[promoted by BooMan]

A reader of my blog wrote to me about a month ago asking if it was true that American troops had been seeing action in the impoverished African nation of Chad.  I promised him/her that I’d do a full-length investigation into it and report back what I’ve found.

Africa’s Sahel region

First, an explanation of the term Sahel, which is a geographic term to describe an area in Northern Africa that runs between the straight sand Sahara Desert and the more fertile regions to the south.  It’s also called the Sudan, although that term is confusing because there’s also a country called the Sudan.

The Sahel or Sudan is mostly grasslands and is still home to a large number of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples.

In November 2002, the American State Department began a program called the “Pan Sahel Initiative” (PSI) which involved four Sahel nations: Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Mali.  From the government’s website:

PSI is a State-led effort to assist Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania in detecting and responding to suspicious movement of people and goods across and within their borders through training, equipment and cooperation. Its goals support two U.S. national security interests in Africa: waging the war on terrorism and enhancing regional peace and security.

Technical assessments taking place in each country starting this month will help focus training and other capacity building resources over the coming months. PSI will assist participating countries to counter known terrorist operations and border incursions, as well as trafficking of people, illicit materials, and other goods.

Most of that assistance is in the form of military training.  I found this article from the Pentagon’s website:

Special Forces training teams from Special Operations Command Europe are in Bamako, Gao and Timbuktu, Mali; and Atar, Mauritania in northwestern Africa to provide foreign internal defense training for the Pan Sahel Initiative, a U.S. State Department security assistance program.

“We’re training basic platoon level tasks to one company of the 33rd Parachute Infantry Regiment in Bamako in order to enhance their capabilities to police their border regions in the north,” said the battalion’s operational detachment commander in Bamako. “They’re really a sharp unit, and they’re picking it up quickly.”

You can see a list of all the American military units operating in these four countries here.

According to this government website, the total cost of the PSI is 7.75 million dollars, which seems to refer just to the FY 2004 budget.  It must be remembered however that these are extremely poor countries so a relatively “small” amount of money goes a long way in this area.

But there’s a lot more to what’s going on than just “training”.  For example, on March 9, 2004, members of an Algerian Islamic rebel group known in English as the Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat (GSPC) fought a battle with troops from Niger and Chad, who were themselves supported by U.S. Special Forces (including P-3 Orion overflight surveillance).  This battle took place just inside the borders of Chad.

First a brief history of Algeria for context:

Algeria is a mostly Muslim country that gained its independent after an extremely violent struggle with from its former colonial masters, France.  After a rocky start, the country devolved into a kind of fairly stable one-party autocracy until 1992.

In 1992, the country held its very first multi-party elections.  An Islamist political party known as the Islamic Salvation Front clearly won the majority of votes.  The president at the time, Colonel Bhadli Bendjedid, reacted by dissolving the parliament and declaring a state of emergency.  The country has been in a state of civil war ever since, with a variety of Muslim rebel groups fighting the government.  Currently the GSPC is the strongest.

GSPC has well-known ideological affiliation if not actually any concrete ties with Al-Qaeda and GSPC’s stated goal is to turn Algeria into a theocracy, or a government whose laws are based on religion.

Algeria is also important in the region because it has supported the Polisario Front, which is an independence movement of what are called the Saharawis people, who live in the region known as Western Sahara in English.  In Arabic it’s known as Al-Jumhuriya Al-Arabiya as-Sahrawiya ad-Dimuqratiya but I’ll just refer to it as WS if you don’t mind.

WS is currently “occupied” and administered by Morocco, which incidentally Morocco is in violation of dozens of UN Security Council resolutions because of this.  Morocco gained control over the region after Spain pulled out in the 1970’s and Morocco defeated troops from Mauritania.  Although WS is largely sandy and unfertile, it is home to enormously valuable mineral deposits.

So follow me here, Algeria and Morocco both have guerilla and insurgency groups they are trying to repress, Morocco repressing both Islamic extremists as well as Sahariwis and Algeria fighting a long-standing battle against Islamic groups as well as repressing a restive ethnic Berber population.

Now, the nation of Chad comes into play here for a variety of geopolitical reasons.  The first being that it borders the troubled western Sudan area of Darfur, therefore many of those millions of displaced Fur people are now living in refugee camps in utter misery in Eastern Chad.  You might remember this coming up in my article on Angelina Jolie back in December 2004.

The president of Chad is a fun-loving fellow named Idris Deby, who gained power in a coup at the end of 1990 and has held onto power by rigging elections and other standard methods that autocrats use to stay in power. He also likes to rent out troops to Francois “Sneezy” Bozize down in the Central African Republic, I should add.

In 2003, Chad, or I should say the ruling Zaghawa tribe that runs Chad, hit the financial jackpot when a relatively small but still significant source of oil was discovered.  That oil is now being pumped out via a pipeline to Cameroon that was built and owned by a conglomeration of western oil giants, including Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco as well as Halliburton.

There are reports that Deby has been providing weaponry to the Darfur rebels who are fighting the Islamic government in Khartoum, Sudan, and that this weaponry came from the United States via the Pan Sahel Initiative.  As in a back-door way to arm the Darfurians against Khartoum-financed militias.

The United States’ current involvement with Sudan is complicated due to the fact that the country is fractioned along three major war faultlines, a minor one in the east, a recently peace-negotiated one in the south and of course Darfur in the west.

Sudan’s recognized government is Muslim while most of the oil, much more than neighbor Chad has, is sitting under the ground in areas where mostly Christian and/or animist peoples life.  Therefore there are several strong geopolitical reasons to displace or weaken the (Muslim) Khartoum government, including of course the horrific genocide and ethnic cleansing ongoing in the country.

Speaking of oil, there are relatively recent discoveries of oil off the coast of several western African countries, adding yet another reason to expand a military presence in the region.

Mauritania doesn’t have much oil and neither does Mali or Niger.  Mauritania calls itself an Islamic republic but like Algeria it harshly represses most overtly Islamic activities and groups.  As in Morocco, using the excuse of the war on terror is perfect for repressing strictly political opponents.

From an April 13, 2004 speech by U.S. Assistant Sec. of State for African Affairs, Charles Snyder:

It used to be a kind of cruel joke twenty years ago when some of us tried to pretend Africa might rise to the level of a strategic interest, but thanks to the oil deposits we’re finding every day in and near Africa, I can say with a straight face 30 per cent of our oil will come from there, and I promise you it is a strategic interest.

Now, this PSI is actually a test-run for a much larger project which is tentatively labeled the “Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative” or TSCTI, that would expand the current PSI program to Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and even potentially Nigeria.  You will note that all of these countries are either majority Muslim or have large Muslim populations.  The TSTCI’s budget would be much higher; I’ve seen projections in the 400-500 million dollars per year range if Congress approves it this year.

While I commend and support all efforts to end terrorism, I was very disturbed by a report from the International Crisis Group last week that indicated that the PSI was provoking exactly what it was intended to fight – a rise in Islamic militancy and anti-American sentiment:

The Sahel is clearly not a hotbed of terrorist activity, but in an era in which weak states are attractive targets for terrorist or criminal organisations, even the evidence of limited entry points by some of those groups merits concern. Washington’s initial response to this threat, the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), has aimed not only to hunt terrorists in the region, but also to expand a series of programs for training African militaries.

If military aid is the only response, however, the result could be counter-productive, especially if that assistance is overwhelmingly American in origin. Broader Western efforts are needed to tackle the underlying problems of weak governance and poverty.

The entire report can be found here (PDF) and is extremely informative.  It also recommends that the TSCTI be implemented, along with an increase in humanitarian aid projects and cooperation with the European Union.

However, aside from the aforemention GSPC, there are no known organized Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel region.  The ICG accurately assessed that the American government is more eager to provide funding for anti-terrorism related activities than humanitarian aid and that this may be why certain elements of the Pentagon, particularly General Charles Wald, are overstating the threat in the Sahel.

My fear is that the PSI and TSTCI are going to covert themselves into a military-reinforced dominance of Africa’s oil reserves, which will increase importance as the world’s other oil supplies diminish.  

Just this very morning, I was reading this article in an Australian newspaper when I found this nugget:

According to the CIA, world oil reserves will last for about another 35 years at current demand levels. But demand growth is outstripping new finds and eating into the future.

In a world where virtually everything we consume depends on oil for its production or transport, the implications are considerable.

There’s a lot of controversy about exactly how much oil is still left to be extracted and how long it will last, but clearly a finite resource will not last forever.  And as long as the United States consumes roughly half of all the petroleum products in the world, it will use its military to secure the sources, wherever they lie around the world.


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