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Africa and the ‘War on Terror’: Back to the Future.

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The epicentre of the US-led ‘war on terror’ could be shifting to Africa; what with the steady augmentation in counter-terrorism training and funding, US military presence predictably in a bid to bolster counter-terrorism operations, over and above an increase in US-designated terrorist organizations and their activities . France too apparently, has set out to ‘fight terrorism’ in the Sahel.A point is made, validly at that, of the transnational if not global nature of terrorism. Terrorism herein should be understood as ‘the use of violence by sub-state groups to inspire fear, by attacking civilians and/or symbolic targets, for purposes such as drawing widespread attention to a grievance, provoking a severe response, or wearing down their opponent’s moral resolve, to effect political change’. It should be noted that this post lays emphasis on terrorism as an existential threat. Terrorism as an imminent threat receives a mention en passant but would be addressed in depth  in a later post.

The continued terrorist attacks by the Shabaab in Nairobi and other parts of the country  since Kenya’s incursion into Somalia indisputably calls for some hard questions . Moreover, it proves the inefficiency of the bureaucratic model of  the delivery of intelligence information and supports the calls for the National Intelligence Service to be empowered to hit targets after the intelligence collection process. The  existential threat that the group poses  has had the UN Department of Safety and Security in Kenya for instance publish a booklet for its personnel in the country-a guide on ‘’How to Prepare for and Respond to a Terrorist Attack’. This goes to show the level of the threat that is terrorism, not just in Kenya but in a number of what pundits have labelled as ‘front line states’ in the so-called war on terror in Africa.

The continent’s supposed front line states war on terror, markedly bears the hallmarks of US Cold War epoch strategies. It would be vital to take into account that regardless of the remarkable differences between the Cold War and the ‘’War on Terror’’, certain parallels could be drawn. Just like the epicentre of the Cold War shifted from Southeast Asia to (southern) Africa, so is the war on terror, in light of the aforementioned developments, moving from the Middle East to Africa. After ISIS/ISIL happened,  this could be viewed in different  light. That said, it still is significant that the emergence of a number of African countries as “front line states” in the so-called war on terror  has arguably  underpinned the continent’s ”strategic relevance” . This was most recently underscored by Obama’s call on Congress to support a $5-billion Counter-terrorism Partnerships Fund  which will enable the US to ‘’facilitate partner countries on the front lines’’.

U.S. Marine Sergeant explains weapons handling tactics to a group of the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers during ongoing counter-terrorism combat engineering training, March 2012.

A U.S. Marine Sergeant explains weapons-handling tactics to a group of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers during an ongoing counter-terrorism combat engineering training in March 2012. Photo Credit: US Africa Command (http://www.africom.mil/)

The most conspicuous tactic in regard to back to the future point in the war on terror is the increasing use of proxies by the US. Kenya’s and Uganda’s  involvement  in Somalia, however much in the spirit of Pax Africana isn’t entirely the respective two countries’ war. The war on terror it seems is rapidly Americanizing Pax Africana. In his speech  to graduating cadets recently at West Point, Obama notes that “for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” That “we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stirs up local resentments.” “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us,” said he.

Kagwanja has it that America’s blanket definition of terrorism within Africa has led to counter-terrorism being one of the weakest links of Africa’s peace and security agenda. In reference to the definition problem, nowhere is this evident than the use of the terms ‘insurgency’ and ‘terrorism’ interchangeably knowingly or unknowingly to refer to the same situation within the discourse of terrorism. Noteworthy, is that terrorism differs from criminal violence in its level of political legitimacy. Of course the immediate victims of terrorism can hardly see any legitimacy of terror unleashed to send a message to a target audience beyond them. Nonetheless, the fundamental nature of war- the use of violence in the pursuit of political ends is unassailable, regardless of its changed subjective characteristics (tactics, means, and theatre).

Language let me say, is not a neutral transmitter of meaning and in this instance the language that is the ‘’war on terror’’ is clearly anything but.  This is why: with specific reference to politicians and other actors in world politics, language is critical because they have to legitimate their foreign policies to audiences at home and abroad. The choice of the term ‘’the war on terror’’ over ‘’counter-terrorism’’ it follows, would definitely have political implications. It is easier to delegitimize grievances, genuine or otherwise preposterous using the former simply because it is a ‘war’. The language that is the ‘’war on terror’’ erroneously presupposes that we can defeat terrorism per se through war.  If anything, observers reckon that ‘Americans are losing the war on terror’ .The military posture of the approach to counter-terrorism is bereft of the fact that terrorism is not a war situation but a tactic employed in times of (relative) peace instead.  This language clouds the real issues by delegitimizing grievances, from the onset. Moreover, the association of terrorism with war has its inadequacy in the sense that the former is asymmetric in nature and expressly constitutes a tactic.

It can hardly be belaboured that there is a hard-to-miss nexus (breeding ground) between terrorism and failed states-which Franklyne Ogbunwezeh describes as ‘’economic backwaters, social apologies and political ruins,’’ or those bearing failed states characteristics. The military option is a quick fix and inadequate response, some would say, to terrorism which in the case of a number of African states is compounded with the already existing instability. Furthermore, the unconventional nature of terrorism as a tactic makes it a ‘’multi-headed snake’’. A terrorist may be an extremist but an extremist is not a terrorist and neither are terrorists criminals to be flushed out from whatever hole/cave they’re in. Mamdani and Mbeki opine that ‘’unlike criminal violence, political violence has a constituency and is driven by issues, not just perpetrators.’’ Force is thus inadequate as a means to counter terrorism. Reportedly, since 2007, the ‘war on terror’ or the peace enforcement mission (as some would describe it) in Somalia for instance has of September 2013 incurred casualties almost equivalent to that of the UN peacekeeping missions since 1948-up to 3000. The statement by the UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson quoting these statistics was nevertheless retracted a day later. The figures on the number of troops sustained by AMISOM are conflicting. The long and short of it is that counter-terrorism has overly been militarized in a world in which states do not wield the monopoly of violence and therein, lies many an African state’s chance to redefine this ‘war’.

Instead, African states have taken to the established Bush narrative of  ‘waging war against terrorists’ as well as America’s  non-negotiation policy stance with terrorists. We have  got to ‘’politically address the issues in which terrorists “wrap themselves up,” without addressing the issues, there is no way of shifting the terrain of conflict from the military to the political, and drying up support for political terror,’’ contends  Mamdani.

Preventive measures have to be given attention as well. The emphasis ought to be on the eventual goal of development which is to eradicate what Amartya Sen calls the sources of development ‘unfreedom’ like poverty. For African states in the ‘front line’, the counter-terrorism strategies should underscore the non-military aspects. An unrelenting war should be waged on abject poverty- a bottom-top approach preferably, official corruption and de-radicalization programmes instituted. Moreover, the consequences of the US-led war on terrorism in many of these critical states should serve as a cue to redefine counter-terrorism strategies.  Not that a one-size-fits-all strategy is implausible. For the Horn of Africa in particular, Professor Kagwanja rightly proposes ‘’nothing short of a holistic and well-coordinated counter-terrorism policy that ties together poverty eradication, conflict resolution and peace-building strategies.’’

At the end of the day though, a pertinent question prompted by  Adekeye Adebajo  in John Davis’ 2007 Africa and the War on Terrorism remains: Will Washington be dismissive of its strategic partners when the war on terror ‘concludes’, à la Cold War?

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