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Opinion

Attacks in Mali, Libya, Algeria show why Africa still needs US support

Attacks by Islamist insurgents on US outposts in Benghazi, Libya, at a gas plant in Algeria, and in Mali expose several reasons for persistent security weakness across Africa. For one thing, many countries are too poor to supply the funds and soldiers for regional peace efforts.

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That threat influenced the decision to create the new US Africa Command during the second half of the Bush administration. Prior to that move, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa fell under different purviews within the Pentagon. Removing this bureaucratic “seam” helped streamline and focus US counterterrorism initiatives in the region.

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But African leaders balked at the prospect of a continuous US military presence on the continent and resisted the establishment of bases from which to train and advise regional and national African forces. So instead the US government sponsors regional counter-terrorism programs from a distance and has American National Guard units work with African military units for periodic training exercises.

More is needed. The violent attacks in Benghazi and eastern Algeria were notably similar to the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in two significant ways. They were well-planned and they hit Western targets in countries that are vital US allies in their respective regions. They show that Al Qaeda and like-minded extremist groups remain determined to disrupt those alliances any way they can – this time on Europe’s doorstep.

Africa’s experiment in a regional approach to security is serious and laudable, but it will take time to build credible capacity. In just two weeks French troops have halted and pushed back extremist advances in Mali, whereas West African leaders were unable for nearly a year to mobilize a regional force. There is no substitute for strong national armies when it comes to protecting development in fragile and fledgling democracies.

That lesson has a corollary: Building strong national armies in weak states requires a long-term international commitment in treasure and possibly peacekeeping troops. The crisis in the Sahel, to use outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s expression, has made enduring engagement in Africa a “strategic necessity.”
  
Kurt Shillinger was the Africa security and terrorism research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg from 2005 to 2008.

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