October 21, 2011
(Lagos, Nigeria) - The death of Moammar Qaddafi marks the end of an eight-month NATO military campaign that supported the rebels who brought down the Libyan dictator. While the future of Libya is uncertain and NATO’s mission there comes to a close today, it is not the end of American engagement in Africa.
The U.S. military is now involved in an advisory capacity in a series of conflicts across the volatile African continent. For instance, small teams are with working with the Yemeni military to track down members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that intelligence analysts say is now more dangerous than al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan. U.S. drones are active in Yemen, recently killing the American-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.
Meanwhile, U.S. drones are also in use in Somalia, another Islamic militant hotspot. And the Obama administration has committed 100 military advisers to Uganda to assist in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group responsible for a whole host of atrocities, including sexual enslavement and forced child soldiering. In Nigeria, the U.S. has pledged support in the battle against Boko Haram, an Islamic group in the north that is threatening to pull the country into civil war. The group is suspected to have ties to al-Qaeda, although proof of any connection remains tenuous at best.
So while the United States’ work in Libya might be done, its role in many other African conflicts could change quickly. Africa is an unpredictable place. As long as the U.S. military is involved here, America’s engagement, both financial and in terms of manpower, will remain equally unpredictable.
Still, the Administration has racked by one more win in the war on terrorism. The U.S. backing of the European-led NATO operation was met with early criticism. Some Republicans accused the Obama administration of irresponsibly opening a new front as the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan continued. (President Obama announced today that the last American troops in Iraq will return home by the end of December.) Republicans also complained about the cost of the mission, a figure that has never been confirmed publicly. As the U.S. was largely seen as bearing the biggest burden of the Libyan operation, despite France and Britain taking the public lead in the fight against Qaddafi.
However, ending Qaddafi’s 42-year reign over Libya – an era marked by human rights abuses, institutional support of terrorism, and the dictator’s murderous eccentricities --is one of the alliance’s rare modern successes. According to reports, it was a NATO airstrike that sent Qaddafi into the drainage pipe where rebels found him. “After 42 years, Colonel Gaddafi's rule of fear has finally come to an end,” NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday. “Libya can draw a line under a long dark chapter in its history and turn over a new page. Now the people of Libya can truly decide their own future.”
Where the NATO alliance goes in the future remains unclear. It is in a state of transition and search for relevancy. Members like Britain, Germany, and France are making drastic defense cuts that are diminishing military capabilities. The mission in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, with European countries biding time until troops can be brought home and war-weary citizens appeased. By next year, the United States will be the sole military power left in Afghanistan. As the America prepares to make defense cuts of its own, its commitment to NATO remains an unanswered question.
Francis, based in Nigeria, is an International Reporting Project Fellow