Today, President Obama opened the first ever summit between Africa and the U.S., to discuss, among other things, strategic responses to the rise of extremist violence in Africa—a crisis whose arc runs across the continent from East to West where Christian and Islamic faiths meet. As Africa’s God Wars worsen, the pressure on the U.S. to play a more hands-on role has increased. The FT reports:
“We are concerned about efforts by terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Africa,” says Ben Rhodes, US deputy national security adviser. “International terrorist networks sometimes seek to take advantage of ungoverned spaces [in Africa] so that they can get a safe haven.”Once isolated, locally formed militias with a medley of grievances have in recent years morphed into jihadi insurgencies along the faultlines where Muslim and Christian traditions meet, from Somalia in the Horn of Africa across the Sahel to west Africa. These pose an increasingly pronounced and connected threat to regional stability and the economic resurgence of pivotal states such as Kenya and Nigeria.
This may be the first joint U.S.-Africa summit, but America already has an active role in the world’s second most populous continent. A combination of U.S. drone missions, special operations, arms and funding programs, joint operations with the UN, and military training programs are in place throughout Africa, in a major if incoherent attempt to stem the tide of violence in the region. But as the FT notes, there is a growing consensus that the U.S.-supported overthrow of Qaddafi had widespread and dangerous repercussions:
In the view of security officials across the region, one of the biggest recent boosts to the extremist cause came in 2011 when Muammer Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya by a US-backed rebellion. Apart from in Libya itself, the blowback has been felt keenly south of the Sahara, with parts of Gaddafi’s arsenal ending up in the hands of jihadi groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram.Jeremy Keenan, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and author of several books on the US response to African terrorism, says Libya was a defining moment. “From having exaggerated a problem, suddenly the US got a serious problem with terrorism in Africa,” he says.
U.S. involvement in Africa is deepening and will likely continue to do so. But we are still groping for a strategy, and things have gotten significantly worse on Obama’s watch. Yet most Americans have no idea how deeply the U.S. is becoming engaged with a number of African countries. The politics of this could be interesting as we come up to 2016.