Africa’s Irregular Security Threats: Challenges for U.S. Engagement

“The United States has a growing strategic interest in Africa at a time when the security landscape there is dominated by a wide range of irregular, nonstate threats. Militia factions and armed gangs are ubiquitous in the conti­nent’s civil wars, fighting both for and against African governments. Other security challenges include terrorism, drug trafficking, maritime threats such as piracy in the Indian Ocean, and oil bunkering in the Gulf of Guinea. Organized criminal activities, particularly kidnapping, human smuggling and trafficking in persons, weapons smuggling, and environmental and financial crimes, are increasingly brazen and destructive. These are not isolated phenomena. Rather, they create a vicious circle: Africa’s irregular threat dynamics sustain black markets directly linked to state corruption, divert atten­tion from democratization efforts, generate or fuel civil wars, drive state collapse, and create safe havens that allow terrorists and more criminals to operate.

International consensus is growing on the best way forward. African governments and their international partners must craft more appropriately structured and better resourced security sectors to address emerging threats. This means balancing emphasis on professionalizing Africa’s military forces with an equally serious and long-term commit­ment to modernizing law enforcement, civilian intelligence, and border security agencies. It also means enhancing African governments’ legal capabilities to monitor and regulate finan­cial and commodity flows across their borders, and to prosecute those who transgress the law. National coordination and regional coopera­tion are needed to overcome “stovepiped” responses, share information, and address threats that are multidimensional and transna­tional in nature. Finally, there is agreement that much more needs to be done to address the root causes of these threats by reducing poverty, building peace in conflict-ridden societies, and curtailing the general sense of alienation many Africans feel toward their governments.

Engaging African states as reliable part­ners to confront irregular security challenges will be a complex process requiring a three-pronged strategy. First, there must be substan­tial, sustained, and continent-wide investment in capacity-building for intelligence, law enforcement, military, prosecutorial, judicial, and penal systems, not to mention their par­liamentary, media, and civil society counter­parts. Second, until such African capabilities come online and are properly utilized by polit­ical leaders, the United States and other for­eign partners will need to deploy more of their own intelligence, law enforcement, and spe­cial operations personnel to Africa to address terrorist and criminal dynamics that pose a direct and immediate threat to U.S. strategic interests. Third, further efforts are required to harden the political will of African leaders to actually deploy their maturing security sec­tor capabilities in an aggressive manner that abides by the rule of law.” Andre Le Sage, Ph.D. Strategic Forum 255, May 2010.

How can the U.S. and the international community work to build ‘political will’ amongst African leaders to implement the commitments they have made to combat these threats?

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