Niger’s government just authorized the United States military to begin using its territory to launch armed drones, expanding America’s reach against jihadist groups in west-central Africa. The U.S. conducted six airstrikes in November—and at least 30 this year—against jihadists in Somalia. Four U.S. Green Berets were killed in an ambush in Niger in October. And U.S. Arica Command (AFRICOM) confirmed in late September that U.S. warplanes conducted half-a-dozen airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya on a single day—the first U.S. strikes in Libya since January. In short, the U.S. military is actively engaged in Africa. But these high-profile stories are just the tip of the iceberg as AFRICOM tries to stabilize the most chronically unstable continent on earth.

That’s not hyperbole: According to the Fragile States Index, Africa is home to 18 of the world’s 25 most fragile/failed states. Failed and failing states open the door to a host of ills: food and resource scarcity, mass-migration, piracy, and, of course, terrorism. This is where Africa’s problems become America’s problem—and why America is increasingly engaged in this no-longer-forgotten continent.


U.S. forces have been hard at work in Africa since late 2001, striving to prevent an entire continent from going the way of Somalia or Afghanistan.

In November 2002, the U.S. stood up Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a tiny country on Africa’s northeast coast. By 2008, CJTF-HOA numbered 2,000 troops. (Today, some 4,700 American troops, Department of Defense personnel, and contractors are based in Djibouti.) By 2005, the Pentagon had begun providing training, equipment, and intelligence to militaries in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—which serves as a stark reminder that this is in every way a global war on terrorism. U.S. forces are fighting jihadists not only in high-profile places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, but across Africa—in Tunisia, Mauritania, Somalia, Cameroon, Libya, Niger, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, and all the way to Timbuktu (literally).

  • A U.S. airstrike in November targeting al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab killed more than 100 militants. There are some 500 DoD personnel in Somalia today.
  • About 800 U.S. troops are deployed in Niger, 300 more in nearby Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
  • Between August and December 2016, U.S. warplanes carried out 495 airstrikes to dislodge ISIS from Sirte, Libya.
  • In 2014, President Barack Obama dispatched Special Operations units to Nigeria and surrounding countries to assist the Nigerian military in its bloody struggle against ISIS affiliate Boko Haram.
  • Supporting French efforts to blunt the jihadist advance in west-central Africa, S. planes have transported hundreds of French troops and thousands of tons of equipment in and out of Mali.

As AFRICOM commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser explains in his 2017 overview of operations, U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Africa includes neutralizing al-Shabaab in Somalia, degrading “violent extremist organizations in the Sahel Maghreb…contain[ing] instability in Libya…contain[ing] and degrad[ing] Boko Haram,” and assisting partner countries like Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad with logistics, training, intelligence, and border security.

All told, the Pentagon has some 6,765 military personnel (including shooters and civilians) spread across 42 African countries. That official number is surely low given that the deployment of Special Operations assets—which are very active in Africa—is often classified.

Humanitarian/Stability Ops

Nine of the UN’s current 16 peacekeeping operations are focused on Africa, which underscores how unstable Africa is.

To address this chronic problem of instability, another of AFRICOM’s key lines of effort is building “peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster-response capacity of African partners,” Waldhauser observes. The U.S. poured $4 billion in military aid into Africa (not including Egypt) between 2008 and 2015, with Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and South Sudan receiving the lion’s share.

CJTF-HOA elements have trained Somalia-bound Burundi troops; assisted Ugandan and Rwandan troops ahead of peacekeeping deployments; and helped create a peacekeeping-operations center to support African Union stability missions. And the past several months have seen Special Operations units train in Senegal and Mauritania; Army personnel deliver armored personnel carriers to Nigeria; Army and Air Force assets deliver 450,000 pounds of military gear to the Central African Republic and Gabon; Coast Guard units at work in Senegal; and Marines conduct intelligence training in Ghana and peacekeeping training in Senegal.

Some stability operations are more dangerous than others: U.S. commando units have been waging a shadow war since 2011 against the Lord’s Resistance Army—a notorious transnational terror group led by warlord Joseph Kony, who is wanted for wreaking havoc across central Africa. Likewise, the Navy has been waging its own behind-the-scenes war against piracy on Africa’s western and eastern coasts for a decade. And it pays to recall that America’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in western Africa was a humanitarian mission that contributed to regional stability. As the epidemic spread, AFRICOM stood up a command post in Liberia to coordinate the efforts of various NGOs, government agencies and military assets. Army units set up mobile labs and treatment facilities. The Air Force transported 5,500 people and 8,700 tons of cargo in a four-month-long continuous airlift. The Marines provided enabling assistance in Senegal. Upwards of 3,000 U.S. troops took part in the mission.

Again, it wasn’t the first time America answered when Africa called for help.

In 2003, only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral AIDS drugs. Recognizing the security risks posed by desperation and disease—and answering the call of conscience—President George W. Bush responded with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). “PEPFAR prevented nearly 2 million babies from being born with HIV,” a 2016 report concludes. PEPFAR provides assistance to nearly 1.1 million children, critical care for 6.2 million orphans and other at-risk children, and life-saving treatment for 11.5 million people.

Bush launched a similar multifaceted effort to counter Africa’s deadliest killer: mosquitoes. The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) is credited with protecting 25 million people by distributing bed nets and medicine. Thanks in large part to PMI, 6.2 million malaria deaths have been averted.

This is the sort of work a great and good nation does for neighbors in need. This is what we are called to do. As Jesus explained, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” In light of how much we Americans have been blessed with, why would heaven not expect us to answer when our neighbors cry out for help?

Christ’s story of the Good Samaritan who helped the wounded traveler reminds us that all people of goodwill are neighbors: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.” He was beaten and left for dead. A priest and a Levite saw the man, only to cross the road to avoid him. But a Samaritan “took pity on him,” “bandaged his wounds,” “brought him to an inn and took care of him.” He then paid for the man’s care and recovery. In a sense, this is a portrait of foreign aid in action. It pays to recall, as one commentary explains, that the hero is “a hated foreigner…but Jesus asserted that love knows no national boundaries.”

To be sure, governments are expected to do certain things individuals aren’t expected to do—and shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do: Bearing the sword to protect innocents, maintain order, and carry out justice is a biblical expectation of governments, but for individuals such behavior seems to ignore Christ’s admonishment to put away the sword. Contrariwise, turning the other cheek and dying to self are next to godliness for individuals, but such behavior is next to suicidal for nation-states. However, helping those in need and sharing from our abundance are things God expects of individuals and nation-states alike.

Trade and Development

Other U.S. efforts have targeted the root causes of Africa’s ills. For instance, Power Africa, a program launched in 2013 with federal and private-sector resources, aims to double access to electricity across sub-Saharan Africa.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which was launched by the Bush administration in 2004, provides foreign-aid grants to countries that fight corruption, respect the rule of law, embrace free markets, and invest in health and education. As the Obama administration reported late last year, MCC grants for African countries represent 68 percent of the program’s entire portfolio.

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (passed into law in 2000) paved the way for expanded trade. U.S.-Africa goods trade was $37 billion in 2000, jumped to $141.7 billion by the end of the Bush administration and averaged $84 billion per year during the Obama administration. In addition, from 2008 to 2015, U.S. direct investment in Africa rose from $37 billion to $64 billion.

Yet China is Africa’s largest trading partner (it overtook the United States in 2009), and President Xi Jinping has earmarked $60 billion for investment and development in Africa.

Chinese telecommunications firms are building digital infrastructure across Africa and delivering Chinese programming (and propaganda) into millions of homes. One Chinese telecom company has subsidiaries in 30 African countries. China is investing billions in Africa’s oil-rich regions. China has provided military equipment and/or training to Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. And China recently stood up its first overseas military base—in Djibouti, just four miles from the American base.

Pointing to China, Waldhauser warns, “Whether with trade, natural resource exploitation, or weapons sales, we continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency and good governance. These competitors weaken our African partners’ ability to govern and will ultimately hinder Africa’s long-term stability and economic growth, and they will also undermine and diminish U.S. influence.”


During a summit with leaders from Africa, President Donald Trump sounded eager to continue efforts aimed at stabilizing and strengthening Africa. “Our prosperity depends, above all, on peace,” Trump noted. “We believe that a free, independent and democratic nation, in all cases, is the best vehicle for human happiness and success… The United States will partner with the countries and organizations, like the African Union, that lead successful efforts to end violence, to prevent the spread of terrorism and to respond to humanitarian crises.”

Yet other signs are more worrisome: U.S. democracy assistance fell nearly 20 percent during Obama’s second term. U.S.-Africa goods trade has fallen significantly in recent years. The Trump administration has proposed a 17-percent cut in PEPFAR, a 13-percent cut in development assistance for Africa, and “dramatic reductions in foreign aid.” Until recently, the U.S. contributed 28.57 percent of the UN’s annual peacekeeping budget; the Trump administration plans to cap that at no more than 25 percent.

AFRICOM is doing good and necessary work. However, one is left with a sense that Trump is increasingly comfortable with addressing Africa’s challenges through the military. To fight the twin plagues of instability and terrorism, America needs Africa to be healthier, freer, and more stable, and that means Africa needs more than just military equipment and military training from America.

Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose, where a shorter version of this piece appeared.

Photo Credit: Burundian soldier serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) holds a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in May 2012, manning a position along a defensive line in the area surrounding Baidoa airstrip in central Somalia. AU-UN photo by Stuart Price, via Flickr.