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 new, 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 found 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 (2014); Burundi (2015); Egypt (2013); Gambia (2014); Libya (2014); Mali (2012, 2020); and Mauritania (2008).
To hone back in on Mali, recall that Amadou Sanogo – orchestrator of the country’s earlier 2012 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 coup attempts."
Nevertheless, Washington has long subscribed to Democratic stalwart Rahm Emanuel’s favorite 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 from 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 admitted 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 they sow.
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 good graces.
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 various rebellions.
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 monolithic whole…
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 condemned 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, Relevance.
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