Neo-Imperialism and the Arrogance of Ignorance
- NOTE: I've posted quite a few articles about Africa lately, but this has to be one of the most perceptive and "deep" analyses I've read so far. If you have trouble reading the article as forwarded because of all the codes indicating links, please do yourself a favor and go to the original at
Africa and AFRICOM
Neo-Imperialism and the Arrogance of Ignorance
by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY
Most Americans do not realize the extent to which the U.S. is
becoming involved militarily in the welter of conflicts throughout
Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa (check out the chaos as mapped here).
Although recent reports have tended to focus on the French effort to
kick Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) out of Mali — an effort that may now be devolving into a far more complex guerrilla war, that French operation is just one operation in what may be shaping up to be a 21st Century version of the 19th Century Scramble for the resources of Africa. It’s a policy that, from the U.S. point of view, may not be unrelated to the pivot to China, given China‘s growing market and aid presence in Africa. Together, the scramble and
the pivot will be sufficient to offset the near term effect of an
sequester in the Pentagon with a torrent of money flows in the future.
Last year, Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post provided a mosaic of glimpses into the widespread U.S. involvement in Africa. He authored a series of excellent reports, including here, here and here. The map below is my rendering of the basing information in Whitlock’s
report (and others), as well as the relationship between that basing
information to distribution of Muslim populations in central Africa.
Consider the distances involved in this swath of bases loosely portrayed by the red dots: the distance between these bases along the axis from
northwest to southwest on the African continent alone is greater that
the distance from New York to Los Angeles. Think of the ethnic and
tribal differences between Burkina Faso and Kenya, not to mention the
differences within those countries! And remember, virtually all of
North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt is over 90% Muslim.
While the correlation between Muslim populations and our intervention activities in this variety of cultural mosaics will suggest a welter of differing messages to different audiences, one generalization is
certain, given our recent history of intervention: Africom’s continuing
presence and involvement will further inflame our relationship with
militant Islam and perhaps the far larger number of moderate Muslims.
But think of the other possibilities for one’s imagination to run
wild. For example: In view of the recent Libyan adventure,
conspiratorially-minded North African Islamic radicals (and moderates?)
with a penchant for seeing visions in cloud formations may well
interpret the swath of Africom’s bases structure in Sub-Saharan Africa
as early bricks in the construction an anvil, against which, they will
be smashed by a new generation of European neocolonialists, attacking
from the north in obedience with the new “leading from behind” doctrine
of President Obama. Of course, given the distances involved and the
porosity those distances imply, such divagations of the paranoid mind
are silly from a military point of view. But given the US’s murderous
track record of lies in Iraq, incompetence in Afghanistan, and our
blatant disregard for the Palestinians by constructing a peace processes that facilitated the growth of settlements in a forty-year land grab by Israel, that kind of characterization nevertheless will be grist for
the propaganda mill as well as the fulminations of a paranoid mind. And remember, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out
to get you.
Another sense of the metastasizing nature of our involvement in
Africa can be teased out of the leaden, terrorist-centric,
albeit carefully-constructed verbiage in the prepared answers submitted by Army General David M. Rodriguez to Senate Armed Services Committee
in support of his 13 February 2013 confirmation to be the new commander
of the U. S. Africa Command or Africom. I urge readers to at least skim this very revealing document.
The terrorist “threats” in sub-Saharan Africa that are evidently so
tempting to the neo-imperialists at Africom do not exist in isolation.
They are intimately connected to the ethnic/tribal discontent in Africa, a subject alluded to but not really analyzed by Rodriquez or his
senatorial questioners in their carefully choreographed Q&A.
Many of these tensions, for example, are in part a legacy of
artificial borders created by the European interventionists of the 19th
century. These interventionists deliberately designed borders to mix up
tribal, ethnic, and religious groups to facilitate “divide and rule”
colonial policies. The 19th Century colonialists often deliberately
exacerbated local animosities by placing minorities in politically and
economically advantageous positions, thereby creating incentives for
seething discontent and payback in the future. Stalin, incidentally,
used the same strategy in the 1920s and 1930s to control the Muslim
soviet republics in what was formerly known as the Turkestan region of
Central Asia. In the USSR, the positioning of the artificial borders
among these new “Stans” were widely known as Stalin’s “poison pills.”
The hostage crisis at the gas plant in eastern Algeria last January
illustrates some of the deeply-rooted cultural complexities at the heart of many of these conflicts. Akbar Ahmed recently argued this point in
one of his fascinating series of essays published by Aljazeera. This series, which I believe is very important, is based on his forthcoming book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a War on Tribal Islam, to be published in March by Brookings Institution Press.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the former Pakistani high commissioner to
the UK, and he now holds the the appropriately named Ibn Khaldun Chair
of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.
Considered to be one of fathers of modern historiography and the social
sciences, Ibn Khaldun is also one of history’s most influential scholars of spontaneous
nature of tribalism and its role in establishing social cohesion. The
central thrust of Professor Ahmed’s work is in that spirit. He aims to
explain why discontent is so widespread throughout the former colonial
world and how it is partially rooted in a complex history of oppressions of ethnic groups and in tribal rivalries throughout the region. This
has created a welter of tensions between the weak central governments of the ex-colonial countries and their peripheral minority groups and
tribes. Ahmed argues that these tensions have been exacerbated by our
militaristic response to 9/11. He explains why military interventions by the U.S. and former European colonial powers will worsen the growing
tension between central governments and these oppressed groups.
Among other things, Ahmed, perhaps inadvertently, has laid out a devastating critique of US failure to abide by the criteria of a sensible grand strategy in its reaction to 9/11. By confusing a horrendous crime with an act of war, declaring an open ended global war on terror, and then conducting that war according to a classically flawed
grand strategy that assumed “You are either with us or against us,” the
US has not only created enemies faster than it can kill them, but in so
doing, it has mindlessly exacerbated highly-volatile,
incredibly-complex, deeply-rooted local conflicts and thereby helped to
destabilize huge swathes of Asia and Africa.
Mindless? Consider please the following: Most readers of this essay
will have heard of AQIM and probably the the Tuaregs as well. But how
many of you have heard of the Kabyle Berbers and their history in
Algeria? (I had not.) Yet according to Professor Ahmed, a Kabyle Berber founded AQIM, and that founding is deeply-rooted in their historical
grievances. So, there is more to AQIM than that of simply being an al
Qaeda copycat. You will not learn about any of this from Rodriquez’s
answers, notwithstanding his repeated references to AQIM and Algeria;
nor will you learn anything about this issue from the senators’
You can prove this to yourself.
Do a word search of General Rodriquez’s Q&A package for any hint of an appreciation of the kind of complex history described by Ahmed in his Aljazeera essay, The Kabyle Berbers, AQIM, and the search for peace in Algeria. (You could try using search words like these, for example: AQIM,
Kabyle, Berber, history, Tuareg, tribe, tribal conflict, culture, etc —
or use your imagination). In addition to noting what is not discussed,
note also how Rodriquez’s threat-centric context surrounding the words
always pops up. Compare the sterility his construction to the richness
of Ahmed’s analysis, and draw your own conclusions. Bear in mind AQIM
is just one entry in Africom’s threat portfolio. What do we not know about the other entries?
As Robert Asprey showed in his classic 2000 year history of guerrilla wars, War in the Shadows, the most common error made by outside interveners in a guerrilla war is succumbing to the temptation to allow their “arrogance of ignorance” to shape their military and political efforts.
Notwithstanding the arrogance of ignorance being reaffirmed in
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it is beginning to look like
Asprey’s timeless conclusion will be reaffirmed Africa.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@...
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