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Do You Know About the US Drones in Africa?

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Don Emmert/Getty Images
Don Emmert/Getty Images

(The Root) — The legacy of colonialism has saddled the African continent with crippling poverty, widespread hunger and incurable disease. But there is a new threat on the horizon: an era of perpetual war.

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America's war on terror was supposed to end, or at least subside, under President Obama's watchful eye. Withdrawal from Iraq was the first step. An orderly drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan by 2014 was supposed to be the end. But conflicts in northern, western and central Africa have emerged as the new frontier of American aggression against al-Qaida. And though hardly discussed, the regions now harbor the most clandestine activity within Obama's foreign policy agenda: namely, a secret war in Africa conducted by drones.

Last month, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb seized an oil refinery in Algeria. More than 81 hostages were killed — American, Japanese and British citizens among them. This followed last year's Sept. 11 attack on America's consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In Mali, a former Francophile colony in West Africa, al-Qaida sympathizers occupied the country's northern territory, declaring an independent Islamist state and waging war against Malian soldiers ill equipped to challenge the well-armed militias. France sent troops — ostensibly to protect its own financial interests in the region — to restore a tenuous order.

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Prior to the Arab Spring, Muammar Qaddafi's Libyan dictatorship and Hosni Mubarak's stronghold on Egypt had successfully managed to quell Islamist revolts — maintaining a secular peace and stability amiable toward the West. The demise of both figures created a power vacuum for dissidence and opportunism. Militants were able to grab territory, acquire sophisticated armory and launch attacks on Western targets.

U.S. Drone Bases in Africa

Though there is only one permanent U.S. military base in Africa — in Djibouti — smaller drone hubs exist across the continent. A key hub of the spy-drone program is stationed in Burkina Faso, one of the world's most impoverished nations; and a Predator-drone base was recently approved for Niger, an oil-rich country north of Nigeria. Several hundred Special Forces already operate in Niger, and according to the Pentagon, the drones are only meant to conduct surveillance of al-Qaida-linked organizations. Yet drone-launched missile attacks have not been ruled out.

African nations like Somalia have already experienced the devastating impact of drone attacks. David Axe of Wired Magazine quoted one Somali citizen, saying, "You Americans, you'll destroy an entire city to get three people."

Somalia's government has been backed by the CIA in its civil war with al-Shabaab — the Somalia-based cell of al-Qaida. Al-Shabaab, which claims to be at war with the "enemies of Islam," controls much of Somalia's southern territory. The U.S. State Department has open bounties on many of its leaders, and drone strikes have killed countless civilians and suspected terrorists.

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While the media have focused primarily on drone strikes in the Middle East, the high-tech nature of America's silent war in Africa has garnered little media attention — ensuring that most Americans hardly realize it's happening.

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Critics claim that oil and competition with China are driving the administration's military interest in Africa. According to IMF finance reports, trade between African nations and China increased 40 percent in the past decade, compared with 14 percent with the United States and the rest of the world. Somalia — in the Horn of Africa — has been a key focus of Chinese agricultural investments as China attempts to deal with future food insecurity.

China also bids on oil-drilling rights, competing with Western corporations. According to the Guardian, Somalia's oil reserves are comparable to Kuwait's and could "eclipse Nigeria's reserves and make Somalia the seventh largest oil-rich nation."

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The rationale, therefore, that America's interest in Africa has more to do with China could carry weight. Obama's decision to shift U.S. military attention to Asia has been a telling one. The Department of Defense has announced that 60 percent of American warships would be stationed in Asia by 2020, the Economist reports, along with "a range of other 'investments' to ensure that despite China's fast-growing military might, America would still be able to 'rapidly project military power if needed.' "

Containing Chinese Activities

If there is a covert American strategy with respect to Chinese activity in Africa, it is one of containment. U.S. oil imports from Africa already exceed those of the Middle East, and China has been aggressively outbidding U.S. companies for contracts. PetroChina — China's national oil company — announced that its oil production surpassed ExxonMobil's last year. This is due, in part, to China's oil extractions in the Sudan.  

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America has a dual interest in curbing terrorist activity as well as protecting oil, gas, gold and other natural resources. Perhaps both can be justified as matters of "national security," but as drone wars wage with little congressional oversight and increasing civilian casualties, more scrutiny is necessary.

The greatest threat for African nations is a neocolonialism masquerading as American diplomacy. Attacks against elusive al-Qaida operatives decimate countries already ravaged by centuries of European colonial rule. And though Africa's resources enrich foreign corporations and an elite political class, World Bank reports show that sub-Saharan Africa's gross national per capita income is only $1,125 — proving that the people remain impoverished.

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Obama's challenge is complicated. He must guard U.S. national security and promote the country's economic interests while operating in a political apparatus that historically has not taken into account the needs of Africans. Western interests have too long dominated international affairs, and a U.S. president — Kenyan heritage aside — may find it difficult to change the status quo.

More important, Obama's African drone wars may leave a blueprint that future presidents use to justify unbridled intervention in African affairs. This is the greatest risk of all. The "Bush Doctrine" could become permanently codified, and Obama will have been its most effective ambassador. The president's recent nomination of John Brennan as CIA director — an architect of drone warfare under George W. Bush — proves that the status quo is secure.

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Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times considers the broader implications of Obama's drone wars. "Imagine if North Korea or Iran or Venezuela deployed thousands of unmanned surveillance aircraft in search of earthbound enemies," she writes. The benefit of drones, and the rationale behind Obama's use of them, is clear: They are highly effective at gathering intelligence, and they avoid the use of ground troops, which invariably lead to military casualties. But drones offer an equally disturbing alternative: virtual warfare, unjustifiable civilian deaths, little to no accountability and the danger of being adopted by the very enemies we fight.

For these reasons, President Obama may need to rethink the drone wars — especially in a land where too much damage has already been done.

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Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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