Periodically the American press, public, and politicians become excited about something going on in Africa. The interest doesn’t last long and neither the United States nor African nations benefit much from the momentary excitement. President Obama recently ordered a small contingent of troops, mainly Army Special Forces, into the African country of Chad to assist in evacuating the U.S. Embassy staff and other American civilians from the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR). That this action reflected a reaction to the recent debacle in Benghazi, there is no doubt.
During December Seleka rebels -- an alliance of three rebel movements -- took over large areas of CAR. The capital, Bangui, was endangered and the U.S and other missions bugged out. In previous years violent outbreaks in former French colonies -- such as CAR and others -- were contained or eliminated by French troops mobilized for the occasion. Sometimes they had already been stationed in-country; other times they would be from rapid deployment units. Often these intervention forces were from La Legion Etrangère (French Foreign Legion). The Americans had no role -- nor wanted any. Why has this changed?
The answer has several elements: To begin with, aside from some special operations forces infiltrated into the target area, American military presence actually is limited to providing security for the crossing points into Chad. The whole operation appears to be an Obama Administration effort to show its continuing interest in Africa in spite of abandoning its more direct responsibility to protect the U.S. official mission in Benghazi. The fear exists -- perhaps accurately -- that the rest of the continent took the lack of quick response as a sign the Americans were paper tigers.
No such need to impress influenced the French, who clearly have a more direct and historical responsibility for a former colony. The French president, François Hollande, declared that French forces would “… in no way intervene in the internal affairs of a country, in this case Central Africa.” He added, “Those days are gone.” This may be simply a timely political gesture, but it set the tone for his view of other international issues.
The United States and France have had a tacit understanding since 1958, the year of a referendum in which former French African colonies chose whether or not to remain in the French economic and political orbit. The accord implied the Americans would defer to French interests in former French territories. The rigidly anti-American Gaullist chief adviser on African affairs, Jacques Foccart, made sure at every turn to challenge U.S. business and aid programs -- to say nothing of the political efforts of diplomatic missions. There has been no love lost since then, though the French in the recent decade reportedly have softened their proprietary approach.
The State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs has jealously guarded its status as the lead American representative in dealing with the former French territories. U.S. military and intelligence activities have had to be extremely careful to coordinate their activities with their diplomatic cousins. Some American ambassadors insisted on being “read-in” on even the highest classified projects in their role as “Chief of Mission.” This is of course a two-edged sword in that when a covert operation is compromised the diplomats have no deniability on which to fall back.
Nonetheless, as radical Islam has developed terrorist assets and operations in Africa, covert surveillance activities run from the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command began in 2007 to establish a network of militarily usable airstrips and hardened airfields throughout the interior of the continent. Originally a tangential responsibility of the 10th Special Forces Group, the operations against al Qaeda-related groups came to fall under the newly created AFRICOM. A full-scale operation to track down the Ugandan fugitive rebel commander, Joseph Kony, also has become a major commitment of U.S. Special Operations Forces.
The Pentagon has taken over the principal paramilitary anti-terrorist ops mission from the CIA, a fact that veterans of its Special Activities Division lament, but its intelligence gathering and political action elements applaud because it has enlarged their component of the budget. At least that’s what the Washington Post explained in its exclusive story last spring “blowing” the whole Africa operations story.
As difficult as it is to keep secrets these days in Washington, anywhere in Africa it is quite impossible. There really is no such thing as a truly covertly financed intelligence operation that can stay that way for very long. Whether it is north or south of the Sahara, the fact of receiving support -- financial or materiel -- from the Americans is something that enhances one’s reputation and is soon exposed. Only the deepest penetration of an enemy organization has a chance of being held secret.
Flying small airplanes out of tens of odd airstrips and expanded established airfields for the purpose of surveillance and supply in key areas does attract attention to itself. Along the same line, the 50 Army Special Forces troopers that President Obama informed Congress on December 27 had been deployed to Chad were hardly hidden from sight. It does send word that the Obama White House wants it known that the U.S. is taking on a responsible role in Africa. Is that the same as a responsibility for Africa? And all this is happening while the White House signals withdrawal from other more militarily demanding and strategically important regions!
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