Not too long ago, Mohamed Bazoum, the foreign minister of the western African nation of Niger gave a provocative endorsement to unrestricted drone warfare. The target: drug dealers moving their wares through the country — along with everyone else who makes money from the narcotics trade.

“I would really welcome armed drones to shoot down drug traffickers,” Bazoum said. “And all those who live from activities linked to drug trafficking. I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible.”

It’s not, yet. But Niger’s government has gotten a taste of the capabilities of U.S. drones with the deployment of two MQ-9 Reapers (the successor of the pop-culture famous Predator drone) to a base near Niamey, Niger’s capital, in February. The unmanned planes are armed with only cameras and sensors — not bombs — but Niger’s government isn’t the only African nation that’s acquired a taste for more.

Many African states sport huge territories, of which large swathes of land are only sparsely inhabited. This is exploited by armed rebel groups all over the continent, who use the remote areas to prepare for attacks.

Some of these groups, like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or Al Shabaab in Somalia have made international headlines in recent years, ousting the government from large parts of the national territory in Mali and Somalia, respectively. Al Shabaab is believed to be responsible for carrying out the worst terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 embassy bombings.

The U.S. government probably wouldn’t have cared very much, but both AQIM and Al Shabaab are Islamist groups with strong links with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen, and members of the African affiliates have been involved with organizing and staging terrorist attacks abroad.

Other armed groups — both Islamist and others — kindle the interest of U.S. militaries and policy makers as well. Boko Haram is another Al Qaeda affiliated group that’s in open warfare with the Nigerian government. The defeat of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (though now active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic) has been made a cause célèbre by American advocacy groups. Various rebel groups in eastern Congo have made it on the government’s radar as well.

Last but not least, there are a range of other armed groups with little impact on U.S. interests directly, but which are a huge thorn in the sides of important U.S. allies — the Oromo Liberation Front in Ethiopia is a case in point.

MQ-1 Predator over Afghanistan on Dec. 27, 2009. Air Force photo

Easy targets

Against these types of enemies, drones are an excellent weapon.

They can operate from within the region, because the targets don’t have the military capacity to effectively strike heavily-fortified bases (or, in the future, aircraft carriers). Rebel groups don’t have air forces or decent anti-aircraft capabilities, which is of vital importance for slow-moving and defenseless drones. And drones effectively deny non-state armed groups one of their main advantages: their ability to move undetected through sparsely inhabited areas.

Against most other potential adversaries, for example China or Iran, drones are of limited use.

These enemies have the know-how and equipment to detect and shoot down almost any drone the U.S. can throw at them, not to speak of the dramatic political consequences a drone straying into Chinese airspace would have. In the case of actual warfare, most nation-states have the capability to deny slow and low-flying drones access to their airspace, and advanced foes like China would even make the establishment of a secure base within useful range a real difficulty.

No, the future of drone warfare, both with and without actual bombs, is in Africa and the future is now.

Drones, both armed and unarmed, have likely been active from the U.S. military’s only permanent base on the continent at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti for some years, as well as from more recently established bases in neighboring Ethiopia. Niger is home to the latest deployment of drones to the continent and from their base at Niamey — the Reapers can theoretically cover much of western and central Africa.

Niger’s government, as well as French commanders cooperating with U.S. forces in their fight against AQIM in Mali, are full of praise for the surveillance-only Reapers in Niger. That the U.S. government will actually comply with Niger’s wishes to send armed drones against drug and weapons traffickers is unlikely — the Pentagon declined to comment on the foreign minister’s advances when contacted for this story. But it would be no surprise to see the numbers of drones stationed in Niamey pumped up in the coming months to cover other hotspots like northern Nigeria.

Equally, nobody should be surprised to see armed drones taking action against U.S.-designated terrorist groups in the region.

U.N. mission in Mali, supported by U.S. drones. U.N./Marco Dormino photo

Shooting back

Using drones to suppress security threats arising from armed groups in Africa is a nice and clean solution for the U.S. government that doesn’t require risky direct confrontations. If it can bind African allies closer to U.S. foreign policy interests by providing them with intel on their internal enemies (and maybe a military strike here and there), all the better.

But this strategy also bears risks. While governments may rave about the potential of drones, Africans are well aware of the ambiguous role that Predators and Reapers have played in Pakistan. Especially armed drones — and inevitable civilians lives lost — will produce backlash on the streets and give armed groups an opportunity to style themselves as the underdog fighting against the evil empire.

Then there is also the slippery slope of mission creep. Comments from Niger’s foreign minister suggest that U.S. surveillance drones are already not only keeping an eye on AQIM and other armed groups, but are also doing duty as border patrol against trafficking in Niger.

While these mission are connected — AQIM runs a vast regional smuggling operation with everything from bootlegged CDs to heavy weapons — putting U.S. assets at the disposal of friendly governments will get Washington drawn into national politics. This could make U.S. facilities, personnel and civilians a target for militant political groups way beyond the Islamist spectrum.

U.S. policy makers also shouldn’t be mistaken about the effectiveness of their drones in solving complex problems. They may give the U.S. and its allies an edge in present day asymmetrical warfare, but they won’t solve the underlying social and political problems. Drones are also necessarily limited — the Lord’s Resistance Army operates deep under a tree canopy, making their movements almost impossible to detect from the air.

In the long-term, drones are only stop-gap measures, destined to fail dramatically at best and be actively detrimental to U.S. interests at worst, if not backed up by intelligent foreign policy.

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