War in the Greatest Desert, Part Two of Two: Arming the ‘Camel Corpsâ€&

The U.S. Military's $500 Million Gamble to Prevent the Next Afghanistan

Fellows Spring 2005

By Raffi Khatchadourian

June 01, 2009

In April 2004, while MDJT rebels kept Saifi handcuffed in a small cave near one of their mountain encampments, General Wald gave a talk at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. Saifi was still technically at large, but Wald was optimistic about what the U.S. had done in Chad and Niger to pursue him. In his speech, Wald sketched out an ambitious African security plan. The current military cooperation across the Sahel, he indicated, might serve as a precursor for a transnational army. "The irony of all ironies is that Muammar Qaddafi, at the African Union meeting in Tripoli, about a month ago or so, recommended a 1 million- person standing army in Africa," he said. "Now I think that's crazy, don't get me wrong." But a bit later, Wald went on to suggest that establishing five 3,000-man brigades from various African military units might be a good way to police the continent. "That's a great thing," he noted. "We need to help encourage that. We need to help train that." Wald then laid out European Command's operating principle. "Our approach is basically to help Africans help themselves," he said. "Use nontraditional approaches that most people pretty much gag on, get over the stovepipes, quit worrying about who gets credit."

European Command will be expanding its role in the region during the next several years. With the Pentagon reconfiguring its global distribution of personnel and resources, the U.S. military has been combing Africa for suitable "forward operating locations" and other installations for temporary use. (The Moroccan newspaper Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia recently reported that the United States was collecting intelligence from a clandestine "listening" station in the Algerian Sahara; last year, ABC News revealed that the CIA was using a secret detention center "in the North African desert.") Meanwhile, the Pan Sahel Initiative is being augmented: Its funding for this year was raised to $30 million, five other countries—Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and Nigeria—will participate, and in the spirit of its more extensive geographic scope, it has been renamed the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. In 2007, Congress will likely expand the program's budget to $70 million, and by 2012, it is expected to have allocated half a billion dollars. The military is also using its own funding to conduct bolder operations in the region. Last summer, hundreds of Special Forces visited more than half a dozen countries that share the Sahara for Operation Flintlock, another training mission. A military spokesperson called Flintlock "the largest joint military exercise between African nations and the United States since World War II."

General Wald may be a key architect for programs like Flintlock and the Pan Sahel Initiative, but the doctrine behind these projects is perhaps best articulated by John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California. Arquilla's concept, called "netwar," is one that he and another military strategist, David Ronfeldt, have been developing since before 9-11. To combat Al Qaeda, Arquilla has argued, the United States and its allies must learn to develop the structural fluidity of terrorist organizations; they must function like Al Qaeda, or Colombian drug cartels, or the anarchist Black Bloc, which rioted with destructive effectiveness during the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle. Last year, Seymour Hersh noted in The New Yorker that, based upon this strategy, "a few pilot covert operations" had occurred, including the hunt for Saifi, and that this was possible because changing rules at the Pentagon enabled the military to send secret "action teams" overseas.

"In this first great war between networks and nations, it behooves the latter to form their own networks—for it is growing ever clearer that it takes a network to fight a network," Arquilla explained in a policy review for the Institute of Public Affairs, in Australia. "'Networking,' in this instance, consists of widespread sharing of information and cooperation in the field between intelligence, military, and law enforcement organizations in all countries involved. It means preemptive attacks will result from shared intelligence and will feature multi-national assault forces. It means that nobody leads, but rather that all strive together toward a common goal." Small, specialized military or paramilitary units commanded by the United States and other countries would work in coordination to "swarm the enemy" with multiple highly targeted attacks. In instances where an element of confusion is required, American and allied network participants might even be indistinguishable from their adversaries. The strategy, Arquilla says, gives the Defense Department the opportunity to keep a low profile in politically volatile areas; it also "takes the initiative militarily and yet still strengthens the global coalition of nations allied in the fight against terror networks."

There is undoubtedly something to this. The U.S. military is not in a position to police the globe, and it certainly is not in a position to invest a great deal of its resources in places like the Sahel, which do not yet constitute a grave and immediate danger. And while the "netwar" concept does conserve American manpower and does give the American military flexibility and political cover, it raises important practical and ethical questions. The most obvious among them is reliability. If a "nobody leads" network fails then nobody is leading; or to put it differently, for every successful WTO protest that comes out of nowhere, numerous others fall by the wayside because they do not properly self-organize. Reliability, of course, also depends upon each participant, not just the network as a whole. Afghan fighters, for instance, working under the guidance of U.S. Special Forces, proved to be woefully ineffective during the battle at Tora Bora, allowing Al Qaeda's top leaders to escape into Pakistan. In Mali, while tracking Saifi and his men, the Defense Department encountered similar problems; a counterterrorism official familiar with the Sahel drove home the point when he said, "U.S. intelligence on terrorists was provided to the Malian government and then was later found among Saifi's people, in the hands of the very militants the government was supposedly targeting."

The limits of U.S. intelligence raises another important question about netwar's effectiveness. Identifying clear targets in places like North Africa and the Sahel, where political rebellion, common criminality, and international terrorism merge seamlessly, may be not only difficult, but impossible. Xavier Raufer, a terrorism expert at the University of Paris, told me that many GSPC fighters were essentially "bandits by day, jihadists by night." In his writings, Raufer refers to "hybrid groups" composed of such militants—men like Saifi, or Mokhtar Belmokhtar—who operate within "melting pots of crime" that "blend religious fanaticism, famine, massacres, piracy at sea, or airline hijacking with [the] trafficking of human beings, drugs, arms, toxic substances, or gems." These men are experts at exploiting the political and economic vulnerabilities of their societies: Black-market activities like cigarette and gun smuggling fuel their operations, but those same black markets also serve as important sources of income for people who live in the most desolate and impoverished reaches of the Sahara. A netwar-type strike that brings down the wrong militant, or even the right one, might curtail regional smuggling, but with no economic alternatives in place, it will likely strand and anger the very people the United States is trying to win over in the Muslim world.

Some Africa specialists complain that since 9-11 the United States has wrongfully collapsed the Sahel's manifold problems into an all-too-simple issue: hunting bad guys. "We are exaggerating the whole terrorism thing," said Robert Pringle, a former ambassador to Mali. Benjamin Soares, an anthropologist at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, Holland, agreed. "There is some hysteria about the terrorist threat in the Sahel," he said. "Heads need to be cooler." Similar views can be found in Washington, where a number of people said that European Command had a bureaucratic imperative to cast militant Islam in the region as an impending danger. A retired CIA specialist in counterterrorism told me that European Command had its "nose out of joint" because the main theaters of the war on terrorism fell under Central Command, the division responsible for American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. A former U.S. diplomat who worked closely with the Defense Department said, "I mean, for European Command, when they tore down the Berlin Wall, a lot of their missions evaporated—so it's a matter of having resources [allocated by Congress] and then trying to find missions to justify them." A State Department official familiar with the military's Saharan strategy called it "a hammer looking for a nail."

Still, no matter what motivates European Command, there are good reasons to keep a careful eye on the region. During Saifi's push into southern Algeria, and then into Mali, Niger, and Chad, he left behind, in each country, a kind of organizational imprint. "What he did was set up a fantastic structure," Selma Belaala, a North Africa specialist, said. "It can be activated whenever it's needed." This is possibly one reason why the 9-11 Commission Report cites Mali as a potential haven for terrorists; Islamists from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have been targeting key Malian communities for conversion to the most radical forms of Islam, and tellingly much of that activity is occurring in parts of the country where the government has little or no control. As William J. Foltz, a professor of African studies at Yale and a former member of the National Intelligence Council, explained: "If you take the whole Sahel, it's not a threat in the sense that it's going to declare war on the United States, but the United States generally pays a price if there is great disorder going in some part of the world." Such places, in fact, have been a topic of intense discussion throughout the Defense Department since the end of the Cold War. Thomas Barnett, a military theorist whose ideas are popular within European Command, argues that societies cut off from globalization constitute a dangerous "non-integrating gap." He says that their "disconnectedness is the ultimate enemy"—the root cause of myriad political ills and threats—and that the United States' primary national security objective should be to "shrink the gap." Wald has framed this notion as "the problem of ungoverned spaces," and Wald's superior, General James Jones, demonstrated a competent understanding of how the problem could be solved when he told Congress: "I think the only way to halt the trends that we see going on with the migration of radical fundamentalism [into the Sahel] is to give people some alternative. And the alternative is not just military dictatorship and oppression. The alternative is education, jobs, and market development. And this is where, if we turn our focus on—at least in those areas that warrant it—I think we can make dramatic changes in a short period of time."

If fighting a netwar requires working with effective partners, and if the Sahel doesn't have many, then it should not come as a shock that European Command is becoming increasingly involved in training and equipping the region's militaries. Not long ago, General Carlton Fulford, who retired from European Command in 2002, explained just how much work needed to be done. On an official trip to Mali, he inspected a military outpost near Algeria. "You've got 30 Malian soldiers with their families," Fulford told me. "It's basically a 'camel corps' and their job is to monitor the border." Fulford did some math in his head; the border was roughly 750 miles long. "It basically took them a year to cover," he went on, "if they even ended up covering all of it." After his visit to the frontier, he met with the Malian president and asked how the camel corps could be effective in so vast and desolate an area. "Those regions are tribal," the president replied. "No one comes in without me knowing." As Fulford told the story, he paused to consider that last statement. He understood the importance of local knowledge, he said, but "it's going to take a bit more than that."

The Sahara—the world's largest desert, an expanse of 3.5 million square miles—would be a logistical nightmare for even the most advanced and well-trained fighting forces to patrol. And while the netwar concept may be new, the job of building up foreign militaries in such difficult places is an old one. The United States helped build up paramilitaries, armies, and elite presidential security services during the Cold War. The policy then was driven by the logic of containing, and later rolling back, the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pledged to fight Communism "on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua," and American dollars poured into the treasuries of proxy guerrillas and client states worldwide. U.S. military support in places like Latin America and Africa stemmed from a common political calculus: If fighting Communism required aiding anti-Communist despots, or if it necessitated other forms of dirty work, so be it; the struggle between the two superpowers made the compromise of certain ideals unavoidable.

During the Cold War, CIA station chiefs in Africa provided sympathetic dictators and autocrats with actual laminated menu cards that offered a spectrum of equipment and services. William Casey, Reagan's spymaster, kept a list of 12 client states that were of importance to him. Chad, Sudan, and Liberia were on the list. King Hassan II, of Morocco, remained in power for 22 years with the help of U.S. covert aid. Casey's basic assistance package included training for the leader's personal security force, as well as for the country's intelligence service. In addition, the CIA provided "allies" with material support, including automatic weapons, handguns, walkie-talkies, even helicopters. These transactions too often flowed from dysfunctional political relationships. Many recipients of Cold War American aid had every reason to hype the threat of Communism as a way to escalate their importance in combating the Soviet Union. Conversely, the United States downplayed anti- Communist human rights abuses overseas when it meant that it could gain a better foothold in that part of the globe.

U.S. military assistance in the Sahel may be falling into a similar pattern. Last year, Mauritania's president, Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, a participant in the Pan Sahel Initiative, frequently branded his opponents as extremists in the mold of Al Qaeda. When, in 2003, several Mauritanians unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Ould Taya's regime, a diplomat in country told researchers with the International Crisis Group: "The government wanted to present the coup attempt as evidence of international terrorism threatening Mauritania. My view is that it was just a sign of the battle between rival clans for power. Ould Taya has been ruling the country for about 20 years. Virtually all the main revenue-generating positions in the public administration are held by the president's relatives. Other people and clans, including in the security sector, are frustrated and want their share of power and resources." In August, two months after U.S. Special Forces were in Mauritania training Ould Taya's soldiers, a junta finally ejected him from power. If there were any doubts that the United States supported Ould Taya's regime, they vanished when the State Department criticized the coup and called for his peaceful reinstatement.

"In most of these countries, political opposition is classified as terrorism," a regional analyst told me. "When you do that, when you mix the two, you can use troops to do anything." This appears to be occurring in Chad too, where Marines spent two months training soldiers in a base south of the capital, N'Djamena. Power in Chad is concentrated in the hands of an ethnic minority, the Zaghawa, led by President Idriss Deby, who commanded a coup in 1990 and has held on to power ever since. According to the State Department, Deby has created a "culture of impunity for a ruling minority," and his "security forces have committed extra-judicial killings and continued to torture, beat, and rape persons." Deby has warded off several coup attempts, including one in 2004 that reportedly involved members of his inner clan and hundreds of soldiers. A senior U.S. Embassy official in N'Djamena told me that Deby, for all intents and purposes, was using the American-trained troops to solidify his hold on power. The men were sent out whenever there was a hint of rebellion, he said: "I call it coup patrol."

Perhaps the most worrying of America's new military partners in the region is Algeria. According to Wald, European Command is working "heavily" with the Algerian government. When asked about Algeria's contribution to the war on terrorism, Wald has said, "I think they're doing a fantastic job," and that the U.S. military has "a lot to learn from the Algerians." But as Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, recently told the House of Representatives: "In human rights terms, Algeria, with its documented record of torture and 'disappearances,' is in many ways a model of how not to fight terrorism." During Algeria's long-running struggle with the GSPC and other Islamic insurgents, Malinowski explained, "security forces arrested and tortured thousands of suspects. They engaged in summary executions, often rounding up victims arbitrarily in reprisal for attacks on their own troops. And between 1993 and 1997, they picked up and made 'disappear' an estimated 7,000 Algerians who remain unaccounted for until this day." An irony that seemed to be lost on Wald was that this kind of political violence was largely responsible for propelling men like Saifi into the world of terrorism in the first place.

By the end of 2004 it appeared as though Saifi might languish in Chad's Tibesti Mountains indefinitely. Brahim Tchouma, an MDJT leader, told me by satellite phone that he had tried, in vain, to turn Saifi over to the United States. "I personally made several overtures to the American ambassador in Paris," he said, "but the embassy put me in touch with someone who didn't want to listen. He kept saying, 'No, no, no. I don't deal with that.' He kept saying that his department was not responsible for that sort of thing. That's when I let it go. I figured that the Americans could do whatever they wanted with the information that I had given to them, and I called The New York Times." Eventually, Saifi was handed over to Libya, which in turn passed him along to Algeria, where he stood trial last year. In June, a jury in Algiers pronounced Saifi guilty of forming a terrorist group and "propagating terror among a population." He received a life sentence. The Algerian government has kept many details about the trial secret, and it is unclear whether Saifi will be extradited to Germany or anywhere else. An official at European Command told me, "Personally, I think he's probably dead, or wishes he was."

Not long before the verdict, I visited Mali to follow up on what the United States was doing in the Sahel. Since the war in Iraq, talk of a heightened terrorist threat in the region was occurring against a dismaying backdrop: The Sahel's economic difficulties appeared to be on the rise too. Locust plagues had affected crop yields. Same with drought. As was widely reported last year, famine in Niger scarred the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The leaders of European Command say that they recognize that the military can only be of limited help on such issues. (The Defense Department has spent $20 million in AIDS programs throughout the continent.) "Africa's problems are not going to be solved by the United States military," Wald said at AEI. "They can't be." And he is correct— especially in the Sahel. But because no other U.S. agency is paying much attention to what is happening in the region, it is the military that has come to define what the United States is doing in this part of the world. USAID, for instance, has an office in only one of the four countries that participated in the Pan Sahel Initiative, and money for non-military projects has been scarce. In 2003, bilateral American aid to Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad averaged less than $3 per person.

European Command says that future missions across the Great Desert will have important humanitarian components to them. But the job goes far beyond the military's capabilities. Barnett points out that the United States must export "justice as much as order" and, more importantly, ensure that the world's poorest, most isolated societies have greater economic opportunities. "That is how you turn a 'heroic' terrorist into a common criminal: you surround him with a society deeply connected to the larger world of rules, opportunity, and hope," Barnett explains in his book The Pentagon's New Map. "You render him an outcast among his own. You shame him out of existence. What you cannot do is simply catch him and kill him, because there will always be more. Over time, your violence will be delegitimized and his honored, unless yours is employed on behalf of a society growing in connectivity. Your effort must be intimately identified with that growing connectivity; your war must be in the context of everything else."

Copyright © 2005 International Reporting Project. All Rights Reserved.