Africa key to Pentagon counterterrorism strategy
WASHINGTON, Sep 14: Nearly five years after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Africa has emerged as a leading front in a US military campaign to deny al Qaeda a new safe haven in the continent's vast, hard-to-govern regions.
Small groups of special forces, known as A-teams and often numbering less than a dozen soldiers, have begun traversing the hinterlands of more than a dozen countries in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and Sahara regions.
Pentagon officials say the main aim is to help African governments from Sudan to Senegal and Nigeria train and equip local troops to combat Islamist militants in swathes of open country, already known as havens for smugglers and bandits.
Meanwhile, even smaller units of U.S. civil affairs troops have travelled to remote villages to dispense medical care, dig wells and build schools, hoping to make militancy less attractive.
''They're also identifying all the watering holes and any natural features, like caves, that could be used as the basis for training camps. And they're trying to establish links with local people to find out who's in the passing caravans seen by satellites,'' said a former intelligence official.
The strategy, known to Pentagon officials as ''low-intensity warfare,'' has been used by the U.S. military in developing countries since World War Two.
Similar campaigns are under way from the Philippines to the Caucasus and Latin America, and ultimately could grow to include 60 countries, according to independent analysts.
The objective, officials say, is to use a combination of humanitarian aid and small-scale military force to undermine insurgencies long before they can threaten local governments allied with the U.S. war on terrorism.
''These operations exist on every continent except Antarctica and Australia,'' said Wade Ishimoto, senior Pentagon adviser for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
''We can quell insurgencies. We can quell insurgents. You can suppress them to the point that they're not threatening the livelihood of an entire government,'' he said.
With almost 170,000 U S forces committed to Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts view the low-intensity strategy as a potentially effective way to avoid major security problems that could require large new troop deployments.
''The ideal is El Salvador in the 1980s, where the whole U S force structure was limited to 55 special forces operatives who actually achieved more than 550,000 troops did in Vietnam,'' said Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. Africa, with its rich energy and mineral reserves, has become increasingly important to Pentagon strategists as they prepare for the expected return of battle-hardened African Islamists from Iraq over the next five years.
''We're talking about a very limited number of al Qaeda operatives now, and a limited number of al Qaeda-associated groups,'' said Andre Le Sage of the National Defense University's Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
''But ... we have to acknowledge a broader political development of Islamist movements across the region. As these movements become more political, become stronger, they could become destabilising.''
Africa has already witnessed a number of attacks, most notably the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people.
US officials say al Qaeda operatives, including embassy bombing suspects, are in Somalia and Sudan while fund-raising and recruiting have become a serious worry in South Africa, Nigeria and the trans-Sahara region.
Porous borders and lax government controls in the Sahel -- the southern fringe of the Sahara -- have already allowed easy movement for militant groups such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Given all that, Pentagon officials are considering a new Africa Command that would give its undivided attention to a continent now shared by three U.S. military entities -- Central Command, European Command and Pacific Command.
The Defense Department has about 2,000 personnel in the Horn of Africa alone and is expected to spend over 100 million dollars in the trans-Sahara region by the end of next September.
But experts differ on how effective the campaign can be without larger infusions of humanitarian aid, especially in the form of civilian assistance from Washington.
''There must be a lot of focus placed on giving support to local people, because without local people al Qaeda cannot operate,'' said Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna.
John Prendergast, an Africa specialist with the International Crisis Group, said the Pentagon strategy so far has amounted to little more than a public relations campaign for the military.
''It's very little, and the training is a drop in the ocean,'' he said. ''The locals see right through it.''