Out of Afghanistan, Into Africa

With most of the world focused on Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons, and a looming showdown with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program, the futurists at the Pentagon are looking to the horizon where they see dark clouds gathering over Africa. That explains a report in USA Today that the Defense Department’s secretive Office of Net Assessment – an internal think tank that seeks to anticipate future threats — has hired contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to study the continent’s future.

Why are the futurists at the Pentagon so worried about the the dark continent?

Well, despite enduring corruption and poverty that has most Africans living on less than $2 per day, seven of the 10 fastest-growing countries in the world are on this continent. Foreign investment has soared tenfold over the past decade. Mobile-phone use exceeds that of Europe or the United States. According to the International Monetary Fund, Africa’s average annual economic growth is already about the same as Asia’s, at nearly 6 percent. And democracy is finally taking root (Economist cover from 2011: “Africa Rising”).

But just as economic forces are shifting toward this continent, so are Islamist ones. Al-Qaida’s affiliates appear to have pivoted their attentions to North Africa and the Middle East after the core leadership was decimated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Syria, al-Nusra Front, an Islamic extremist group with close ties to the master bomb-makers of al-Qaida in Iraq, has emerged as perhaps the most brutal and successful rebel faction battling Bashar al-Assad. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula captured broad swaths of territory in Yemen last year in the chaos that followed the Yemeni president’s Arab Spring resignation.  Meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged from Algeria’s civil war of the1990s, has made $90 million  over the past decade from drug smuggling and kidnapping. It was linked to the Benghazi consulate attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September; the assault on a natural-gas complex in Algeria in January that killed or captured dozens of foreign oil workers, including three Americans; and the seizure of Northern Mali by a loose confederation of Islamic extremists, criminal groups, and Tuareg mercenaries.

All of which explains why senior U.S. officials and military officers believe the situation in Afghanistan bears an unsettling resemblance to Afghanistan in the 1990s, which bred the Taliban and ultimately Al Qaeda (Economist cover from January 2013: “Afrighanistan”). So even while U.S. military forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan with a deadline of December 2014 in mind, many uniformed leaders see counterterrorism operations in Africa as a growth industry.

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