U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command meets with Ghanaian military leaders after arriving in Ghana as part of four-day trip to West Africa beginning Sept. 20, 2021. (Credit: Africom.mil)
The U.S. has been waging wars in Africa since the 1950s. The creation of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008 is only the logical development of a process of control meant to deny Africans democracy, self-determination and dignity.
Troops trained by AFRICOM have been behind nine coups d’etat on the African continent in the thirteen years of the military command’s existence. All but one of the G5 Sahel countries have experienced a coup in that period, and the military training that the U.S. and France provide to troops in these countries through the various AFRICOM exercises and the French Foreign Legion among other installations, present a serious concern. A 2017 study using data from 189 countries shows that greater numbers of military officers trained by the U.S. Military increase the probability of a military coup, and as Netfa Freeman wrote previously, AFRICOM serves as a “coup incubator” by emboldening a military class on the African continent that the U.S. can’t control.
The reasoning that the military troops often provide for carrying out coups d’etat, including the recent coup in Burkina Faso, often points to the inability of their comprador heads of state to effectively deal with armed opposition groups in their countries. The U.S./E.U./NATO war on Libya, in which AFRICOM played an important role, was pivotal in the enhancement of the military capabilities of these armed opposition groups and their proliferation across the Sahel. Western imperialist countries supported these groups in Libya, and they are now wreaking havoc in different parts of the continent.
As Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara once stated, “without patriotic political education, a soldier is only a potential criminal.” The officers involved in the recent coup in Burkina Faso, as well as the eight previous coups d’etat in the region, not only lacked patriotic political education, they participated in military training that came with indoctrination about colonization and the role the U.S., French, and European forces have played in Africa. It is almost impossible for these officers to develop or maintain any revolutionary consciousness.
Though there is a rejection of Western domination by the masses in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, it is incorrect to assume that these coups d’etat are any threat to Western neo-colonialism. A successful challenge to neo-colonialism would go far beyond an effort from military officers that lacks commitment to genuine anti-imperialism. As Kwame Nkrumah one said, “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked to the total liberation of the African continent.” A commitment to participatory democratic processes and self-determination is necessary, along with the understanding that African countries must pursue Pan-African unity to defend themselves from foreign domination.
U.S. Out of Africa: Voices from the Struggle
Tunde Osuzua (of the AFRICOM Watch Bulletin (AWB) speaks with Lauren Gould, who is Assistant Professor in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and the director of the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme on new strategies of remote warfare across Africa and the Middle East.
AWB: Would you please describe the concept of “liquid warfare” as it relates to U.S. military operations on the African continent?
Lauren Gould: Aiming to define the ‘new newness’ of interventionist warfare, we look to Western state-led operations as a marked shift away from ‘boots on the ground’ deployments towards light-footprint military interventions, involving a combination of drone strikes and airstrikes, special forces, intelligence operatives, private contractors, and military-to-military (M2M) training teams on the ground. Largely, these military interventions (and their lived realities) remain hidden from Western publics. And if they incidentally appear on our screens, the shadowy mix of alliances and actors involved makes it hard to trace lines of responsibility and underlying power constellations. This elusiveness is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, larger audiences are (effectively) confused into indifference, and, importantly, those at the receiving end of the violence are unable to hold governments to account. War is rendered invisible and normalized.
The ‘newness’ of war can be attributed to three developments. First, the horrors of interventionist ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq invoked a sense of risk aversion and war fatigue, ushering in a ‘post-interventionist’ or ‘pull-back’ era. As a reaction, the U.S. and its coalition partners (but also major powers such as Russia and Saudi Arabia) have combined a resort to ‘precision’ airstrikes with a shift to smaller, clandestine, more focused interventions. Second, the turn to military robotics (and drones in particular) is a key feature of interventionist warfare. What is often implied is that somehow new technologies are the drivers behind new forms of warfare. Third, and equally prominent, is the debate on the networked nature of war. Simply put, the argument goes that because the ‘enemies of the state’ are now operating through shadowy networks and cells, the state has to resort to similar tactics. Elements within the U.S. military and related agencies, legitimated (and ‘legalized’) by the War on Terror, have increasingly adopted more networked forms of organization, which has made possible the integration of drones and new technologies into so-called counternetwars, in which ‘hybrid blends of hierarchies and networks … mount strike operations across shadowy transnational battle spaces’. What is in fact implied is that ‘shadow warfare’ results from the state mimicking its enemies.
War is an alternative system of profit, power and protection. Wars are produced; they are made to happen by a diverse and complicated set of actors who may well be achieving their objectives in the midst of what looks like failure and breakdown. The changing nature of interventionist warfare cannot be attributed to reactive impulses or strategies alone. Rather, ‘war fatigue’, ‘remote technology’ and ‘enemy networks’ provide additional conditions of possibility for the spatial and temporal reconfiguration of war. As with the case of AFRICOM, they offer new opportunities to further what the U.S. Department of Defense articulates as “shaping the international security environment in ways that promote and protect U.S. interests.” Paying tribute to Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity vocabulary and Derek Gregory’s notion of ‘everywhere war’, we use the term ‘liquid warfare’ to highlight how conventional ties between war, space and time have become undone. Liquid warfare is about flexible, open-ended, ‘pop-up’ military interventions, supported by remote technology and reliant on local partnerships and private contractors, through which (coalitions of) parties aim to promote and protect interests. Liquid warfare is thus temporally open-ended and eventful, as well as spatially dispersed and mobile.
AWB: What brought about the “newness” of war?
LG: The origins of the temporal reconfiguration of modern war, and particularly U.S. warfare, can be traced back to the 1950’s. The U.S. doctrine of the past 60 years is that of a long and consistent pattern of military expansionism in the service of empire, which some have termed ‘forever’ or ‘permanent’ war. We have to rethink late modern war not merely in terms of time but also in terms of space and territoriality. Whereas wars in the past were conducted in ‘resolutely territorial terms’, we now have to ‘supplement cartographic reason by other, more labile spatialities’ (Gregory, 2011: 239). War has become mobile. The concept of the battlefield in U.S. doctrine is replaced by a multiscalar, multidimensional battlescape. The geocentric concept of war is now opposed to a target-centered one, attached to the bodies of the enemy prey.
Although the War on Terror is often seen as the starting point of this ‘mobile turn’, we can see the military interventionism that ensued from it as a climactic summation of a longer history of ‘globalizing wars’ in which the goal is not to take over territory but to ‘remove the obstacles on the road to a truly global freedom of economic forces’. The power of the state in late modernity rests upon credit ratings, corporate capacity and global market shares, not on the capture of territory. Control over resources is of key importance, but access is arranged through free trade regimes, leasing and contracting, large scale land purchases, forestry permits, and ‘accumulation by conservation’, rather than territorial conquest. In contrast to the direct colonial era of rule, ascendancy over a territory has ‘ceased to be the stake of the global power struggle’. Today’s wars look like ‘the promotion of global free trade by other means’. This has been labeled ‘military neoliberalism’: a useful shorthand for the increasingly military means whereby the state seeks to make the world ‘safe’ for global capital. What we notice for the case of AFRICOM is that the major technique of interventionism is the rejection not just of geopolitical territorial confinement but also of biopolitical notions of controlling the life and death of populations, along with the related responsibilities and costs of order and nation-building. Instead, what is at its core is the notion of ‘shaping’ – pursued by ‘forward presence’ and ‘forward posture’ in military terms.
We here include the above-mentioned temporal and spatial dimensions in the way we define liquid warfare as a form of military interventionism that shuns direct control of territory and populations and its cumbersome order-building and order-maintaining responsibilities, focusing instead on ‘shaping’ the international security environment through remote technology, flexible operations and M2M partnerships. Key to such an understanding of liquid warfare is its inherently indirect and assembled nature. Because of its reliance on remote management, it works through assemblages of heterogeneous and changing ‘partnerships’, which are often full of friction.
AWB: How does AFRICOM fit into liquid warfare?
LG: The hunt for Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA rebel movement that was at war with the Ugandan government for over two decades, features as one of the campaigns justifying U.S. extrastate military engagement in Africa. Other more recent examples are ‘destroying’ Al-Shabaab, ‘countering’ Islamic State and AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), and ‘blunting’ Boko Haram, as well as the open-ended campaign to contain the fallout from the 2011 military intervention that ousted Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya. These operations are coordinated by AFRICOM. In 2008, AFRICOM became the leading organization responsible for U.S. military and security policy towards Africa. According to its mission statement, AFRICOM ‘builds defense capabilities, responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity’. The 2011 National Military Strategy stresses the importance of establishing partnerships between the U.S. and African governments to help ‘facilitate the African Union’s many security challenges’. In more unguarded moments, however, officials have been more straightforward: Vice-Admiral Robert Moeller, at a conference in 2008, declared that AFRICOM was about preserving ‘the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market’, while citing terrorism, oil disruption and China as major ‘challenges to U.S. interests’.
The U.S. has been fighting wars in Africa since the 1950s – in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Morocco, Libya and Djibouti, to name but a few countries. In some cases, this has involved overt military operations using U.S. troops, operating from large military bases such as Wheelus Field in Libya (stationing 4600 U.S. personnel) and Kagnew Station in Asmara (home to 5000 U.S. personnel at its peak during the 1960s). U.S. military engagement during the Cold War also involved clandestine military operations and the financing and arming of local forces. Washington’s militarization efforts were accelerated after 9/11, when Africa became the ‘new frontier’ in global counterterrorism operations, and were centralized under AFRICOM in 2008. AFRICOM’s mode of operation represents a change from large deployments of U.S. troops to more flexible and lighter operations. It has neither permanent combat troops assigned to it, nor even any permanent official bases housing U.S. troops in Africa, with the exception of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.
Instead, it aims to work through African partners. As Branch explains, ‘AFRICOM is being built through informal base sharing agreements with African states and through the establishment of barebones facilities, so-called “lily-pads” or “cooperative security locations,” which can be converted into functioning U.S. military bases in 24–48 hours’ – something we refer to as ‘pop-up warfare’. Moreover, the focus is on security cooperation, including military-to-military training. According to data supplied by U.S. Special Operations Command, there are 1700 people dedicated to assisting the U.S. military’s African partners, spread out across 20 countries, conducting 96 activities at any given time. AFRICOM claims ‘these activities build strong, enduring partnerships with African nations, regional and international organizations, and other states that are committed to improving security in Africa’. In practice, this means that African troops are doing the actual fighting and dying on the ground while AFRICOM performs most of the support tasks, such as logistics, medical support, surveillance and training.
AWB: Thank you for your time and analysis!
Tunde Osazua is on the Africa Team of the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) and Coordinator of BAP’s US Out of Africa Network.