As we are often reminded, American lives are most precious of all human life. So when four US soldiers were killed last month in an ambush in Niger, it naturally started a conversation in the US about “America’s other wars”.
Most Americans (and many Africans it turns out) were completely unaware that there were US troops on the continent.
As it stands, the US has 800 troops in Niger and overall, a reported 6 000 troops across the continent.
This means there are troops in 11 African countries, including Somalia, Libya, Kenya, Niger, Cameroon, Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Djibouti and Central African Republic. US troops are meant to “train, advise and assist” African troops, but the events in Niger – as unclear and ambiguous as the circumstances remain – show that they are also involved in secret operations on the ground.
After the attacks on September 11, 2001, US lawmakers passed the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allowed the White House to fight al-Qaeda with some flexibility. But 16 years later, the AUMF has been used repeatedly, first by Barack Obama and now by Donald Trump, to fight any group (like Isis) seen as a threat to the administration – even if it is unrelated to 9/11.
Critics say the law gives the president “the authority to wage war in perpetuity”.
Over the weekend the US bombed alleged Isis targets in north-eastern Somalia, purportedly after the heinous murders of hundreds in the Somali capital over the past few weeks. This coincided with Niger agreeing to allow US troops to arm drones on their bases. Until now these drones were only used for surveillance purposes.
A week earlier the US government pledged $60million (R852m) to Sahel G5 Force. The force, made up of troops mainly from Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad, will effectively see the US and France outsource their counterterrorism efforts to these five African countries.
Though these countries have seemingly bought into the plan, the signs look ominous for Africans.
For one, counterterrorism efforts, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan, have not worked, and there is no indication that this effort would be any different.
Secondly, the expansion of so-called extremist groups are in many ways a direct result of the Western-led intervention into Libya and the murder of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, as well as French intervention in Mali following the coup of 2012.
Both actions are largely responsible for the ghosts now roaming the impoverished region. Thirdly, many parts of the Sahel are neglected and experts say the touted crime economy is often inseparable from the informal economy; that is, counterterrorism efforts that target civilians who survive in a harsh social and economic environment might just drive the ordinary into the hands of extremists.
As Philippe Frowd, a scholar of security issues in the Sahel based at the University of York, told me: “states cannot shoot their way out of such governance issues, no matter how well integrated or authentically local their military solutions are”.
“It is only partly down to radicalisation, with much of their success coming down to groups’ ability to court local communities and exploit their grievances towards the state and often towards other communities,” Frowd says. This is a US presidency that cares little about Mexicans, Muslims or even African-Americans in its own country; it is simply unreasonable to expect Trump’s administration to look for real sustainable solutions for people living outside.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in August, where he had met nine African heads of state, we all heard Trump refer to Namibia as “Nambia” and talk about his friends making money in Africa. In September he removed Sudan and added Chad to the Muslim-ban, a country he is now in partnership in the fight against terrorism. Neither does Trump have a coherent strategy for the continent.
As if to drive home this point, Trump has yet to appoint a permanent assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and there is still no ambassador in South Africa or South Sudan. Under Barack Obama, special operations in Africa expanded. Now military expansion in Africa is set to become Trump’s legacy. If these Special Forces kill a child, or burn down an entire village, or shoot down an old woman with a drone – in error, instead of a “terrorist” – or go rounding up town elders, holding them and humiliating them as they search for intel or suspects, these are not things we are likely to hear about.
But if the Special Forces are shot at, lose a limb, or their lives, make no mistake, we won’t hear the end of it.
American exceptionalism, entitlement and arrogance are traits that didn’t start with Trump. He is only the most crass proponent of this culture of privilege.
Most Americans are so blind to this privilege that irregular wars are only a problem when it finally haunts their own.
A death, a shooting, an attack on an embassy. How or why and what might have created these acts of depravity is never important or relevant.
Four Nigerien soldiers also died in that ill-fated “patrol” with the Americans last October, but obviously no one is asking why they had to die for a war not of their making.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor at The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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