The African continent - vast, remote, and perhaps strategically unimportant in the minds of many unknowing Americans – is one of the most critical fronts in the global war on terror. And it is for a variety of reasons beyond humanitarian concerns.
Many of Africa’s countries are poorly governed and weakly defended. They are wracked with disease, famine, and brutal armed conflicts that frequently cross borders. Much of our vital natural resources come from what many still refer to as “The Dark Continent.” And terrorist networks like al Qaeda are keenly aware of – and capitalizing on – Africa’s vulnerabilities and the West’s increasing dependence on the continent’s resources.
Consequently, to ignore and ultimately lose Africa in the global war on terror would be nothing less than catastrophic, says Dr. J. Peter Pham, an expert on Africa who served as a diplomatic mediator in the West African conflict involving Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire back in 2001 and 2002. He has since returned to Africa on other official and research tours, and has frequently testified before Congress on the dangers, worldwide, posed by militant Islamism in Africa. His most recent testimony was in June on the growing Somali crisis, before a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights & International Organizations, and the Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation.
Pham directs the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, where he also holds academic appointments in the Departments of Political Science and Justice Studies, as well as the Africana Studies Program. The author of several books and numerous scholarly essays, he is also an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Last week, Pham discussed with me the problems associated with Africa, international conflict, terrorism, and the dynamics between all.
W. THOMAS SMITH JR: Why should Americans - many of whom have a hard enough time understanding the importance of our military presence Iraq - be concerned about al Qaeda operations in Africa? Particularly when we have so many other strategic considerations, worldwide?
J. PETER PHAM: Terrorism requires three basic elements: a facilitating environment, opportunity, and a motivating force that sets it all in motion. All three are present in abundance in Africa:
The 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, drawing on the lesson of Afghanistan, made it clear: “Weak states…can pose a great danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.”
Africa’s poorly secured, porous borders and vast ungoverned territories are a terrorist’s dream, as are its unstable governments and weak security services.
Add to weak states a target-rich environment.
Take West Africa, which currently supplies about 15 percent of America’s hydrocarbon needs—almost as much as the amount coming from Saudi Arabia—and which, according to the National Intelligence Council, is expected to supply up to 20 percent in the next five years, then a staggering 25 percent by 2015. Just this year, a small, ragtag group with purely local grievances succeeded in cutting oil production of America’s fifth-largest supplier, Nigeria, by an estimated 500,000 barrels per day, or approximately 25 percent. Imagine the repercussions if a major terrorist group got into the act.
As for motivating ideology, look no further than what militant Islamists, including al Qaeda, have said. Earlier this year, the official online magazine of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia published a study assessing significant advantages to shifting operations to Africa. And the extremists made a great stride towards this objective with the seizure of power in Somalia by a group of radical Islamists acting with considerable foreign assistance.
All this does not mean there are not other priorities. However, it does mean that indications are that Africa will be, if it is not already, the next front in the global war on terrorism. So, the short answer to “why Africa?” is that a small investment today will pay off handsomely in opportunities and lives not lost tomorrow.
SMITH: Can you elaborate on some of the U.S. counterterror efforts in Africa?
PHAM: No country has done more than the U.S. to combat and prevent terrorism in Africa. And since the attacks on the American homeland, four major multilateral programs have been established by the U.S. in Africa:
First, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based at Camp Le Monier in Djibouti helps develop a capacity in the Horn of Africa and partially along the eastern littoral of the continent. This is America’s only permanent military presence in Africa. Second, the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (EACTI) complements CJTF-HOA activities by equipping, training, and assisting the governments of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda in their counterterrorism efforts. Third, the modest Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) provides similar counterterrorism assistance in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Fourth, the new Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI), launched last year, will include Algeria, Nigeria, Morocco, and Senegal as well as the four countries of the PSI. If delivered as promised, the TSCTI will assist in improving political as well as military and security capacities.
That said, however, much needs to be done. Other than Nigeria’s inclusion in the TSCTI, there are no programs beyond “ordinary” military-to-military cooperation for whole regions: West Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa. Moreover, existing programs have largely focused on the admittedly daunting security challenges African states face on the ground. Provision needs to be made for building up the waterborne counterterrorism capacity of our partners.
SMITH: What about piracy? Are pirates on the high seas becoming a real issue for our Naval forces, and is it somehow connected to global terrorism?
PHAM: Piracy has not yet become a modus operandi for terrorists, but that does not mean that it will not become so. In fact, when you look at the where the three most pirate-infested waters of the globe are—the Straits of Malacca off Indonesia, the area off the coast of Somalia, and the western littoral of Africa—and consider the violent Islamist presence onshore in those areas, you arrive at the conclusion that it is only a matter of time. Hence we need to be preparing our Naval forces to act not only against potential state competitors, but also these smaller terrorist forces. Developing brown-water force capacity will become increasingly important, even as the importance of blue-water forces remains.
SMITH: Let’s move beyond Africa for a moment. What should our geo-strategic priorities be for the next several years?
PHAM: Our number one strategic priority should be to develop strategic priorities. While those serving in our military fighting on the front lines and in our intelligence agencies realize that with respect to terrorism, we are in for what many have termed “the long war;” our political culture seems to preclude the development of a hierarchy of priorities with long-term, intermediate, and short-term counterterrorism objectives. Congress in particular has shown little zest for making hard choices in allocating scarce resources based on what will necessarily always be incomplete information. On the other hand, the administration needs to take leadership and make the cases for choices that have to be made.
So I would say that the strategic priority for the next few years is somehow recognizing and communicating to the public that we need to prioritize in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorism and minimize the consequences of a terrorist attack. We’re a democracy, so unless we get the public on board, the train is never going to leave the station.
SMITH: What are we doing right in the global war on terror?
PHAM: We are taking the war to the heartlands of the enemy. As long as we engage them there, that makes it less likely—however marginally—that we have to engage them at home. It’s very fashionable these days to talk about “offshore balancing” and “redeployment.” However, looking at it through the enemy’s eyes, that would look an awfully lot like withdrawal, which signals weakness, which invites further attacks. Just listen to what Osama bin Laden has said, he has explicitly stated that our withdrawal from Somalia and our failure under the Clinton administration to respond to the embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole emboldened al Qaeda.
SMITH: What are we doing wrong in the global war on terror?
PHAM: Two things in particular stand out: At home, I am not sure we have effectively communicated to the American people that we are at war.
If terrorism is an existential threat to our way of life, then we have to make suitable adjustments to defend ourselves. As my friend, Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, said in a recent co-authored article, we want a 99.9 percent guarantee but are only willing to pay the costs, fiscal and otherwise, for a system that will protect us up to 40 percent of the time.
Abroad, I often fear that our overall approach to date is somewhat akin to Whac-A-Mole: we run reactively to wherever the enemy crops up, essentially allowing him to pick battlefields. We need to proactively pick him off as well as deny him the opportunity to establish himself where he has set his sights, but has not decamped to. An example: our steady pressure in the Middle East has clearly led al Qaeda and its ilk to look at Africa. Although there is some movement in that direction, they haven’t yet made the move. Shouldn’t we invest a little in denying them that new theatre rather than wait to fight them there?
SMITH: Do you personally believe – as some Americans do – it was a strategic mistake for us to invade Iraq in 2003?
PHAM: Strategy is all about setting priorities. In 2003, Iraq was – based on all the evidence then available – a danger to American security.
Incidentally, I do not place great store to the embarrassingly sloppy research that produced the recent so-called report from the Select Committee on Intelligence of the U.S. Senate discounting the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. In 2003, Saddam was defying the international community. So, the U.S. was well within its rights to take action. However, just because you can do something—legally, tactically, and otherwise—does not mean you should. Prudentially, I would have preferred that we had adopted a more vigorous containment strategy than then in force, deferring the confrontation with Saddam until we had more thoroughly concluded operations in Afghanistan and, as necessary, in Pakistan. That was where the central front in the war on terror was. Afterwards, we could have turned our full attention to Saddam who, threat though he was, was not an imminent threat.
All that said, however, there is no denying that our invasion of Iraq has shifted the dynamics of the war on terror. Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror. The long-term consequences of allowing the terrorists and radicals to even claim “victory” are too awful to contemplate.
SMITH: What do we need to be doing a better job of in terms of domestic security?
PHAM: We need to appreciate two realities: First, we are at war. Second, we do not have unlimited resources.
From this follows the imperative that we allocate such resources that we have at our disposal in a way that maximizes their real effect, rather than according to the canons of political correctness. This includes reconsidering who and what should be on the receiving end of the preponderance of our attentions. The key operating principle, as I suggested in a somewhat controversial column published on the morrow of the foiling of the London-based plane bombing conspiracy, must be “smart”: Do our policies, inasmuch as possible, increase public security by concentrating efforts where they will most likely result in the identification and apprehension of terrorists? Or are they dictated by “political correctness” and effectively decrease security by wasting resources on haphazard “feel good” procedures that do nothing but breed cynicism?
SMITH: What regarding the global war on terror keeps you awake at night?
PHAM: We have become victims of our own relative success on the battlefield and grown complacent, forgetting the lessons of 9/11 about failed states and terrorist infiltration. Al Qaeda and its allies are reconstituting territorial bases of operation to replace what they lost in Afghanistan in places like Iraq, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.
They are no doubt watching with great interest the establishment of the new Islamist regime in Somalia, which offers interesting possibilities for penetration of both the Arabian peninsula and Africa as well as sitting astride vital sea lanes. And what resources are we devoting to counter this rising threat? Will future years judge the present in the same manner that the present judges the missed opportunities of the 1990s?
Let me add that our enemy is very patient, taking a long-term view. Remember, eight years passed between the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the catastrophic attack of 2001. So far, only five years have gone by since 9/11. Even as our shock fades and our memories get blurred as we go about our everyday lives, the enemy is ever vigilant, waiting for the opportunity to strike. We are still at war.