching, and without end.
Fast-forward to 2022, and the endless conflicts around the globe continue with no sign of slowing down. As of this year, US troops have taken part in counterterrorism operations in 22 different countries, across four continents.
Some of these countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria will come as no surprise to anyone, but much lesser known is the war on terror in Africa. Because of its lack of attention many will be unfamiliar with the extent to which American forces are involved in Africa. But over the past 13 years, the U.S. has established a continuous presence on more than 27 bases in at least 15 African countries, with around 7000 American troops stationed on the continent (that’s 2000 more than in Iraq).
The American military presence is concentrated in the Sahel region (a region that includes Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger), and in the Horn of Africa. In each of these places, the US has engaged in counterterrorism operations and “security cooperation programs” that provide funds, equipment, training by American advisors to local forces, and even low profile combat missions.
In fact, US led training is not just futile, it’s actively making the situation worse. Local officers trained to “promote civil and democratic law across [their] countries” have consistently gone on to participate in the violent overthrow of their governments.
At least nine coups (eight of them successful) have been initiated by US trained troops across five West African countries, including Burkina Faso (three times), Mali (three times), Mauritania, Guinea and the Gambia.
Looking back, much of the instability in the Sahel region stems from the 2012 coup in Mali led by Amadou Sanogo who, thanks to US training,“ learned English in Texas, received instruction from U.S. Marines in Virginia, took his intelligence training in Arizona and underwent Army infantry-officer basic training in Georgia”.
Mali and now the entire Sahel region is gripped by a humanitarian crisis. With millions displaced, and a huge number of its population classed as food insecure by the UN, the Sahel is now being called “the most neglected and conflict ridden” region of the globe. Despite America’s humanitarian rhetoric, it is the African people that they are there to protect that have suffered the most from their intervention.
Regardless of intention, as we have seen in the middle east destabilising regional governments make for the perfect breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Since 2010, the number of Islamist groups operating in North, West, and East Africa has risen from five to 25, and the number of terror attacks has increased by 14% in the past year. Compare this to 2002, when the US first intervened, where there were just nine.
In short, the war on terror in Africa is a perfect display of the war on terror as whole. America’s reckless, incompetent foreign policy continues to bring chaos and disorder to everything it touches, exporting suffering where it goes no matter the supposed intentions. As author and journalist Nick Truss perfectly sums up, “the War on Terror is a smashing success — for terror”.
Going forward, a different solution to Islamic extremism in Africa has been suggested. US diplomat Elizabeth Shackleford argues that the cause of extremism is not in some ideology that can be suppressed, but is rather a result of “poor governance, security shortcomings, and socioeconomic grievances”. In other words, it’s a problem the military can’t solve.