The United States conducted six airstrikes in November—and at least 30 this year—against jihadists in Somalia. Four U.S. Green Berets were killed in an ambush in Niger in October. And U.S. Arica Command (AFRICOM) confirmed in late September that U.S. warplanes conducted half-a-dozen airstrikes against ISIS in Libya on a single day—the first U.S. strikes in Libya since January. In short, the U.S. military is actively engaged in Africa. But these high-profile stories are just the tip of the iceberg, as AFRICOM tries to stabilize the most chronically unstable continent on earth.
That’s not opinion or hyperbole: According to the Fragile States Index, Africa is home to 18 of the world’s 25 most fragile/failed states. Failed and failing states open the door to a host of international ills: anarchy, civil war, food and resource scarcity, mass-migration, piracy, and, of course, terrorism. This is where Africa’s problems become America’s problem—and why America is increasingly engaged in this no-longer-forgotten continent.
For the sake of clarity, let’s group U.S. involvement in Africa under three broad and connected headings: counterterrorism, humanitarian/stability operations, and trade/development.
The American public’s blissful ignorance notwithstanding, U.S. forces have been hard at work in Africa since late 2001, striving to prevent an entire continent from going the way of Somalia or Afghanistan.
In November 2002, the U.S. stood up Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a tiny country on Africa’s northeast coast. By 2008, CJTF-HOA numbered 2,000 troops. (Today, some 4,700 American troops, DoD personnel and contractors are based in Djibouti, which has become a springboard for counterterror operations in Yemen and East Africa.) By 2005, The Washington Post was reporting that the Pentagon had begun providing training, equipment and intelligence to militaries in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
This serves as a stark reminder that this is in every way a global war on terrorism. U.S. forces are fighting jihadists not only in in high-profile places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, but also all across Africa—in Tunisia, Mauritania, Somalia, Cameroon, Libya, Mali, Niger, Kenya, Nigeria, and all the way to Timbuktu (literally) to fight al Qaeda, ISIS and their fellow jihadists.
- A U.S. airstrike in Novembertargeting al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab killed more than 100 militants. There are some 500 DoD personnel in Somalia today.
- About 800 U.S. troops are deployed in Niger, 300 more in nearby Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
- Between August and December 2016, U.S. warplanes carried out 495 airstrikes to dislodge ISIS from the coastal city Sirte.
- In 2016, President Barack Obama dispatched Special Operations units to Nigeria and surrounding countries to assist the Nigerian military in its bloody struggle against Boko Haram, a jihadist group allied with ISIS.
- The U.S. military supports French efforts to blunt the jihadist advance in west-central Africa. U.S. planes have transported hundreds of French troops and thousands of tons of equipment in and out of Mali. In 2013, the U.S. stood up a base in Niger to conduct drone flights over Mali in support of the mission.
Three successive administrations have now pursued largely the same counterterrorism strategy in Africa. As AFRICOM commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser explains in his 2017 overview of operations, the strategy includes neutralizing al-Shabaab in Somalia, degrading “violent extremist organizations in the Sahel Maghreb…contain[ing] instability in Libya…contain[ing] and degrad[ing] Boko Haraam,” and assisting partner countries like Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad with logistics, training, intelligence and border security.
All told, the U.S. has some 6,765 military personnel (including shooters and civilians) spread across 42 African countries. That official number is surely low given that the deployment of Special Operations assets—which are very active in Africa—is often classified.
Nine of the UN’s current 16 peacekeeping operations are focused on Africa, which underscores how unstable Africa is.
To address this chronic problem of instability, another of AFRICOM’s key lines of effort is building “peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster-response capacity of African partners,” Waldhauser observes. The U.S. has trained 80 percent of African peacekeepers, pouring $4 billion in military aid into Africa (not including Egypt) between 2008 and 2015, with Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and South Sudan receiving the lion’s share.
CJTF-HOA elements have trained Somalia-bound Burundi troops; assisted Ugandan and Rwandan troops ahead of peacekeeping deployments; and helped create a peacekeeping-operations center to support African Union stability missions. And the past several months have seen Special Operations units deploy to train in Senegal and Mauritania; Army personnel transport armored personnel carriers to Nigeria; Army and Air Force assets deliver 450,000 pounds of military gear to the Central African Republic and Gabon; Coast Guard units at work in Senegal; and Marines conduct intelligence training in Ghana and peacekeeping training in Senegal.
Some stability operations are more dangerous than others: U.S. commando units have been waging a shadow war since 2011 against the Lord’s Resistance Army—a notorious transnational terror group led by warlord Joseph Kony, who is wanted for wreaking havoc across central Africa. Likewise, the Navy has been waging its own behind-the-scenes war against piracy on Africa’s western and eastern coasts since 2008-09. And it pays to recall that the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in western Africa was a humanitarian mission that contributed to regional stability. As the epidemic spread, AFRICOM set up a command post in Monrovia, Liberia, to provide regional command-and-control and to coordinate the efforts of various NGOs, agencies and militaries. Army units set up mobile labs and treatment facilities. The Air Force transported 5,500 passengers and 8,700 tons of cargo in a four-month-long continuous airlift. The Marines provided enabling assistance in Senegal. Upwards of 3,000 U.S. troops participated in the mission.
This is the sort of work a great and good nation does for neighbors in need. Again, it wasn’t the first time America answered when Africa called for help.
In 2003, only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral AIDS drugs. Recognizing the security risks posed by desperation and disease—and answering the call of conscience—President George W. Bush responded with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). “PEPFAR prevented nearly 2 million babies from being born with HIV,” a 2016 report concludes. PEPFAR provides assistance to nearly 1.1 million children, critical care for 6.2 million orphans and other at-risk children, and life-saving treatment for 11.5 million people.
Bush launched a similar multifaceted effort to counter Africa’s deadliest killer: mosquitoes. The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) is credited with protecting 25 million people by distributing bed nets and medicine. Thanks in large part to PMI, 6.2 million malaria deaths have been averted.
Trade and Development
Power Africa, a program launched in 2013 with federal and private-sector resources, aims to double access to electricity across sub-Saharan Africa.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which was launched by the Bush administration in 2004, provides foreign-aid grants to countries that fight corruption, respect the rule of law, embrace free markets, and invest in health and education. As the Obama administration reported late last year, MCC grants for 20 African countries represent 68 percent of the program’s entire portfolio.
The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (passed into law in 2000) paved the way for expanded trade. U.S.-Africa goods trade was $37 billion in 2000, jumped to $141.7 billion by the end of the Bush administration and averaged $84 billion per year during the Obama administration. In addition, from 2008 to 2015, U.S. direct investment in Africa rose from $37 billion to $64 billion.
However, China is Africa’s largest trading partner (it overtook the United States in 2009), and Xi Jinping has earmarked $60 billion for investment and development in Africa.
Chinese telecommunications firms are building digital infrastructure across Africa and delivering Chinese programming (and propaganda) into millions of homes. One Chinese telecom company has subsidiaries in 30 African countries.
China is investing billions in Africa’s oil-rich regions, including Somalia, Angola, Nigeria and Sudan. China has provided military equipment and/or training to Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. And China recently stood up its first overseas military base—in Djibouti, just four miles from the American base.
Pointing to China, Waldhauser concedes, “Whether with trade, natural resource exploitation, or weapons sales, we continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency and good governance. These competitors weaken our African partners’ ability to govern and will ultimately hinder Africa’s long-term stability and economic growth, and they will also undermine and diminish U.S. influence.”
During a summit with leaders from Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, South Africa and the African Union, President Donald Trump sounded eager to continue efforts aimed at stabilizing and strengthening Africa. “Our prosperity depends, above all, on peace,” Trump noted. “We believe that a free, independent and democratic nation, in all cases, is the best vehicle for human happiness and success…The United States will partner with the countries and organizations, like the African Union, that lead successful efforts to end violence, to prevent the spread of terrorism and to respond to humanitarian crises.”
Yet other signs are more worrisome: U.S. democracy assistance fell nearly 20 percent during Obama’s second term. U.S.-Africa goods trade has fallen significantly in recent years. The Trump administration has proposed a 17-percent cut in PEPFAR, a 13-percent cut in development assistance for Africa and “dramatic reductions in foreign aid.” Until recently, the U.S. contributed 28.57 percent of the UN’s annual peacekeeping budget; the Trump administration plans to cap that at no more than 25 percent.
To fight the twin plagues of instability and terrorism, America needs Africa to be healthier, freer and more stable, and that means Africa needs more than just military equipment and military training from America.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.