Absent from Africa

Absent from Africa

Obama pursues a passive policy as Al Qaeda makes gains in West Africa.


The Obama administration’s foreign policy is often criticized as “leading from behind.” The term appears to have been taken from former South African president Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, in which he recommended: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur.” Mandela’s quote, however, is incomplete without the next sentence, which states “You take the front line when there is danger.”

For Africans, the concern is that President Obama did not read the second half of Mr. Mandela’s quote. In both the Libyan and Malian crises, America opted for a supporting role while Europe, and especially France, took the lead. With the French expected to pull out as soon as they are able, how long can we realistically expect Mali and the region to remain secure without U.S. help? Similarly, can Libya stabilize itself without extensive assistance? The president’s reluctance to lead the fight against Islamist extremists in Africa is particularly worrying, as Al Qaeda affiliates and other jihadi groups increasingly destabilize the continent.


Despite President Obama’s assertions to the contrary, the Global War on Terror is very much alive. That’s why the United States has ramped up its drone capabilities in Africa. America maintains drone-operations bases in Burkina Faso, where surveillance drones feed French forces in Mali with intelligence on Al Qaeda affiliates. Similar programs are active in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and Djibouti, while South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda are rumored to have active drone bases as well. The Pentagon also established a new drone base in Niger at the beginning of this year to monitor Islamist extremists and other groups in the region. Although it is not inconceivable that the two countries could one day agree upon the use of armed drones, the agreement only stipulates the use of unmanned surveillance drones.

If the United States were simply claiming an end to the War on Terror while at the same time conducting a well-thought-out campaign to end the jihadi threat to Africa, most African governments would not be concerned. But U.S. policy currently precludes meaningful engagement on the African continent, instead focusing on “African solutions to African problems.” This effectively means that because the United States is apprehensive of committing its own forces in the wake of bruising conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is only willing to send drones to troubled areas that do not directly impact its interests.

But expanding drone bases in Africa will not offset the recent gains made by Al Qaeda’s affiliates across the region. And it is not as if the African militaries can handle the job themselves. Indeed, the U.S. military has little to no confidence in African troops. Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee in April of this year that troops from the Economic Community of West African States deployed in Mali, now under the UN mandate, are a “completely incapable force.” Sheehan concluded that unless African troops were better trained, Al Qaeda would attempt to take back the territory it had conceded. Since the United States is only willing to commit drones, how does he propose to train them?

African problems are growing. In the Sahel, Al Qaeda has affiliates and sympathetic groups, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Elsewhere, in the Horn of Africa, Somali Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab is still actively fighting to retake territory lost to African Union forces, while in West Africa, Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram—whose members have been tied to AQIM—continues to wage war against the government.

Unfortunately, solutions to these problems are less apparent. African governments that are prepared to combat radical Islamists lack training and leadership, and even the more professional African militaries don’t have the appropriate resources or training. For example, Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, whose soldiers have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting and are credited with some of the biggest successes combating jihadi forces in Mali, withdrew its two thousand troops from the battlefield because it does not have the resources to fight a protracted war.

American surveillance drones are not helping. They are merely giving American intelligence agencies an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. This may suggest that Washington now understands the challenge, but remains reluctant to become involved in a meaningful capacity.

Dawit Giorgis, a former senior Ethiopian government official, is a visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: Flickr/hdptcar. CC BY 2.0.