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Africa as Battlefield

The US is trying to win "hearts and minds" in Africa. It's not going well.

A villager in Djibouti with members of the US Army's 257th Engineer Team. Joseph A. Araiza / US Air Force

Today, as the US military increasingly sees Africa as a “battlefield” against Islamist extremism, a significant number of its operations there have taken on the form of a textbook hearts-and-minds campaign that harkens back to failed US efforts in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s and more recently in the greater Middle East.

In Vietnam, the so-called civilian half of the war — building schools, handing out soap, and offering rudimentary medical care — was obliterated by American heavy firepower that wiped out homes, whole hamlets, and whatever goodwill had been gained. As a result, US counterinsurgency doctrine was tossed into the military’s dustbin — only to be resurrected decades later, as the Iraq War raged, by then-Gen. and later CIA Director David Petraeus.

In 2005–6 Petraeus oversaw the revision of FM 3-24, the military’s counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual, and a resulting revolution in military affairs. Soon, American military officers in Iraq and Afghanistan were throwing large sums of money at complex problems, once again with the objective of winning hearts and minds.

They bought off Sunni insurgents and poured billions of dollars into nation-building efforts, ranging from a modern chicken processing plant to a fun-in-the-sun water park, trying to refashion the rubble of a failed state into a functioning one.

As with Petraeus’s career, which imploded amid scandal, the efforts he fostered similarly went down in flames. In Iraq, the chicken processing plant proved to be a Potemkin operation, and the much ballyhooed Baghdad water park quickly fell into ruin.

The country soon followed. Three years after the US withdrawal, Iraq teeters on the brink of catastrophe as most of Petraeus’s Sunni mercenaries stood aside while the brutal Islamic State carved a portion of its caliphate from the country, and others, aggrieved with the US-backed government in Baghdad, sided with them.

In Afghanistan, the results have been similarly dismal as America’s hearts-and-minds monies yielded roads to nowhere (when they haven’t already deteriorated into “death traps”); crumbling buildings; overcrowded, underfunded, and teacher-less schools; and billions poured down the drain in one boondoggle after another.

In Africa, the sums and scale are far smaller, but the efforts are from the same counterinsurgency playbook. In fact, to the US military, humanitarian assistance — from medical care to infrastructure projects — is a form of “security cooperation.” According to the latest edition of FM 3-24, published earlier this year:

When these activities are used to defeat an insurgency, they are part of a counterinsurgency operation. While not all security cooperation activities are in support of counterinsurgency, security cooperation can be an effective counterinsurgency tool. These activities help the U.S. and the host nation gain credibility and help the host nation build legitimacy. These efforts can help prevent insurgencies.

AFRICOM and its subordinate command, Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, have spent years engaged in such COIN-style humanitarian projects.

Take a cursory glance at AFRICOM’s official news releases and you’ll find them crammed with feel-good stories like an effort by CJTF-HOA personnel to tutor would-be Djiboutian hotel workers in English or a joint effort by the State Department, AFRICOM, and the Army Corps of Engineers to build six new schools in Togo. Such acts are never framed in the context of counterinsurgency nor with an explicit link to US efforts to win hearts and minds. And never is there any mention of failings or fiascos.

However, an investigation by the Department of Defense’s inspector general, completed in October 2013 but never publicly released, found failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting such projects. The restricted report describes a flawed system plagued by a variety of deeply embedded problems.

In some cases, military officials failed to identify how their projects even supported AFRICOM’s objectives on the continent; in others, financial documentation was missing; in still others, CJTF-HOA personnel failed to ensure that local populations were equipped to keep the small-scale projects running or effective once the Americans moved on. The risk, the report suggests, is that these signs of Washington’s goodwill and good intentions will quickly fall into disrepair and become what one American  official called “monuments to US failure” in Africa.

AFRICOM reacted defensively. In an internal memo, Colonel Bruce Nickle, the acting chief of staff of US Africa Command, criticized the inspector general’s methodology, questioned the inspector general’s expertise, and suggested that some of the findings were “misleading.”

Close to a year after the report’s release, neither AFRICOM nor CJTF-HOA has announced policy changes based on its recommendations. Repeated requests, over a period of months, for comment, further information, or clarification about the report as well as a request to interview Nickle have all gone unanswered.

Hollow Efforts

Across Africa, the US military has engaged in a panoply of aid projects with an eye toward winning a war of ideas in the minds of Africans and so beating back the lure of extremist ideologies. These so-called civil-military operations (CMOs) include “humanitarian assistance” projects like the construction or repair of schools, water wells, and waste treatment systems, and “humanitarian and civic assistance” (HCA) efforts, like offering dental and veterinary care.

Kindness may be its own reward, but in the case of the US military, CMO benevolence is designed to influence foreign governments and civilian populations in order to “facilitate military operations and achieve U.S. objectives.” According to the Pentagon, humanitarian assistance efforts are engineered to improve “U.S. visibility, access, and influence with foreign military and civilian counterparts,” while HCA projects are designed to “promote the security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”

In the bureaucratic world of the US military, these small-scale efforts are further divided into “community relations activities,” like the distribution of sports equipment, and “low-cost activities” such as seminars on solar panel maintenance or English-language discussion groups. Theoretically at least, add all these projects together and you’ve taken a major step toward winning Africans away from the influence of extremists. But are these projects working at all? Has anyone even bothered to check?

In one report the Department of Defense’s inspector general found record-keeping by the US military in Africa so abysmal that its officials “did not have an effective system to manage or report community relations and low cost activities.” A spreadsheet supposedly tracking community low-cost activities during 2012 and 2013 was so incomplete that 43 percent of such efforts went unmentioned.

Nonetheless, the inspector general did manage to review 49 of 137 identified humanitarian assistance and civic assistance projects, which cost US taxpayers about $9 million, and found that the military officials overseeing CMO “did not adequately plan or execute” them in accordance with AFRICOM’s “objectives.”

The task force also failed to report or could not provide information on expenditures for four of six projects selected for special review, despite a requirement to do so and the use of a computerized system specifically designed to track such information.

These projects — two schools and a clinic in Djibouti as well as a school in Ethiopia — cost American taxpayers almost $1.3 million, yet US officials failed to properly account for where all that money actually went. All told, officials were unable to verify whether almost $229,000 in taxpayer dollars spent on such projects were properly accounted for.

Investigators only inspected four humanitarian assistance worksites — two in Djibouti and two in Tanzania — but even in this tiny sample found one site where the United States military had failed to ensure that the host nation would sustain the project.

At the Ali Sabieh Community Water Fountains in Djibouti, renovated by the United States in 2010 to minimize waterborne disease, investigators found a scene of utter disrepair. Doors, pipes, and faucets “had been removed,” while another faucet “had a collapsed top,” leaving the water “exposed to contaminants.” Photographs taken two years after the project was completed display dilapidated, crumbling, and seemingly jerry-rigged structures.

One American official assured inspector general investigators of the necessity of obtaining host nation “buy-in” on such projects to achieve success, while another suggested it was crucial that local “sweat equity” be invested in such projects, if they weren’t to become “monuments to U.S. failure.”

In Djibouti, however, local residents were apparently given no information about upkeep of the Ali Sabieh project. As a result, Djiboutians threw rocks into a well built by Americans, a method that works to raise water in indigenously built wells. In this case, however, it damaged the well so badly that it stopped working.

Examining a sample of projects, the Pentagon’s investigators found that 73 percent of the time CJTF-HOA personnel failed to collect sufficient data thirty days after completion of projects, to assess whether it achieved the stated objectives.

For example, at a medical clinic at Manza Bay, the United States built cisterns and a water catchment system. The project was apparently considered a success, but the military had very little data to back up that claim. In Garissa, in neighboring Kenya, a veterinary civic action project was evidently also declared a triumph without anything to prove it beyond vague upbeat claims of success in impressing local residents.

Monuments to US Failure

Nearly a year has passed since the drafting of the inspector general’s report criticizing AFRICOM’s efforts. During that time, neither AFRICOM nor CJTF-HOA has publicly addressed it or announced any changes based on its recommendations.

In the meantime, the hearts and minds of allied African military leaders appear unswayed by AFRICOM’s efforts. Over two days at the Land Forces East Africa conference in Dar es Salaam, I listened to generals and defense analysts from around the region speak on security matters affecting Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and Tanzania. They touched on the key issues — extremism, terrorism, and piracy — that the American hearts-and-minds campaign is meant to counter, but the United States was hardly mentioned.

Tanzanian officers I talked with, for instance, were pleased to be receiving American funds, but less so with direct US interventions of any type on the continent. None I spoke with seemed aware of AFRICOM’S hearts-and-minds work like clean water projects or school construction in underdeveloped rural areas not so very far from where we’ve been sitting.

Even Egan O’Reilly, an army officer attached to the US Embassy in Dar Es Salaam, had little idea about AFRICOM’s humanitarian efforts. He was asked about the building of primary and secondary schools, among other humanitarian assistance projects. “I haven’t seem a whole lot of AFRICOM work myself,” replies the West Point graduate and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. US defense attachés in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya either failed to respond to requests for assessments of humanitarian projects or indicated that representatives were unavailable to speak.

No one, it appears, is eager to talk about the textbook counterinsurgency campaign being carried out by the US military in Africa, let alone the failures chronicled in an inspector general report that’s been withheld from the public for almost a year.

For the past decade, we’ve been inundated with disclosures about billions of US tax dollars squandered on counterinsurgency failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, stories of ruined roads and busted buildings, shoddy schoolhouses and wasteful water parks, all in the name of winning hearts and minds.

Below the radar, similar if smaller scale — efforts are well under way in Africa. Already, the schools are being built, already the water projects are falling to pieces, already the Department of Defense’s inspector general has identified a plethora of problems. It’s just been kept under wraps.

But if history is any guide, humanitarian efforts by AFRICOM and CJTF-HOA will grow larger and ever more expensive, until they join the long list of projects that have become “monuments to US failure” around the world.

Excerpted from Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.