If the Boston bombings tell us anything, they shout that faraway conflicts can home to America in frightening and tragic ways.
Chechnya, in distant Central Asia, has suddenly commanded public attention. What other regions produce terrorists that threaten Americans at home? And what can the Obama administration do to prevent distant disputes from literally detonating on American streets?
North Africa should be front and center. Every warning light is blinking red. The Benghazi attack on an American diplomatic outpost, which led to the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The tragic hostage crisis at a gas plant in Southern Algeria. The French incursion into Mali (with U.S. help) to fight jihadists. The rise of extremist groups across the region. Every one of these events can be traced back to al Qaeda, in one affiliate form or another.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration wants to disengage from danger zones—as if wars were 18th century gentleman’s duels that are only fought by mutual consent. Instead, what is desperately needed is for Obama to engage with Africa to prevent Al Qaeda from seizing control in North Africa. He should start with America’s strongest ally in the region, Morocco’s king Mohammed VI, forge a partnership, and begin to transform the region. For a president in search of a legacy achievement, here it is. The first American president with an African-born father can be the one to revolutionize U.S. relations with the so-called “dark continent.”
Obama and the king already have a strong relationship as shown by last week’s move at the United Nations, in which the president personally ensured that peace efforts between Morocco and the Polisario Front were not hijacked by activists and Obama supported the king’s autonomy plan.
The cost of ignoring Africa is immense—and may be ultimately measured in American lives lost. Left unchecked, Al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa will soon be able to strike at Americans overseas and at home. Ignoring North Africa today is like ignoring Afghanistan in 1998, as Bin Laden’s minions began to plan the September 11 attacks. North Africa is becoming the “new Afghanistan”—a string of toterring and largely ungoverned nations running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
“It is very clear to me that al-Qaeda intends to establish a presence in Tunisia,” said U.S. General Carter Ham, following talks with the new government there. Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Al Qaeda is swarming across North Africa using a “southern strategy” of moving from the African Sahel through the Maghreb. Before the French push-back, Ansar Dine, the pro-Al Qaeda organization in Mali, had conquered 300,000 miles of territory in the north of the country.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, composed largely of Algerian Kabyle and Saharans, has holdings in Western Sahara, Niger, Chad, and now Libya. In Libya alone, AQIM leaders have allied with local jihadist movements and acquired massive amounts of weapons that belonged to the former Qaddafi regime.
Moving down the map, AQIM has partnered with “Polisario,” the separatist group in Algeria that claims half Morocco. Polisario has been providing them with weapons and training as well.
Not only is the Obama administration overlooking these gathering threats in North Africa, it is also ignoring key allies in the region, especially Morocco.
It is time for the Obama Administration to reverse course. What’s needed now is a broader re-think of America’s role in Africa. This means changing America’s military, diplomatic and economic priorities.
Military. This would include actually moving the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) from Stuttgart, Germany to Africa and giving it a quick reaction force that can be immediately deployed to rescue diplomats, aid workers and others. Training for local forces must be stepped up, intelligence cooperation improved, and military equipment shared or sold to friendly North African nations to fight al Qaeda and its affiliates. Moving AFRICOM to Morocco would be a good first step.
Diplomatic. A summit meeting between President Obama and Morocco’s new reformist king, Mohammed VI, is in the works. It can used to forge a strategic relationship with the king and, working with other African allies, should be a starting point to create a new diplomatic architecture. Quite simply the U.S. has to stop seeing Africa as a source of oil and misery and instead see it as an important partner for promoting peace and economic growth.
Economic. The U.S. must continue to lower trade barriers with Africa and encourage “south-south” cross-border investment. Freer trade, privatization and foreign investment could transform Africa from being a continuous source of illegal migrants and armed militants into a dynamic society that re-channels its energy into wealth creation. Obviously this is a project that would take decades of patient work, much like the rebuilding of East Asia during the Cold War. But it can be done. In 1960, South Korea and Ghana had a virtually identical per capita income; today South Korea is one of the world’s richest nations while Ghana remains poor. Morocco’s growth, in excess of 5% per year, can serve as a model.
As Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson noted in a statement earlier this year, “It is my firm belief that Africa represents the next global economic frontier. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to weather the global economic crisis more successfully than other regions, and is home to six – and soon to be seven – of the ten fastest growing economies in the world.” Of course, these economies are growing from a small base.
There are already some encouraging signs based on Morocco’s path-breaking example in electricity, pharmaceuticals, banks, and telecom construction. In each case, under the leadership of King Muhammad VI, Morocco made substantial investments in sub-Saharan African countries and is already enjoying positive results.
Morocco’s National Office of Electricity will provide electricity to 550 rural villages and 360,000 people with light and hope. Morocco is taking its own successful experience in rural electrification to its neighbors and expects to earn a modest return as a result.
Morocco’s pharmaceutical giant, Sothema, has opened a subsidiary in Dakar to manufacture generic drugs to treat the diseases that bedevil the world’s poorest people: malaria, diarrheal diseases and cholera. Morocco’s pharmaceutical industry is profitable and has learned to make money exporting carefully priced drugs in poor markets.
Morocco’s leading banks: Banque Populaire (BCP), Attijariwafa Bank and Banque Marocaine du Commerce Exterior (BMCE) now have branches in some 20 African countries and often provide Africans with their very first bank account, As these banking relationships develop and more people become credit worthy, they are able to purchase otherand subsequent loans and investments bank products including loans and investments, thereby spurring economic growth. In each case,
The market is wide open. Fewer than 10% of Africans have bank accounts, leaving a lot of room for growth.but twenty years ago fewer than one in five Moroccans had a bank account, now more than 54% do.
By bringing more Africans into the capitalist system, America can help end long-term trends of illegal migration, Islamic terrorism, and drug trafficking.
Obama is a president with African roots, and Mohammad VI is a king focused on reform. Together these men and other African leaders could create a lasting legacy—by fighting extremism and providing economic freedom. However, if Obama fails to reinvigorate the U.S. relationships with Africa (starting with Morocco), we will have many more attacks like the one in Benghazi and Boston.