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Rising Isis attacks in Africa mean the ‘war on terror’ is far from over

Biden’s focus on Afghanistan exit may seem like an end to the endless war, but instead the Pentagon has ramped up operations elsewhere

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
27 March 2021, 10.00am
President Biden said he couldn’t picture US troops in Afghanistan next year
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CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

The battle to leave Afghanistan is becoming almost as complex as the war itself. The Biden administration is eager to go but advisers in Washington warn of the Taliban taking over once more and enabling al-Qaida and Isis to operate freely.

The independent special inspector general for Afghanistan, John Sopko, has repeated his warning that the Afghan armed forces are not ready to ensure national security. However, this will do little more than delay the US departure perhaps until November, rather than the current deadline of May.

In the US army’s efforts to create an agreement with the Taliban, it may cease air attacks for a defined time period. If it does so, this will only be after recent air strikes that were aimed not at the Taliban but at paramilitaries linked to al-Qaida that are still active in the country.

At his first White House press conference on Thursday, President Joe Biden indicated a delay but said he couldn’t picture troops being in Afghanistan next year. However, on the same day, the head of the US Special Operations Command, General Richard Clarke, told Congress that a special force presence in Afghanistan was essential because of the Taliban threat.

The role of the Taliban and the implicit acknowledgement that al-Qaida is still active in the country might have ordinarily meant that the US would keep its forces there, but nearly 20 years of war has greatly diminished the willingness to stay.

Escalating violence

On the surface this might be taken to mean that the US is giving up on its wider ‘war on terror’ in regions wherever al-Qaida, Isis or other Islamist paramilitaries are active, but the reality is very different, as illustrated by violence in three countries reported within the last fortnight.

Since 2017, an Islamist insurgency fuelled by local grievances has spread rapidly across the Cabo Delgado province in north-eastern Mozambique. About 2,700 people have been killed, nearly 670,000 people have been displaced and close to a million are short of food. The conflict has worsened in the past year, with Save the Children reporting a particularly horrific rise in murders of children, and comes off the back of the destruction of Cyclone Kenneth, which caused widespread floods that destroyed crops in April 2019.

The Maputo government has responded partly by the use of mercenaries to control the insurgency, but it has now turned to the US for help, starting with a two-month deployment of special forces to train its own marines.

As the situation deteriorates in Mozambique and US involvement increases as a result, a similar situation is playing out across the Sahel

According to the Pentagon’s own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, the Mozambique paramilitaries are linked to Isis and have been listed as a foreign terrorist group, similarly to another insurgent movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It reported that the US State Department said the Mozambique branch has orchestrated a series of “large scale and sophisticated attacks”, most notably resulting in the capture of the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia near the border with Tanzania.

As the situation deteriorates in Mozambique and US involvement increases as a result, a similar situation is playing out across the Sahel region of northern Africa. The insurgency there has been developing for years and stretches to half a dozen countries, from Mauritania in the west to Chad, more than 3,000 kilometres to the east.

As reported in my column a fortnight ago, the CIA recently completed work on a drone base in the north of Niger, which is also convenient for operations against Isis groups across the border in southern Libya. French and US armed drones and special forces are already based in Mali, but have done little to control Islamist paramilitaries in Niger. On 15 March, at least 58 people were killed in a market-day attack at Banibangou, near the border with Mali. This was followed a few days later with an even worse attack in the Tahoua region by suspected jihadists, killing at least 137 people.

Military campaign in Iraq

While US forces continue and even expand their presence in the north and south-east of Africa, Biden is also trying to further withdraw from Iraq and Syria, but that is also proving problematic. As last week’s column reported, a US security think tank has said that Isis has taken over territory in central Syria and is poised for a Ramadan surge. And even more significantly, there have been reports in the past week that Isis is back in control of territory in northern Iraq to such an extent that a major military operation by US and Iraqi forces has been undertaken.

According to the US military publication, Air Force Magazine, 133 air attacks were carried out over a ten-day period against a cave complex in the Qarachogh Mountain area 50 kilometres south-west of the Kurdish city of Erbil. Military Times reported that this was part of a larger operation that included Iraqi air force and army aviation units, carrying out 312 air attacks on 120 hideouts, and killing 27 Isis paramilitaries.A Pentagon report released last month estimated that there are between 8,000 and 16,000 Isis paramilitaries still in Iraq and Syria, and recent actions show that the conflicts with Isis, al-Qaida and other armed groups are far from over. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Mozambique, the DRC, Libya or Niger, the ‘war on terror’ continues.

Biden and his administration may want to see an end to Isis, but the US and its allies, including France, the UK and other NATO countries, are creating a pernicious legacy that is largely of their own making. Until they move beyond the standard military responses and address the underlying socio-economic ecology of revolt – which has been worsened by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – the wars will continue for many years to come.

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