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The Long War in Africa


A little more than a week ago two French journalists were kidnapped in Kidal, a town in northern Mali, driven into the desert and murdered. Today a prosecutor in Paris named the chief suspect: Baye Ag Bakabo, a drug trafficker and known member of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Close to a year after an offensive by French and African forces pushed Islamists who had taken over northern Mali back into the depths of the Sahara, the rebels are making a comeback. The attack on the French journalists was just one incident among many: Islamists have regrouped north of Timbuktu, drawing in French special forces, and a suicide attack last month killed two Chadian UN troops. Islamist militants, drug traffickers, smugglers, and separatist rebels are all active in northern Mali and lawless areas across the border in Algeria, Libya, Niger, and elsewhere. The lines between the groups are blurred: they sometimes cooperate on matters of mutual interest, other times they fight each other over territory and booty.

The comeback in Mali is one example of the difficult task that faces the international community as it battles various militant groups across Africa.

A few weeks ago, thousands of miles east and south of Kidal, American soldiers stormed into Barawe, a town on the coast of Somalia where Al Shabaab fighters were holed up. The raid was unsuccessful; the soldiers didn’t get their man. Another few thousand miles west, in Congo, American commandos are helping an international coalition of African troops hunt down Joseph Kony, the leader of the syncretic Lord’s Resistance Army. AQIM, Al Shabaab, and Joseph Kony have little in common but in their own way, each highlights a range of difficulties plaguing African and international governments. These groups operate in vast and ungoverned and undeveloped territories. Often they are local groups, with support from area civilians. Sometimes they have international terrorist agendas, as in the case of AQIM and Al Shabaab, other times they are waging a rebellion against a government and at the same time destabilizing neighboring countries, as in the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

From Congo to Libya, American and international troops are gearing up for a long fight. At Fort Riley, on the Kansas plains, hundreds of American soldiers prepare. Their destinations are not Afghanistan or Pakistan—instead, they’re going to Djibouti, Burundi, Niger, South Africa. Weak African governments with small and ineffective police and military forces can’t win the fight alone. This fight—dozens of small wars, more precisely—will be going on for some time to come.

[Muslim militant image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Rudy

    And exactly why are we fighting this war?

  • rheddles

    The wars can go on for as long as the Africans want. That doesn’t mean Americans have to participate. But when Americans do participate in response to an attack on Americans, we should do so with overwhelming force and without restrictive ROE such as those which led to the recent fiasco in Somalia.

    We need to let the world know that we aren’t interested in their squabbles. But if they choose to involve us by attacking us in the US, on the high seas or elsewhere as we peacefully practice commerce, they can expect a devastating response. And that devastation can never be limited to only the attackers, There is inevitably collateral damage in war. In the future minimizing it to the absolute minimum should take a backseat to administering devastation to those who have harmed us. Human shields and lawfare should be shown to be ineffective defences. That’s why it is a good idea not to attack Americans.

    • Andrew Allison

      Amen to that!

    • Pete

      You said it exactly right.
      No more paddy-cake wars.

  • lukelea

    Does anyone think this will ever end?

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