The Pentagon Proclaims Failure in its War on Terror in Africa
America’s Global War on Terror has seen its share of stalemates, disasters, and outright defeats. During 20-plus years of armed interventions, the United States has watched its efforts implode in spectacular fashion, from Iraq in 2014 to Afghanistan in 2021. The greatest failure of its “Forever Wars,” however, may not be in the Middle East, but in Africa.
“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated,” President George W. Bush told the American people in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, noting specifically that such militants had designs on “vast regions” of Africa.
To shore up that front, the U.S. began a decades-long effort to provide copious amounts of security assistance, train many thousands of African military officers, set up dozens of outposts, dispatch its own commandos on all manner of missions, create proxy forces, launch drone strikes, and even engage in direct ground combat with militants in Africa. Most Americans, including members of Congress, are unaware of the extent of these operations. As a result, few realize how dramatically America’s shadow war there has failed.
The raw numbers alone speak to the depths of the disaster. As the United States was beginning its Forever Wars in 2002 and 2003, the State Department counted a total of just nine terrorist attacks in Africa. This year, militant Islamist groups on that continent have, according to the Pentagon, already conducted 6,756 attacks. In other words, since the United States ramped up its counterterrorism operations in Africa, terrorism has spiked 75,000%.
Let that sink in for a moment.
A Conflict that Will Live in Infamy
The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq opened to military successes in 2001 and 2003 that quickly devolved into sputtering occupations. In both countries, Washington’s plans hinged on its ability to create national armies that could assist and eventually take over the fight against enemy forces. Both U.S.-created militaries would, in the end, crumble. In Afghanistan, a two-decade-long war ended in 2021 with the rout of an American-built, -funded, -trained, and -armed military as the Taliban recaptured the country. In Iraq, the Islamic State nearly triumphed over a U.S.-created Iraqi army in 2014, forcing Washington to reenter the conflict. U.S. troops remain embattled in Iraq and neighboring Syria to this very day.
In Africa, the U.S. launched a parallel campaign in the early 2000s, supporting and training African troops from Mali in the west to Somalia in the east and creating proxy forces that would fight alongside American commandos. To carry out its missions, the U.S. military set up a network of outposts across the northern tier of the continent, including significant drone bases – from Camp Lemonnier and its satellite outpost Chabelley Airfield in the sun-bleached nation of Djibouti to Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger — and tiny facilities with small contingents of American special operations troops in nations ranging from Libya and Niger to the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
For almost a decade, Washington’s war in Africa stayed largely under wraps. Then came a decision that sent Libya and the vast Sahel region into a tailspin from which they have never recovered.
“We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joked after a U.S.-led NATO air campaign helped overthrow Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime Libyan dictator, in 2011. President Barack Obama hailed the intervention as a success, but Libya slipped into near-failed-state status. Obama would later admit that “failing to plan for the day after” Qaddafi’s defeat was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.
As the Libyan leader fell, Tuareg fighters in his service looted his regime’s weapons caches, returned to their native Mali, and began to take over the northern part of that nation. Anger in Mali’s armed forces over the government’s ineffective response resulted in a 2012 military coup. It was led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who learned English in Texas and underwent infantry-officer basic training in Georgia, military-intelligence instruction in Arizona, and was mentored by U.S. Marines in Virginia.
Having overthrown Mali’s democratic government, Sanogo and his junta proved hapless in battling terrorists. With the country in turmoil, those Tuareg fighters declared an independent state, only to be muscled aside by heavily armed Islamists who instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, causing a humanitarian crisis. A joint Franco-American-African mission prevented Mali’s complete collapse but pushed the militants into areas near the borders of both Burkina Faso and Niger.
Since then, those nations of the West African Sahel have been plagued by terrorist groups that have evolved, splintered, and reconstituted themselves. Under the black banners of jihadist militancy, men on motorcycles — two to a bike, wearing sunglasses and turbans, and armed with Kalashnikovs — regularly roar into villages to impose zakat (an Islamic tax); steal animals; and terrorize, assault, and kill civilians. Such relentless attacks have destabili
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