How to Lose a Special Operations War in Africa
If national-security reporters are ever replaced by robots writing boilerplate stories, blame it on the fact that U.S. military policy has become so predictable and repetitive.
Consider this New York Times story from 2011:
“The Central Intelligence Agency is building a secret air base in the Middle East to serve as a launching pad for strikes in Yemen using armed drones. . . . The construction of the base is a sign that the Obama administration is planning an extended war in Yemen against an affiliate of Al Qaeda. . . . The clandestine American operations in Yemen are currently being run by the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.”
Back then, the story could just as well have been set in South Asia, where Pakistan was also a major target of CIA and military drone strikes. Today it could apply, with only a few word changes, to new drone bases in Africa that target jihadists across the vast and thinly populated Sahel region.
As NBC recently reported, “The Trump administration is paving the way for lethal strikes against terrorists in Niger as the U.S. military pushes forward with a plan to arm the Reaper drones that fly over that country.”
That push was prompted by the recent killing of four Americans soldiers who were supporting a secret Joint Special Operations Command mission. NBC reported that their death “is fueling an urgency within the Trump administration to take more aggressive steps against the terrorist groups that are operating in North and West Africa, according to intelligence and military officials.”
It’s not clear whether the Trump administration even knows what terrorist groups to target. Numerous armed bands operate in the vast desert region, where ethnic and tribal disputes are rife.
Nor is it clear what critical U.S. interests are at stake. Take a look at a map of Africa and see if you can identify anything that most Americans would find worth fighting over within a one-thousand-mile radius of Niger.
The Action-Reaction Cycle
Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s response is the latest predictable move in the action-reaction cycle we have seen so many times since 9/11: Washington sends troops to the Middle East, South Asia or Africa to wage war against terrorists. The terrorists kill some of the Americans, so Washington sends even more troops, drones and bombers.
In the process, invariably, some civilians die. More terrorists are born. Soon the United States is building more far-flung bases and waging war in yet another country, without explicit congressional authorization.
As a military strategy, this bipartisan strategy has been a dismal failure. At a cost of several trillion dollars, U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries have succeeded only in growing the numbers of terrorists and insurgents and widening their geographic footprint.
In Yemen, for example, drone strikes and Joint Special Operations Command missions in late 2009 and early 2010 killed dozens of civilians, fueling recruitment of local Al Qaeda ranks.
After one such attack with cluster munitions killed thirty-five women and children in 2009, Princeton University’s Gregory Johnsen called the Obama administration’s strategy “incredibly dangerous” because it would draw new support to radical jihadists—as indeed it did. Four years later, another U.S. attack wiped out a wedding procession, causing nationwide outrage.
Yet the Trump administration has dramatically increased the pace of drone strikes and other military operations in Yemen, including a botched raid in January that killed “scores of civilians” and one U.S. commando.
More Terror in Somalia
President Obama insisted in 2014 that the “strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”