While Eyes Were Watching Ukraine… Africa Was Ablaze

by Maj. Danny Sjursen, published on Antiwar.com, February 3, 2022

Let’s be honest: Americans don’t care about Africa – by and large, at least. Despite the lies we tell ourselves – and the raging debates we have – about PC-culture, critical race theory, and so on, this remains a salient fact. Sure, the delusion is soothing. It tends to bring virtue-signaled solace to many a liberal mainly concerned with showing off the latest in proper buzzwords. It offers the satisfaction of righteous rage to those conservatives mainly concerned with smearing snowflakes. But much of this – despite the genuine importance of the debates at hand – is theater, narcissistic navel-gazing gone amok. In reality, across the political and social spectrum most people maintain wildly Western – specifically Euro – centric world-views, and Africa still exists in their imaginations as (at best) one grand Sally Struthers-hostedSave-the-Children” commercial.

Just look at the coverage gap between Russo-Ukrainian hypotheticals in Eastern Europe, and a simultaneous array of actual African disasters unfolding before our (closed) eyes. Now, the crisis in Ukraine is no joke. The thing could kick-off the most egregious European conventional war since Hitler and Stalin locked horns. And this time there are nukes aplenty on both sides. Still, a few caveats seem salient. For starters, thousands of Africans – and even a few Western soldiers – are actually dying down there. Second, the conflicts in question involve – at least tangentially (or in alarmist Washingtonian heads) – some of the same competitors, such as the US, France, and Russia (plus China to boot!). Finally, as in Eastern Europe, the US – and other Western little brothers – bear much of the responsibility for, if not starting these conflict-fires, well…certainly accelerating them.

If for no other reasons (you know besides bountiful dead or starving human beings), here’s a brief rundown of the ruckus most of us mostly missed since making – and probably breaking – those New Year’s resolutions. It’s been nothing less than an Africa ablaze with war, coups, and conflict-catalyzed famine. So much for something new in ’22.

First stop on our meander of madness is Burkina Faso. This lovely landlocked country of some 20 million souls just suffered its third military coup in seven years. And there have been such takeovers in five separate African countries in just the last year – a worse wave than the continent has seen in some 40 years. Worse still, all three of the Burkinabe putsch-makers were U.S.-trained, including the latest – Lieutenant Colonel Damiba – who has taken part in a half-dozen or so American-led exercises in the region.

Damiba, by the way, is just one of nine US military-mentored West African officers to attempt an overthrow since the 2008 founding of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). In fact, there’s been just such a coup (or attempt) in every single one of G5 Sahel countries. These are the local governments that France – the former colonial power and the foreign lead in the area – has allied with, and thrown its hopes in, to fight regional rebels. So much for all that rule of law instruction the headquarters just loves to brag it provides partnered officers.

One reason many Burkinabe, and often other Africans, initially support such coups is the vague sense that uniformed leaders will better secure them from Islamist insurgents. Only that’s rarely the case. Usually putsches politically destabilize nations even further and rarely address the underlying issues motivating the rebellions – which currently litter West Africa. Nor does external intervention. Just ask the Pentagon itself. In a coincidence that’s almost too instructive, on the very same day the Burkinabe officers announced the latest coup, the Defense Department’s own Africa research center released a disturbing official report admitting that despite nearly 20 years of US military operations in the Sahel – regional attacks and deaths have only skyrocketed. Paris has proved equally impotent and/or counterproductive. Maybe that’s why coup-supporters were seen burning French flags at recent rallies in the capital of Ouagadougou.

Perhaps this next bit of indecency shouldn’t surprise anyone – since we all know Burkina Faso is just constantly on the tip of Americans’ tongues (cue a self-righteous, tempered by understandable, eye-roll) – but when the latest coup and the country’s conflicts do merit a mention in mainstream media it’s tied to (you guessed it!) Russia. Outlets like the New York Times have focused on the pro-Russian rhetoric of Burkinabe coup-backers at rallies and on social media as though it’s all a conspiracy cooked up in Moscow. It’s not.

More astute analysts would see all this pro-Russia chatter in Burkina Faso (just as in nearby Mali) for what it is: an outpouring of frustration with French (and US) counterinsurgent ineffectiveness and overall neo-imperialism, as well as an opportunistic attempt to garner Russian arms and/or mercenaries – rather than some sudden affection for Moscow per se. Unfortunately in this (Ukraine, anyone?) climate, that’s a formula for frantic alarmism in Washington and – to a slightly lesser extent – Paris.

Next there’s war-torn Mali, and everyone’s favorite paternalistic pugilism between former (French) masters and ex-colonial students – well, subjects. After a particularly motivated US military-trained Malian officer perpetrated his second coup in just nine months and subsequently refused to transition to provisional civilian rule, the US and France finally supported sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). That royally ticked-off the ruling military junta, and tensions rose to a fever pitch with France – awkward since Paris, the increasingly resented ex-colonial ruler, deploys most of its Sahel-based troops for Operation Barkhane in Mali.

Then, President Emmanuel Macron’s pre-election plans to drawdown from the failing, decade-long regional boondoggle led to a December withdrawal from bases in Northern Mali’s Timbuktu. In early January, the junta responded by hiring Russian Wagner Group mercenaries – and according to some reports, Russian military advisers – to train Malian troops in the area. Now it was Paris’s turn to be appalled. When, just last week, France’s foreign minister publicly criticized Russia’s “illegitimate” and “plundering” deployment, Mali announced on Monday that it was expelling the French ambassador. Suddenly, the entire edifice of Franco-American, and frankly Western, operations in the Sahel seems shaky.

Of course, Paris – and American politico-punditry – is making a mountain out of a molehill about Moscow’s Malian meddling. Mali has had existing ties – including many defense and arms agreements – with Russia since at least 1994. Besides, the Wagner Group’s track record of African adventures – like literally getting beat out of Mozambique by local insurgents in recent years – is hardly pristine. What it does jive with is the current American establishment mood, personified by a US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that funds the first strategic competition program for the continent expressly targeting Moscow and Beijing since the Soviet Union collapsed. It seems the African canvas will be also be a bloody setting for Cold War 2.0 – despite the deaths of maybe millions of locals that such strategies caused last time around.

Mali’s drama also demonstrates that US troops remain in harm’s way across Africa, despite every – largely successful – politician and Pentagon effort to conceal, distort, or distract Americans from this reality. Just over a week ago, a US service member was wounded in a mortar attack, which also killed a French artilleryman, on a joint base in Mali – a quick reminder that while no Americans have yet (or ever should!) been hurt over the Ukraine hoopla, they’re still doing so, ever so quietly, in Africa.

Yet, as if to highlight his typically tired old reflexes on “counter-terror” schemes he hardly understands, President Biden recently decided to keep assisting France’s failing fiascoes throughout the Sahel. Why? Well, according to a disturbing Washington Post article, it had something to do with assuaging French anger after the US undercut a Franco-Australian submarine sale. Maybe. Only if so, one wonders if the administration further calculated that it would need Paris’s support in the burgeoning NATO-Russia rivalry in Eastern Europe (not that it’s working too well so far). Talk about farcical second- and third-order effects from one putrid policy to the next.

Look, those are just two highlights. We could look at Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war and humanitarian catastrophe in the making. This one ought sting a bit since Washington long touted Addis Ababa as the “linchpin” or “anchor” of Africa’s Horn, used them as attack dog proxies to invade Somalia back in 2006 (when the U.S. – and literally this author – was mired in Iraq’s maelstrom), and even cheered the current Ethiopian president’s (now absurd-like) Nobel Peace Prize just a few years back. Add to that Libya’s canceled elections and scary signs that a new phase of its 10-year civil war is ready to roll, plus yet another military coup in Sudan – and the last couple of months look like a brewing African apocalypse.

All this points to a continent slipping away from Washington and its petulant Parisian little brother, and tilting – albeit exaggeratedly – towards the Russo-Chinese bogeymen haunting Franco-American dreams. Meanwhile, the region’s actual inhabitants are killed or starved. Only Africa was never ours to lose in the first place, and the entire churched-up colonialist encore was never really about Africans from Jump Street.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.”   He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2022 Danny Sjursen

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