Counter-terrorism and escalation in Africa

Brian M Downing 

In early October, four GIs were killed in action while serving in Niger, a landlocked desert country in West Africa. Most Americans were surprised. They were unaware of a US presence in that country and would be hard pressed to find it on a map.

The same can be said of many members of Congress, a branch of government that shows occasional interest in the troops it helps send overseas. They should have heard Pentagon briefings on troop deployments in the region, read the annual budgets that funded them, or heard news reports on AFRICOM, the military command charged with operations on the continent. Perhaps having its headquarters in Stuttgart threw them.

The GIs are in that stretch of Africa to counter al Qaeda, ISIL, Boko Haram, and kindred groups. They train indigenous forces, gather intelligence, and conduct capture-kill operations against high-profile figures. What are the prospects of success in a few years? What are the prospects of escalation?

Sources of instability

Niger lies on a tract of land stretching form the Atlantic to the Red Sea, where a Muslim population predominates in the north and a Christian one in the south. In many places the north is Arab, the south black.

The territory has numerous tribes that oppose ruling elites and quarrel with one another. Niger, for example, is 29% Hausa and Fulani, 21% Yoruba, 18% Igbo, 10% Ijaw, and several smaller groups. For most of them, their country is an abstraction, their state the oppressive machinery of an elite.

Population pressures are even stronger than in the Middle East. Sixty-two percent of Niger’s population is twenty-four or under. The same is true of sixty-seven percent of Malians.

Armies and states in the region are corrupt and inept. They are unable to govern the growing, disparate peoples. Nor are they able to keep them under control any longer. Large swathes of territory are ungoverned, ungovernable, and open to warlordism and militancy.

A large Muslim youth cohort, regional and tribal tensions, and poor government have offered al Qaeda and ISIL the opportunity to mobilize militant bands. The end of Col Qaddafi’s rule in Libya taught us that his army wasn’t very good. It also taught us that his army recruited Saharan mercenaries and that he had vast stores of weapons. When Qaddafi fell, his ronins and weapons flowed south.

Sources of escalation

The firefight in Niger has led to a media hunt for a misdeed to attach to the Trump administration and to the Democratic effort to avenge the Benghazi incident.  AFRICOM’s mission will not be reappraised. More US troops will deploy into the region and further casualties will repeat the cycle.

Recon units will be larger and have American reaction forces on call. US drones and fighter aircraft will offer timely support. Indigenous forces will be armed and trained in larger numbers. Some units will be modeled on Iraqi and Afghan special forces that are bearing the brunt of combat operations. Rulers will insist they be commanded by officers with clear loyalty and dubious competence.

Local rulers will have less incentive to reform their armies and states and to earn the allegiance of disaffected tribes and peoples now in or near rebellion. Foreign troops will be seen as auxiliaries to unpopular governments, training their instruments of oppression and failing to differentiate between legitimate opposition and destabilizing bands.

War will never be as precise as many proponents think. American and American-backed forces will inevitably inflict casualties on civilians. Firefights, drone strikes, capture-kill raids, and of course airstrikes will kill scores, perhaps hundreds, and turn a portion of the population from neutrality toward insurgents to support for them – “accidental guerrillas”, as counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen calls them.

ISIL fighters are exfiltrating from failed campaigns in Syria and Iraq. Many will opt for the more open and increasingly lawless expanses of Central Asia. Others will choose homelands in and near the Maghreb. The trek will be difficult but some will make it and bring experience to insurgents.


The present administration and its generals believe that special forces detachments and a fleet of drones can counter the sources of instability and bring greater security to Niger and its neighbors. This is unlikely. The US has begun a cycle of escalation that will continue for a decade or more, with little if any interaction with the public or Congress. AFRICOM may seek a more proximate headquarters.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.