Dr Christian Tripodi, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London
Recent events in Afghanistan brings to the fore some sobering considerations for Western policymakers. From whether the move will be interpreted by the West’s strategic adversaries as a display of weakness rather than ruthlessness; the extent that the new Taliban regime may now play host to an array of bad-actors and what this means for western security interests; and of course the ground level humanitarian aspect and the fragile fortunes of Afghanistan’s hitherto increasingly emancipated urban and female demographics, who now find themselves under threat from the forces of highly conservative Islamic rule
But the withdrawal from Afghanistan also raises broader questions about other challenges elsewhere. The unwillingness of the US to continue to bleed money and materiel to prop up a weak and corrupt political enterprise in the form of the Afghan Government seemingly puts the final nail in the coffin of its armed-interventionist and ‘forever war’ habits. France’s decision to effectively withdraw its military mission from Mali signals the same. Thus, two of Britain’s closest military allies have signalled their unwillingness to further countenance the interventionist approach that has defined the past three decades of Western foreign policy. But one of the defining threats that those interventions were designed to address, namely the spectre of violent Islamic extremism taking root in strategically important parts of the world, remains an active and potentially emboldened one.
There is, of course, an ideological position that rejects the significance of such threats, at least in the extent to which they should materially dictate a nation’s strategic priorities. Mindful of the toxic financial cost of the GWOT, as well as the inevitable blowback that has only seemed to help the Jihadist threat metastasize, the Quincy Institute’s Andrew Bacevich, for example, demands that the Pentagon reframe almost entirely its conception of threats to national security, one that dispenses with rag-tag bands of ‘terrorists’ in some godforsaken desert and focuses instead on the genuine threat posed by a resurgent China and, crucially, the multiple spectres of climate change, domestic extremism and the corrosive malaise of entrenched racism. These, he argues, are genuine threats to national security.
Although Bacevich represents what some might perceive as the extreme wing of the ‘restraint’ school, there appears broad sympathy among many for his rejection of the ‘forever war’ mindset. Yet there remain others who, despite accepting of the need to think more broadly of the range of threats to national security, remain less convinced that the spectre of Islamic extremism intertwined with the broader malaise of state failure doesn’t still matter. A significant number of politicians, military commanders and other commentators on both sides of the Atlantic voice seemingly genuine concerns as to the potential for weak and fragile states, such as Afghanistan but also increasingly in Africa, to play host to significant threats to UK/US national security. But if few of them are arguing for a return to full-blown interventions, a crucial question remains: if not large-scale intervention, then what?
The British Government appears somewhat mindful of this very real dilemma; how precisely to confront the spread of violent Islamic militant groups that it considers might pose a threat to the UK’s national interests without recourse to a concerted COIN or Stabilisation effort? One answer is hinted at by UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and the recent Integrated Review of Defence and Security (IR). Detailing his belief that failed and fragile states continue to present a security threat to the United Kingdom, he emphasised the need to enhance the military’s ability to contribute to resilience and capacity building to combat the threat posed by militant Islamist groups, particularly in Africa. The specific creation of ‘Green Beret’ type Ranger Battalions that will be used to train local Government forces – and even potentially assist them in operations – is one evolution of British capacities in this respect. This lighter-touch, non-committal approach will also be fleshed out by the use of local proxies as well as targeted strikes.
What Britain appears to be placing its faith in, therefore, is a combination of unspecified forms of intelligence-driven ‘influence’ over local actors; the development by Defence, and by the Army in particular, of specialised Foreign Internal Defence (FID) capabilities; and the recourse when necessary to kinetic strikes, most probably in the form of special forces and drones. But what all of this implies is a return to methods seen before, and the sobering after-effects of which bear thinking about.
US Irregular Warfare 2002-2007
There is a common yet erroneous belief that the US’s counterterrorism efforts post 9-11 were defined primarily by its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and its drone war over Pakistan. But between 2001 and 2007 across the Mahgreb, Sahel, and Horn of Africa, the US pursued a highly activist yet largely unseen campaign designed to deny Islamic militants the opportunity to establish themselves in the empty spaces of Sub-Saharan and East Africa. Minus any overt, large-scale military presence, US irregular warfare operators turned to advisory roles, train and assist missions, propaganda and information campaigns, counterterrorism operations, proxy warfare and drone assassinations to craft the conditions that would undermine either the emergence of Jihadist terror groups or deprive more established elements their freedom of operation.
Sub-Saharan Africa: The Non-Kinetic Narrative
As Maria Ryan describes it in her book Full Spectrum Dominance: Irregular Warfare and the War on Terror, the task facing America’s irregular warfare operators in the sub-Saharan region was essentially preventive. In late 2002-early 2003, and mindful of the opportunities for exploitation presented to Islamic terror groups by large areas of ungoverned space, the focus was on building the capacity and resilience of local governments to combat any such expansionism. FID programs under the so-called Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI) emphasised a combination of train-and-equip and Information and Stability operations designed to preclude the emergence of Islamist terrorist groups across Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. US Special Operations Forces (SOF) and State Department representatives tasked themselves with preparing local security forces to be able to control their territories.
Mali was a key focus, with much of the available funding devoted to combating the emergence of Jihadist groups in the empty northern part of the country. In Chad meanwhile, an interagency civic-action programme in the form of a medical humanitarian mission was mobilised, the intent being to show local populations that the US was not interested simply in the activities of violent jihadist groups, but that it genuinely cared about ordinary Africans.
The PSI subsequently evolved into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) in early 2005; a much larger (it now included Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and far more comprehensive effort than its predecessor, one that combined SOF training cadres with a variety of initiatives designed to strengthen the region’s democratic institutions, promote conflict resolution among warring parties, advance the rule of law throughout government territories and improve education and health as well as employment and job opportunities for ordinary citizens. As Ryan notes, all of this was seen by the US Government as crucial ‘phase zero’ activity, i.e. those non-kinetic shaping operations designed to prevent conflict emerging in the first place. Indeed, the emphasis on phase zero led to a concerted regional drive toward civic action and psychological operations in order to help shape the ‘information environment’. By mid-2006 the US military considered the TSCTI to represent the best return on US investment anywhere in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Strategic failure
In the summer of 2021, President Macron announced the withdrawal of significant numbers of French forces from Mali. It represented the failure of Operation Barkhane in its mission to help build an effective local response to groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) that have entrenched themselves in the region. Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel now represents a melting pot of highly active, highly expansionist armed Islamic insurgencies. Not only that, but another disruptive non-state actor in the form of Russia’s Wagner Group now seeks to fill the vacuum left by France’s reduction in force. But Barkhane, and indeed Operation Serval, the original French intervention into Mali in 2012, were themselves an acknowledgement that US efforts post-2002 to block the emergence of Islamist groups had been a resounding failure.
Capacity building had been unable to strengthen local military capabilities to the point where they could withstand the assault from Jihadist militants, Information operations lacked purchase on the local populations or insurgent groups themselves, while the turbulent nature of internal politics with Mali ensured an almost complete inability to create any form of effective governance that might counteract violent rebellion. By 2015, AFRICOM admitted that the region was now the site of cohesive networks of AQ affiliates and adherents. As Ryan notes, in the space of 10 years from the emergence of the TSCTI, the region had gone from being a largely free of Islamist violence to one hosting multiple and significant Al Qaeda and Islamic State franchises.
The Horn of Africa: The Kinetic Narrative
East Africa 2003-2007 represented the other side of the coin when it came to irregular warfare as a form of preventive action. Here, in reference to Somalia in particular, and spying the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) as a major political authority in that country and as a potential entrepot for Al Qaeda militants, the US dispensed with humanitarian and developmental activism, and instead employed the tried and trusted recourse to hard power and proxy warfare in the form of the armed forces of neighbouring Ethiopia. Handily for the US, Ethiopia’s political leadership perceived the ICU, funded in part by rival Eritrea, as harbouring sympathies for anti-Ethiopian nationalists and internal separatist movements. The scene was set for more stringent measures.
By February 2006 the US’s fear of AQ encroachment into Somalia led the CIA to form anti-ICU armed factions in-country. Their rapid defeat led in turn to a far more robust strategy in December 2006 in which the US provided military and intelligence resources, mainly SOF as well as targeted drone strikes, in support of Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia. The ICU was splintered, and a joint African peacekeeping force, with the Ethiopian Army to the fore, oversaw the establishment of a new transitional government in early 2007.
The Horn of Africa: Strategic Failure
The 2006-7 invasion of Somalia by US-backed Ethiopian forces brought short lived success. The ICU was forcefully removed from its position of influence, but the presence of Ethiopian ‘occupiers’ spurred the growth of one hitherto small ICU faction – Al Shabaab. Its ideology previously moderated by a genuine belief that the ICU could bring some semblance of peace and stability, the sudden appearance of a US/Ethiopian backed transitional government turbocharged its transformation into a full-blown AQ affiliated insurgency with thousands of active fighters. With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces, Al-Shabaab and its smaller affiliate Hizbul Islam declared war on the US-backed transitional Government as well as forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As Ryan notes, the US-backed intervention in Somalia had, by displacing the ‘political’ ICU, simply encouraged the emergence in its place of a militant terrorist group administering vast swathes of the country. The counter-terrorist strategy had created precisely what it sought to prevent.
None of the above is intended to point the finger of blame at US policy, or its irregular warfare practitioners. It simply outlines to us the fundamental problems involved when external actors attempt to manipulate complex ground-level conditions to their own ends by way of indirect approaches through highly fallible local clients. As Hal Brands and Peter Feaver observe, the light-footprint, indirect approach has its appeal; particularly, I would suggest, to mid-range powers like the UK and potential European alliance partners. But such an approach may still demand intensive enough action to entangle protagonists in a long-duration military struggle against extremist groups (simply another form of ‘forever war’) without being intensive enough to truly hold the threat at bay. The ‘light-footprint’ strategy may thus still result in aggressive future interventions, only under worse conditions than before.