Old wounds, deep scars: US intervention in Africa

Recent US special forces raids in Libya and Somalia are the latest examples in a long history of intervention in Africa.

"Soldiers of the al-Shabab militia beat back a US helicopter and an amphibian attack on a safe house reportedly containing one of their leaders, Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir," writes LeVine [AP]

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter which arch-terrorist was taken out and which one got away. The War on/of Terror will continue, especially in Africa, as it stands, US special operations forces managed to capture Abu-Anas al-Libi (real name: Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai), the alleged mastermind behind the deadly 1998 US Embassy attack in Kenya and Tanzania, without firing a shot.

In Somalia things apparently didn’t go nearly as well. Soldiers of the al-Shabab militia beat back a US helicopter and an amphibian attack on a safe house reportedly containing one of their leaders, Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, A Kenyan of Somali heritage who is believed to have plotted attacks on the Kenyan Parliament and local UN headquarters in Nairobi. It also is considered the last known address for Ahmed Abdi Godane, purported leader of the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall last month.

Had they captured Abdulkadir and missed al-Libi, would Americans be any safer? Would Africans?

A History of Engagement

Some of the earliest foreign military engagements in US history took place in Africa, and particularly in present-day Libya, beginning with the Barbary Wars of 1801-1815. The Continent was not a major theatre of engagement until World War Two and then the Cold War, during which the US record supporting corrupt and brutal dictators, military coups and governments, and insurgencies reflected the Sub-Saharan Africa’s strategic importance as an East-West battleground that determined alliances and policies.

Libya housed a major US Air Force base until 1970, although its relations with the West deteriorated famously under Ghaddafi’s forty-year rule until the rapprochement of the second half of the last decade. US strategic cooperation with Somalia grew towards the end of that decade, as the country’s still Marxist government turned Westward after its Soviet patron chose to support Ethiopia during the 1977-78 Somali-Ethiopian war. With the Cold War, however, the US lost interest in the Somali government and without American support and patronage, the dictatorial rule of Siad Barre collapsed, and with it the Somali state.

The resulting chaos led to one of the first post-Cold War UN interventions and attempts at nation-building, which the US under President Bush and then Clinton supported under the guise of three missions: UNISOM I, UNITAF and UNISOM II from 1992-95. The ultimate failure of the missions was highlighted by the infamous Battle of Mogadishu and the “Black Hawk Down” incident in early October 1993, in which 18 US soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed. Somalia has essentially existed without a stable state for the last generation. As is well-known, such conditions are extremely conducive to the formation and spread of so-called radical religious and/or political groups.

Without discounting the role of extremist religious discourses in the spread of al-Qa’eda affiliated movements across Africa, it needs to be recalled here that all ideologically-grounded insurgencies, whether Maoist or Islamist, spread and take root as a result of economic conditions characterised not merely or even always by endemic poverty, but by a (usually rapid) rise in disparities in wealth, income and political power within societies that includes the immiseration of groups that previously enjoyed greater levels of basic human security.

In Somalia, as in most of the developing world, the primary culprit has been decades of structural adjustment that fundamentally transformed—in fact, devastated—the largely pastoral economy as well as the agricultural sector. This occurred on top of decades of single-party pseudo Marxist rule characterised by official corruption and state-(mis)managed enterprises. Adding even more fuel to the fire was over a decade of unconditional US military aid, which provided much of the arms used by warring factions once the state began to crumble beginning in the late 1980s.

Despite suffering a similar history of colonisation and foreign intervention, Libya is unmistakably blessed economically compared with Somalia. With two thirds the population it has nearly sixty times the GDP thanks to its enormous petroleum reserves. And yet Libya was as deeply affected by the neoliberal transformations occurring across North and Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the post-Cold War era, as Somalia.

Little data exists to determine if inequality and poverty increased during Ghaddafi’s rule, including during the final phase when under the guidance of his second son and putative heir, Saif al-Islam, Libya began a fitful implementation of neoliberal reforms. What is clear, however, is that Ghaddafi’s long-term support for insurgencies and other autocratic regimes across Africa (which extended to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Darfur), as well as the country’s location as a primary transit point for migrants heading to Europe, and the broad attempts to privatise much of the economy undertaken by Saif, contributed to instability across the Sahel and neighbouring Sub-Saharan regions.

At the same time, the violent opposition to his rule, in which Abu-Anas al-Libi long played an important role, owes its origin to the US-sponsored Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation and the thousands of Arab fighters who returned to countries like Libya after the Soviet withdrawal and used their skills and training (much of it provided or funded by the CIA) to wage war on their own governments.

There are no shortage of local, region, and international villains when it comes to the violence that continues to eat away at so many African countries. Indeed, that has been the case for the last half millennium; it is precisely the synergy between actors at all levels of the process of violence and exploitation that has made the Africa’s wounds so deep and difficult to heal.

In this regard, it matters little whether the US involvement in and ultimately leadership of the three United Nation missions in Somalia, or most recently, in the NATO support for the overthrow of Ghaddafi, are considered examples of altruistic if seemingly ultimately misguided humanitarian interventionism, or whether they were undertaken in pursuance of, what else, access to Somalia’s and far more so Libya’s oil reserves. What matters is the fact that the very structure of Africa’s long-term and ongoing incorporation into world economic and political systems dominated by outside powers has meant that even the most well-meaning foreign attempts to “help” the people’s of the Continent are subverted by greed, corruption, violence and imperial agendas.

This is the context for the changing US engagement with Africa in the wake of the Cold War’s winding down. US interests began shifting towards greater direct economic engagement in the 1990s, just as African countries from Algeria to the Congo, Rwanda and Somalia were descending into various intensities of civil war and even genocide. But by the turn of the millennium the region was entering a period of sustained growth and is today one of the fastest growing regions on earth, much but not all of it fuelled by the rapid development of the petroleum sectors in northern-equatorial belt of countries stretching across West, Central and East Africa.

Africom Surges

Predating China’s more recent and well-publicised focus on Africa by several years, in 2000 the US Congress passed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which offered trade and other preferences to countries of the region. Despite this, most trade with the Sub-Saharan countries is concentrated on oil and minerals from Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, in contrast to China’s increasing focus on building local infrastructure.

The region’s ongoing role as a major oil supplier is augmented by its strategic location in the middle of much of the world’s transport and trade routes. only strengthen its strategic importance, which has been heightened by the shift of the centre of gravity of the War on Terror to Africa from West and Central Asia.

Into this mix Africom, the US military command for Africa, was inserted in 2007, when it was created out of three existing commands. Africom, which is responsible for US military operations in most every country on the Continent save Egypt, has received a lot of attention by critics of US foreign policy in the developing world. Al-Jazeera has done several reports detailing Africom’s scope and the dilemmas it poses to local governments.

The public face of Africom is pure benevolence. Pleasant pictures of smiling white American soldiers walking past happy Africans in colourful dress, and US military personnel involved in training Nigerians for disaster preparedness, and observing Ugandan health care workers perform an educational skit, all in the service of its mission to “deter[] and defeat[] transnational threats in order to advance US national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”

The problem is that whatever the desire to engage Sub-Saharan countries outside the scope of the larger US security and geostrategic perspective, under President Obama the approach in practice has, to the dismay of many African commentators, been one of greater “securitisation” of the US footprint, as indicated not merely by the rapid rise of Africom but outside the military arena by the number of high level Administration figures—such as National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Michael Froman, who served as Africa advisors in various capacities.

Old Wounds, Deep Scars

Travelling across Sub-Saharan Africa it becomes a truism—but nonetheless in good measure true—that the areas where the region’s much-celebrated recent growthis most evident are precisely where people are able to create local markets largely outside the control of corrupt government and private elites. But the large-scale and still expanding militarisation and securitisation of US policy makes the development of such truly free-market mechanisms that much more difficult to realise, precisely because the strengthening of capacities of militaries and security/intelligence sectors invariably strengthens the power of elites and states vis-a-vis ordinary citizens, exacerbates economic conflicts and inequalities, and strengthens the position of those groups that are violently reacting to this process.

In that sense, the networks that are linking al-Shabab in Somalia to jihadis in Libya or the surrounding countries are ultimately derived from, parallel to and intersecting with the “official” inter- and transnational economic, political and strategic networks sponsored by the US and, increasingly, China. Both sets of networks are incredibly deep—returning not just to the Cold War or even colonial era, but ultimately to the dawn of the modern world system, when capitalism, imperialism, slavery and genocide came together in Africa and then the Americas to produce the roots of the modern world system whose terrible consequences Africans are still living with, despite the admirable strides much of the region has made in recent years.

To read President Obama’s 2012 US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa, with its declared focus on “strengthening democratic institutions,” “spurring economic growth,” and “advancing peace and security” while looking at a map showing multiple US military engagementsin seemingly most every country of the Continent is to see the utter disconnect between affirmations to “support those who seek peace” and the business-as-usualness of support for and encouragement of violence, corruption and lack of democracy—policies which have always defined the US position in Africa, like those of other powers before it.

It’s to miss the fact that in the AQIMs and LIFGs and al-Shabab groups that are in the sights of US and local governments (and with good reason considering their nihilistic destructive propensities) that torment much of Africa are not aberrations but rather the natural products and normal cost of doing business in an environment that for five hundred years has divided, conquered and killed people as the more profitable and efficient alternative to uniting them to any common purpose.


The system will produce more Abu-Anas al-Libis and Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadirs as certain as American drug laws produce a constant supply of drug dealers who then support both sides of the system—the corruption that is its foundation and the supposed pursuit of “justice” which justifies it. The Delta and Seal teams and other special ops force who are the spear points of the American military wiill continue to hunt their dangerous prey, even as their leaders break bread with “friends” who are equally as scurilous as the pirates and terrorists (and, depending on the circumstances, are the same people). And most Sub-Saharan Africans will continue carving out whatever small zones of political and economic freedom remain open to them outside the circles of violence and counter-violence and leading the Continent’s renaissance, hoping they don’t become collateral damage in wars which, regardless of the rhetoric deployed by various parties to these ongoing conflicts, have brought nothing but pain and suffering to Africa as a whole.


Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world,  The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. 

Follow him on Twitter:  @culturejamming