BRUSSELS (NATO)–NATO has been increasingly active on the African continent in recent years. It supported the African Union mission in Sudan by airlifting troops to and from the Darfur region, provided strategic sea- and airlift support for Ugandan troops to assist Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government in the civil war, while also playing a central role in patrolling the waters off the Horn of Africa to combat piracy.
But the Alliance went beyond logistical support and maritime patrols when it carried out its first direct intervention in an African conflict with its involvement in the war in Libya in 2011. More recently, NATO announced it will be sending advisers to Tripoli to help the government strengthen its security apparatus amid chaos and fear of civil war.
This increasing involvement of the Western collective security alliance in Africa — which is outside its traditional sphere of intervention — raises questions, such as, what are NATO’s short-term and long-term objectives in Africa? And what legitimacy does it have to intervene in military operations on the continent, including civil wars?
NATO was established in 1949 after World War II as a purely defensive organization with the aim of “deterring Soviet expansionism and forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent and encouraging European political integration.” But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, NATO found itself confronted with an existential question: was there any further need for the Alliance?
Still in search of a new role, NATO gradually expanded its membership to include former Eastern European and Balkans countries. Cooperation also extended southward. In 1994, the Alliance founded the Mediterranean Dialogue with six non-member Mediterranean countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, with Algeria joining in 2000. And in 2004, NATO launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative as a way of offering practical bilateral security cooperation to countries of the broader Middle East region.
Who is the enemy?
This expanding agenda led a Lebanese journalist, who was visiting NATO headquarters with this correspondent a few years ago, to ask: “What is this expansion for? Who is the enemy?” The organization’s spokesperson could not provide a convincing answer.
Yet the answer arrived a few years later in the aftermath of 9/11, an event that significantly contributed to a change in perspective, and somehow, propelled the Alliance to a vastly expanded role to justify its existence.
As NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared during a conference in Berlin in November 2009: “9/11 made clear – in no uncertain terms – that our old, Cold War, ‘eurocentric’ conception of security was hopelessly outdated. 9/11 demonstrated that, in the wake of economic globalisation, threats, too, are globalising: terrorism, failing states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are phenomena that simply cannot be met with purely national or even regional approaches. Against these threats, our old, static Cold War strategy is of no use at all”.
And thus NATO transformed itself from a purely defensive alliance into an organization with a much wider mandate, concerned, in its own words, with “peacekeeping and peace-building, crisis management and institution building.” Yet Rasmussen went even further in his Berlin speech: “We have to go to where the threat comes from, and tackle it at its roots – politically, economically, and militarily. To put it bluntly: territorial defense no longer starts at our borders – it starts well away from them.” With its new mandate, NATO had found justification to intervene almost anywhere in the world.
NATO, being an inter-governmental alliance, has always depended on its members for decisions and actions, and perhaps the greatest influence has been exerted by its largest and most powerful member, the United States. It should not come as a surprise then, that its agenda largely runs in parallel to that of the Pentagon, as over the years, the distinction between the Pentagon and NATO has become increasingly blurred.
The U.S. alone has considerably, yet subtly, increased its presence in Africa in recent years. Since 2003, it has maintained a base in Djibouti, and in 2007, the Pentagon established the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). Earlier this year, Washington decided to base drones in Niger, while finalizing an agreement with the Nigerien government to increase military involvement throughout the country.
In a speech in Arlington in June 2012, Virginia, AFRICOM Commander Carter Ham explained the reasoning behind U.S. operations on the African continent. He said U.S. efforts in Africa entail an “absolute imperative … to protect America, Americans and American interests,” just as in other parts of the world. Specifically, Ham said, his command seeks to protect the United States and its interests from threats that may emerge from the continent. “I’ll start in East Africa, where we see very clearly the threat of al-Qaida and its affiliated organization, al-Shabaab, which operates principally, but not exclusively, in Somalia,” he added.
In practice, the United States is involved in military and surveillance operations against an expanding list of regional ‘enemies,’ including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; the ‘Islamist’ movement Boko Haram in Nigeria; Mali’s ‘Islamist’ rebels of Ansar Dine; and al Shabaab in Somalia. But who decided that every Islamist rebel group in Africa, no matter how local or locally focused, was a threat to the U.S., requiring a military response? Who decided, and on what basis, that they were the ‘enemy’?
A problem of legitimacy
Furthermore, who made the call that a U.S.-Africa command should be set up to turn the continent into a web of U.S. bases and other operations? Certainly not the American people, who remain largely uninformed about it, and who were never asked if expanding the U.S. global mission to Africa was something they favored. Nor has there been any debate on the issue.
So what gives NATO and the U.S their legitimacy to intervene abroad, including in internal conflicts? Only the United Nations, through a resolution from its Security Council, can provide legitimacy to intervene abroad. But its vote to intervene in Kosovo and in Libya has led to a loss of its credibility and legitimacy.
In Libya, NATO troops intervened under false cover of a UN resolution on a ‘no fly zone,’ and ‘protection of civilian population.’ But undeniably, NATO’s involvement surpassed the original rationale of protecting civilians. And it is disquieting to see how easily the initial UN-mandated ‘no fly zone’ mutated into NATO becoming the insurgents’ air arm. This has serious implications for the legitimacy of NATO involvement in future missions, because it casts the Alliance as a partisan organization intervening on behalf of certain regional interests.
Both NATO and U.S. officials often claim they only intervene at the request of the African Union. But this organization has no more legitimacy to decide where and when to intervene or not. The reality is that Western Allies rely upon a myriad of local regimes that they themselves admit are largely corrupt and far from being democratically elected. The African people have not been consulted on the matter either, and there are sharp divisions among AU member states on whether to allow foreign entities to operate on African soil.
What NATO is doing is strategic — it is a meticulous penetration of the African continent with insidious consequences. It aims at becoming a natural and logical recourse for the African Union, thereby turning itself into an indispensable partner for any operation on the continent. An irony is that the main force behind the founding of the African Union was former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who had conceived of a united, strong, and most importantly, an independent, Africa. But the development of U.S. and NATO plans can be interpreted as being in direct competition with his pan-African initiatives. Of course, Gaddafi is no longer around to oppose it.
The U.S. and NATO are not dragging nearly every nation in Africa into its military network because of altruism or concerns for the security of the continent’s people. Rather, the objective is to gain geopolitical advantages; to ensure the continued outflow of oil and other resources; and to protect commercial and economic interests against the growing presence of emerging powers – such as Brazil, South Korea and China. Its presence in Africa centers on securing hegemony over the entire continent — and Africa’s independence hangs in the balance.