Home inFocus Alliances: American Interests in a Changing World (Fall 2016) The United States in Africa: A Tale of Hesitant Allies

The United States in Africa: A Tale of Hesitant Allies

Steven Metz Fall 2016
A U.S. Army soldier observes Senegalese troops during a July 2016 exercise. (Photo: U.S. Army Africa)

American involvement in Africa carries heavy historical baggage. Until the early years of the Cold War all of the continent save Liberia and Ethiopia was ruled by Europe so Washington largely deferred to Paris, London, Brussels, Lisbon, and Madrid on security issues. But as African decolonization began in the 1950s Washington was concerned about the leftist political leanings of many African leaders, recognizing that the Soviet Union would try to turn this to its advantage and possibly use it to deny the West access to Africa’s resources and markets. While the United States did not actively oppose decolonization it was not enthusiastic about it. Africans later remembered that the Soviets and Chinese supported them during their quest for independence and majority rule in a way that the United States did not.

As decolonization moved forward a major international crisis broke out in the former Belgian Congo – a huge country tragically ill-prepared for independence by Brussels. Facing Belgian-backed secessionist movements in the mineral rich Katanga and South Kasai regions, Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba asked for Soviet military assistance. In response the United States began a covert action program to assure that a pro-Western government took control. This intervention led to a deep suspicion of the United States and made generations of Africans receptive to even wild conspiracy theories about America’s nefarious intentions and desire to control the continent’s resources.

In the 1980s, U.S. concern about Soviet influence in Africa escalated even further. Only a handful of African nations were strongly pro-Western. Some like Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia were outright Soviet allies, but most were nonaligned. This did not endear them to Washington, which tended to believe that nations in what was then called the Third World must be either pro-Western or pro-Soviet. But the United States was little involved in African security other than providing modest security assistance to a few nations and anti-communist rebel movements. Some African military officers did attend staff and war colleges in the United States but this ebbed and flowed in response to political events back in Africa, particularly military coups.

The Post-Cold War Adjustment

The end of the Cold War provided an opportunity for the United States to reconsider its role in Africa. It was a time of significant democratization in Africa and saw the end of white minority rule. But it was also a time when the fragility of Africa’s political and security systems allowed internal conflicts to create horrific humanitarian disasters.

The first test of the new American approach was in Somalia. There the United States participated in a multinational peacekeeping operation which saved thousands from a famine exacerbated by armed conflict. But this did not end well, with 19 elite U.S. military servicemen killed in what became known as the Battle of Mogadishu. This deterred American involvement in Africa for several years and prevented effective U.S. action during the Rwandan genocide and Africa’s most deadly war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both of which came soon after.

Seeing this, the Clinton administration concluded that the best approach was for the United States to help African nations expand their own ability to manage regional security and prevent humanitarian disasters. But Africa’s lingering suspicion of the United States combined with limited interest by the American public and Congress meant that any initiatives had to be low level and deft. The Clinton administration’s response was to create what it called the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) to help selected African nations become more effective at peacekeeping. While small, ACRI was seen as a success: its African participants did become more effective and at least began moving beyond their suspicion of American motives.

The September 11 Effect

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States changed America’s perspective on Africa. Helping African nations contain violent extremism became Washington’s top priority, particularly in the Muslim parts of the continent. African leaders quickly recognized that the level of American assistance depended on the degree to which is was used to counter Islamic extremism. Terrorism got Washington’s attention but little else did. Even deadly conflicts like the one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo drew little American interest while those in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel (the transition region between the Sahara Desert and the savanna belt to the south) did since jihadism was at play.

To make counterterrorism support more effective, President George W. Bush created the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative under the leadership of the State Department, replaced the African Crisis Response Initiative with the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program, and involved a number of African countries in a new framework for economic development assistance called the Millennium Challenge Corporation. And, as John Deni explained in the Summer 2013 issue of inFOCUS, the Bush administration created a new and unique military headquarters called the U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM. Unlike the Pentagon’s other regional commands which are designed primarily for warfighting, AFRICOM was optimized for security cooperation and African capability-building. Its purpose was not to defeat enemies but to help African security forces address regional conflicts with limited outside help. AFRICOM’s mark of success is not victory in war but its own obsolescence. Bush’s low level, supporting effort seemed to work and hence continued during the Obama administration.

A Glass Half Full

Africa’s security forces have made significant progress over the past two decades but the continent’s security remains fragile. Take the ongoing stabilization of Somalia. The United Nations, the African Union – the regional organization that includes all African nations except Morocco – and an international support group led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates have helped Somalis begin to rebuild their fractured country. Yet the security situation is precarious largely because of a violent jihadist group known as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen, or simply al-Shabab. In 2012 al-Shabab pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, thus linking Somalia’s stabilization to the global struggle against violent Islamic extremism.

Over the past few years an African peacekeeping force known as AFRISOM drove al-Shabab out of Somalia’s major cities. The international support group is helping rebuild Somali National Army with hopes that it will allow AFRISOM to withdraw. Today al-Shabab continues brutal terrorist attacks, most directed at soft targets like hotels used by foreigners and the Somali elite. It also has undertaken deadly terrorist attacks in Uganda and Kenya. The United States occasionally strikes directly at al-Shabab leaders with drones or commando raids. American forces also serve as advisers to Somali security units. The bad news is that the so-called Islamic State or ISIS has established a presence in Somalia. If ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, it may escalate its operations in places like Somalia.

The fight against violent Islamic extremism has also spread to West Africa. A war against al-Qaeda-linked groups rages in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel. And Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation is fighting a vicious Islamist organization known as Boko Haram. Created in 2006 in Nigeria’s impoverished northeast, Boko Haram, which seeks a very strict form of Islam and the expulsion of anything seen as Western, turned to violence after a 2009 government crackdown. A few years ago it was on the offensive, pushing Nigeria’s army back, but a series of reforms by the Nigerian government turned things around.

While Boko Haram is on the ropes, insurgencies like it which break into small groups, cross national borders, and concentrate on soft targets are wickedly hard to eradicate even if the government and security forces are effective. While rejecting Boko Haram’s sociopathic violence, Nigerians in the north resent inadequate attention from the government. The movement’s call for greater piety resonates with many Muslims, even if they do not share its bloodlust. Northern Nigeria has an immense supply of angry, alienated young men with few or no economic prospects. It also has plenty of weapons. National borders in the region are porous at best, giving Boko Haram and other extremists de facto external sanctuary. And Boko Haram is self-financing largely through bank robbery, extortion and kidnapping. It has created a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions with thousands of refugees and widespread famine. While Boko Haram is unlikely to defeat the Nigerian military, it is likely to survive and kill for many years.

Open Questions

After fifteen years of counterterrorism in Africa there are few indicators that violent extremism is going away. If anything, it is growing as ISIS gains a foothold. Despite that, the chances of an extremist movement taking over a state or creating its own one are slim. Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and movements like them can murder civilians and occasionally kill a few security forces, but are incapable of ruling or administering anything. Still, the fragility of African political systems, economies, and security services mean that conflicts can easily spiral out of control and create humanitarian disasters. Given this, much still needs done to make Africa more secure, stable, and prosperous.

Looking forward, the United States must continue to grapple with two big questions. One is whether the level and form of U.S. involvement is about right. America’s role is modest, focusing on training, advising, security assistance, exercises, military education and professional. This cannot produce big or stunning results but is all that is feasible given the limited support for an expanded U.S. role among the American public and Congress, and the desire of Africans to manage their own security affairs. Africans certainly would like more U.S. assistance with fewer conditions on how it is used but do not always recognize this will not sell to the public or Congress. After all, U.S. leaders must use public resources to promote American national interests.

The second big question is whether the United States is working with the right partners. Some of America’s most effective partners in Africa have human rights issues or have held office so long that they must be considered de facto dictators. This forces U.S. policymakers to continually assess how much repression or authoritarianism is too much and how much can be tolerated. This same problem plays out in military-to-military relations between the United States and African nations. In 2014, for instance, a military officer who had received training in the United States led a coup which overthrew the elected government of Burkina Faso ­– a front line state in the struggle with al-Qaeda affiliated extremists. Many of Egypt’s leaders, including current president (or dictator) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, attended U.S. military schools. Things like this invariably lead to calls for the United States to cut its ties with African militaries.

The United States has begun training elite counterterrorism forces in several African nations. Iraq and Afghanistan both showed that this can help create units that are very effective at dealing with extremists. But counterterrorism requires extreme professionalism and discipline. If American-trained units abuse human rights, it discredits the assistance program. This is the enduring dilemma of America’s low level indirect approach in Africa: it creates some responsibility for the actions of U.S. partners but gives Washington little actual control over them.

In March 2016 Senate testimony General David Rodriguez, who was then commander of AFRICOM, explained, “Africa is an enduring interest for the United States, and its importance will continue to increase as African economies population, and influence grow. Relatively small but wise investments in African security institutions today offer disproportionate benefits to Africa, Europe, and the United States in the future, creating mutual opportunities and reducing the risks of destabilization, radicalization, and persistent conflict.” This has been the rationale for U.S. involvement in African security since the end of the Cold War. Today, as Africa faces mounting problems from extremists, it makes sense. Whether it will continue to in the future remains an open question.

Steven Metz Ph.D. is Director of Research at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.