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You Can't Fight Bad Ideas with Guns

Needed: a systemic approach to U.S. military presence in Africa

· Africa

It is not surprising news that the U.S. has a growing military footprint on the African continent. But this footprint is not part of any conspiracy. It is just one more expression of the mistaken belief in judicious application of military science as the best way to inoculate African countries from conflict, war and terrorism.

In an article entitled “U.S. Military Says It Has a “Light Footprint” in Africa. These Documents Show a Vast Network of Bases”,published in The African Crime and Conflict Journal, Nick Turse questions the true scope of the American presence there. Some readers have criticized the article as a distortion of reality. Others see it as evidence that Africa is a “messed up place”. The article and the retorts from readers miss the point.

The U.S. should provide support and guidance to African governments and should have a presence commensurate with the geopolitical threats to security affecting U.S. interests and those of its African partners. HOWEVER, AFRICOM cannot continue taking the easy route. Security is not a question of throwing in more money, arms and soldiers. It can't be force-sized.

Anti-instability and anti-terrorist, load-bearing, development intervention equipment doesn't exist. There are no quick-fixes or "big bangs". Aid, training, advice, and equipping need to be aligned with the cultural and contextual realities on the ground: small camouflaged enemies who use co-optive power to shape people's beliefs, perceptions and preferences and who by doing so condition the agenda of weak or poorly governed states in which no one trusts any type of armed force.

Terrorism is not a given to sub-Saharan Africa. But it is infiltrating the region from East to West like a parasite. Prior to 2006, the U.S. didn’t even recognize any terrorist organizations in the region. Today, the U.S. military has some form of military activity (infrastructure, port facilities, fuel bunkers, security cooperation) in over 30 of the region’s 48 countries and has boots on the ground in all of the 14 countries that compose what could be referred to as Africa’s “tie-and-die” road: the arms, drugs and human trafficking that runs from East-West and South-North on the continent.

The U.S. is pursuing comprehensive and coordinated whole-of-government approaches to help our African partners build and sustain their security capacity and cooperation. But the operationalization of the U.S. National Security, Military and Intelligence Strategies are only succeeding at failing. Instead of disrupting and degrading terrorist networks, these have continued to adapt and expand aggressively across the region. 

Terrorist attacks have steadily risen since the creation of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. According to the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, eleven of the 36 most impacted countries are in the region. Although the number of deaths from terrorism worldwide has fallen by 27% over the last three years, in sub-Saharan Africa they have increased by 5% as terrorism-related activities have spread throughout the Sahel, which crosses from West to East across the continent. 

The U.S. National Security Strategy frames the approach to Africa largely in economic terms: profit and competition with China. But the shift from a global focus to state-on-state based Great Power competition begs the question of how efforts to counter the cross-border nature of terrorism and irregular warfare will be approached in Africa. A near-exclusive focus on terrorist groups can complement economic and diplomatic efforts to generate conditions for economic growth, but without preventive security efforts, counterterrorism efforts that fail to address regional challenges serve as a breeding ground for future global conflict and insecurity. 

Belief in judicious application of military science will not inoculate African countries from the spread of terrorism nor U.S military missions from failure, such as the one in Niger Republic. Poverty-driven instability and Jihadist-driven terrorism is powered not by military force or combat superiority, but by the ability to capitalize on human relations and use poverty and religion to gain combined enforcement and agitational power. The real battle is and never will be kinetic. It is a battle for audiences. And you just can't fight bad ideas with guns.

Against the rising specter of terrorist threats and the recruitment of foot soldiers among the mass of disenfranchised youth, more innovative approaches to security in Africa are needed. Addressing the pull-and-push factors of instability and terrorism requires combining conventional military presence and quick-force deployment with awareness raising, public education campaigns, culturally-sensitive economic development solutions, and context-specific foreign aid interventions based on local buy-in and a gender and generational-sensitive perspective.

Intervention must be grounded in appropriate local knowledge and traditions that can endow security with a sense of local propriety and ownership and foster the growth of endogenous security behaviors. Ethnographic knowledge and behavioral and social sciences must be included as strategic tools for gathering relevant intelligence and devising appropriate action plans. They complement and reinforce public diplomacy and the empowerment of key civilian change makers.

Terrorism is a war of perceptions. African Governments may need show-off parades and cash as a weapon, but what the African people need, particularly in rural areas, is to be heard, listened to and empowered. This cannot be achieved with aid as welfare, whether military or for trade or for economic development. The role of aid is to generate real alternatives - not band-aid solutions - to terrorism as a job. Aid should be focused on promoting local agency and the ability to make choices and translate them into self-reliant action. It should foster resilient maker ecosystems by stimulating entrepreneurship, rebuilding domestic supply chains, and facilitating onshoring instead of offshoring.

When the rule of law and citizen protection is at variance with the democratic values and aspirations of those who voted a government into office and entire regions fail to attain the economic and social changes that should result from foreign aid interventions, the context is ripe for terrorist infiltration. But beefing up the military or militarizing local police and para-military forces without factoring in existing social, economic and political challenges is counterproductive when the operational context is contaminated with fear of abusive power, geoeconomic disequilibrium (unequal access to resources for production, for participation in decision-making processes affecting family and community livelihoods, and for legal protection) and rising human insecurity due to conflict or war, climate change and poverty.

Countering instability and terrorism in Africa requires a preventive approach to security grounded on a contextual understanding of the push-and-pull factors of violence, terrorism and outright war. It also requires a robust inter-agency process to ensure integrated systemic planning of how military, foreign aid, and trade and investment resources can be combined to address the push-and-pull factors of violence and terrorism. The key to achieving it is the use of sociocultural and political-economic intelligence and a culturally-grounded use of influence resources (public diplomacy, targeted aid for empowerment, repositories of granular knowledge and a mix of modern and traditional communication tools).

Success should be measured not on how many people you kill or capture, but on how many people whose behaviors are the result of a simple desire to feel safe and survive you empower to secure themselves, their families and their communities. They are the ones most at risk of being terrorized and recruited into the “tie-and-die” road.

In fact, the U.S. security strategy in Africa should be: 80% socio-economic, 10% political and 10% military.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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