Pursuing Terrorists in the Great Desert

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

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.


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