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Post-9/11 Intervention in Africa

Commentary, 2 September 2011
Terrorism, Africa
The last decade has seen more Western military involvement in Africa than in the 1990s but policy-makers remain reluctant to become involved in Africa's internal problems.

The last decade has seen more Western military involvement in Africa than in the 1990s but policy-makers remain reluctant to become involved in Africa's internal problems.

By Tim Butcher, Africa commentator

9/11 Retrospectives: This commentary is part of a series of contributions from eminent policymakers, academics and commentators offering their thoughts on the significance of 9/11.

African Union troops

Ten years ago Muammar Gaddafi's regime was responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians. Yet the outside world turned a blind eye. Neither he nor his Libyan co-conspirators were ever held to account.

Today, a very different strategic reality is in place. Since March, NATO has conducted an air war to stop that same North African regime inflicting suffering on civilians.

These victims are Gaddafi's own nationals. At the turn of the millennium they were from Liberia and Sierra Leone, the small, weak West African nations where the Libyan dictator spent the 1990s sponsoring rebellion. Both sets of victims were African and so this apparent change in the international community's attitude to getting involved in Africa raises questions. Is Africa now 'in play' for Western military planners? And if so, what impact did 9/11 have on this attitudinal shift?

On one level, Africa certainly has seen Western military involvement in the 2000s on a greater scale than in the 1990s. France's indecisive response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide (deploying a few hundred troops who were soon compromised by a perception of impartiality in favour of the extreme Hutu regime responsible for the killings) is in stark contrast to Britain's deployment in May 2000 of a task force capable of, in effect, rescuing Sierra Leone (first by backstopping a United Nations peacekeeping mission and then providing the strategic tools required to defeat the rebels).

Similarly, in 1990 US Marines landed for a matter of hours in the American embassy compound in Monrovia when the Liberian capital was under attack; a little over ten years later they behaved quite differently. They secured the city's airport and paved the way for a meaningful UN peacekeeping force to secure the country when Charles Taylor's despotic rule finally ended in August 2003.

But one must be careful not to over-emphasise this change in risk tolerance among Western policy-makers for military action in Africa. They remain as reluctant as ever to become involved in festering problems, such as the turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo (née Zaire), where a staggering 1,500 avoidable deaths take place every day as a result of conflict. No American general or British politician is ever going to take ownership of 'solving' the Congo.

Intriguingly, 9/11 appears to have had no discernible impact on Western military attitudes to Africa. The continent might have been the crucible for Al-Qa'ida (the terror group's first confirmed operation was the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania) but its focus soon shifted elsewhere. America's acute post-9/11 sensitivity to deploying wherever it needed to go to tackle terrorism created only two modest, piecemeal Enduring Freedom operations in Africa: one in the Horn of Africa and the other in the Sahel.

The reality remains that Africa's military challenges are taken up by Western planners on an ad hoc basis. For outsiders, it is still a continent of wars of choice. ¡

Tim ButcherTim Butcher is the author of Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart (Vintage, 2008) and most recently Chasing the Devil: On Foot Through Africa's Killing Fields (Vintage, 2011).

This commentary first appeared in The RUSI Journal

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