The West in central and eastern Africa, why are we there?

15 November 2013 | Erik Fredrikson

Erik Fredrikson studied Terrorism and Political Violence for his MA in International Relations at the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

About four years ago when I was still living in Boulder, Colorado, in the U.S. studying for my undergraduate degree, I met a retired Army soldier whose son had just been stationed at the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) unit at my university. Being a student of international relations, security issues in particular, we got into a conversation about the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he threw me a curveball that has since proven very true, namely that the new theater for American hard power will be Africa. Being naive and in all honestly not as analytically inclined then as I am now, I was a bit dumbfounded.

With the ability to better learn from history than predict the future, things now make a lot more sense. Following the Afghanistan invasion in 2001, U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power and effectively al-Qaeda from the safe haven it had for the longest time. They did not, however, completely kill off the organization. If anything, the opposite happened, and therein lies a problem with what al-Qaeda is defined as. But that is another subject for another blog. My point is that they, and more importantly their ideology, were chased away from a relative safe-haven, so in order to remain relevant and not give up, it had to expand geographically.

With the continued foreign military presences in Iraq and Afghanistan, recruitment under the false veil of a unified Ummah was not difficult. Moreover, militant Islamist organizations that were already present in the region made the expansion much easier.

This brings me to the question at hand, why has the West been so involved in central and east Africa? The attacks of 9/11 in New York, without a doubt, set off the War on Terror, making al-Qaeda the poster boy of an evil that in reality is quite difficult to just summarize. But one reality that was easy to see were the dangers posed by terrorism.

Even though multiple factors contribute to the existence of terrorism, the lack of effective national governance and policing is a primary factor to why, first off, militant Islamist ideology is allowed to spread. Secondly, attacks happen more often in certain countries than in others. In Somalia, for example, terrorist attacks happen much more frequently than in the United States because of its ineffective central government that exercises any sort of control within all of its borders. Central and eastern Africa are ripe with many failed, ineffective governing states that clamor for Western assistance in controlling lawlessness within their borders; lawlessness that poses security threats to Western interests. And, in instances where central governments cannot handle the situation themselves – or refuse to for that matter – the West takes over and handles it on its own.

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