US Africa Command announced today that it is in talks with the government of Niger to establish a permanent drone base there that could significantly increase the ability of the US to monitor and – presumably – attack Islamic extremists in neighboring Mali. In discussing the new base, Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, stated that he would like to “establish a permanent strategic relationship with the US.” This would make sense – Niger has had its own problems with the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, and its location in the central Sahel would bring the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa within easy reach of US forces.
But this relationship will likely be little more than tactical in nature. Drones are excellent surveillance tools and allow for pin-point strikes against high-value targets. But they do nothing to address the larger problem of instability and creeping Salafism in the Sahel. And they will do nothing to increase Niger’s ability to defend itself and root out potential enemies within its own borders. Addressing those problems would require a sustained commitment to buttressing the authority and capabilities of African governments. That is a job for Conventional Forces and the Special Forces (American Green Berets are one example), which develop knowledge of and build government capacities in unstable regions.
The United States has trained indigenous Special Forces units in Africa since the inception of US Africa Command, with the intent of creating a local capacity to root out local problems such as the Lord’s Resistance Army. Yet the conventional forces that undergird Special Forces capabilities have received far less attention from the United States, as have those Special Forces that might help win the ‘hearts and minds’ of their own population.
This is Obama’s Way of War, which rests on the pernicious logic that an increased reliance on drones and targeted killings of enemies will allow for America to project power over the long term without actually dedicating the resources—human and otherwise—required to turn a population from hostile to amenable. It’s great news that the administration is taking developments in Africa more seriously. But without a sustained commitment to the instruments of power that will actually address the root causes of terrorism, no amount of drones will prevent the efforts of al-Qaeda and other groups to establish a base in the Sahel. It is our unwillingness to provide this sustained commitment that will leave President Issoufou yearning for his ‘strategic relationship,’ and that will keep sub-Saharan Africa ripe territory for the operations of terrorists.