June 14, 2012

Translating the Pentagon's African Propaganda

Earlier this week Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou met with his French counterpart to deliver the latest disturbing intelligence from Mali. Local sightings of foreign fighters, attributed to Ansar Dine's partnership with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have proliferated since the group seized de facto control of northern Mali with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Issoufou elaborated on these reports by announcing that Afghanis and Pakistanis have already opened training camps for West African recruits. 

He also claims that Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist network with loose ties to AQIM, is training recruits in Gao, the unofficial capital of "Azawad." 

Issoufou's urgency is easily understandable from a geopolitical perspective - his country is surrounded by unrest. To the east lies the chronic instability of Chad and the new instability of Libya. Boko Haram is actively destabilizing northern Nigeria and could eventually spill into southern Niger, and now a large portion of its western border has been totally compromised by a group affiliated with AQIM. As a result, Issoufou may spearhead an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) resolution though the UN and accelerate an international intervention into northern Mali. One benefit of the increasing probability of military force is a new diplomatic motion between the MNLA and African capitals. With the MNLA and Ansar Dine growing further apart after their "protocol" was dashed onto their contradicting ideologies, attempting to negotiate with the MNLA is a necessary course of action for both parties. 

Representative Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh spoke to reporters after meeting President in Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou. He clarified that the MNLA tried to negotiate a political alliance with Ansar Dine in order to maintain the stability that still exists in northern Mali, but "saw that it would not stand." Assaleh also reiterated the ideological crux of their divisions - the MNLA's rejection of strict Sharia - in hopes of securing international support against Ansar Dine and AQIM. The MNLA is painfully aware that Ansar Dine functions as a double-edged sword, providing military and religious muscle at the expense of international heat. 

Unfortunately for the Tuareg liberation movement, its leadership is equally unlikely to broker an agreement with ECOWAS, the African Union (AU) and UN. These powers have already factored the MNLA's resistance to AQIM into their power equation and are weighing secession on the same level as the threat of terrorism. Mali's crisis poses an "international threat that requires an international answer," Issoufou would warn France's Hollande. 

Jean Ping, the African Union's Commissions chief, similarly told France 24 on Tuesday, "If we don't manage to (reach agreement) then we will have to use force. That seems more and more necessary." 

For weeks ECOWAS has claimed that it stands ready to deploy a battalion to northern Mali and liberate the territory. Various members, along with high-ranking officials in Mali's political environment, have talked a tough game in hopes of backing down the MNLA, but most observers outside of the bloc's leadership doubt that ECOWAS can complete the mission on its own. In the event that a ground force is deployed, Issoufou says that ECOWAS expects air and logistical support from the United States, France, Algeria and Mauritania, among other states. Special Forces and intelligence personnel will be needed to guide and multiply an African force. 

Any MNLA overtures to the international community will also be resented by Ansar Dine and AQIM, whose version of an Islamic caliphate has no use for Western approval. These groups are only concerned with building a state that cannot be overthrown by foreign powers, and they will not be easily defeated by a joint African-Western operation. 

The growing din of northern Mali has amplified the an unusual silence from the Obama administration. Hollande is currently leading the Western response, defending French interests and paying Obama back for Afghanistan's early exit in the process. Avoiding a public battle with the MNLA and Ansar Dine makes sense for numerous reasons - open taunts of war would further boost the influx of foreign recruits. Conducting drone strikes in unknown terrain against unknown targets is another recipe for disaster. However the Obama administration's relative silence, especially when compared to Yemen's fire alarm, still jars with a mushrooming event on northern Mali's scale.

Fresh conspiracies theories of AQIM are one byproduct of this silence, which must break sooner than later, but the Pentagon appears to be muffling its response through its latest media updates. Speaking at AFRICOM's headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, commanding General Carter Ham recently told an audience that Washington has no plans to relocate its barracks to the African continent. To hammer his point home, the Pentagon annexed several transcripts that Ham delivered to Congressional panels in the first months of 2012. In February he argued that a limited budget and the opposition against large-scale operations prevent a future relocation, a clever sidestep to avoiding the growth of Special Operations. Instead, U.S. and African needs have aligned in the "light" warfare that the Obama administration is now heavily promoting. 

“If you look at the strategic guidance, it talks about a small footprint,” Ham says. “And I would say that Africa Command is the quintessential small footprint, providing the maximum return and the maximum impact for our national policies with limited resources." 

Exploiting the sheer futility of visibly occupying a Muslim country, the Obama administration has leveraged the contrast with cells of shadowy Special Forces to its maximum advantage during an economic downturn. "Training and enabling the Africans to do things for themselves" is also preferable to doing things "the American way," especially when the open-ended nature of Africa's environment could swallow massive amounts of troops and resources. However these strategic factors don't negate the reality that "light" is a relative term, one with ample room to expand. While Ham elaborated on "the importance of Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. base in Africa," a network of platforms and contractors is steadily unfolding across the continent (The Washington Post just spotlit these points but the "secret" has already been passed around). 

Drones, other surveillance planes and combat aircraft operate out of five bases constructed around the horn of Africa: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and the Seychelles. Whole units of Special Forces have been deployed to track al-Qaeda in Somalia, the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda and AQIM in the Sahel desert, where the U.S. and France have also funded a spine of forward operating bases (FOB). Other training centers and FOBs have been set up in the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Mali and Burkina Faso, providing an interesting juxtaposition to the events unfolding in the latter countries. According to Army Maj. Gen. Charles Hooper, AFRICOM's director of strategy, plans and programs, the command's limited budget and force provides a "model" for Washington's "leaner, more agile operations." 

Except this "light" footprint failed to secure Mali from insurgent advances and is now watching AQIM expand its territory. Beyond its veil of silence, any military involvement in northern Mali is likely to weigh more than U.S. officials are planning to admit.

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