In a recent post I encouraged readers to consider what the Pentagon is doing in Africa, a line of inquiry prompted by U.S. commitments to help locate and rescue the nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls held hostage by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.
This worthy objective has been hobbled by laws that prohibit U.S. troops from engaging foreign armed forces and law enforcement agencies with a history of human rights abuse. As it turns out, the Nigerian army has been linked to several atrocities, prompting a Pentagon spokesman to lament how “We have struggled a great deal in the past to locate units we can deal with.” Finding unsullied units, she said, has been “a very persistent and troubling limitation.”
An article this week in The New York Times suggests, however, that the Pentagon has a lot more going on in Africa than meets the eye and it very much includes Nigeria in its plans. American special operations units, according to the report, are secretly developing elite counter-terrorism units in North and West Africa, part of a U.S. proxy war against “the widening war against Al Qaeda’s affiliates and associates on the continent.” The clandestine program, financed by a hidden Pentagon account and budgeted at $70 million, was launched last year to “instruct and equip hundreds of handpicked commandos in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali.” The article also stressed that “American military specialists are helping Nigerian officers in their effort to rescue” the abducted school girls.
As I noted in my post, the Defense Department has been financing such programs from its own accounts since 2006, when it requested funding authority independent of the State Department, for decades Washington’s lead agency for foreign assistance. That writ has expanded dramatically over the years, prompting concerns among Congressional watchdogs about inadequate oversight and its consequences. It took the Times story, for example, to reveal serious setbacks for the Pentagon’s secret Africa operations. In Mali, U.S.-trained commanders, while leading a campaign against Islamic insurgents last year, defected to the other side. In Libya, an American training center near Tripoli was shut down last August after a group of armed insurgents overpowered guards and stole “hundreds of automatic weapons, night-vision goggles, vehicles and other equipment.”
The timing of the Times story was conspicuous, coming as it did on the eve of President Barack Obama’s widely anticipated address on foreign policy this week at West Point. In it, the president told graduating cadets that the White House would avoid foreign entanglements while indirectly facing non-core threats like the jihadis that are entrenching themselves in troubled parts of the Middle East and Africa. In particular, Obama asked Congress to finance a $5 billion counter-terrorism fund to provide training to regimes exposed to violent groups.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with devolving responsibility for threats that are remote from the U.S. to the nations that have the most to gain by defeating them. (Indeed, Obama should go further, obliging Japan, South Korea, and NATO members to assume most, if not all, of the burden of their national security needs.)
The U.S. has a long history of training and supplying commando units in the developing world, however, and it’s not a inspiring one. No doubt the people engaging host nations for counter-terrorism purposes believe they are making the world a safer place, but so did the architects of the Vietnam war pacification program known as Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. CORDS, as it was known, was designed to be a model of inter-agency cooperation, with U.S. civilian, military, and intelligence elements working jointly. Unable to meet its authors’ metrics for success, however, it evolved into a more militarized version of itself: the notorious Phoenix Program. By the time Phoenix had been dissolved in 1973 it had become identified with some of the war’s worst excesses: extra-judicial killings, torture, kidnapping, and incarceration. Melvin Laird, the then-Secretary of Defense, called it “a fiasco.”
Phoenix was only one of many U.S. counter-insurgency operations that took on a life of their own.
As J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, pointed out in the Times story, sovereign recipients of U.S. weapons, equipment and expertise must “have the political will to fight terrorism, not just the desire to build up an elite force that can be used for regime protection. And the military has to be viewed well or at least neutrally by a country’s population.”
Such conditions are difficult to satisfy under the best of circumstances, let alone in unstable Africa and the Middle East. Like so many other Pentagon initiatives, however, counter-insurgency operations can become less means to an end than ends in themselves. And that’s when they create more problems than they solve.