OnÂ October 4Â an American Special Forces team was ambushed by a contingent of Islamic State affiliated fighters in Niger. Four American soldiers were killed and two wounded. The team of 12 soldiers was returning from a meeting with community leaders when it ran into a group of up to 50 terrorists.
The incident caused a furore in the US,Â sparking recollectionÂ of 1993âs âBlack Hawk Downâ incident in Somalia that saw 18 American soldiers killed. Questions were raised about how it was that four US soldiers died, why one of the bodies wasÂ retrieved only 48 hours after the ambush, andÂ why US troops were in Niger in the first place. US President Donald Trumpâs failure to address the matter with the necessaryÂ transparencyandÂ sensitivityÂ fuelled the agitation.
The Niger incident reaffirmed the need to ask important questions aboutÂ US military presenceÂ in foreign territories and in this case, in Africa. African institutions that advocate forÂ human securityÂ must continuously question the motives behind US military presence on the continent as well as its impact.
The US has an extensive military presence on the continent. In 2016 it wasÂ reportedÂ that its military had been involved with more than 90% of the 54 countries in Africa.
Two important and related questions arise following the Niger incident. Is the US militaryâs presence in AfricaÂ good or badÂ for Africaâs security? And is America pursuing the right strategy to combat terrorism on the continent? These are pertinent questions given that Africa is âthe new battlegroundâ in the fight against terrorism.
The US militaryâs presence in Africa is best understood in the wider context of Americaâs national security strategy. In establishing a military presence with global reach, the Americans are informed by what they call âforward strategyâ. This is a national security policy shaped during theÂ Cold War.
âForward strategyâ was based on the idea that establishing and maintaining a significant US military presence in close proximity to the former Soviet Union would discourage communist expansion. This encouraged the emergence of Americaâs global military footprint either through a physical presence or in the form ofÂ proxy forcesÂ belonging to sympathetic or opportunistic governments.
Africa had already featured in the story of the fight against terror, when inÂ 1998Â US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed byÂ Al-Qaeda. In 2007, and following Bushâs declaration, the âUnited States Africa Commandâ (AFRICOM) was established as theÂ ninth unified combatant command. AFRICOM was founded with theÂ operational objectiveÂ to neutraliseÂ violent extremist organisationsÂ and beef up regional security on the continent.
The US troop contingent in Niger is part of this effort. AFRICOM is also engaged in an array ofÂ supporting activitiesÂ deemed necessary for ensuring regional security. These includeÂ foreign military sales,Â military education and training,Â provision of healthcareÂ andÂ veterinary services.
The US militaryâs strategic objective is underpinned by two ideals: theÂ âeconomy of forceâÂ andÂ âpreventative warâ. âEconomy of forceâ refers to the idea that itâs more cost effective to train and equip African forces in the fight against terror than to commit extensive numbers of US troops. âPreventative warâ centres on the argument that large wars can be avoided by fighting on smaller scales wherever necessary.
Citizens will pay a price
The danger is that, in some instances, citizens can bear the brunt of a US military presence that involves training and equipping of African forces. This is particularly true in countries where interventions, inadvertently perhaps,Â strengthen repressive state apparatus. On the other handÂ Africaâs gatekeepersÂ â self-interested, ruling elites â have the means to ensure their own security. They control the state, and its access to foreign partnerships and aid, whether military or otherwise.
Various reports this year indicate that armed forces in a number of countries that host a US military presence have abused civilians.Â Burkina Faso,Â Cameroon,Â Chad,Â Ethiopia,Â KenyaÂ andÂ UgandaÂ are a few examples.
These sorts of situations have the potential to fuel fundamentalist backlash.
Is Americaâs strategy working?
What is theÂ efficacy of the USâs military presenceÂ in Africa?
ResearchÂ by the Institute for Security Studies suggests thatÂ heavy-handed anti-terrorism strategiesÂ breed insecurity by making fundamentalist organisations appear attractive to ordinary citizens. The exercise of what ordinary citizens perceive to beÂ illegitimate force, on the part of state security institutions, increases the likelihood of those same citizens joining fundamentalist organisations.
But it seems these findings are being ignored. The danger is that ifÂ current patternsÂ encouraged by the US military persist, countries are likely to experience an increase in extremism. This in turn is likely to perpetuate the heavy-handedness of already illiberal regimes and theÂ vicious cycleÂ of interventionism in Africa.
In theÂ wordsÂ of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan,
Our responses to terrorism, as well as our efforts to thwart it and prevent it, should uphold the human rights that terrorists aim to destroy.