November 07, 2007

Africa's unfolding desert war

As the US moves ahead with military programs in across Africa in search of a home base for AFRICOM, some analysts warn that the Bush administration's tactics will lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy culminating in a massive desert war.

By Dulue Mbachu in Lagos, Nigeria for ISN Security Watch (07/11/07)

With the emergence of al-Qaida as a global terrorist threat, the US was quick to identify the vast desert regions between West and North Africa as potential hideaways for terrorists and their supporters. To counter this perceived danger, the US initiated military programs with several countries bordering this region - the flagship of which is the Operation Flintlock exercises - to improve the ability to deter the threat.

An important test for this military policy occurred on 13 September, when a US Hercules transport plane was hit by small arms fire while re-supplying Malian troops encircled by Tuareg rebels in the northern town of Tin-Zaouatene.

No lives were lost and the plane returned safely to base, but the incident was a pointer to the unfolding violence in the Sahara Desert and its potential to become, like Iraq and Afghanistan, another theater of war between the US and Islamic forces.

"Those may well be the first shots fired in what may be unfolding as Africa's own desert war involving the US," Alex Wilson, a London-based West Africa specialist and political risk analyst, told ISN Security Watch.

Minerals and militants

Interplaying in West Africa is a volatile mix of strategic minerals - oil, uranium and diamonds - and milieus where radical Islamic and rebel groups are a potent threat. While the US wants to protect its oil supplies from the Gulf of Guinea, it is also keen that uranium from Niger and diamonds from Sierra Leone and Liberia do not become articles of trade for militant organizations.

Incidentally, Niger's uranium figured strongly in debates in the lead up to US invasion of Iraq when the Bush administration falsely alleged that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from the landlocked African country to power his nuclear ambitions.

There have also been reports of al-Qaida using the trade in diamonds controlled by rebels during Sierra Leone's civil war to funnel funds and evade official banking systems with the help of Liberia under Charles Taylor.

US interests in the region are increasingly of strategic importance, with oil found all along the Gulf of Guinea coast, stretching from Angola in the south to Mauritania in the north. Even inland in the desert region, significant oil activities are taking place in the east, including in Niger, Chad and Sudan, with potential activity in other places. The entire West Africa region is overtaking the Persian Gulf in terms of the sheer quantity of oil supplied to the US - expected to reach 25 percent of imports by 2015.

A major target of US operations in the Sahara Desert has been the Islamic Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, active in parts of southern Algeria, the north of Niger and Mali as well as eastern Mauritania, and believed to be linked to al-Qaida. It is an offshoot of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA), led by veterans of the Afghan mujahideen war who fought their government after it annulled elections won by an Islamist party in the 1990s.

The US has also shown concern about radical Islamic influences in parts of northern Nigeria, where anti-Western sentiments are strong and 9/11 was celebrated in some cities. Osama bin Laden in one of his messages named oil-rich Nigeria as a country due for liberation from Western influence.

Africa's leading oil exporter and one of the top five US suppliers is split between a mainly Muslim north and a largely Christian south, and experiences frequent bouts of sectarian violence. In 2004, an armed group emerged in the country's northeast, modeling itself after Afghanistan's Taliban movement.

According to a 2006 report by the US State Department, while the extent of activities of terrorist groups in West and Central Africa was unknown, it was certain that groups supporting or affiliated to al-Qaida were engaging in fund-raising and recruitment activities in places like Nigeria and countries of the trans-Sahara belt. Though the Nigerian Taliban were routed by the country's security forces, there are fears that similarly inspired radical elements may regroup and make their presence felt at any time.

Under the US military program, started in 2005, US$500 million will be spent over seven years to train thousands of African troops drawn from the trans-Saharan area including Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia. US military strategy for West Africa, within the framework of the global war on terror, appears to be to work with the regional militaries to keep out suspected terrorist groups while securing oil interests in the Gulf of Guinea.

In doing this, the US appears to be labeling "virtually all Islamist reform movements as terrorist or, at least, highly suspect [...] regardless of local histories, national injustices or facts on the ground," argue researchers Paul M Lubeck, Michael J Watts and Ronnie Lipschutz in a February report for the independent Washington-based Centre for International Policy. It was the same mistake Western military interventionists made during the Cold War, they say.

Still, US military officials have refrained from referring to the ethnic Tuareg rebel group fighting black African-led governments in Mali and neighboring Niger as outright terrorists. In fact, they have downplayed the significance of the September shooting incident, saying the US was only responding to a "a military-to-military" request for assistance by the friendly Malian government.

"US forces were in a position to assist, as they had just completed the [Operation] Fintlock exercise, so they conducted the re-supply mission," Captain Darrick Lee, public affairs officer of the US European Command, which carried out the operation, told ISN Security Watch. According to Lee, "the footprint of US troops in Africa is small, and intended to help nations build capacity to maintain security and stability in their own countries."

Yet what happened in Mali was the type of operation envisaged by US military strategy in the region, where a friendly government is beleaguered and needs limited involvement of its forces to assist against perceived common threats. And with the creation of the US Africa Command, the bottom line is that direct US intervention is never far off if the situation deteriorates, many analysts say.

A home for AFRICOM

All of these seem to have contributed to the US decision to set up an Africa Command (AFRICOM) of its armed forces, a move received with suspicion across Africa.

While AFRICOM officially came into being in October, it still operates out of the European Command in Stuttgart as the US tackles the tricky issue of finding a base in Africa for the operation. Many governments there worry about the political implications of hosting US forces on their territory, and leading continental voices, particularly South Africa and Nigeria, have come out strongly in opposition to the command.

"If the command is about stationing US troops on African soil, we feel there is no need for that," Nigerian Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe told reporters recently, expressing preference for training partnerships that did not require a significant presence of foreign troops.

"We even believe that such stationing of combat troops in African soil at a time when Africa is not at war with anybody sends the wrong kind of message. It is counter-productive even to US interests," Maduekwe added.

The Tuaregs in rebellion in Mali and Niger appear to have perceived the project as a signal that the US is not sympathetic to their cause. Providing obvious support for the Malian government against the Tuaregs, irrespective of the merits of their struggle, may simply create hard-line enemies for the US where they did not exist before, says Charles Dokubo, a research fellow at the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs who notes that the Tuaregs are generally moderate Muslims.

"That way the Tuaregs may be forced into the embrace of the Salafists, creating the very extremists they [the Americans] want to keep out," he told ISN Security Watch.

For the Tuaregs (a light-skinned ethnic Berber group found in Libya, Algeria, Mali and Niger), grievances go back to the pre-colonial times, when the French conquest of their desert region cost them their 2,000-year-old control of trans-Saharan trade routes between West and North Africa. However, their recent uprisings in Niger and Mali have centered on the demand for fairer access to resources from black African governments in both countries.

In Niger, the Tuareg rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice, has targeted the uranium mines run by French companies on which France's nuclear power and weapons are dependent. But here, potential for the internationalization of conflict is high, with Chinese interests recently gaining uranium mining concessions as well, ending the decade-long monopoly of French industrial conglomerate Areva.

With the Chinese uranium company under attack by rebels, the Niger government of Mamadou Tandja has accused France's Areva of backing the Tuareg rebels in their choice of targets in an attempt to shut out competition. The company denies the charge. The Tuareg rebels have also accused the Chinese government of providing military support to Tandja's government in order to obtain their mining license.

Military sources in Niger say many of the Tuareg fighters were deserters from an elite military company trained by the US in counterterrorism tactics between 2003 and 2006. In Mali, the leading Tuareg rebel leader, Ibrahim Bahanga, is a former army officer who has also drawn fighters from army deserters. Tuareg fighters from the two countries have also forged an alliance to pursue joint objectives.

Under the current scenario, most analysts of the trans-Saharan situation believe the temptation for increased US military involvement remains great in the twin-pronged pursuit of oil security and the war on terror. Such involvement in turn has the potential of radicalizing moderate elements and drawing into the region extremists from the Middle East and North Africa, realizing Africa's potential as the next front in the US-led war.

"What is virtually certain, however," Lubeck, Watts and Lipschutz stated in their report, "is that sending additional American 'advisers,' eager to earn combat promotions, and delivering more lethal weapons into Sahelian states will, once again, provoke fierce Muslim resistance to what they perceive as foreign occupation, validate the most extreme worldviews, and ultimately encourage the very anti-American alliances and insurrections [US] military commanders fear most - a classic self-fulfilling prophecy."

Dulue Mbachu is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch based in Nigeria. He has reported Nigeria for international media outlets including The Washington Post and the Associated Press.

Related ISN Publishing House entries

Africa Command: Forecast for the Future, Center for Contemporary Conflict (CCC), Monterey, US, January 2007

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