The West faces a serious dilemma on the African continent as French forces begin the process of withdrawing troops from Mali in April. As the New York Times noted this week, French troops were critical in routing Al Qaeda-linked militants from the northeastern part of the country, where the extremists had managed to conquer a territory the size of France itself and subject the population to a reign of terror. The enclave was fast becoming a bastion of support for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other affiliated groups below the Sahara—whose growth on the African continent poses one of the most grave terror threats to global security today.
The reason for Western concerns about French withdrawal is that the coalition of African armies with whom they are now allied lack the capacity to hold the territory on their own. “No amount of exercise or training in the next couple weeks or months can, in itself, prepare African forces for their new role in Mali,” U.S. counterterrorism specialist Benjamin P. Nickels told the Times. And so at precisely the time when most Western governments wish to reduce their military commitments abroad in light of trying economic circumstances, they face pressure to do the opposite.
This problem, in turn, is only part of a larger challenge Europe and the United States face in Africa, a continent which, though formidable, poses opportunities as well as risks. As Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson noted in a statement earlier this year, “It is my firm belief that Africa represents the next global economic frontier. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to weather the global economic crisis more successfully than other regions, and is home to six—and soon to be seven—of the ten fastest growing economies in the world.” Yet he also noted in substance that American entrepreneurs lack the knowledge base and network on the continent to take advantage of the opportunity.
Meanwhile, elites in the U.S. private sector have observed that foreign direct investment in Africa, while promising in terms of its potential to develop and enrich the continent and investors, could easily be reversed through capital flight should Al-Qaeda gains imperil the security of multinational installations.
In order to scale back military commitments, strengthen indigenous military capabilities, and benefit from the business opportunities Africa poses, the United States would do well to find a local partner that can facilitate all three. A strong candidate to play this role is a staunch US ally, the Kingdom of Morocco: Since Muhammad VI assumed the throne in 1999, the country has worked to establish goodwill, political and economic ties, and a strong security footprint across the continent—both north and south of the Sahara.
King Mohammed VI visited three countries in sub-Saharan Africa last week: Senegal, Gabon, and Ivory Coast. As in forays to seven other African states since February 2005, he brought along teams of intelligence, political and cultural advisors, as well as Moroccan entrepreneurs. This mixed portfolio, unleashed in a series of working sessions with counterparts in each country, reflects the monarchy’s approach to building ties deep into Africa while bolstering continent-wide security as well.