Covert US Operations in Africa Are Sowing the Seeds of Future Crises

This March Malian forces attacked Moura, a small, sunbaked village in the middle of the country. The operation began on a local market day, when people arrived with their livestock. Residents recall hearing helicopters cut the air and soldiers disembark in grim resolve. Malian forces Russian-speaking combatantsMultiple days of siegement were carried out on the village, with civilians being killed and corpses set ablaze. In a clinically worded communiqué, the government announced that the army completed a “systematic cleaning of the zone” with “very precise intelligence,” killing 203 jihadists.

Investigators immediately disputed its account. Human Rights Watch labeling the operation “the worst atrocity in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.” Estimates of civilian deaths range as high as 500. Another atrocity in a long list, the United Nations has urged investigation of the latest scandal in Mali’s war against jihadism.

The massacre also signals the failure of U.S. policy, as Mali is at the center of U.S. strategies in the Sahel region. U.S. Africa Command has been partnering with countries to combat jihadism and bolster influence. It also helps to counter Russian and Chinese rivals. U.S. intervention has not secured peace but instead internationalized local conflicts, deepened socio-economic divisions, and encouraged militarism.

Its failure has deep roots. The Malian crisis and other conflicts are a result of a long history U.S. interventionism on African continent.

Post-Colonial Militarism

The Cold War was directly influenced by the AFRICOM strategy. After World War II ended, the U.S. quietly encouraged Western retrenchment to Africa. Officials assisted Europeans to reaffirm colonial control in order for them to create a unified capitalist bloc, and support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They notably armed FranceDuring the bitter war in Algeria, which became an emblematic struggle against colonialism.

As the conflict undermined Western legitimacy, U.S. policymakers encouraged Europeans not to accept formal hegemony in place of territorial occupation. Paradoxically, a new imperial orderWith decolonization, the West emerged. Western capitals maintained effective sovereignty through a balance of “soft” and “hard” power: the haze of ideology, capital markets, political pressure, military bases, and other tools that could plunge a former colony into chaos.

The U.S. was the first to use similar tools in Africa. outsourced imperialismEuropean allies. Slowly, however, the U.S. began to cast a shadow, supporting coups to smother extremism, open markets, and combat Soviet influence.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo was first to feel its weight in 1960. Officials from the United States viewed the country as a treasure trove beneath the earth, rich in strategic minerals. But they were anxious about Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first prime minister. Lumumba refused Western hegemony. celebrating Congolese independence as “a decisive step towards the liberation of the entire African continent.”

President Dwight D. EisenhowerHe wished he could fall into a river full crocodiles. He plotted to assassinate Lumumba, and install a pliant substitute. The CIA deemed “his removal” an “urgent and prime objective.”

Lumumba was forced to ask for UN intervention after secessionists won. Yet, the historian Elizabeth Schmidt observes, the operation was “largely an American affair.” The U.S. ferried UN troops to the Congo, while snatching power from Lumumba. The CIA assisted local officials in his capture after he thwarted them. Lumumba was handed over to secessionists who brutally killed him in front of a large audience of Western observers.

Lumumba’s assassination was a cruel premonition. The U.S. government ruthlessly expelled African liberationists over the next years. They targeted Kwame Nkrumah as the elegant colossus for pan-Africanism. After Lumumba fell, Nkrumah warned that “neo-colonialism” threatened to subvert African independence, reducing states to shells “directed from outside.”

Nkrumah transformed Ghana into a bastion in revolution, offering refuge to anti-colonial movements, and inspiring U.S. civil rights activists. In response, the State Department froze loans and depressed global cocoa prices, throttling Ghana’s economy. In February 1966, officers finally struck. U.S. officials gloated that the new military government was “almost pathetically pro-Western.”

In 1957, Ghana’s liberation was the symbolic catalyst of African independence, lending decolonization an irresistible air of inevitability. By contrast, Nkrumah’s downfall solidified an ominous trend toward military rule. Avant 1965, coups were very rare. Within two decades, military leaders had ruled. 40 percent of Africa.

The U.S. strategy ultimately stifled the promise of independence and accelerated the drift towards militarism while carving the continent into invisible but enduring spheres. U.S. allies waged devastating wars. proxy warsAll across the region. Nkrumah’s critique of neocolonialism proved prophetic: “For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.”

The Third Scramble

After the Cold War, there was little interest in the continent. But, eventually, a new scramble began for Africa. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. rallied to contain Russian. Chinese influenceWhile securing strategic resources,

Above all, the 9/11 attacks put Africa back on the U.S.’s radar. Policy makers were concerned about the ability of African governments, with their limited penetrative capabilities and resources, to confront jihadism. They saw the Sahara as a power vacuum of sandstone and stone that was too powerful for fragile Sahelian states.

Evincing racist overtones, U.S. officials evoked a continent full of “terrorist breeding grounds.” Gen. Charles Wald insisted, “We need to drain the swamp,” adding that, “The United States learned a lesson in Afghanistan — you don’t let things go.”

In 2007, the United States created AFRICOM, Africa’s first unified military command. Officials established AFRICOM’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany and amassed a vast archipelago. The central node was situated in Stuttgart, Germany. Camp Lemonnier, an ex-outpost of the French empire in Djibouti. The sun-drenched fort is strategically located on the Gulf of Aden and covers 500 acres. It was the busiest drone base in Afghanistan until a Predator drone crashed into an area with a live Hellfire missile.

By 2013, AFRICOM pursued programs in at least 49 countries. The U.S. again discreetly trained local troops, collected intelligence, and waged warfare.

That year, Capt. Robert SmithAt a formal ceremony, he addressed Special Operations Command Africa. “Forces are deploying as we speak…. [Our] mission does not stop,” he stressed. “Some people like to think that Africa is our next ridgeline,” he said, pausing for effect. “Africa is our current ridgeline.”

Captain Smith then cited his commander, Gen. James Linder: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.” The bellicose quote became a self-fulling prophecy. The U.S. military pursued this strategy by 2019. more operations in AfricaThe Middle East.

Air Pirates

AFRICOM’s first major battlefield was Somalia, then reeling from the legacy of past interventions. The U.S. had made the country into a policy-making powerhouse. one of the largest recipients of military aidAfter its disastrous invasion of Ethiopia in 1977. After assistance ran out, the government collapsed in 1991, causing chaos. While Somalia was ravaged by famine, warlords divided the country into rival fiefdoms. In 2006, an alliance made up of Muslim leaders, called the Islamic Courts Union (Islamic Courts Union), restored order. The invasion of Ethiopia was then started. with U.S. backing, resulting in the breaking of the tentative peace and allowing al-Shabab, an extremist group to rise to power.

Privately, regional leaders expressed little faith in the Somali government and warned that the military would collapse without U.S. aid, “increasing the ranks of the fundamentalists.” In 2013, President Barack ObamaHe deployed troops to support the army and African Union Mission Somalia. He also waged drone warfare. displacing thousands of civilians.

2017 was a year when policymakers relaxed the rules for airstrikes. The military can now assess targets using just four criteria: location, age, gender, and proximity of al-Shabab. In testimony before Congress AFRICOM Commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser soothed concerns, emphasizing, “I’m very comfortable with how this is being done.” Operations skyrocketed, entailing at least 196 airstrikesIn four years. AFRICOM invariably labeled the dead as “combatants” until Amnesty International exposed numerous civilian casualties, suggesting that officials spread “a smokescreen for impunity.”

The U.S. did far more than fly the skies. August 2017 U.S. troops oversaw operationsLower Shabelle is a lush area known for its abundance in banana and mango trees. They massacred 10 civilians including at least one child. One resident described hearing his friend die from a gunshot wound while a U.S soldier held his head down with a boot. Local officials apparently enlisted the unit in an attack on a rival clan. U.S. Special Forces placed arms around their victims, photographed them, then demanded Somalia wash the massacre. General Waldhauser was finally seen in Congress a few months later. “I wouldn’t characterize that we’re at war,” he reassured legislators. “It’s specifically designed for us to not own that.”

Desert Illusions

As Somalia’s operations escalated, AFRICOM encouraged an interlocking defense network to protect the Sahel. In turn, Sahelian leaders exploited the global “war on terror,” milking the new master discourse to deflect criticism, render local conflicts legible to Western bureaucrats and exact “terrorism rents” — tapping the awesome financial and military largesse of the U.S. for their own aggrandizement.

This was perhaps more true than Mali. U.S. leaders touted the country as a model, lauding its “strong and valuable … democratic tradition.” In reality, its transition from military rule in 1991 spawned a repressive democracy: a state with hollow institutions, rampant graft and an indistinguishable elite that rotated through ritual elections. The World Bank concluded that corruption in the country was a “generalised sociological phenomenon.”

The military was ravaged by corruption. As an extravagant form of coup-proofing, Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré promoted 104 officers to the rank of general, reducing the defense budget to political patronage. A senior U.S. official recalled that “corruption was present” — “officers would withhold pay or steer contracts to family members.” Meanwhile, AFRICOM found bases wracked by power outages and supply shortages.

This status quo was shattered by U.S. policies in 2012. In 2012, the U.S. used the Arab Spring in Libya to overthrow President Muammar Gadafi. officials previously embraced as “a top partner” against terrorism. Expat Tuareg fighters from northern Mali were pushed back by airstrikes. They then rallied to overthrow their government. As Tuareg rebels, and jihadists seized the country’s control, U.S.-trained forces defectedto the enemy. Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo ousted Malian President Touré, lambasting his inept management of the crisis. Ironically, Captain Sanogo was also trained by AFRICOM, but he too proved inept.

Ultimately, French intervention in “Operation Serval” repelled the rebels, yet incited charges of colonialism. Tellingly, France helped Mali draft the letterAsking for assistance. French officials then forced through post-coup elections to legitimize the invasion retroactively. Although rapid elections prevented the transition to military rule, they covered up long-standing problems that had triggered the crisis.

Over the next ten years, the military aid pipeline gushed as U.S. leaders and French leaders embraced Mali to counter jihadism. They recognized the root cause as weak governance, propounding “the return of the state” and beefing up the military. AFRICOM viewed jihadists a roving internationalist, rootless ideologues who operate beyond the bounds of the law. The state was not. WasThe problem: the unmistakable corruption of violence and discrimination that sparked this uprising. While jihadists spoke in universals their grievances were shockingly local. Religion provided rhetorical artillery to address the problem. local issuesThese include grazing rights and ethnic tensions, as well as corrupt bureaucrats.

Sometimes, the lines between jihadism and the state blur. Regional elites colluded with both campsMaximize their influence. Iyad Ag Ghaly, the Tuareg powerbroker was especially shameless. As the war on terror escalated, he encouraged the U.S. to launch “targeted special operations” against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). “Ag Ghali estimated that the AQIM had little to no support amongst the native populations,” the embassy elaborated. After failing to take control of secular Tuareg organisations, he created the jihadist Ansar al-Din group and was quickly affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Spreading Crises

AFRICOM’s strategy progressively backfired. The U.S. supported Sahelian troops and increased social tensions as they drove jihadists into neighboring states. The rapid infusions of military aid and increasing defense budgets only increased corruption and militarism. Senior Nigerian officials overcharged the government for defense contracts, igniting a scandal that one diplomat called “the greatest predatory act in the history of Niger.” Militarism also worsened in Burkina Faso, where the constitution already allowed soldiers to wield extraordinary influence in politics. U.S.-led U.S. officers Gen. Gilbert DiendéréThe ad campaign for AFRICOM featured a slick advertisement featuring AFRICOM. He executed coups in 2014, 2015, and 2015.

Because states failed to identify Jihadists, they punished whole communities and turned operations into ethnic warfare. In Burkina Faso, Malian and Burkinabé forces waged bloody campaigns against the predominately Muslim Fulani. “It’s not that all Fulani are terrorists, it’s that most terrorists are Fulani,” an officer explained. Human Rights Watch mass graves in DjiboAuthorities killed 180 people in the town of Yerba Buena, leaving the bodies to rot in the scorching heat. Ironically, violence towards the Fulani exacerbated communal grievances while driving civilians into jihadism for safety.

The bloodshed deeply implicated Western forces, who fostered impunity. French troops described joint operations as “butchery.”Cameroon: AFRICOM launched drone strikes at the same compound. local soldiers tortured civilians.

Financial manipulation was also encouraged by secrecy. In Mali, SEAL Team 6 members, the famed unit that killed Osama ben Laden, murdered Army Staff Sergeant. Logan Melgar threatened to report embezzled money in 2017 and he did. “The system is ripe for abuse,” admitted a former officer. “We knew this money wasn’t being tracked, and guys were stuffing their pockets.” Even at the senior level, Pentagon auditorsIdentified inexcusable accounting practices.

All Fall Down

2020 saw the collapse of the complex defense system. Another officer from the United States was trained in August. Col. Assimi GoïtaHe seized power in Bamako, the Malian capital, citing the security crisis. His power grab was initiated a wave of six coupsIn five countries in two years, he engulfed Mali, Chad and Guinea in chaos. Many of the plotters had been trained by AFRICOM. In Guinea, local forces pausedExercise with U.S. Army Green Berets in order to storm the capital. Most coup leaders cited the threat of jihadism and poor governance — crises that AFRICOM had not solved but aggravated. Prior to 2001, U.S. officials were not registered no terrorist organizationsIn sub-Saharan Africa. They will be there by 2019. tallied nearly 50.

AFRICOM has been igniting long-standing local conflicts for years, tearing societies apart and giving jihadism meaning. In a reverse domino effect the very forces it enlisted in fighting were now rebelling

Tensions between Mali and the West have forced Western forces into a reduction in their operations. France announced this February troop withdrawalsLocal authorities hired Russian mercenaries to counter the waning confidence in Western countries. AFRICOM Commander Gen. Stephen Townsend warned that the decision would conclude in “horrific violence against Africans.”

Two weeks later, the Moura massacre unfolded. Mali was disintegrated in the aftermath. defense agreementsThis May, we will be partnering with European allies. accusing France of espionage. The G5 Sahel was abandoned by the military junta. President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger to announce that the region’s main security organization was “dead.”

UN forces are still in Mali, supporting heavy losses, investigating an exponential increasein human rights violations and defending an aggressive government lacks controlSurrounding the majority of its territory. The UN warns, however, that 18 million residentsSahel residents are facing severe hunger as war and famine sweep the region.

Yet the mounting crisis also implicates the U.S. AFRICOM regards itself as enviably sleek and deadly effective, an elite force that fights “tomorrow’s wars today.” But in practice, operations resemble previous neocolonial interventions, fostering military rule and human rights violations. In truth, AFRICOM fights yesterday’s wars tomorrow: As U.S. forces intensify local conflicts and militarism, they sow the seeds of future crises.

The author would like Sarah Priscilla Lee from the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University to thank for reviewing this article.