Africa has never been central to America's global security strategy. From Washington's vantage, the continent has always been less important than Europe, the Pacific Rim, the Middle East or Latin America. The official approach has normally been one of relative indifference with a bit of aid when things got really bad. In the past year, though, several factors have increased the attention being paid to Africa by American policymakers and military leaders.
For starters, the past 10 years have seen significant economic and political progress. While Africa remains the world's poorest continent, its economy is flourishing, potentially providing an opportunity for greater U.S. trade and investment. Then there is growing Chinese involvement. In 2010, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s top trading partner. Eventually this economic leverage may translate into strategic influence. But most of all, U.S. concern for Africa has been sparked by the expansion of Islamic extremism, as demonstrated by Boko Haram's rise in Nigeria and the takeover of much of northern Mali by violent extremists, some affiliated with al-Qaida.
Concerned by these trends, the United States has tentatively moved toward a more active role in African security. Washington provided some support to the French military forces that intervened in Mali. With France contemplating leaving a military force in that country and the United Nations approving a peacekeeping mission, Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin wrote to President Barack Obama asking for increased help to the government of Mali. In recent months, the "Dagger" Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division became one of the U.S. Army's first "regionally aligned forces" and kicked off an expanded program of capacity building and exercises with African armed forces. And in February, the United States announced that it is establishing a drone base in Niger to monitor extremist organizations.