Beware intervention in Africa

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

It is arguable whether Africa's problems have become more or less severe over the past four years. It is also arguable whether the increasing militarization of U.S. policy in Africa has made things better for the continent's 54 countries.

The U.S. military established an Africa Command in 2008, standing it up alongside existing regional commands in Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and, since 9/11, North America. At its inception, AFRICOM had about 2,000 troops. Now, its force level stands at 5,000.

Whether AFRICOM's presence adds to, or helps meet, Africa's problems is hard to say.

It is reported that al-Qaida has grown in Africa over the past few years. This usually is based on information that a militant Islamic organization in some African country includes "foreign" personnel. A variation is that some African Islamic organization or another has formed ties to al-Qaida. Examples are Mali, Nigeria and Somalia.

What remains unclear is whether the al-Qaida "presence" in question actually exists or is the product of Africans understanding U.S. susceptibility to respond to such reports with military or other aid. It is a common flaw of intelligence collection that if the agent knows what the handler wants -- and will pay good money for -- he will produce it. That phenomenon obviously would be made worse if AFRICOM were looking for al-Qaida involvement in African countries to justify its own requests for larger budgets.

The question is whether the United States should be expanding its military activities in Africa in the face of decreasing resources and higher priorities in other parts of the world, notably in Asia -- as President Barack Obama has said -- and the Middle East. Though the war in Iraq has ended and Afghanistan is winding down, U.S. preparedness in the Middle East needs to remain high even as it stays out of Syria and Iran.

It has also been clear in Africa since at least the end of the Cold War that the United States has no strategic interests there. That is not to say that there aren't conflicts in Africa which might beckon to an American military looking for something to do, something to justify its existence. Nor does it mean that the United States does not have mineral, energy and other commercial interests in Africa for which it is worth competing with China and Europe.

But the conflicts that might tempt the Pentagon are not susceptible to easy U.S. intervention, and the economic and commercial interests are much more appropriately addressed by instruments of U.S. influence other than military force. These include investment, trade, development assistance and humanitarian aid. Iraq and Afghanistan are perfect examples of U.S. military intervention not having produced economic advantage for the United States, except for its defense contractors.

Following are what I consider to be the principal African conflicts at present and what there is about them that make them not susceptible to resolution by U.S. military engagement.

Somalia: It has had no government for more than 21 years. A provisional government exists due only to protection provided by African Union forces paid for by the United States, which has had intermittent military involvement since 1992. The Somalia conflict serves as part of the justification for the sole U.S. military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in nearby Djibouti. No person not under the influence of prohibited substances would try to predict when Somalia's problems will end.

Mali: After a bumpy post-independence period, Mali, the former French Sudan, appeared to settle down to stable, democratic government. The United States, eventually in the form of AFRICOM, at some point decided that the Malian armed forces might be worthy partners for the American military. It all went wrong earlier this year.

A U.S.-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, led a successful coup against the democratically elected government. Taking advantage of the disarray, the northern two-thirds of the country seceded, with governance then disputed between migratory Tuaregs and a militant Islamist movement.

The United States in principle ended its military aid program but, a month after they were supposed to be gone, three U.S. Special Forces officers in a rented Toyota went off a bridge into the Niger River accompanied by three Moroccan prostitutes. It is hard to know where we stand now. It is also hard to say why we were (or are) there at all.

Nigeria: Africa's most populous, oil-rich nation has been since independence in 1960 troubled by the division of its population into about half Christians in the South and half Muslims in the North. Its problems and its oil wealth, providing some 10 percent of U.S. oil imports, make it worthy of U.S. attention.

At the same time, the nature of its problems and the independence of its leaders and people rule out any useful working relationship between Nigeria and U.S. military forces. Increasing activities in the North by a militant Islamic organization, Boko Haram, may represent a temptation to AFRICOM, or even to the Nigerians, but U.S. military involvement in Nigeria should be strenuously avoided by the Obama administration.

Other messes: The U.S. military also should stay out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Let the Africans figure out what to do about the Lord's Resistance Army. Let Zimbabwe's Robert G. Mugabe die of his own accord. Don't get sucked into African countries that may become potential drug transit stops. Let Sudan and South Sudan work out their own relationship.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (, 412 263-1976).


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here