It was a typical April evening in Ethiopia's capital as I gazed from my hotel room window at the scene below. Shop owners were locking up for the night, people were hurrying home for the evening meal, and the streets were crowded with vehicles of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of road worthiness, including the ubiquitous "blue donkeys"--Soviet-era Lada taxis that are a common sight around Addis Ababa. With two crisp pops, followed immediately by thunderous explosions, I was jolted back to reality. Terrorists had struck again. The next day's press would report that three people died and more than a dozen were wounded after two crude pipe bombs were detonated at gas stations in the capital. The government would blame two separatist groups, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and their Eritrean supporters for these acts of terrorism.
This was not the first instance of terrorism in Africa. Not hardly. Even an incomplete list of recent incidents begins to show the scope of the challenge: in 1998, twin bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dares Salaam killed 227 and wounded hundreds more; in 2002, terrorists attacked a Mombasa, Kenya, hotel leaving 15 dead, but failed in their attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner with a surface-to-air missile; in 2003, bombings in Casablanca killed 45 and injured over 100; from 2004 to 2005 Nigerian, Chadian, and Mauritanian security forces clashed with Algerian Islamic militants operating in the Sahel region; in 2006, the "Nigerian Taliban" leader responsible for a violent, but short-lived Islamic uprising was arrested on terrorism charges; in 2007, a series of explosions in Algiers left 24 dead and over 200 wounded; and a 2008 attack on Ethiopian immigrants in northern Somalia killed at least 20 people.
Yet a big question remains: are these events part of the U.S. global fight against terrorism or simply the playing out of long-running power struggles and civil conflict in Africa? This distinction is crucial, and therein lies at least one of the most pressing dilemmas for U.S. involvement in Africa and the new Obama administration.
Nearly two years into the U.S. campaign to crush Al Qaeda and the forces of international terrorism in the Middle East, a new target slowly began to move into the Pentagon's sights: Africa. "What we don't want to see in Africa is another Afghanistan, a cancer growing in the middle of nowhere," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Kohler in 2003. Africa has grown steadily in importance for U.S. civilian and military leaders--the place where "our fight against terrorism is being fought," asserted U.S. Representative Edward Royce in 2004. Since then, the United States has increasingly come to see Africa with its weak and fragile governments, impoverished societies, and ceaseless political and social turmoil as the next great battleground in the global struggle against terrorism. Once the site of innumerable superpower clashes during the Cold War, the continent is again in danger of becoming engulfed in a deadly conflict not of its own making.
How the Obama administration ultimately decides to fight terrorism on the continent will undoubtedly impact U.S.-African policy for decades to come. Given President Obama's African roots, it is unlikely that he will ignore Africa, both in terms of development and security assistance, but how the new administration understands terrorism across the continent will reflect powerfully on its choice of tools in addressing the problem.
Thus far, the Bush administration with the complicity of Pentagon hardliners has sought to redefine the nature of this threat from the perspective of an American-led global war on terror. In this context, the United States is pushing an aggressive security agenda that may not be to the liking of many Africans--nor particularly well-suited to tackling the complex forces and actors that use violence to promote their goals. Just as the Cold War turned the continent into a battleground for global supremacy for nearly 50 years, today too there is a danger that, even with a new administration, Washington will continue treating Africa as simply another front in the war on terror, thereby neglecting real security needs on the continent.
The old Swahili saying, "When the elephants fight, the grass suffers," was often mentioned during the Cold War to depict the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in Africa, and the region's people were undoubtedly among the world's most downtrodden grass. As surely as proxy wars were the legacy of the Cold War, then so too have neglect and piecemeal support become the overriding modus operandi in the two decades since the fall of the Soviet bloc. This can no longer be allowed--for reasons both of African and American security. The goal of strategists and diplomats who arrive in Washington in January must be to make certain that over the next administration a more sophisticated and nuanced approach is taken; one where the exercise of American power treats the causes and not simply the symptoms of Africa's security problems.
Ironically, it has been America's dogged determination to win the war on terror at all costs that threatens to undercut essential African support and complicates the longstanding U.S. strategic goal of advancing peace and security. Only by achieving the latter can a new era of leadership in Washington aspire to any lasting success in America's battle of ideas with international terrorists. Poor governance, alienated and disaffected communities, underdevelopment, and economic and social inequality all fuel conflict and instability--which make African countries highly vulnerable to terrorist-fueled violence.
But none of these problems is amenable to any quick fix. Moreover, the U.S. military is often the least useful tool to help Africans address their problems. Still, when faced with a new set of security challenges the White House opted for the hammer by establishing a new military command for Africa. It remains to be seen if this bet will pay off, but one thing is certain--Africans will have to live with the consequences.
The Next Afghanistan?
The rhetoric is clear: Africa is on the verge of becoming another recruiting ground and base of operations for terrorists fomenting attacks against the United States and its allies. Or is it?
The historic reality is that terrorism is not new to Africa. Through decades of independence struggles against colonial powers or their proxies which saw the frequent state-sponsored use of terror by authoritarian regimes to suppress opposition, to the current struggle against radical Islamic...