As his country’s troops began pushing back an Islamist insurgency in Mali earlier this month, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius emphasized that “our African friends need to take the lead” in defending that North African country and the region.
Mr. Fabius was addressing a summit of African military leaders in West Africa. But his plea missed an obvious point: Malian officials would not have requested French intervention if they or their regional partners had the capacity to roll back the insurgents themselves.
Two decades have passed since the end of apartheid in South Africa – the final dividing line with the colonial era. In that time, the continent’s leaders have steadily built new regional and Africa-wide economic and security structures to spur development and break the seemingly intractable presence of war.
The thinking is that collective strength can compensate for individual state weakness. This effort may well be helping economically. Sub-Saharan Africa has posted some of the world’s highest sustained economic growth rates over the past decade. But joint African military deployments have yielded only fleeting success in the continent’s worst hot spots.
First, the multinational forces of the regions and of the larger African Union require financial and personnel contributions from the member states. Both are missing in sufficient supply. The majority of sub-Saharan countries are still among the world’s poorest. Many simply cannot afford to honor their pledges of dollars and soldiers to regional peace efforts.
West African leaders have been talking about sending a regional force to Mali since a coup d’etat last March. They are still looking for funding, and on Jan. 29 will gather again to woo international donors.
Second, weak governance undermines security. One of the stated motives behind the Mali coup last year was the military’s frustration with the government’s tepid response to advancing extremism in the country’s arid north. The putsch, obviously, failed to fix that problem.
Third, political disagreements among neighboring states weaken regional cooperation. In southern Africa, where the former liberation movements now in government have been reluctant to criticize each other, the region has failed to rein in Zimbabwe’s autocrat Robert Mugabe. Farther north, a simmering dispute between Morocco and Algeria over the former’s territorial claim to the Western Sahara – which Algeria rejects – has prevented tighter counter-terrorism cooperation between the two most influential powers in the region.
Geography affects the security of North Africa in another way. Insurgent groups and terrorists are finding haven in the semi-arid region of the Sahel, the vast transitional zone that stretches across North Africa and separates the Sahara Desert to the north from grassland savannahs. Uprooting those insurgents requires operating in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Troops from tropical sub-Saharan countries are ill-suited to the conditions of the Sahel.
Countries undergoing a dramatic political transition need sustained international support. Democratization in North Africa, like efforts to build effective governments in crisis states like Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, pose a riddle: Which is more important in thwarting insurgencies – security or economic and social development?
It is close to a false choice. Both are equally vital in creating the space for new governments to take root and civil society to flourish. Benghazi is only the latest consequence of unrealistic security expectations that the international community – in this case the United States – imposes on fledgling governments.
Since 9/11 the US has worried that “ungoverned spaces” – broad, sparsely populated areas far from national capitals – could function as portals for extremism in Africa. It now seems they do. Concentrated initially in East Africa, the elements of transnational terrorism have gradually spread across the Sahel, where they have found havens among cross-border smugglers and traditional nomadic groups.
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.
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.