This past August, a U.S. military-trained
African army officer staged a coup in an impoverished country – Mali – wracked
by violence that’s long been folded under the opportunist umbrella of a global
war on terror. Washington subsequently feigned surprise, pretended chagrin,
suspended some aid – and quietly continued to back the new regime and its former
French colonialist patrons. So what else is knew, right?
AFRICOM’s Coup Factory
After all, especially since the 9/11 attacks, a slew of Uncle Sam School of
Security alum have subverted
democracy back home in Africa and elsewhere. In fact, a 2017 study in the Journal
of Peace Research found
that, from 1970 to 2009, in 165 out of 275 military-backed worldwide coups the
authors identified, members of that country’s security forces had received some
US military training in the year before the coup. Furthermore, an investigation
published that same year by Lauren Chadwick of the Center for Public Integrity
that, according to official US government documents, at least 17 high-ranking
foreign military officers – including five generals – trained through Washington’s
International Military Education and Training (IMET) program between 1985 and
2010 were later accused of criminal and human rights abuses. In Africa alone
– and just since AFRICOM’s 2008 founding – the list of coups and coup attempts
undertaken by U.S.-trained military officers includes those in: Burkina Faso
2020); and Mauritania
To hone back in on Mali, recall that Amadou Sanogo – orchestrator of the country’s
military coup – was a particularly proud product
of Pentagon pedagogy. Sanogo learned English in Texas, attended the Infantry
Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC) at Fort Benning, Georgia, got his intelligence
training at Fort Huachuca,
Arizona – the US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence (USAICoE) – and received
instruction from the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. During his tenure as
Mali’s military strongman, he gushed
that “America is [a] great country with a fantastic army. I tried to
put all the things I learned there into practice here.” Naturally, Sanogo
was himself eventually toppled (in 2016) – arrested and tried
for “complicity in kidnapping and assassination.”
In the latest Malian episode in a recurring strongman series, the lead putschist
had participated in US Africa Command training exercises in West Africa known
as Operation Flintlock
– AFRICOM’s “premier and largest annual exercise” – and once attended
a Joint Special Operations (JSOC) University seminar at Florida’s MacDill Air
Force Base. Coup-artist Colonel Assimi Goita also received training from Germany
and France, headed special forces in Central Mali, and spent years working with
US commandoes “focused on fighting extremism in West Africa.”
The truth is that no matter how much the “ladies” of Pentagon spokesmen
“doth protest” (perhaps “too much”) – “The act of mutiny
in Mali is strongly condemned and inconsistent with US military training and
education” – mutineering is fully consistent with US military tutelage.
Or, as Jonathan Caverley of the US Naval War College and Jesse Savage of Trinity
College Dublin wrote in that Journal of Peace Research study, there’s
“a robust relationship between US training of foreign militaries and military-backed
Nevertheless, Washington has long subscribed to Democratic stalwart Rahm Emanuel’s
dictum, “never let a good crisis go to waste” – especially one involving
an African “ally” in an ever-failing (but interventionism-justifying)
regional terror war. Hence, the recent trademark language of neo-imperial opportunism
an American diplomat – that Mali’s coup was an unwelcome “bunch of lemons,”
but hopefully the new regime and its backers will “at least make lemonade”
out of it.
France’s Forever War
Only last summer’s citrus turned sour indeed by winter. Particularly for Paris.
Whatever the post-coup obligatory objections from Washington, the French were
far less circumspect. For the Mali’s former colonial rulers – with 5,000 troop
mired in their own “forever
war” in the Sahel region – a return to civilian rule was pronounced
preferable, but also deemed “imperative that we continue the fight against
terrorism.” The problem is that fight isn’t going so well. Five of Paris’s
troops were killed
in the first five days of this new year – bringing to 50 the number of French
fatalities in Mali since their 2013 intervention.
Furthermore, the already rising anti-French sentiments
in its old colonial Afrique francophone holdings surely weren’t helped
any by local reports
– which Paris denies – that its January 3rd helicopter strike killed more than
20 people, including children, at a wedding party in Mali’s central Mopti region.
That’s the very district where – despite the government and international focus
on fighting Islamists in Mali’s north – a new insurgent front opened
in 2015. It was launched by the Katiba Macina movement, which lent religious
resonance to the area’s already deep-seated local grievances and exploits social
fractures – such as ethnic Peul pastoralists’ feelings of victimization.
It’s hard to see how such alleged civilian deaths doesn’t further complicate
matters for a France that can’t seem to best the diverse and varied regional
rebellions that its Operation
Barkhane – with 5,100 troops spread out between Mali, Burkina Faso,
Niger, and Chad – has helped fuel from its 2014 inception. In fact, Paris had
reportedly been “scrambling
for exit strategy” from its largest – and costly at nearly €600m annually
– overseas military operation since at least 2017. In November, even before
the latest bloody attacks on its soldiers, France – after a rather American-like
attempt at a January 2020 troop surge – announced
a desire “to reduce troop presence” by several hundred in the Sahel.
Whether the recent fatalities and civilian deaths will speed up, slow down,
or alter that vague plan, remains an open question.
That the French-led fiasco – American-assisted, and U.K./UN/EU-supported –
in Mali and the Greater Sahel has already failed should now be crystal clear.
Neither Paris’s 5,000-plus military contingent, AFRICOM’s 1,200
personnel spread across 14 “enduring” and “non-enduring”
West African bases,
along with ample
American “intelligence and operations support” (read: drones), London’s
300 newly deployed
“peacekeepers,” a coalition of 5,000 troops from Burkina Faso, Chad,
Mali, Mauritania, and Niger (known as the G5 Sahel Joint Force), the 10,000
strong United Nation Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA)
– the UN’s “most
dangerous” – nor the European Union Training Mission’s (EUTM)
700 soldier-trainers from 28 countries, have stemmed the tide of regional rebellion.
In fact, the output of all that Western military interventionism – many locals
call it an “invasion”
– has been a five-fold
increase in militant African Islamist groups, and a 1,105 percent
increase in violent
events linked to these groups, over the last decade. Or, as AFRICOM
to the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoDIG) at the end of 2019 –
in classic bureaucrat-ese – “VEOs [Violent Extremist Organizations] in
West Africa are not degraded nor contained to the Sahel and Lake Chad region.”
Such largely Franco-failure also raises eyebrows in Washington, Arlington,
and Stuttgart, Germany – where AFRICOM is peculiarly, if instructively, still
headquartered, since no African state (besides maybe longtime U.S.-satellite
Liberia) is willing
to host it. So much so that, in October 2007, the Pan-African Parliament
– legislative body of the African Union – voted
in favor of a motion to “prevail upon all African Governments…not to accede
to the United States of America’s Government’s request to host AFRICOM anywhere
in the African continent.”
No matter, last March – when the Trump administration even considered
a regional troop drawdown – AFRICOM top-dog, General Stephen Townsend, told
a hearing that in the past year alone there’d been a fivefold increase in terrorist
activity in the Sahel. Translated to military alarmist-speak, Townsend declared
that terrorists are “on the march” in West Africa. What he didn’t raise, seem
to consider – or probably even know – were crucial questions of cause and effect,
or the implications of former colonizer France’s, and neo-imperial newcomer
America’s, tortured history in the region.
A Back Pages Backstory of Counter-productivity
No matter how hard the Pentagon’s – and political and punditry’s – professional
alarmists have tried,
the threat of a “terrorist zone” or “terrorist swamp” hasn’t
much captured the public imagination. And the discomfiting – but wholly
predictable – truth is that the Pentagon’s 2003-04 pronouncement of a “terrorist
belt” stretching from the West African Sahel to East Africa’s Horn has
proved a regional self-fulfilling
prophecy within the broader self-fulfilling one of a global war on terror.
Nations, especially hyper-hegemonic aspirants – like individuals – do reap what
The fact is that when the US launched the security-focused – in the guise of
humanitarian assistance and civil “capacity-building” – Pan Sahel
Initiative (2004), Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (2005), or even
the broader AFRICOM (2008), there wasn’t
any serious regional terror to counter. To the extent there was, it had been
opportunistically exaggerated – if not partly fabricated
– by an Algerian DRS intelligence service keen to get in a flush Pentagon’s
France seized Mali way back in 1892, folded it into the colony of French Sudan,
and ruled it as part of the Federation of French West Africa until independence
in 1960. French military officers on the ground – stop me if this sounds familiar
– initially took control by exploiting inter-ethnic rivalries and political
tension among local leaders, but it still took more than a decade to suppress
In the more modern era, US special operators and advisers have been in and
out of Mali since at least 2003 – without having any measurable (at least positive)
effect on the country’s security and stability. Which is to say, so far, it’s
all been for naught – or worse. A year before AFRICOM officially opened for
business, a US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute analysis
concluded that US counterterrorism efforts on the continent since 2001 had been
counterproductive – concluding that:
Though often tactically successful, these efforts – against Algerian insurgents
in North Africa and an assortment of Islamists in Somalia – have neither benefited
American security interests nor stabilized events in their respective regions.
This failure is ascribable in part to the flawed assumptions on which the GWOT
in Africa has rested. The United States has based its counterterrorism initiatives
in Africa since 9/11 on a policy of “aggregation,” in which localized
and disparate insurgencies have been amalgamated into a frightening, but artificially
Only the story of US and French failure harkens far further back in time.
Back to Back-to-the-Future
Though the French military prides
itself on its supposedly deft handling of low-intensity counterinsurgencies
– and often criticizes America’s heavy hand – the truth is something altogether
different. Paris is stuck in the Sahel – much like Washington was (and is) in
Afghanistan and Iraq – throwing good time and money at bad: hopeless fights
with mobile, multi-faceted Islamist groups it scantly understands.
It’s a back to back-to-the-future scenario: French troops may have paved the
colonial path in West Africa, but it was American officers – think surge-enthusiasts
General David Petraeus and Colonel John Nagl – who rediscovered
and retooled France’s counterinsurgent theorists like David Galula for use in
the Greater Middle East. Now many of Paris’s soldiers are applying the “new”
mythology of those post-9/11 US pacification “successes” –
with some French officers even speaking
of an “Americanization” of their military.
Consider this bit of anecdotal, but instructive, absurdity: Colonel Philippe
de Montenon – who translated Galula into French for Economica – first
heard of Galula while attending the US Army’s Command and General Staff College
(CGSC) in 2005, when Petraeus was the school’s commandant. Then, four years
and a full circle later, the French Army’s Centre de Doctrine et d’Emploi
des Force (Center for Doctrine and the Use of Force) published Doctrine
de contre rébellion (Counter-Insurgency Doctrine) – citing the American
experience in Iraq as an important influence. In other words, as Hannah Armstrong,
an analyst at the International Crisis Group, summarized
it: “In the same way that French reality TV and pop music is 15 years behind
the US, French counterterrorism mimics US counterterrorism of 15 years ago.”
Lost in the failing Franco-American joint security-focused venture of aimless
killing and resource-exploitation in the Sahel is any real sense of nuance.
Like these crucial nuggets: the often singularly defined enemy in the area –
Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) – is actually
a coalition of distinct militant Islamist groups with differing objectives and
tapping into varying local criminal networks and ethno-regional grievances.
Plus, the Al Qaeda branch that claimed the latest French fatalities has in fact
the recent “indiscriminate” killing of some 100 civilians across the
Malian border in western Niger. The local AQ-franchise has even violently clashed
with that massacre’s probable perpetrators – the rival the Islamic State in
the Greater Sahara (EIGS) – in recent months.
So it usually goes, and so far – per usual – neither Washington nor Paris has
applied this knowledge, questioned its implications for mission-efficacy, or
quit crafting yet another self-fulfilling prophesy of a Sahelian “terror”
monolith. Meanwhile, the head of the French Joint Chiefs of Staff himself, confessed
during a 2019 radio interview that “we will never achieve definite victory.”
And AFRICOM admits
it’s unlikely that Sahelian VEOs currently have the capability – but could,
naturally, if left unchecked – to directly threaten the US homeland.
Which is enough to make one wonder…just what’s the point of all this Franco-American
adventurism in Africa?
To What End? (And Cui Bono?)
Well, it’s hard to say – at least simply. Yet, if you’ll allow the alliteration
of an explanatory shorthand, let’s call it the three Rs: Resources, Rivalry,
First off, Mali is Africa’s third-largest
gold producer and borders the equally restive Niger – which hosts the headquarters
of France’s Operation Barkhane and AFRICOM’s massive Agadez drone base – a country
providing most of the uranium supplies required for Paris to maintain its fiercely-guarded
nuclear independence (and hence, aspirations of continued great power status).
For all that natural mineral endowment, Mali remains one of the poorest countries
in the world, – ranking 184 out of 188 on the United Nations Human Development
Index – with 78 percent of its people living in poverty.
And perhaps it’s not as surprising as it seems that the UK would get involved
in the Sahelian action – despite the remarkable post-colonial persistence of
traditional imperial agreements that London and Paris stay out of Francophone
and Anglo-Africa, respectively. Indeed, Africa remains the largest arena for
overseas British military training and operational missions, and Anglo-Dutch
oil giant Shell has major investments – and allegedly
been complicit in murder, rape and torture – in London’s former colony of nearby
Nigeria. Plus, it is surely something less than coincidental that AFRICOM was
announced and established (2007-08) at the very moment China eclipsed
France as the continent’s top trading partner.
Second, the US has become obsessed with countering Russian and Chinese influence
everywhere, as part of Washington’s bipartisan “New Cold War.” That’s
extended as much to Africa as anywhere else. After the 2018 National Defense
Strategy (NDS) officially shifted the focus of US strategy from counterterrorism
to threats posed by Russia and China (usually referred to as “great power
competition,” or “GPC,” in internal military documents), AFRICOM
had to adapt its raison d’etre or die.
So this year, the command undertook
reviews of its resources and activities to “align with the objectives
articulated” in the NDS. And wouldn’t you know, AFRICOM’s new proposed
campaign plan lists the first of its five functional lines of effort: as “1)
Enable War Plans and GPC [Great Power Competition].” Incidentally, there
are no Russian, and only one Chinese base – clear across the continent in Djibouti
– in Africa. Still, if a major US military combatant command wants to maintain
funding and focus, well, relevance – even pretended relevance – is the name
of the game.
Which essentially covers the last of those three RS – AFRICOM has and will
emphasize or exaggerate which ever “threat” happens to be hot in Washington.
And if it feels neglected, well, it’ll raise alarms and change the facts on
the ground through bold action or alliances with local and/or foreign treaty
allies (like France). That’s bureaucratic inside baseball 101, folks – and AFRICOM,
as the newest and weakest link, has to be the squeakiest, and appear the most
flexibly indispensable, command wheel.
My own sense is neither Paris nor AFRICOM is actually foolish enough to be
believe they can win wars in West Africa. These military maestros need only
not to lose, and hopefully avoid excessive embarrassment from too high casualties,
or too high civilian “collateral damage” counts. At even that, however,
France is increasingly failing – and the US may not be far behind them. Yet
all told: survival, not victory, seems the strategy.
These three RS apply in Mali and the Sahel specifically, and bear remarkable
resemblance to an infamous 2007 Naval War College briefing
– which made the rounds, and caused a scandal, in Africa – listing four common
perceptions of the US’s real reasons for AFRICOM: natural resources, democracy
deficit, increasing Chinese presence, and terrorism.
Actual Africans never trusted America’s continental motives, and haven’t
missed the colonial-imperial parallels – nor should they, when the Pentagon
proudly partners with Paris to assert control in FrancophoneWest Africa.
That’s because the continent’s people sensed a salient truth from the start:
just as the colonial Federation of French West Africa always more emphasized
the “French” element of the name – AFRICOM has always had little to
do with Africans.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center
for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com,
and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared
in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American
Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications.
He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West
Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders
of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic
Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris
“Henri” Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress
on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet
and on his website for
media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen