The Landing Zone | 8.15.12
By Alan W. Dowd

The places and names may change, but the headlines from Africa always seem to tell the same sad story of chaos and war:

-“Islamists Declare Full Control of Mali’s North”

-“Nigeria Forces Kill 16 Islamists in Fire Fight”

-“South Sudan’s First Year of Independence Mired in Conflict”

-“UN-Backed Invasion of Somalia Spirals into Chaos”

What’s different today is that an increasing number of the headlines coming out of Africa include references to the U.S military. America’s growing role in Africa is a function of the growing threats to American interests in Africa.

State Failure

Africa’s problems begin and end with its many failed states. According to the Failed States Index, seven of the world’s bottom 10 - and 16 of the bottom 20 - failed states are found in Africa. The lack of functioning governments opens the door to lawlessness, piracy and terrorism. And this is where Africa’s problems become America’s problem.

Joseph Kony, for example, is wanted for wreaking havoc across central Africa, for crimes against humanity, kidnapping children, slaughtering civilians, and using children as soldiers and sex slaves. Aiming to capture Kony and dismantle his Lord’s Resistance Army, U.S. commando units are waging a shadow war stretching from Uganda and Congo to South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Likewise, the Navy is waging its own behind-the-scenes war against Somali pirates. It’s no surprise that the pirate plague is raging in the waters around the failed state of Somalia. Though the Navy is making a difference, Somali pirate attacks accounted for 54 percent of the worldwide total in 2011.

The next Somalia could be any number of African nations. Newly independent South Sudan is under increasing threat from Sudan. Libya’s countless militias refuse to recognize the new government’s authority. In Egypt, there’s a tug-of-war between the military and Islamists. Worse, Egypt's Sinai has devolved into a safe haven for jihadist fighters who have made their way from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worries about “jihadists and terrorists taking up an operational base in Sinai.” Rebel forces in the Congo are threatening key population and industrial centers. And Nigeria seems to be edging toward sectarian war. 


Nigeria provides a perfect segue into Africa’s at-risk oil supplies.

Nigeria accounts for 8 percent of U.S. oil imports. With oil reserves approaching 40 billion barrels, Nigeria is fifth on the list of U.S. petroleum suppliers. Angola, ninth on the list of U.S. oil suppliers, is pumping some two million barrels per day. War-ravaged Libya is a key oil exporter. Gabon, Congo and South Sudan also have oil reserves that may prove crucial in the coming decades. Yet all of these nations face internal and/or external threats to their stability.


Increasingly, those threats are embodied by terrorist groups, some with ties to al Qaeda and other jihadist movements. “Terrorist elements around the world go to the areas they think have the least resistance,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff. “And right now, you could argue that’s Africa.”

Thanks to a recent military coup, Ansar Dine, a group linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claims a vast swath of northern Mali. Boko Haram wants to carve out an Islamist state in Nigeria and has launched hundreds of bloody attacks toward that end. Somalia’s al Shabaab movement merged with al Qaeda in 2011 and has recruited dozens of Americans and Canadians to its ranks. “The disturbing truth is that al-Shabaab has had more success recruiting Americans than any of al Qaeda’s other franchises,” according to terrorism expert J.M. Berger.

Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Africa Command (AFRICOM), has expressed concernsthat AQIM, Boko Haram and al Shabaab are “seeking to coordinate and synchronize their efforts.”

That helps explain why Washington has provided training, equipment and intelligence to militaries in Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia for most of the past decade. Ham conceded in an AP interview the existence of “small, temporary” U.S. troop presences in Liberia, Morocco and Cameroon. And then there’s Djibouti.

Hoping to prevent the Talibanization of Africa, the Pentagon stood up a special task force at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in the months after 9/11. Today, some 2,200 troops are based in this strategically located mini-nation that touches the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Somalia, and sits just 100 miles away from Yemen. The Pentagon doesn’t want a large-footprint presence on the continent. But Djibouti looks to be a long-term home for U.S. forces. From Camp Lemonnier and the Seychelles islands, U.S. drones and commandos conduct operations in and around Somalia (targeting al Shabaab) and in Yemen (targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). In fact, Special Ops units are reportedly fighting alongside anti-jihadist groups in a region of Somalia known as Puntland.

But it’s not just special operators at work in Africa. U.S. Marines are training Ugandan troops. Starting next year, the Army will align an on-call combat brigade to AFRICOM. And the Pentagon has built a network of air bases across Africa. As The Washington Post reports, from these bases - about a dozen of them are nestled in remote corners of Burkina Faso, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Seychelles and Djibouti - U.S. Special Operations personnel and military contractors conduct surveillance and provide training to local troops.

As recently as April, U.S. Army Special Forces were known to be in Mali. As before in places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, a toxic mix of weak government institutions, local insurgencies, roving mercenaries and transnational terrorists have conspired to create safe havens for al Qaeda and its kindred movements in Mali. With parts of Mali under nominal control of terror groups and other parts under no one’s control, it is, in a sense, a microcosm of the entire continent. Given what’s happening in Mali and across the continent, it’s easy to understand why Washington is concerned and why the U.S. military is wading into Africa.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.