Africa still matters
Shifts are shaping up in the positions of global powers towards Africa, a region that is vital to the security of the Arab region.
The New York Times reports that the United States intends to cut its Special Operations forces by half in Africa in the next three years. The move comes after a jihadist attack in Niger in October 2017 that left four US soldiers dead. The proposed cuts would close “several outposts” and end the work of “seven of the eight American elite counterterrorism units” in Africa.
Numbering about 1,200 troops, this is not a huge expeditionary force but it could make a dent in many African countries’ anti-terrorism efforts.
In normal circumstances, more security self-reliance and less outside interference would be a positive goal for African countries, including those on the continent’s northern littoral. But the reduction of US military personnel and equipment may not be helpful at this time to poor sub-Saharan African countries because they need regional and international partnerships to combat terrorism.
Whatever the considerations of American planners, this sudden US disengagement from Africa comes at a time when the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and their various offshoots are transferring operations there.
US Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the US House of Representatives, noted recently that “many of (ISIS) fighters have escaped and are regrouping in Africa.”
“Today,” he added, “it is estimated that 10,000 ISIS and al-Qaeda jihadists have already set up camp across the continent. This is in addition to Boko Haram, al-Shabab and other extremist groups that have been fomenting violence and spreading terror for many years.”
This is also the view of NATO. Arndt von Loringhoven, NATO assistant secretary-general for intelligence and security, warned: “While (ISIS) has occupied the world’s attention for the last four-five years, al-Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding its global networks and capabilities.” He cited activity in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
Some experts are wary of the fallout of US withdrawal on the stability of sub-Saharan Africa. Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, said African countries cannot control vast swaths of territory without outside help and, therefore, “we should see some serious challenges in the wake of US reductions.”
The change of US strategy, said unnamed US officials quoted by the New York Times, “could reverse progress that has been made against al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, while diminishing alliances across Africa as both Russia and China move to increase their influence.”
Moscow and Beijing are already backing their ambitions with actions.
Russia is projecting hard and soft power not only in the Middle East but also in Africa.
The Russian government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) during the BRICS Africa summit in Johannesburg in July.
Despite scepticism about its objectives, China is forging full steam ahead in Africa. Chinese President Xi Jinping said on September 3 that his country would allocate $60 billion for trade, development and infrastructure projects in the continent. This comes on top of additional billions pledged or loaned by China to African nations.
China’s concerns in Africa also come with a security dimension. Xi said China would establish “a peace and security fund” and would provide “free military assistance” to the African Union.
Last year, China set up its first overseas military base in the African country of Djibouti, a move that projected Beijing’s intention to be part of the competition for influence in the Horn of Africa and for vital Red Sea routes.
Africa matters to the Arab world and to its security, not just to that of superpowers.
In recent years, the trans-border flow of armed jihadists and illegal migrants between sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb has been a reminder that the Sahara is hardly the impenetrable barrier that some had thought.
Terrorism in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa constitutes a real threat to the Arab world and the Mediterranean region today.
That’s not the only terrorist connection of concern to the Arab world. Yaya Fanusie, a former economic and counterterrorism analyst for the US Central Intelligence Agency, told a US congressional hearing on September 7 that radical Lebanese group Hezbollah, with massive Iranian support, has expanded operations across Africa and into South America, where it is involved in the international drug trade.
Paying attention to security issues in Africa will go a long way towards ensuring the peace and stability of the Arab region.