Symposium: Have US military programs made African countries less safe?

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Research Professor at the Fletcher School of Global Affairs, Tufts University

U.S. counterterrorism in Africa has failed. It was evident from the earliest post-9/11 days that the war on terror was seeding what it sought to eliminate. The Pentagon funded and trained soldiers who violated human rights, corrupted public service and mounted coups. Counter-terror support repurposed African regional organizations as military coalitions.

The PATRIOT Act handicapped humanitarian operations in Somalia 11 years ago so much that an entirely preventable famine killed 250,000 people. The military operation that toppled Muammar Gaddafi unleashed a wave of jihadism across a third of the continent.

This dismal U.S. scorecard is especially regrettable because in the decade before 9/11, East African nations had hit on a formula for containing al-Qaida — putting the politics first. A combination of coercion and diplomacy pushed Sudan, the leading state sponsor of terror, into collaborating with its neighbors and the United States and put the region on the road to neutralizing the jihadist threat.

The failings were evident even under the George W. Bush administration, which pulled back from its excesses. What wasn’t established was an alternative. The Trump administration outsourced its Africa policy, putting Israel, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates in the driving seat. The Biden administration has no discernible policy other than timidly hoping for stability.

Today, if the Biden administration is looking for a framework for partnering with Africa that steers a course between militarization and moralizing, it need look no further than Africa’s own norms and principles of governance and democracy. These are aspirational for sure, but aspirations forged in the recovery from conflict, state failure, and despair. They’re enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union, its commitments to democracy, elections and governance, to human rights, and to peace and security.