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How and why is North Africa depicted by the US and EU as the ‘next Afghanistan’?

The recent intervention in Mali and hostage-taking in Amenas, Algeria have caused North Africa to dominate the headlines and increased speculation and discourse on whether North Africa will become the ‘next Afghanistan’. The GWOT (Global War on Terror) however, is not a new phenomenon to North Africa. Despite Al-Qaida being the current threat emanating from North Africa, the most extreme terrorist attacks by Al-Qaida in African history, the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998 and the fatal bombings in Casablanca, Morocco in 2003 were quickly forgotten. The attack in Amenas adds to a long list of kidnappings, attacks on international symbols and transnational terrorism which plagues North Africa. In 2009, there were seven separate kidnappings of European citizens including the controversial murder of a British citizen as well as an attack against the French embassy in Nouakchott.

An article by Brian Michael Jenkins dismisses the claims by Al-Qaida that the attack on the oil plant in Amenas was a response to France’s intervention in Mali. Despite the oil facility being a strategically planned operation, if revenge for the French intervention in Mali was the motive behind the Amenas attack, a more effective target would have been the French embassy. In short, Jenkins suggests that the attack in Amenas would have slipped under the proverbial rug if the world’s attention wasn’t already focused on the Sahara. Given the long history of North African terrorist links with Al-Qaida, why is North Africa being referred to as the ‘next Afghanistan’?

Comparing North Africa to Afghanistan is a recurring argument, with American sources leading the way. Upon speaking about Africa, Gen. Jeffrey Kohler compared it to Afghanistan and “a cancer growing in the middle of no-where”. In truth, terrorism in North Africa was securitized as early as 2002, when President Bush acknowledged that “weak states…can pose a danger”, and donated $100 million in 2004 to help build up governments and capabilities to stamp out terrorism. My research into EU and US security and counter-terrorism strategies suggests that the depiction of North Africa as the ‘next Afghanistan’ has come about through declaring the region a safe haven, labelled so to ultimately serve EU and US interests. Labelling a country a ‘safe haven’ or the ‘next Afghanistan’ justifies the continuation of the GWOT, enables the spread of democratic values, facilitates the need to balance China and protects energy security.

President Bush’s aggressive campaign to defeat terrorist groups and their networks throughout the world, superseded by the inauguration of Obama, brought the death of Osama Bin Laden and a renewed focus to “disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al-Qaida” and stamp out terrorist ‘safe havens’. Obama proved that pursuing terrorists and Al-Qaida was still a high priority. Afghanistan has undoubtedly been the core focus of both the US and EU, but my research proves that Africa and Pakistan have increased in importance on the EU and US security agendas. References to Pakistan as the “epicentre of the violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida” in the US documents outnumber references to Africa and point to Pakistan becoming the ‘next Afghanistan’.  Despite Bin Laden being located in Pakistan, the US is yet to launch any formal GWOT military interventions. However, in 2005 the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which is supported by the US Department of Defence and Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara was launched. Furthermore, a US Africa Command known as AFRICOM, set up in Germany, helps defend fortress America by building up capabilities to prevent Al-Qaida from seeking a ‘safe haven’ in Africa. Despite Pakistan being depicted as providing the right conditions for the ‘next Afghanistan’, the US military initiatives in Africa far outnumber those in Pakistan.

As the first target in the GWOT, Afghanistan provided a handy catchphrase coined by world leaders to securitize their agendas throughout the globe. The violent and volatile situation in Algeria in 1999 supports this argument, as it was then hailed as the ‘next Iran’. Labelling a country with the buzzwords ‘safe haven’ or as the ‘next Afghanistan’ continues to provide justification for the spread of the GWOT and leaves the international community wondering, who will be next on the safe haven agenda?

Due to its proximity to fortress Europe, it is unsurprising that North Africa features heavily in the EU security documents. The EU has declared that without development there will be no security and vice versa and by focusing on “good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law” it seeks to provide aid and security. However, the EU’s ethical agenda in North Africa has been “hijacked for instrumental reasons to legitimate and generate support for policies that ultimately serve European interests”. Therefore, by acting as a force for good, the EU has tried to encourage stability by creating a circle of friends on the periphery of Europe who adhere to their democratic principles.

The spread of the GWOT into Africa is strategic. The rise of China has not gone unnoticed in Europe and America; its relations and business ventures with African countries such as Angola are increasing. The US’s intention in Africa could be to balance the rise of China, preventing it from rivalling its own global dominance. African analysts describe the US’s interest in Africa as “a race with China for control of the continent”. Moreover, the race for energy and primary resources remains at the heart of the strategic interest. According to the 2009 Annual Report from the High Representative “energy security continues to underpin many of the geo-strategic challenges facing the European Union”. In 2006, President Bush declared that “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world”. North African countries, in particular Algeria, are naturally land and oil rich, and are the perfect partners for the EU and US. An attack on an oil pipeline or a facility such as the one in Amenas could be catastrophic for the EU and US. According to Haas war can be justified if resources need to be protected. It begs the question as to whether the GWOT provides a guise for the US and EU to protect their own interests and resources?

As troops continue to withdraw from Afghanistan and tensions rise in Somalia and North Africa, world leaders and the press are eager to point the finger in the direction the GWOT will take. At present the finger remains firmly pointed towards North Africa. With the aid of Britain, France has already led the way into Mali, whilst the US gears up to sending in drones. The next front in the GWOT is unfolding in North Africa, despite the EU and US agendas highlighting Pakistan at the forefront of their concern. Pakistan has escaped the attention of the GWOT, as the EU and US continue to pursue their interests in natural resources, global dominance and preservation of democracy in Africa.

Rhiannon Bannister is a recent graduate from the University of Nottingham, where she specialised in International Security and Terrorism. Her key area of interest is Africa, in partricular the Sahara region and as part of her studies she completed a dissertation titled ‘Is North Africa the Next Afghanistan?’

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

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