African Lion: Neo-colonial AFRICOM Completes Annual Military Exercises

AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) is wrapped up their annual military exercises, “African Lion,” on June 18. The primary purpose of these exercises is to provide military support to Morocco, Tunisia, and Senegal. Other European nations, the Netherlands, Georgia, Italy, and the UK, are also participating.

This round of exercises began on June 7, and according to the AFRICOM website have this purpose:

“The African Lion series enhances the interoperability of the U.S., partner nations and regional organizations in order to contain regional instability, conduct peace operations, counter violent extremist organizations, maintain cross-border security and counter transnational threats. The scope of African Lion provides an opportunity for all participating units and nations to enhance readiness by performing their mission essential functions.”

This year, the exercises have taken place in part in Western Sahara, a disputed territory that Morocco claims as its own, while many in the local population maintain is an independent state. The Trump administration announced late last year that is was recognizing Western Sahara as part of Morocco, a move that the Biden administration has said they will not reverse.

Spain, which usually participates in African Lion, has not this year, officially stating budgetary limitations as the reason, but some government officials have admitted that the real reason is that the government does not want to legitimize Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.

The War on Terror as Neo-colonialism

The US military’s description that the African Lion exercises help “to contain regional instability” is a curious one—not because it is strange objective. Quite the opposite. But it’s about time we get less comfortable with this language because the motivations for it have allowed havoc to be wreaked on Africa. Yes, there’s always a bit of instability, but in the case of Africa and the War on Terror, perhaps instability is good for business and geopolitical interests.

As we have seen with the US’s drone program, where suspected terrorists are considered legitimate targets, much of their military strategy is based on perceived threat. As explained well by Stephanie Savell of Brown University Costs of War project, after 9/11, the US adopted a policy of “preemptive war,” as they had done during the Cold War, “holding that the U.S. could launch military interventions to remove a perceived threat ‘before the threat was imminent.’”[1] This policy stretched to Africa.

AFRICOM: A Colonial Tool?

AFRICOM was established under the Bush administration in 2007, with the support and vision of the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. AFRICOM’s role was “preventing war in countries ‘where violent conflict has not yet emerged, where crises have to be prevented.’”[2] AFRICOM is not based in Africa but instead in Europe. According to Save;;, “no African country would agree to host it, seeing it as too redolent of Western colonialism and fearing it would create a target for militant strikes. Basing AFRICOM there also made it easier to coordinate with Europeans, who as a legacy of the colonial era had a greater presence on the continent.”[3] A 2007 NPR article reporting on the then new AFRICOM states that AFRICOM was based in Stuttgart but “awaiting a new permanent home on the continent.” The headquarters, 14 years later, are still in Stuttgart. Consider this point posed by historian David Vine:

“While many in the United States take it for granted that the U.S. military maintains hundreds of bases in places as far flung as Germany and Japan…the thought of finding a foreign base anywhere near a U.S. border is basically unimaginable.”[4]

That’s why it’s important not to normalize AFRICOM and its activities all of which are supposedly part of its program of “supporting” Africa, and that support is rooted in perceived, not necessarily observed threats. These efforts help to prop-up corrupt governments in the continent, many of whom have populations struggling to get by, living below the poverty line and well aware that they cannot rely on their governments to help improve their situations.

What is the purpose of this [secular] colonialism? Are the Muslims of Africa (around 44 percent of the population) truly benefitting from AFRICOM? For every humanitarian operation advertised on their website, there is support to corrupt governments who make matters worse. What’s more, there are also secret programs, allowed under “section 127e,” that allow the US to actually direct battles between local soldiers and local militants. One green beret described this to POLITICO as “it’s less ‘we’re helping you,’ and more, ‘you’re doing our bidding.’” American soldiers directing local African troops to perform operations that are in favor of American interests. This is colonialism.

Given that AFRICOM was the brainchild of an administration who in part needed to take the burden off of Central Command (CENTCOM) and European Command (EUCOM), who were too busy invading Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s reasonable to assume, and the current state of many African countries adds to that assumption, that AFRICOM, if anything, is adding to instability.

Militant groups exist in Africa, yes, but the reasons for their existence are not being addressed. Furthermore, as Savell discusses, it’s not even clear to what extent the US’s perceived threats in Africa have been based in reality. Until governments are willing to sit down and seriously discuss the origins of these conflicts and the people who are suffering and the corrupt leaders they are in bed with who are making matters worse, the terrorization of Africa through these neo-colonial ventures that above all seek self-interest—will continue.

Notes

  1. Savell, Stephanie. “The Costs of United States’ Post-9/11 ‘Security Assistance’: How Counterterrorism Intensified Conflict in Burkina Faso and Around the World.” https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2021/Costs%20of%20Counterterrorism%20in%20Burkina%20Faso_Costs%20of%20War_Savell.pdf, p.1.
  2. Ibid., p.6.
  3. Ibid., p6.
  4. Vine, David. The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State. Berkley: University of California Press, 2020, p.2.
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