Stabilizing Africa is the Key to Countering Violent Extremism
This past June, eight people were killed after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive in a northeastern Nigerian mosque. The incident occurred around 4:30 am, right as worshippers were preparing for their early morning prayers. Though no one has directly claimed responsibility for the attack, local police have identified one likely suspect: Boko Haram.
Responsible for countless bombings, Boko Haram has continued its string of deadly public attacks, with zero signs of slowing down.
Although attacks such as these have become increasingly commonplace, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has submitted plans to scale back its special operations missions in Africa by withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops from the ground. Drones are set to take their place. This reflects a broader shift in the U.S. approach, as it suggests that re-stabilizing the continent is less important than eliminating top terrorist leaders.
Current U.S. policy has failed to stabilize the region from the spread of violent extremism. By increasing funding to the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Project, bolstering special operatives, and lessening our reliance on drone use, we can fight the spread of terrorism through the stabilization of society.
Terrorism in Africa shows no signs of slowing down. The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are all weak states hospitable to jihad recruitment. Economic woes, illicit weapons trade, human trafficking, and volatile borders all contribute to their social disarray. Since the destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, foreign fighters have been flowing back into Africa. Initially, policymakers did not see Africa as a top-tier threat (like the Middle East), but terrorism has now spread there.
The decision to scale back U.S. troops is a dangerous one. The reduction of special operation forces, in conjunction with increased drone strikes, is likely to intensify social disorder. Social conditions in Africa are becoming increasingly hospitable to terrorist recruitment. Though drone strikes target top leaders, terrorism has become more networked. A hasty withdrawal will fuel social disorder and local African governments will be less capable of fighting the threat on their own.
Properly countering the spread of violent extremism begins with the people. Insurgencies are endemic and take time to cure. The United States needs to place less focus on kinetic operations, and more emphasis on civilian grievances. In essence, our counterinsurgency operations in Africa should follow the principles of the Petraeus Doctrine—a strategy that centers around the social stability of the population. Focusing more on the social stability of African countries will do many things, including:
The promotion of long-term order and stability. A focus on the people enables the United States to address social grievances at the heart of insurgencies. An increase in social stability will eventually decrease terrorist control.
The restoration of regional infrastructure. Special operations forces must remain on the ground to help restore key functions of African society. Programs in partnership with the State Department will promote government restoration and economic development.
The achievement of balance. A heavy emphasis on drone use places too much focus on hard power. Combatting terrorism is both a social and military exercise.
Our primary concern is American lives. Those who state that this option places our troops in too much danger, are misinformed. U.S. troop safety will be emphasized, and careful measures will be taken so they remain far from combat. These forces will be special operatives only.
Our partnership with the State Department will also help isolate the insurgents from the population. Through their counterterrorism bureau and their intelligence capabilities, we will be able to identify key individuals participating in jihad activity. In the rare case that we use a drone strike, this careful separation between the people and the jihadists will help keep civilian casualties to a minimum.
Long-term efforts require patience. It must be remembered that terrorism is a long-term problem, one that begs for a long-term solution. Drone operations may be used in rare cases of certainty but should not be the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. An overreliance on technology is dangerous and does not properly isolate the root of the problem.
We do not want to go to war with Africa—we want to restore peace. We do not want to create a quagmire—we want to restore societies. We will not allow the plague of terrorism to continue to run rampant, especially in countries that are already vulnerable to instability. Instead, we will fight violent extremism through the promotion of stability.