In November, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer and well-known commentator on military affairs—and outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy—wrote an op-ed entitled, “The U.S. Army Discovers Africa.”
More recently, Brookings defense expert Michael O’Hanlon said the U.S. needed to “step up [its] game” with regard to military engagement and assistance on the continent.
In light of this commentary, you could be forgiven for sensing “newness” in recent media coverage of U.S. military involvement in Africa.
Bacevich’s piece, especially, could not have seemed more prescient. It was published following a busy October for the U.S. military in Africa. Special Operations Forces pulled off raids in Libya and Somalia, as well as a drone strike in the latter.
Then in December came fresh crises. Suddenly U.S. forces were involved in supporting peacekeeping efforts in Central African Republic and in protecting and evacuating U.S. nationals following a coup attempt in South Sudan.
However, if historians are more and more in agreement that the term “discover” is incorrect when talking about places with existing inhabitants, then it should be similarly inappropriate to talk this way with regard to U.S. military activities in Africa.
Recent treatments of American actions in Africa seem to ignore hundreds of years of history.
Like it or not, for decades American economic security rested on the evil of the triangular trans-Atlantic slave trade, meaning that U.S. foreign policy from its very inception was economically, politically and militarily linked to the continent.
As a result, trade on the high seas—and the freedom to conduct this trade—was of paramount importance.
Not surprisingly then, the first wars America fought in foreign lands and seas were against pirates in Libya—forever immortalized in the Marine Corps hymn as “the shores of Tripoli.” The Navy owes much of its very existence to the threat posed by these North African corsairs.
These operations in turn resulted in long-lasting relationships. Morocco was the first sovereign state to recognize the newly independent United States. The 1786 Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship is Washington’s longest unbroken foreign treaty.
American forces also landed in Morocco during World War II, well before storming the beaches in Normandy. The U.S. military honed the skills that would later be used to defeat Germany in the North African desert. Today, Morocco is a major non-NATO ally of the U.S.
After World War II, America turned its attention toward the Soviet Union and communism. Despite garnering much less public attention, the Cold War in Africa looked much like it did in Southeast Asia or Latin America, with proxy wars and covert U.S. support.
Permanent U.S. bases were established in Morocco, Libya and Ethiopia to help keep watch over and otherwise deter the Soviets and their allies.
More importantly, the end of the Cold War also looked much the same in Africa as it did elsewhere. Having triumphed over the Soviet Union, America wanted to flex its muscle as the sole remaining superpower, but strove to find a central theme for military action.
Humanitarian intervention seemed to fit the bill, and Africa presented many opportunities to conduct what were referred to at the time as “peace and stability operations.” Somalia, ravaged by war and famine, captivated the American public.
But Somalia was also among the interventions that soured the American public on the concept. In contrast to the lightning victory over Iraq in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, Somalia was a complicated, seemingly intractable mess that drew uncomfortable comparisons with Vietnam.
A number of high-profile events, most specifically the so-called “Black Hawk Down” incident in October 1993, furthered deflated public support. Intervention in the Balkans was met with similar criticisms.
As a result, the U.S. military began downplaying its activities abroad. As far as the public was concerned, the Pentagon’s activities in Africa were limited to evacuating U.S. nationals from countries experiencing violent political upheavals.
Still, there were clear threats to U.S. security in Africa. Before relocating to Afghanistan, Al Qaeda spent a period in Sudan, where the terror group likely planned and coordinated the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.
But not even the threat of terrorism could move a disillusioned public to support intervention, even from a distance.
The U.S. response to the embassy bombings turned into yet another public relations nightmare, as cruise missiles hit a pharmaceutical plant. The U.S. deliberately targeted the plant in Sudan, claiming it was involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons. This has never been substantiated.
Africa was essentially the original front on the War on Terror, but even after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the Pentagon declined to highlight operations there. The Sahel—that semi-desert region separating North Africa from the sub-Saharan portion of the continent—and the Horn of Africa were of particular concern.
Fear of what terrorists might be doing in the Sahel’s traditionally “ungoverned spaces” compelled the U.S. to form partnerships and otherwise setting up shop in Africa in 2002. With American troops chasing Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, this largely went unnoticed despite official statements and press briefings.
Given the generally low profile of all counter-terror operations outside the two major war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s virtually guaranteed that any U.S. military actions in Africa will attract even less attention.
This is unlikely to change, as the U.S. military is trending away from major deployments and long-term presence after more than a decade of costly involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is particularly true because of the U.S. military’s “light footprint” in Africa. Relative to Europe, Asia and the Middle East, there are very few U.S. forces deployed or stationed in Africa.
America’s military activities in Africa tend to depend heavily upon Special Operations Forces and drones. This itself is a product of U.S. experiences in the 1990s … and also reflects the fact that any foreign intervention in Africa is inevitably viewed through a lens rightly tinted by the brutal effects of colonialism.
Even as Africa cast off its colonial masters, the Cold War froze political development in much of the continent along superpower lines. Cold War politics also meant that the last gasp of colonialism, the white-led minority regimes of Southern Africa, endured until the 1990s.
It’s no surprise then that African governments may share America’s interests and still be reluctant to actively cooperate.
As a result, most of these governments prefer to downplay reporting about any collaboration—and Washington is inclined to acquiesce. These quiet military activities build both diplomatic trust and important military relationships. This muted reporting, however, is largely mistaken for active secrecy.
You hear regularly about “secret” operations in Africa. While some military operations in Africa, particularly in and around Somalia, are indeed secret, the vast majority of activities aren’t actually covert. Just misunderstood … if not wholly overlooked.
The U.S. military has largely operated with polite permissions and quiet consent in Africa, just underneath the 24-hour news cycle. Knowing this requires first knowing what questions to ask. That’s hard, since many of the activities in Africa are not widely understood outside military circles.
Drone strikes, commando raids and dramatic operations such as the hunt for Joseph Kony—these are the easiest for the public to notice and understand. But the vast majority of U.S. military ops go unnoticed.
The result is an unfortunate cycle of information, or lack thereof, that then reinforces the secrecy narrative—and frames arguments from pundits like Bacevich and O’Hanlon.
But as major wars in the Middle East wind down, officials could be increasingly vocal about America’s African deployments in order to justify sustained budgets.
This, in turn, could attract better press coverage. We can hope that more and more stories about America’s African operations will make it above the fold—and help remind the public that the U.S. military has been active on the continent for centuries.
Army Lt. Col. Jason Nicholson’s views do not necessarily represent those of the Army or any other government agency. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.