Covert US Operations in Africa Are Sowing the Seeds of Future Crises

This March, Malian forces attacked Moura, a small sunbaked town in the middle of the country. The operation began on a market day, as locals streamed into the area with their livestock. Residents recall hearing helicopters slash the air and soldiers disembark with grim resolve. Malian forces and Russian-speaking combatants laid siege to the village for multiple days, reportedly slaughtering civilians and wreathing corpses in flames. In a clinically worded communiqué, the government announced that the army completed a “systematic cleaning of the zone” with “very precise intelligence,” killing 203 jihadists.

Immediately, investigators contested its account, Human Rights Watch labeling the operation “the worst atrocity in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.” Estimates of civilian deaths range as high as 500. Another episode in a litany of atrocities, the United Nations has urged investigation of the latest scandal in Mali’s war against jihadism.

Yet the massacre also signifies the failure of United States policy, as Mali occupies the center of U.S. strategy in the Sahel region. Since 2007, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has vigorously partnered with states to combat jihadism, bolster influence, and check Russian and Chinese competition. Rather than secure peace, U.S. intervention has internationalized local conflicts, deepened social divisions and fostered militarism.

Its failure has profound roots. The Malian crisis and other conflicts are inseparable from a cascading history of U.S. interventionism in Africa.

Post-Colonial Militarism

AFRICOM policy directly builds on the Cold War. After World War II, the U.S. discreetly promoted Western retrenchment in Africa. Officials helped Europeans reassert colonial mastery in order to forge a unified capitalist bloc and support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They notably armed France during its bitter war in Algeria, which became the emblematic struggle over colonialism.

But as the conflict drained Western legitimacy, U.S. policy makers encouraged Europeans to substitute informal hegemony for territorial occupation. Paradoxically, a new imperial order emerged with decolonization. Western capitals maintained effective sovereignty through a balance of “soft” and “hard” power: the haze of ideology, capital markets, political pressure, military bases, and other tools that could plunge a former colony into chaos.

Lacking comparable tools in Africa, the U.S. initially outsourced imperialism to European allies. Yet gradually, the U.S. cast a searing shadow, backing coups to smother radicalism, open markets and combat Soviet influence.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo first felt its weight in 1960. U.S. officials regarded the country as a subterranean treasure trove brimming with strategic minerals. Yet they viewed its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, with acute anxiety. Lumumba refused to accept Western hegemony, while celebrating Congolese independence as “a decisive step towards the liberation of the entire African continent.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wished he would fall into a river full of crocodiles. That summer, he schemed to assassinate Lumumba and install a pliant substitute. The CIA deemed “his removal” an “urgent and prime objective.”

Eventually, secessionists compelled Lumumba to request UN intervention. Yet as the historian Elizabeth Schmidt observes, the operation was “largely an American affair.” The U.S. ferried UN troops to the Congo, while snatching power from Lumumba. After he thwarted their grasp, the CIA helped local officials apprehend him. They handed Lumumba over to secessionists, who brutally murdered him before an approving audience of Western observers.

Lumumba’s assassination was a cruel premonition. In following years, U.S. leaders ruthlessly eliminated exponents of African liberation. They especially targeted Kwame Nkrumah, the elegant colossus of pan-Africanism. After Lumumba fell, Nkrumah warned that “neo-colonialism” threatened to subvert African independence, reducing states to shells “directed from outside.”

Nkrumah turned Ghana into a bastion of revolution, offering safe haven to anti-colonial movements and inspiring U.S. civil rights activists. In response, the State Department froze loans and depressed global cocoa prices, throttling Ghana’s economy. Officers finally struck in February 1966. U.S. officials gloated that the new military government was “almost pathetically pro-Western.”

In 1957, Ghana’s liberation was the symbolic catalyst of African independence, lending decolonization an irresistible air of inevitability. By contrast, Nkrumah’s downfall solidified an ominous trend toward military rule. Before 1965, coups were relatively rare. Within less than two decades, military leaders governed 40 percent of Africa.

Ultimately, U.S. strategy curbed the promise of independence and accelerated the drift toward militarism, while carving the continent into invisible yet enduring spheres of influence. Repeatedly, U.S. partners waged catastrophic proxy wars across the region. Nkrumah’s critique of neocolonialism proved prophetic: “For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.”

The Third Scramble

After the Cold War, official interest in the continent waned. But eventually, a new scramble for Africa ignited. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has rallied to contain Russian and Chinese influence, while securing access to strategic resources.

Above all, the 9/11 attacks put Africa back on the U.S.’s radar. Policy makers worried about the ability of African governments with limited penetrative powers and resources to confront jihadism. In particular, they regarded the Sahara as a blistering power vacuum of sand and stone, a scabrous waste where extremists operated beyond the reach of fragile Sahelian states.

Evincing racist overtones, U.S. officials evoked a continent full of “terrorist breeding grounds.” Gen. Charles Wald insisted, “We need to drain the swamp,” adding that, “The United States learned a lesson in Afghanistan — you don’t let things go.”

In 2007, the U.S. established AFRICOM, the first unified military command for Africa. Officials located its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, while amassing an extensive archipelago of bases. Tellingly, the central node was Camp Lemonnier, a former outpost of the French empire in Djibouti. Strategically perched on the Gulf of Aden, the sun-drenched fort sprawls across 500 acres. It became the busiest drone base outside Afghanistan, blowing its cover when a Predator drone crashed into a neighborhood with a live Hellfire missile.

By 2013, AFRICOM pursued programs in at least 49 countries. Once more, the U.S. discreetly trained local forces, collected intelligence and waged war.

That year, Capt. Robert Smith addressed Special Operations Command Africa at a formal ceremony. “Forces are deploying as we speak…. [Our] mission does not stop,” he stressed. “Some people like to think that Africa is our next ridgeline,” he said, pausing for effect. “Africa is our current ridgeline.”

Captain Smith then cited his commander, Gen. James Linder: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.” The bellicose quote became a self-fulling prophecy. By 2019, the U.S. military pursued more operations in Africa than the Middle East.

Air Pirates

AFRICOM’s first major battlefield was Somalia, then reeling from the legacy of past interventions. U.S. policy makers had turned the country into one of the largest recipients of military aid after its disastrous 1977 invasion of Ethiopia. Once assistance dried up, the government collapsed in 1991, plunging the country into chaos. Warlords carved Somalia into rival fiefdoms, while a devastating famine swept the region. In 2006, an alliance of Muslim leaders, the Islamic Courts Union, finally reestablished order. Ethiopia then invaded with U.S. backing, shattering the tentative peace and allowing the extremist group, al-Shabab, to gain ascendance.

Privately, regional leaders expressed little faith in the Somali government and warned that the military would collapse without U.S. aid, “increasing the ranks of the fundamentalists.” In 2013, President Barack Obama deployed troops to bolster the army and African Union Mission in Somalia. He also waged drone warfare, displacing thousands of civilians.

In 2017, policy makers relaxed rules for airstrikes, enabling the military to assess targets using only four criteria: age, gender, location and proximity to al-Shabab. Testifying before Congress, AFRICOM Commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser soothed concerns, emphasizing, “I’m very comfortable with how this is being done.” Operations skyrocketed, entailing at least 196 airstrikes in four years. AFRICOM invariably labeled the dead as “combatants” until Amnesty International exposed numerous civilian casualties, suggesting that officials spread “a smokescreen for impunity.”

But the U.S. did more than prowl the skies. In August 2017, U.S. troops oversaw operations in the Lower Shabelle, a lush region known for its profusion of banana and mango trees. They massacred 10 civilians, including at least one child. One resident recalled listening to his friend bleed to death from a gunshot wound as a U.S. soldier held his head to the ground with a boot. Apparently, local officials enlisted the unit to attack a rival clan. U.S. Special Forces placed arms around the corpses, photographed them and demanded Somalia whitewash the massacre. Months later, General Waldhauser appeared before Congress. “I wouldn’t characterize that we’re at war,” he reassured legislators. “It’s specifically designed for us to not own that.”

Desert Illusions

As operations in Somalia escalated, AFRICOM promoted an interlocking defense network for the Sahel. In turn, Sahelian leaders exploited the global “war on terror,” milking the new master discourse to deflect criticism, render local conflicts legible to Western bureaucrats and exact “terrorism rents” — tapping the awesome financial and military largesse of the U.S. for their own aggrandizement.

Perhaps nowhere was this truer than Mali. U.S. leaders touted the country as a model, lauding its “strong and valuable … democratic tradition.” In reality, its transition from military rule in 1991 spawned a repressive democracy: a state with hollow institutions, rampant graft and an indistinguishable elite that rotated through ritual elections. The World Bank concluded that corruption in the country was a “generalised sociological phenomenon.”

Corruption thoroughly corroded the military. As an extravagant form of coup-proofing, Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré promoted 104 officers to the rank of general, reducing the defense budget to political patronage. A senior U.S. official recalled that “corruption was present” — “officers would withhold pay or steer contracts to family members.” Meanwhile, AFRICOM found bases wracked by power outages and supply shortages.

In 2012, U.S. policy shattered this status quo. That year, the U.S. exploited the Arab Spring to topple Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, which officials previously embraced as “a top partner” against terrorism. Airstrikes pushed expatriate Tuareg fighters back into northern Mali, who then rallied to overthrow the government. As Tuareg rebels and jihadists seized control of the country, U.S.-trained forces defected to the enemy. While order collapsed, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo ousted Malian President Touré, lambasting his inept management of the crisis. Ironically, AFRICOM had trained Captain Sanogo, yet he too proved incapable.

Ultimately, French intervention in “Operation Serval” repelled the rebels, yet incited charges of colonialism. Tellingly, France helped Mali draft the letter requesting assistance. French officials then pushed post-coup elections through to legitimate the invasion retroactively. Rapid elections checked the shift to military rule but papered over long-festering problems that sparked the crisis.

Over the next decade, the military aid pipeline gushed, as U.S. and French leaders embraced Mali as a wavering domino against jihadism. They diagnosed the root issue as weak governance, propounding “the return of the state” and beefing up the military. AFRICOM regarded jihadists as roving internationalists, rootless ideologues operating beyond the withered arm of the law. But the state was the problem: the unmistakable corruption, violence and discrimination that ignited the uprising. Although jihadists spoke in universals, their grievances were startlingly parochial. Religion offered rhetorical artillery for addressing local issues such as grazing rights, ethnic tensions and crooked bureaucrats.

At times, the state and jihadism themselves blurred. Regional elites colluded with both camps to maximize their influence. The Tuareg powerbroker, Iyad ag Ghaly, was particularly shameless. As the war on terror escalated, he encouraged the U.S. to launch “targeted special operations” against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). “Ag Ghali estimated that the AQIM had little to no support amongst the native populations,” the embassy elaborated. After failing to gain control of secular Tuareg organizations, he formed the jihadist group, Ansar al-Din, and swiftly affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Spreading Crises

AFRICOM’s strategy progressively backfired. As the U.S. supported Sahelian forces, they pushed jihadists into surrounding states and heightened social tensions. The brisk infusion of military aid and rising defense budgets only exacerbated corruption and militarism. Senior Nigerien officials overcharged the government for defense contracts, igniting a scandal that one diplomat called “the greatest predatory act in the history of Niger.” Militarism also worsened in Burkina Faso, where the constitution already allowed soldiers to wield extraordinary influence in politics. U.S.-led officers including Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, who previously appeared in glossy AFRICOM advertisements, executed coups in 2014 and 2015.

As states failed to identify jihadists, they punished entire communities and operations devolved into ethnic warfare. In Burkina Faso, Malian and Burkinabé forces waged bloody campaigns against the predominately Muslim Fulani. “It’s not that all Fulani are terrorists, it’s that most terrorists are Fulani,” an officer explained. Human Rights Watch found mass graves in Djibo, where authorities slaughtered 180 people, leaving the bodies to rot under the scorching sun. Ironically, violence against the Fulani compounded communal grievances, while driving civilians to jihadism for protection.

The bloodshed profoundly implicated Western forces, which fostered a climate of impunity. French troops described joint operations as “butchery.” In Cameroon, AFRICOM launched drone strikes from the same compound where local soldiers tortured civilians.

Secrecy also incentivized financial manipulation. In Mali, members of SEAL Team 6, the fabled unit that killed Osama bin Laden, murdered Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar in 2017 after he threatened to report embezzled funds. “The system is ripe for abuse,” admitted a former officer. “We knew this money wasn’t being tracked, and guys were stuffing their pockets.” Even at the senior level, Pentagon auditors discovered inexcusable accounting practices.

All Fall Down

In 2020, the elaborate defense system imploded. That August, another U.S.-trained officer, Col. Assimi Goïta, seized office in the Malian capital of Bamako, again citing the security crisis. His power grab initiated a wave of six coups in five countries within two years, immersing Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan and Burkina Faso in chaos. AFRICOM had trained many of the plotters. In Guinea, local forces paused an exercise with U.S. Army Green Berets to storm the capital. Most coup leaders cited the threat of jihadism and poor governance — crises that AFRICOM had not solved but aggravated. Before 2001, U.S. officials registered no terrorist organizations in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2019, they tallied nearly 50.

For years, AFRICOM had inflamed long-standing local conflicts, wrenching societies apart and lending jihadism meaning. And now, in a reverse domino effect, the very forces it enlisted to fight were rebelling.

Tensions with Mali have compelled Western forces to scale back operations. This February, France announced troop withdrawals, while waning confidence in the West prompted local authorities to hire Russian mercenaries. AFRICOM Commander Gen. Stephen Townsend warned that the decision would conclude in “horrific violence against Africans.”

Two weeks later, the Moura massacre unfolded. In the resulting fallout, Mali dissolved defense agreements with European allies this May, while accusing France of espionage. The military junta then abandoned the G5 Sahel, prompting President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger to announce that the region’s main security organization was “dead.”

UN forces remain in Mali, sustaining heavy losses, investigating an exponential increase in human rights violations and defending an abrasive government that lacks control over the majority of its territory. Meanwhile, the UN warns that 18 million residents in the Sahel face severe hunger, as war and famine sweep through the region.

Yet the mounting crisis also implicates the U.S. AFRICOM regards itself as enviably sleek and deadly effective, an elite force that fights “tomorrow’s wars today.” But in practice, operations resemble previous neocolonial interventions, fostering military rule and human rights violations. In truth, AFRICOM fights yesterday’s wars tomorrow: As U.S. forces intensify local conflicts and militarism, they sow the seeds of future crises.

The author would like to thank Sarah Priscilla Lee of the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University for reviewing this article.