Is knowing that the U.S. military is fighting a war in Africa, unknown to most Americans, enough to make you uncomfortable, grateful or perplexed?
Kathy fell into the latter camp after hearing Nick Turse speak at the University of Washington graduate school on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Turse is an investigative journalist who has written or contributed to seven books. He is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com, a contributing writer at The Intercept and the co-founder of Dispatch Books. He has a Ph.D in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University.
He told the filled Kane Hall auditorium about the 36 operations directed by AFRICOM, which runs the U.S. military in that part of the world. More operations there than anywhere else in the world, he said. More troops in the Mideast, but more operations going on in Africa.
He told us much more, but Kathy came away from the talk unsatisfied. What’s it all mean? How am I supposed to take the information he gave us? A good thing for America, keeping Russia, China and fundamental Islamic terrorists from taking over there? Or the beginning of another endless war with little in it for the United States except for loss of treasure and lives?
In the editing world, we used to call that putting the bow on the story, wrapping it up with facts and what they might lead to. Or, another editor might say, give the readers the facts and let them decide what they think it means.
Here are some of the facts Turse gave us: Mostly AFRICOM will say they are there for humanitarian reasons and are training troops for some nations. However, the battle that brought Americans’ attention to Africa was a counterinsurgency operation in Niger in October 2017. Four U.S. soldiers were killed when Islamic militants attacked their convoy. The Islamic State (ISIS) leader who instigated the Niger attack, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, is still at large despite a $5 million reward.
Turse said that there are many more military missions than humanitarian ones. Several are against the Boko Haram, a terrorist group that wants to establish an Islamic state that will practice Sharia law. Some support French troops in Africa. One is a Naval surveillance operation to support drone strikes.
Another reason for African missions is to set up other places to launch drones, including an air base in Niger. So far in 2019, Turse reported, there have been 55 drone strikes in Somalia alone, mostly against al-Shabaab, a jihadist group aligned with al Qaeda and possibly Boko Haram. AFRICOM’s claims of few civilian deaths “fly in the face” of human-rights organizations, local reports and foreign journalists, says Turse.
Most of these operations are carried out by U.S. Special Forces, Navy SEALs and other commandos. And that, says Turse, should be no surprise, according to retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who served as commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) from April 2015 to June 2017. Bolduc, who is running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, says the U.S. military has operations in more than 30 African countries.
Turse says the number of active militant Islamic terrorist groups has doubled in Africa since 2010 and violent events across the continent have gone from just under 300 a decade ago to more than 2,000 now. But the U.S. operations and the reaction to them might not be the cause — or the only cause — of the increase in violence. In countries where more than half the population is under 30, the big question is: Will there be jobs for these young people, especially men? If no jobs, more instability, more attraction to radical groups. Turse cites “back channel” communications between AFRICOM and Congress mentioning climate change, which could lead to “resource wars” over water, food and other materials.
During the time left for audience questions, one man brought up another reason for the increase in violence and terrorist groups in Africa: ISIS and other terrorists are being driven out of the Mideast and heading to Africa. Turse cited one example of that with the “Libyan debacle.” It looked like an easy win for the U.S., but after Muammar Gaddafi was killed, his arms and supporters spread out across Africa.
Is this anything the United States wants to stick around for, or should Trump “bring our troops home,” as he likes to say?
The troops going home are “only those who have homes in western Iraq,” says Turse. Actually many of those troops Trump sent home from Syria will stay in Syria. The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, announced Oct. 25, 2019, that troops — and mechanized equipment — would stay to secure the oil in Syria. And other troops were being assigned to Saudi Arabia at the same time Trump was announcing the withdrawal of troops from Syria.
The Pentagon may be “slow rolling” Trump on reducing forces overseas, as if they don’t want to do that. Maybe they don’t like abandoning allies like the Kurds. Or maybe they wanted to wait around long enough to complete their plans to assassinate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader in Syria, which happened over the weekend. Or maybe they realize that if Trump stops the United States’ “endless wars,” their jobs will end.
So there are the facts, says this editor, who will let you decide.
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