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Myeshia Johnson cries over the casket of her husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in an assault in Niger, Miami, Oct. 17, 2017 (WPLG via AP).

The Truth About the U.S. Military in Africa

Monday, April 1, 2019

The role of the U.S. military in Africa isn’t clear to anyone. And that will only hurt American interests. Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

The U.S. military has been expanding its presence and operations in Africa over the past decade. In doing so, it has obscured the nature of its actions through ambiguous language and outright secrecy. It limits the amount of information available about the objectives of its operations, how those operations are carried out, the facilities it uses, and how it partners with governments in the region. At times, this has involved subverting democratic processes in partner countries, an approach that runs counter to years of diplomatic engagement ostensibly designed to strengthen governance institutions.

Nevertheless, interest in the U.S. military’s activities is on the rise and is set to increase further as incidents like the October 2017 Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger--which left four U.S. soldiers dead--make them more visible. In June, for example, militants from the al-Shabaab extremist group in Somalia ambushed a group of American special operations forces, African Union peacekeepers and Somali government soldiers, killing one American Green Beret.

The U.S. military’s gamble that the public, in both America and across Africa, won’t find out about questionable actions, and won’t have the means to challenge them if they do, is becoming increasingly risky.

Officially, the U.S. military in Africa doesn’t engage in combat. Find out what really happens, in The ‘Myths and Lies’ Behind the U.S. Military’s Growing Presence in Africa for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Is the U.S. Military in Africa Fighting a Covert War?

The most common reaction to the deaths of four U.S. special operations forces in Niger in October 2017 was surprise that the U.S. had any kind of military presence in the country in the first place. In the wake of the ambush, various media outlets placed it in the context of a broader American “shadow war” carried out in “one of the most remote and chaotic war zones on the planet” despite “little public debate” back home. But for those who track the various military efforts to combat jihadi groups in West Africa’s Sahel region, the presence of U.S. soldiers in the country was no surprise at all.

The ambush in Niger highlights the hazardous conditions the U.S. military faces in West Africa. To learn more, read Trump Is Distracting From a Necessary Conversation About the U.S. Role in Niger for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


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The U.S. Military’s Complicated and Questionable Role in African Security

The U.S. military presence in Niger and Somalia is part of a broader expansion of its efforts to deter transnational threats and promote regional security and stability in Africa. But it is far from clear that those missions are succeeding. In its efforts to combat extremism, the U.S. has fostered close partnerships with some of the continent’s most repressive authoritarian regimes. Likewise, U.S. attempts to support democratization and aid fragile democracies have at times contributed to further upheaval and abetted extremist groups. Nevertheless, the U.S. military in Africa is expanding its mandate, dogged by the reality that the relationship between combating terrorism, safeguarding national interests and fostering political stability is not always clear.

U.S. military spending across Africa is on the rise, but are the results worth the price? Find out more, in U.S. Military Assistance to Africa Is Growing. But Is It Succeeding? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Where the New U.S. Strategy on Africa Comes Up Short

Washington’s approach to Africa is not limited to shadowy military cooperation. A new U.S. strategy for engaging with Africa, unveiled in December, was a welcome endorsement of American economic engagement to help foster growth across the continent. The strategy, as outlined by National Security Adviser John Bolton, is built on three pillars: advancing American and African prosperity through increased U.S. commercial ties in Africa; enhancing security through counterterrorism efforts; and promoting American interests and African “self-reliance” through a more targeted and selective use of U.S. foreign aid. Its signature initiative, called “Prosper Africa,” aims to support U.S. investment across the region, improve the business climate and expand Africa’s private sector and middle class. But commentators were quick to notice that the strategy’s overarching purpose is to contain China. Bolton is correct that Chinese influence in Africa is growing more rapidly than America’s. Yet by fixating on China, this new U.S. Africa strategy suffers from two fundamental paradoxes that will undermine its dual goals of containing China and developing a prosperous African continent through U.S. investment.

Find out why the new U.S. strategy on Africa could be counterproductive, in The New U.S. Africa Strategy Fixates on China While Mimicking Beijing’s Approach for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.


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The presence of the U.S. military in Africa is all but ignored - until a horrific event occurs, like the ambush in Niger. Learn more about military operations across the continent in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):


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Editor's Note: This article was first published in October 2018 and is regularly updated.