After decades of CIA assassinations, U.S.-supported coups and subversive interference during the Cold War in Africa, one would think that West African political leaders would run at the thought of another geo-political chess match in their own territories. But slowly and gracefully, the U.S. 'War on Terrorism', has been able to submit the continent to yet another round of imperial strategem with very little organized internal political opposition.
The U.S. military is training soldiers in West Africa for a potential confrontation with "jihadists" under the new U.S. Africa Command. The stated objective of the recent mobilizations is to prepare for confrontation with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group is unlikely an existential threat to West African governments, is small in number compared to other violent criminal organizations and has so far only managed to kidnap foreigners and extort money. Partly due to the aggressive and often draconian work of their security forces, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, have already prevented the organization from operating in their territories. There is also no public evidence to suggest the group serves as a direct threat to the U.S.
Despite their infamous name and the constant fear-mongering in the Western press, the organization likely uses the name al-Qaeda for recruiting and fundraising purposes only as opposed to having any lasting ties with cells in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Nevertheless, the U.S. is mobilizing the armies of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Nigeria for a protracted conflict with the organization.
Political leaders in West Africa are probably doing more harm than good by accepting the U.S. label of the region as a wellspring of jihadist terrorism. As we have seen in Iraq and Somalia, U.S.-backed military operations are often the principal cause of violent political terrorism and recruiting activity rather than a force for peace and social justice. In regions with large conservative Muslim populations the influx of America forces and assistance is among the top recruiting tools for new converts to the cause of political Islam. Certainly, an objective assessment of the American track record in the aforementioned cases among others should have caused alarm among government's participating in AFRICOM'S recent mobilizations. However, political elites in this region draw their legitimacy among top the military brass and petty-bourgeois intellectuals from receiving external aid from the United States and European Union. With the incoming military and financial support elites are able to crack down on internal opposition movements and consolidate their own political authority regardless of the long-term consequences.
Armed robbery and kidnapping conducted to extract ransom is not unique to al-Qaeda in West Africa. There are any number of violent drug cartels, rebel groups and other criminals in the region who exploit the vacuum of political legitimacy, and grinding poverty in order to advance this or that cause. The ideals of regional autonomy and national sovereignty have suffered so much in West Africa that because the least organized of such groups happens to be a potential threat to U.S. interests, government's are responding as if preparing for a full-scale war.
It was not long ago that the United States utilized political Islam and al-Qaeda extremists in a struggle against the Soviet Union and secular nationalists movements in North Africa and the Middle-East. The same networks and ideologies that West African governments are being paid to chase throughout the Saharan desert, were empowered in the first place by the U.S. State Department, CIA and Pentagon. Unfortunately, for the majority of the poor and formally unemployed people in West Africa the region is once again employed in another of the U.S.'s adventures.
Whereas China and other countries have sought to increase their influence in Africa through mainly political and economic means, the United States and European Union have estimated that their strategic advantage lies in a combination of economic assistance and military strength as it did during the Cold War. The clear parallel between the current U.S. strategy of establishing client-states today to the Cold War in the 20th century were outlined by U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates who argued in a recent article in Foreign Affairs that American military and economic assistance rather than full-scale invasions is the most effective way to expand its strategic influence.
"Building up the military and security forces of key allies and local partners was also a major component of U.S. strategy in the Cold War, first in Western Europe, then in Greece, South Korea, and elsewhere."
The triumph of AFRICOM in West Africa is perhaps one of the most striking indicators that the independence movements of 50 years ago achieved little to nothing in the area of self-government or regional autonomy. The so called independent democratic regimes in this region have literally become client-states of the United States and European Union completely dependent on the economic and military support of their patrons. There remains hope that a growing social and political movement can challenge the attempt to drag the poor into another U.S.-conflict and put the region on an endogenous path of social development against poverty, hunger, and disease.