A clearing in the Sahara dust storm?

Tuesday, 17. February 2009     0 comment(s)
A Malian soldier watches a US CV 22 Osprey land (photo AFRICOM) A Malian soldier watches a US CV 22 Osprey land (photo AFRICOM)
A few years back, after reading some cryptic press references, I became interested in US military operations across northern Africa. Ultimately, in trying to understand what the US thought it was doing in the region I, along with my co-writer Tihomir Popovic, published a report for UPI on the Trans Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative. At the time, essentially two explanations were put forward for the US presence. Firstly: that the Sahara-Sahel region was full of dangerous terrorists with links to al Qaeda, and it was becoming an ungoverned region ready for exploitation by those terrorists. The second - and rather alternative - explanation was that the Americans were there to seize control of the region's natural resources - oil - just as the Americans were said to be doing in Iraq. The only problem was that neither explanation really made much sense. To put it perhaps too bluntly: the terrorists were a couple of thousand kilometres to the north and the oil, in the main, the same sort of distance to the south. The alternative explanation we offered was to look at the bureaucratic imperative that the "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) was placing on the structures of the US military. The various US regional military commands needed to be doing their bit in the war on terror and EUCOM, the command that covered most of Africa at the time, were lacking in targets. "Terrorism" became a ridiculously wide concept and both the US military and keen (normally American) journalists would pounce on any rumour creating the most tenuous links to create a "terrorist threat" in the Sahel/Sahara. Almost certainly, local regimes - most notably the Algerians - were playing the Americans, although EUCOM appeared to happy to be played if it meant they could be seen to be playing their part in the GWOT.

Times have changed in America. The philosopher-warriors are in ascendence and US military has learnt very tough lessons from its bloodying at the hands of the Iraqi insurgency. It is now instituting what most external experts accept as a very advanced and smart counter insurgency (COIN) doctrine. This seems to be filtering through from Iraq and Afghanistan to Africa as well. Africa now has its own regional US military command - AFRICOM, hopefully more subtly attuned to the continent's security patterns and needs. The violence of the American operations in Somalia has been scaled back over the last year. The US seems to have ended the ultimately self-defeating sponsoring of violent warlords in Mogadishu and support of the Ethiopian invasion (see Michael Hayden's [former CIA head] comment here) and the air attacks that killed numerous civilians in an attempt to kill a few extremists seem also to be on pause. And now, Nicholas Schmidle has an excellent report in the New York Times, looking at US policy on Mauritania. Here the military junta, that came to power by coup against a democratic government, is trying to build a security relationship with the United States based on the presence of what appears to be a 'self-starter' Jihadi group, with possible links to the wider regional al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, formerly known as the GSPC). Five years ago the US would have done so happily, but now they are refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the junta and have cut all security cooperation with Mauritania after the coup. At the same time there is a far more realistic appreciation of what degree of threat a small group of Mauritanian extremists really present, and that even linkages to wider regional groupings do not make them a global threat. It appears that with a de-militarization of US policy in the area, the "haze of dust" that obscured so much from view is beginning to clear.

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