U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts Destabilizing African Nations

U.S. trained officers in Africa have attempted at least nine coups on the continent since 2008.

A photo collage shows U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Milton J. Sands III, center, flanked by Ivorian Special Forces Soldiers, Nigerian, and Ghanian Armed Forces soldiers during Flintlock 2023. Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept;Photos: U.S. Army

Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped a historic tour of Africa last week, where she positioned the U.S. as a reliable and trustworthy security and economic partner. This week on Intercepted, host Murtaza Hussain is joined by investigative reporter, Nick Turse, to discuss his latest reporting on U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Africa. Since the war on terror was launched, the U.S. government’s ventures in Africa have been more focused on military aid than economic support. Harris’s trip comes after a decade of China investing in infrastructure and critical resource mining throughout the continent and the administration’s concerns over the growing influence of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group. But America’s 20-plus years of counterterrorism support in the region hasn’t resulted in better security. In that time, terrorist groups have risen and U.S.-trained African officers have attempted at least nine coups, eight of which were successful. Hussain and Turse discuss the impact of U.S. military involvement and the influence of other foreign powers.

[Intercept theme music.]

Murtaza Hussein: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Murtaza Hussein.

Vice President Kamala Harris: I am incredibly honored to be with you here in Ghana. And to the people of this incredible continent, to the people of Ghana and to all the young leaders with us today—students, entrepreneurs, activists, advocates—it is my extraordinary honor to be with you.

Last week Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped a historic tour of Africa. Harris started off her three-nation visit in Ghana.

Vice President Kamala Harris: As President Joe Biden said at the U.S.-Africa Leader Summit last December. We’re all in on Africa. We are all in.

Harris’ visit comes after a decade of China heavily investing in infrastructure throughout the continent and in critical resource mining.

And her trip comes after another major foreign power, Russia, has also set its sights on growing its influence in Africa.

Vice President Kamala Harris: So then what does it mean that the United States of America is all in? It means that the United States is committed to strengthen our partnerships across the continent of Africa, partnerships with governments, the private sector, civil society, and all of you. Partnerships based on openness, inclusiveness, candor, shared interests and mutual benefits. And to be clear, America will be guided not by what we can do for our African partners, but what we can do with our African partners. [applause]

During her weeklong visit, which also included Tanzania and Zambia, Harris announced plans to boost economic investment and trade, as well as plans to open a plant to process minerals needed for electric vehicles.

In February, Jose W. Fernandez, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, echoed the U.S.’s push to position itself as an economic ally to African nations. At the Indaba Mining Conference in South Africa, he spoke about the U.S. being an economic partner to trust:

Jose W. Fernandez: The partners will evaluate how they plan to avoid worsening environmental degradation and social inequality and how they can involve local communities not only is this the right thing to do but we also believe that this will result in stronger investment returns and this is why we must lead a race to the top.

The U.S. interest in Africa is not new, but recently, it has been more focused on military aid and training rather than economic investment. Over the last twenty plus years of the war on terror, the U.S. military footprint on the continent has grown tremendously — and it has had devastating consequences that are little understood or acknowledged.

JoyNews: [sounds of gunshots] The U.S Special Operations Command Africa conducted Flintlock 2023 from March 1 to 15 in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire in a digital press conference on the purpose of Flintlock, commander of the U.S Special Operations Command Africa Rare Admiral Jimmy Sands said the U.S is focused on the threat of AlQaeda’s continued expansion through the Sahel.

Flintlock is an annual training sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, or SOCAFRICA. Since 2005, the program has provided tactical training to “exchange best practices,” according to Rear Admiral Milton “Jamie” Sands.

But a recent Pentagon report has found that, “The Sahel [which includes 11 African countries that sit between the Sahara Desert and the tropical south] now accounts for 40 percent of all violent activity by militant Islamist groups in Africa, more than any other region in Africa.”

Our guest today recently asked Admiral Sands about the Flintlock trainings and how they’ve undermined the very mission of the program.

Moderator:  Our next question, we’ll go live to Nick Turse of The Intercept.

Nick Turse: Admiral Sands, thanks for taking questions today.  Last year you told me that SOCAFRICA training always focuses on the importance of democracy and civilian oversight, but former Flintlock attendees have conducted at least five coups since 2015.  Did you take any specific steps to ensure that Flintlock 2023 attendees don’t do the same? And if so, what were these?

Rear Admiral Milton “Jamie” Sands: Yes, Nick —Again, thanks for the question and hello. This is a concern, and really during any — and a consideration with any partner in any training or engagement.  Flintlock, as I’ve said, really focuses on respecting the rule of law, respecting and learning the law of armed conflict, and on civil control over the military.  As we work with our partners, we emphasize the importance of our shared values.  This really has been consistent and we continue to focus on this and really increase our focus on this.

Specifically as you asked, Nick, what – what have we done now, how is it different this year, I would say that while we always focus on the rule of law, we’ve really developed a much more thorough plan and integration for effects on that.  So we’re looking not just at our coordination with our partners on rule of law but also our coordination with our partners on integration with the police forces, on integration with a whole-of-government approach to tackling some of these challenges.

But I think that we remain, obviously, concerned.  We remain focused and committed to partners with shared values to the United States and our allies.

I’m now joined by Nick Turse, contributing writer for The Intercept, reporting on national security and foreign policy, and no better person to speak with about the impact of the U.S.’s military presence in Africa.

Nick, thanks for being here.

Nick Turse: Thanks so much, it’s great to be here.

MH: So, Nick, you’ve been covering US military operations in Africa for many, many years, and one of the few reporters to do it on such a consistent basis. It’s a region of the world where there’s relatively less coverage, and many people don’t know what the extent or scope of the US military presence in the region is. Can you talk a bit, very broadly, about what AFRICOM is in the context of the US military. And what it does in Africa?

NT: Sure. AFRICOM—or US Africa Command—is the umbrella, US military command, they call it a geographic combatant command that’s responsible for the entirety of Africa, except for Egypt, which is in the domain of CENTCOM, And AFRICOM was established in late 2007, became operational in 2008. And, in that time that it’s been in Operation, AFRICOM has built an archipelago of military bases across the northern tier of Africa, stretching from the east to the west, and they run military operations all across the continent. We’re talking everything from run-of-the-mill training missions to direct action, special operations missions; that’s commando raids, drone strikes, and the like.

MH: Do we have a sense of which countries the US has a military presence in Africa under the aegis of AFRICOM, and what countries they’re carrying out the operations that you alluded to just now?

NT: AFRICOM has a presence — what they call a “footprint” or “base posture.” So, an actual physical base in about 15 countries across Africa. The countries with the largest US presence at the moment would be Djibouti, where the US has its one lone acknowledged military base, which is Camp Lemonier. They have a series of outposts in Somalia. These were shut down, for the most part, at the end of the Trump administration; they’re being built up under the Biden administration right now. And then, in Niger, in West Africa, the US has a robust presence with several military bases and a CIA outpost as well.

MH: So, you’ve reported quite extensively about specific operations and strikes and attacks and so forth, and the aftermath of them, and corruption and other illicit activities in and around this military footprint as you described it. I think a lot of people don’t actually understand what the mission is of AFRICOM in the region. Like, who are they fighting? Who are they, ostensibly, that they fight? You said 15 different countries, too, and what unifying threat justifies being there for 15 different countries? Or what is the war that AFRICOM currently is there to fight, and who is on the other end, ostensibly, of these strikes and raids and so forth?

NT: Yes, this is— I mean, I think, in many respects, you can think about Africa as ground zero of the now nameless US War on Terror. You know, the Pentagon talks a good game about moving on to a near-peer conflict; you know, great power competition. But, in Africa, the War on Terror goes on unabated. This is really, it’s been going on now for more than 20 years. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US was casting around for places to fight the War on Terror. They looked around the world and they happened upon the idea of ungoverned spaces or under-governed spaces. Places that they saw as blank spaces on the map where terrorism might flourish.

Now, if you look at US military literature from around the time of 9/11—2000, 2001, 2002—you find that the Pentagon wasn’t able to actually name one transnational terror group in Sub-Saharan Africa. But, nonetheless, they started pumping counterterrorism funds into what they considered to be potential hotspots in Africa. So, Somalia, and also in the west, in the Sahel region of West Africa. And, in the time since, there’s been a great flourishing of terrorist groups, militant groups on the continent.

Again, at the time of 9/11, they weren’t able to identify any. Now, they identify about 50 different terrorist groups or militant groups operating on the continent. In East Africa the primary enemy that the United States is fighting would be Al-Shabaab in Somalia and a small ISIS affiliate there. And, in the west of Africa, in the Sahel region—specifically Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali—the US has targeted ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates in that region.

MH: I wanted to break down and ask you about some specific countries you’ve done extensive reporting on the consequences of US military actions; in particular, Niger, where you’ve done some really important reporting recently. Obviously the US government’s there ostensibly under the framework of the War on Terror to help the Niger government fight Islamic extremist groups in the country. What has the impact been of that war, and do you know anything about the local dynamics, which have led it to be yoked into the War on Terror?

NT: In West Africa—specifically the Sahelian region, where the countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali meet, the Tri-Border Region—there’s been a tremendous uptick in terrorist activity, especially over the last decade. But, over the last 20 years, the United States has focused on this area, and pumped more than $500 million in counter-terrorism funds, security assistance, into Niger, specifically. And Niger now hosts the largest and most expensive drone base run by the US military in Africa. In the city of Agadez, it was built at a price tag of more than $110 million, and it’s maintained to the tune of about 22, $30 million each year. It’s a surveillance hub and a linchpin of US security architecture in the region.

You know, the United States has had a difficult time with its allies in the region. There’ve been a couple coups in neighboring Burkina Faso, which has caused the United States to dial back some of its security assistance there. The government in Mali also succumbed to a coup, and since then has distanced itself from the west and embraced the Wagner group and Russian security assistance.

So, Niger has become ever more important to the United States as the primary place where it can fight terror in the region. But, you know, if you look at the metrics, they’ve all gone in the wrong direction. The United States began providing counter-terrorism assistance to Niger in 2002. At that time, there were only nine terrorist attacks in all of Africa, according to the State Department. Last year, the number of violent events in the Tri-Border Region—Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso—reached close to 2,800, according to the Pentagon’s own statistics.

So, this is a jump of more than 30,000% over the last 20 years. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, we’re looking at a tremendous uptick in terror attacks; also in fatalities, from over the same years that the United States has made this area a counter-terrorism focus.

MH: Well, it’s interesting, because what you’re describing very similarly tracks US military operations; the correlation between increase of terrorism and more military operations in the Middle East. Obviously, there was political destabilization triggered by many of those wars, and so forth. But, as you said, Africa or parts of Africa have become terrorism hotspots during the time that the US has been there operating ostensibly to fight terrorism for two decades now.

So, you know, kind of awkwardly, the US—also through AFRICOM, as I understand—provides military training to partner militaries in Africa. Or local governments who are allied with the US will send their officers to the US for training. And we see this in other parts of the world, too, in Egypt and Pakistan, and other places where the US wants to have close ties with governments, where the state is relatively weak, but the military is strong. They will cultivate military leaders or young officers who will go on to become leaders in their armies and have a relationship with them going forward.

Now, as you’ve reported, it’s a very, very interesting story in The Intercept. In Africa, many US trained leaders have gone on to take very important political roles in their country when they go back, including embarking on coups, at times, in their countries to depose leaders, civilian leaders, and put themselves in place.

Can you talk a bit about the coup history of US military trained officers in Africa and how it’s played out in recent years?

NT: Yes. This is something that’s come to the attention of Congress recently, because there’s finally been some questions asked. The United States last month just wrapped up its signature special operations counterterrorism exercise. It’s called Flintlock. And you know, this Flintlock operation has been going on now since 2005. Flintlock attendees have conducted at least five coups in the last eight years and, since 2008, US trained officers have attempted at least nine coups and succeeded in at least eight, across five West African countries: Burkina Faso three times, Guinea, Mali three times, Mauritania, and The Gambia.

So, in a perverse way, this might be the most successful of all US military engagement on the continent, because it’s the one area that you can point to where the US has shown real results. Not the results that the United States want to brag about, but they embraced officers who have been militarily successful in one way, and that’s in overthrowing their governments. And, in many cases, democratically elected governments.

MH: You mentioned earlier that part of the reason that the US was compelled to get involved in Africa—and militarily through AFRICOM—was the idea of weak states or ungoverned zones being a threat anywhere in the world where terrorist groups could potentially form and so forth. One thing that I’ve found in other parts of the world—and I’m curious in your take of reporting on the ground in Sub-Saharan Africa—is that a lot of times the US gets looped into local ethnic rivalries which maybe had no relation to transnational terrorism but get put into that framework, either while the US is there or because the US is there, as a means of galvanizing people against one another or against a foreign presence.

Can you talk a bit about the countries—I was thinking very much in Niger, for instance—what is the ethnic dynamic in the country, and how much is that pre-existing to the US presence there? And how has the US played in? Have they taken sides between ethnic groups and deemed it the war on terrorism?

Because I also get the impression that the US is not very sophisticated in its understanding of the dynamics of various parts in the world. And I’ll say this for Iraq and Afghanistan, where they didn’t really know the tribes, they didn’t know the religions or ethnic groups, but they kind of got involved. Is the same sort of naivete or indifference also manifesting in US military operations in Niger and other countries?

NT: Yeah, I think that’s very much the case. You see this across the Sahel, very much so in Niger, also in neighboring Burkina Faso. The ethnic group, the Fulani—they’re also known as the Peul—they’re seminomadic Muslim cattle herders and, across the region, they have long-standing grievances with their governments. There’s been government neglect of their communities, a lot of socioeconomic want in the community, and the communities have been stigmatized in many ways. Tagged as, as terrorists, the stigma has further marginalized them, encourage abuse by government troops, and also encouraged recruitment by terrorist groups preying upon these grievances.

And if you talk to US military personnel in the region, there doesn’t seem to be an understanding of this. But, again, as you said, in Iraq and Afghanistan there’s a great deal of naivete when it comes to an understanding of longstanding ethnic grievances. And, you know, the US has thrown its support behind the government in Niger, pumped a tremendous amount of money into quote-unquote “professionalizing” these security forces. But, if you talk to the Fulani or Peul community, they’ll tell you that security forces are often used as ethnic militia for ruling elites. And I don’t think the United States has ever understood this in any kind of real way, that their security assistance really fed terrorism throughout the region, and specifically in Niger.

There was recently a UN report that showed that the number one reason for people joining terror groups across Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and five other Sub-Saharan African nations, was due to socioeconomic marginalization, and also from government abuse, abuse by security forces. And, this is something that the United States doesn’t seem to have an appreciation for, or any kind of remedy for.

MH: Yeah, I was skeptical if the US invaded Iraq with the understanding of difference between Sunnis and Shias, or invaded Afghanistan without understanding the ethnic differences in the country. That they would devote or understand, in our Africa, would they devote less resources to understand even better the tribal differences and ethnic differences which may come into play. So, I’m not too surprised to hear that, unfortunately.

This brings me to the next question: in these conflicts, the US has been taking the side of states, so they take the side of the Nigerian government, or the Niger government, or the Somali government, and they are arrayed against these ethnic groups, which may sometimes be joining terrorist organizations, or pledging allegiance to them sometimes in defense against the government, or what they see as government abuses. In the context of these wars, which the US public has not paid very close attention to, are there particular abuses or instances of civilian casualties which you’ve reported on, which you think are quite egregious but have not risen to public attention?

NT: Yes, most definitely. And I should make some distinction here as well, that the US military, the Pentagon, doesn’t seem to have a very good appreciation of this. AFRICOM itself never seems to understand these dynamics. But, if you read the state department’s most recent analysis of human rights in Niger, it was released just last month, it catalogs a tremendous number of abuses, including credible reports of arbitrary and unlawful killings by the government. It says very explicitly that the armed forces are accused of executing persons who are suspected of fighting with militants, with terrorist groups, and it catalogs also torture, arbitrary detention, unjustified arrests, life-threatening prison conditions, and also rampant impunity among the security forces.

Now, this hasn’t dissuaded the State Department from also throwing its full-fledged support behind the government in Niger, but there is an appreciation of this, that these abuses are going on, the US just hasn’t acted on it. One of the most egregious that I discovered in my reporting was— It was something that was actually brought to light by Niger’s own national Commission on Human Rights. They investigated allegations that in 2020 during just a one-week long military operation, 102 civilians had disappeared from one of the areas that Niger security forces were operating in during a counterterrorism operation. And they did an on-the-ground investigation, which is very odd for Niger; there aren’t a lot of fact-finding missions that go on in these areas that they call, Zone Rouge, or Red Zones, terrorist hotbeds. And this National Commission found 71 bodies in six mass graves. Human Rights Watch went in afterward, they discovered an additional six mass graves with 34 bodies. And this was just in the space of one week that these killings were carried out.

So, you know, it shows the type of operations that are going on. And, again, this was just one circumscribed area, but these operations are going on on a regular basis in the east of the country, and also in the far west of the country, and I wouldn’t be surprised that if more investigations were carried out, that you would find more evidence of killings of this nature, because it’s certainly the type of thing that I heard about from witnesses and survivors in these areas.

MH: One particular country I want to ask you about, which I think that there’s some greater degree of US public attention to among other Sub-Saharan African countries or countries in the Horn of Africa, is Somalia. So, presently, the US is engaged in an armed conflict in support of the Somali government against Al-Shabaab. You mentioned earlier that under the Trump administration that presence was wound down, but now it’s being ramped up a bit. Can you talk a bit about what the US government is doing in Somalia, or what the goal of this mission is, to support the government, and what the contours of it are today?

NT: Sure, and this is one of the longest standing US conflicts in the world; one of the longest standing in Africa, it’s been going on for the better part of 20 years now. The United States has a robust presence in Somalia, several US bases where the United States operates drones, some of them armed. They conduct airstrikes in the country in support of the Somali government, and that government is in the midst of a major counterinsurgency campaign right now primarily against Al-Shabaab, the preeminent terror group there.

The United States does a lot of training. It’s built forces in the country, some of which the United States uses as proxies; one is Danab, or “Lightning Brigade.” There’s also a force called the Puntland Security Force that was built by the CIA and then transferred to military control as surrogates for the United States, under a program called or authority known in US code as 127e, or 127 Echo. This authority allows the United States to hand-select an indigenous force, arm it, train it, advise it, and send it out in the field to conduct missions for US policy aims, which may or may not align with that of the host government. It’s a very shadowy program.

The operations are classified, but the United States has used it to an astonishing extent in Somalia.

MH: So, you described a very expansive network of bases and military operations spanning many different countries across a huge territorial space in Africa. Do we know anything about the budget expenditures on AFRICOM’s presence in these countries? And how can we ballpark the figures in terms of how much US taxpayer money is being to pursue these various different conflicts in the continent?

NT: It’s a very good question and one that’s very difficult to answer. To take the example—we’re just talking about Somalia—there is actually no good budgetary information on the full extent of US expenditures in Somalia over the last 20 years. Only about six years of the last 20 has the United States had a detailed counterterrorism budget for Somalia that you could parse and figure out exactly how much is being provided. These are closely held secrets. Just to take Niger as an example: since 2012, US taxpayers have shelled out about $500 million for security assistance there. In neighboring Burkina Faso, close to $1 billion over the last 20 years. And that gives you an idea of the type of money that we’re talking about.

But, you know, a full accounting doesn’t exist, and it’s just a black box when it comes to the Pentagon’s budget.

MH: So, this brings me to another issue, which has been in the news quite a bit recently, which is the presence of another power in Africa, which is Russia. The New York Times had a story about Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group being stationed in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the Central African Republic. And doing something a little bit similar to what you’re describing in AFRICOM’s presence in partnering with local governments to fight their defined enemies, with the difference being that they’re specifically doing it for cash payment, and acting effectively as mercenaries for the government in a much more straightforward way than the US military is.

What can we say about the involvement of foreign governments—other than the US—in the region? And thinking of Russia and Wagner Group, but also France and other countries which have a colonial presence, and seek to maintain that today?

NT: Yeah, especially in West Africa, the French have had—as you said there, with the colonial power in the region—they’ve had a major military presence. And I think it’s, in great extent, the failures of the French and the US counter-terrorism efforts over 20 years have really opened the door to Wagner and Russian influence in the region. You know, after all this time, after all this money spent, the metrics have gone so far in the other direction that governments and peoples of these nations have become fed up. They’ve cast around for someone, another partner, and Wagner has been there.

You know, I wouldn’t classify Wagner as a positive influence in the region. They have been implicated in a great deal of, abuses, atrocities. This is something that you hear US officials talk about quite a bit recently. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Where Wagner has been present, bad things have inevitably followed,” and he made the case for the United States being the solution of this, and said that the United States had to show that it could deliver results.

But, as we’ve been saying, the US already has a two-decade record of counterterrorism engagement in the region, and you could say that exactly what Blinken did, that bad things and overall worsening security have been the hallmarks of those years. You know, there’s a reason why Wagner’s been invited in, and I think, to a great extent, it’s been US, and also French failures.

MH: You know, you’ve kind of been a roving reporter in Africa for quite some time now, and you’ve been covering these US military operations, or the context around the operations, to degree which very few other US reporters have done in the past two decades. Do you see a disconnect in terms of the extent of US military involvement in Africa, and the level of awareness or discussion of it back in the United States?

NT: Most definitely. I mean, it’s always been very difficult to get Americans to show any interest in the US military operations and activity in Africa. I think, you know, this has allowed the United States to operate with a great deal of impunity on the continent. There’s very little oversight, accountability, because the American public just isn’t engaged. And, you know, I think most Americans have a difficult time finding any of these countries on a map, let alone trying to figure out what might be going on there. They don’t pay attention to the news coming out of Africa.

And perhaps the only time that this is really been on the radar for most Americans was in 2017; this was also an operation in Niger. There was an ambush of US troops near the village of Tongo Tongo. Four US service members were killed, two others injured. And, following that, you had a number of key US senators even saying that they had no idea that US troops were operating there. These included members of the Senate Armed Services, the people in America who should most know what the United States is doing in Africa.

So, I think when there’s that level, or the lack of awareness of this among people who are supposedly overseeing it, you know, it’s not a surprise that most Americans don’t know about it, but I think it’s been to the detriment of America, and, most certainly, Africans in these nation.

MH: You know, actually one thing I also want to ask you too, it’s very interesting— At the start of our conversation, you mentioned that AFRICOM encompasses all of Africa except for Egypt. Can you talk a bit about The AFRICOM operations in North Africa outside of Egypt? Obviously, there are governments there—Tunisia, Algeria, Libya—which, you know, culturally and politically, they have differences from Sub-Saharan Africa. What is the nature of the AFRICOM presence in those countries, and what type of conflicts are they involved in there?

NT: Yeah. You know, the United States has had heavy engagement in North Africa for a long time. Tunisia has actually been a real hotspot for the program that I mentioned earlier, the Authority 127 Echo. For years, the United States had commandos on the ground operating with Tunisian counterparts in what can only be described as combat, ground combat, against Al-Qaeda affiliates in that region. And, you know, this was also in 2017, the United States was engaged in a firefight on the ground in the Kasserine Mountains in Tunisia. AFRICOM still won’t admit that that’s where this operation took place; the only thing you can get them to say is that it was in North Africa, but it was very much in Tunisia. And it’s indicative of the type of operations the United States has been able to conduct in secret, because there hasn’t been a great deal of oversight.

The United States is heavily involved in fighting in Libya for years, starting with the Civil War to oust Muammar Gaddafi back in 2011. The United States spearhead the NATO bombing efforts in the country and, in the years after that, had a robust presence of commandos on the ground for many years. Then US forces were pulled out for a few years in the late 2010s, but, I understand there’s now a US presence on the ground and a base in Libya again. At one time there was something like four or five; there’s at least one right now and, I think, a growing US special operations presence in the country.

During the Obama administration the United States also conducted a tremendous number of airstrikes, hundreds of airstrikes against an ISIS affiliate who was operating in Libya; this was one of the primary spots of US drone war in Africa. That’s wound down in recent years, but there’s still a great deal of US surveillance flights over the region, ISR intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance. So, North Africa is still a major source of concern and engagement for Africa.

MH: Nick, can you talk a bit about other great power involvement in Africa, particularly with regards to China? China obviously has been looking to Africa for a source of resources, they’ve been investing in infrastructure in various African countries, and the US has—rhetorically, at least—evinced the desire to confront China’s presence in various parts of the world, including in Africa in recent years. Can you talk a bit about what China’s doing there that we know, and then how we’ve seen the US respond to it?

NT: Sure. I think you’ve seen, when you compare and contrast US engagement in Africa with China’s, you can’t travel anywhere in Africa without seeing Chinese presence, but the Chinese have gone very much the soft-power approach. And they’ve pursued economic engagement, economic partnerships. You know, oftentimes, it seems to be to the detriment of countries, but one thing that you can’t argue with is that the Chinese have a bold, robust presence.

You see large projects—airports, major road infrastructure projects, that type of thing—and, you know, the United States, its engagement on the continent very much seems to be this counter-terrorism whack-a-mole. One example that’s always struck me was that the United States has a forum of economic engagement called the Millennium Challenge Corporation, where it attempts to compete with China in infrastructure building projects.

A few years ago in Mali, the United States gave the Malian government a major grant for an infrastructure project, for building a stadium, but there were no US corporations that were interested in actually fulfilling this contract, so it eventually went to a state-run Chinese firm. So this was American taxpayer dollars but, on the ground, people who saw the stadium being built saw that it was a Chinese company, Chinese workers, it looks like a Chinese project. And I think this is one of the ways that the United States has been beaten by China on the continent, even when the United States has found inroads, the Chinese have been able to use it for their advantage.

MH: And, you know, in Niger and other countries, obviously there are quite rich deposits of certain resources, like uranium and so forth as well too. Have we seen any economic competition between foreign powers over access to these resources? And, I’m very curious, actually, related to that, the interest of colonial former colonial powers like France in the region. Like, why do they want to maintain a footprint? And why, besides terrorism, might the US be interested in the region and having some presence there?

NT: You mention uranium in Niger. Now, this is exceptionally important to France. You know, the French nuclear power industry relies on uranium from Niger. Obviously France has a vested interest, and it’s one of the reasons why they’ve had such a continued robust presence in the Sahel, in Niger, specifically. You know, the United States, there are some US firms with economic interests there, but US companies have been interested. Generally, they’ve lost out, and haven’t been the beneficiaries of this, so, in many respects, the US investment in Niger, if it ever pans out, it might be very good for France. But, for US firms, I don’t think that there’s a real economic advantage to it, even if it did work, which it hasn’t over the last 20 years.

MH: The US has taken a position of winding down the war on terror around much of the Middle East in the last couple years, and pivoting towards Asia or other parts of the world where they feel that there are more pressing geopolitical concerns. So, we’ve seen less active involvement in the Middle East, and talks of drawing down from residual bases and so forth, but in Africa it seems like the story is quite different. How do you see the trajectory of the US military in Africa going? And can we expect broader and more deployments and activities in the future?

NT: Yeah, I think, very much so. And as I said earlier, I think the War on Terror has really gone on unabated in Africa. We’ve heard pledges from the White House, the Biden administration, of ending forever wars. But, you know, Africa seems to have been left out of this. While I think there’s been an uptick of US commandos sent to other theaters in addition to the Middle East, Europe, and the Pacific, AFRICOM still gets a large percentage of the  amount of special operations forces sent around the world. And there seems to be a renewed emphasis on North Africa, West Africa, and also the Somali Theater, that the Biden administration has increased troop numbers in each of these areas.

So, I think you’re going to see the US War continue there, and very possibly at an uptick.

MH: Nick Turse, thanks for joining us on Intercepted.

NT: Thanks so much for having me.

MH: That was Nick Turse, a contributing writer for The Intercept, reporting on national security and foreign policy. His most recent story for The Intercept is titled: “AFRICOM Chief to Congress: We Share “Core Values” With Coup Leaders.”

And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted.

Intercepted is a production of The Intercept.

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Until next time, I’m Murtaza Hussein.



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