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1:23PM

WSJ: "Terror Fight Shifts to Africa" (I told you so . . . in 2005)

Front-page story on the 7th of December, with subtitle "U.S. Considers Seeking Permission for Military Operations Against Extremists."

This is what I wrote in the early part of 2005, published in October of that year in Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating:

CENTCOM’s AOR encompasses the Persian Gulf area extending from Israel all the way to Pakistan, the Central Asian republics formerly associated with the Soviet Union, and the horn of Africa (from Egypt down to Somalia). This is clearly the center of the universe as far as the global war on terrorism is concerned, and yet viewing that war solely in the context of that region alone is a big mistake, one that could easily foul up America’s larger grand strategic goals of defeating terrorism worldwide and making globalization truly global. Here’s why: CENTCOM’s area of responsibility features three key seams, or boundaries, between that collection of regions and the world outside. Each seam speaks to both opportunities and dangers that lie ahead, as well as to how crucial it is that Central Command’s version of the war on terrorism stays in sync with the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The first seam lies to the south, or sub-Saharan Africa. This is the tactical seam, meaning that in day-to-day terms, there’s an awful lot of connectivity between that region and CENTCOM’s AOR. That connectivity comes in the form of transnational terrorist networks that extend from the Middle East increasingly into sub-Saharan Africa, making that region sort of the strategic retreat of al Qaeda and its subsidiaries. As Central Command progressively squeezes those networks within its area of responsibility, the Middle East’s terrorists increasingly establish interior lines of communication between themselves and other cells in Africa, as Africa becomes the place where supplies, funds (especially in terms of gold), and people are stashed for future use. Africa risks becoming Cambodia to the Middle East’s Vietnam, a place where the enemy finds respite when it gets too hot inside the main theater of combat. Central Asia presents the same basic possibility, but that’s something that CENTCOM can access more readily because it lies within its area of responsibility, while sub-Saharan Africa does not. Instead, distant European Command owns that territory in our Unified Command Plan, a system constructed in another era for another enemy. Those vertical, north-south slices of geographic commands were lines to be held in an East-West struggle, but today our enemies tend to roam horizontally across the global map, turning the original logic of that command plan on its head.

Central Command’s challenge, then, is to figure out how to connect these two regions in such a way as to avoid having Africa become the off-grid hideout for al Qaeda and others committed to destabilizing the Middle East. By definition, such a goal is beyond CENTCOM’s pay grade, or rank, because it’s a high-level political decision to engage sub-Saharan Africa on this issue—in effect, widening the war. And yet solving this boundary condition is essential to winning the struggle in the Middle East. What the Core-Gap model provides Central Command is a way of describing the problem by noting that transnational terrorism’s resistance to globalization’s creeping embrace of the Middle East won’t simply end with our successful transformation of the region. No, that struggle will inevitably retreat deeper inside the Gap, or to sub-Saharan Africa.

Why is this observation important? It’s important because it alerts the military to the reality that success in this war won’t be defined by less terrorism but by a shifting of its operational center of gravity southward, from the Middle East to Africa. That’s the key measure of effectiveness. Achieving this geographic shift will mark our success in the Middle East, but it will also buy us the follow-on effort in Africa. You want America to care more about security in Africa? Then push for a stronger counterterrorism strategy in the Middle East, because that’s the shortest route between those two points.

Ultimately, you’re faced with the larger, inescapable requirement of having to connect Africa to the Core to run this problem to ground, otherwise today’s problem for CENTCOM simply becomes tomorrow’s distant problem for EUCOM. When you make that leap of logic, the next decision gets a whole lot easier: America needs to stand up an African Command. Now, I know that sounds like a huge expansion of our strategic “requirements,” but when you consider the boundary conditions in this way, the discussion shifts from if to when.

The WSJ says the Obama Administration is thinking about asking Congress for expanded hunting authority to likely include Mali, Nigeria, Libia and others.  The focus is naturally al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) expanded geographic reach.

AFRICOM was authorized a little over a year after my book came out. I'm not drawing a line of causality- just pointing out I got it right.

What I got wrong about Africa back then was the speed: I saw this fight shifting over a much longer time and I saw globalization's successful embrace of Africa taking much longer.  In short, my combined optimism/pessimism was simply too slow.

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Reader Comments (4)

Great observations, but what is the end game? What does the US intend to achieve in Africa apart from "hunting down terrorists?".

Africa is vast - I'm not sure you appreciate that fact and the sheer geographical extent of the Sahel. You also have the problem of artificial states and instability.

Someone talked about the "Libyan after party" - well Boko Haram is in full swing, Mali has been destabilised. Mali is especially instructive because at this point in time (t), the US government does not have a partner to deal with and neither does ECOWAS. (Yesterday, the Prime Minister was forced to resign by the Junta).

You get to Nigeria, start picking off "Al Qaeda targets with drones", piss off 80 million Muslims, precipitate the overthrow of the traditional Islamic establishment, encourage the Christian dominated South to secede and fuel a nasty war. That nasty war totally destabilises West Africa - the French are forced to retreat, leaving even more chaos.

What, exactly, does the US gain strategically from all this?

The US cannot afford to be consumed by a continent sized Vietnamese-style quagmire. Somebody isn't thinking this thing through.

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

Maduka,

There is no Vietnam-style quagmire. There is merely selective hunting of bad actors. Small footprint. Small effort. Small impact on Africa's otherwise surging growth.

Hunting down the Geronimos and Crazy Horses of the Wild West wasn't disruptive and it wasn't draining and it wasn't all that strategic. It's just taking out the garbage until the locals can handle the job on their own.

What America writ large ultimately wants is just more trade. Those companies are already on the move in the wake of what Chinese companies prove.

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Barnett

what is the role of the only stable regional power " Algeria" in the fight against terrorism in the sahel ?

December 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterwalid

Tom Barnett,

Assume you have an abusive husband who beats his wife and kids with a baseball bat and you go and give the husband a bigger baseball bat to beat his kids with.

The abusive husband is most African states in the Sahel and the guy providing extra baseball hats is AFRICOM. A question that you (and the US establishment) need to answer is "who are the bad guys here?".

In many cases, the bad guys are the establishment that AFRICOM intends to support uncritically. The simple characterisation of "cowboys vs indians", "war on terrror" etc simply do not work in this situation.

This is why I must caution that West Africa be treated with utmost care. In Mali, the simple aim of the US is to "eliminate Al Qaeda" (whatever that means), but that does not solve the problem of a lack of a legitimate regime at Bamako or the genuine grievances that led to both the overthrow of the "democratic regime" (that needs some qualification) or "non-Al Qaeda" separatist movements in the North.

If you cannot understand these dynamics, it is better not to intervene in the first place.

Whatever impacts on Mali impacts on Northern Nigeria due to the extensive historical and cultural ties. You want to fly drones in Northern Nigeria? Great, start flying them tomorrow but look out for the inevitable consequences.

You've spent the better part of the last decades "hunting down the Geronimos and Crazy Horses" of Pakistan and Afghanistan with no apparent strategic gains. Now the US knows even less about West Africa than it knows about either Afghanistan or Pakistan.

In summary, I wish you the best - but don't say you weren't warned.

December 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

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