What Democrats Miss About the Threats to the U.S. in Africa

In 1991, the leadership of Saudi Arabia exiled Osama Bin Laden from the country.  He left with a handful of close acolytes, and he made his way not, as one might expect, to a neighboring Middle Eastern country, but across the Red Sea to Africa.  He found a safe harbor in the country of Sudan, and it was from Sudan that Osama Bin Laden nurtured Al Qaeda -- and planned attacks on U.S. targets, including the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the 1998 embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania.

Why Sudan?  Because Bin Laden could make moves in that civil-war-ravaged country that he couldn’t make in other places.  With his inherited wealth, he bought up apartments in the capital of Khartoum and a farm on the city’s outskirts.  He styled himself as an investor in Sudan’s future, and he even landed government contracts to build roads.  The Sudanese government was beset on all sides by poverty and strife, and they welcomed this wealthy newcomer and his infrastructure projects.  Only when the U.S. began targeting him did the Sudanese government take action to expel him.

It’s worth keeping the Osama-Sudan case study in mind when considering the present situation in Africa -- and more specifically the difficulties in the country of Cameroon.  Cameroon has made headlines lately: some Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have called attention to alleged human rights abuses by the Cameroonian government -- including allegations of government forces destroying property, detaining dissidents, and using excessive force in military operations.  In their version of events, Cameroon is run by an undemocratic leader who is stamping out a separatist opposition -- and the U.S. ought to cut ties with him.

But this is a deeply myopic reading of both the U.S.’s interests in the country and the broader geopolitical context. Cameroon, like the Sudan, is a country in duress -- not just internal divisions, but a potent terrorist threat from the Islamic militant group Boko Haram.  In 2014, Boko Haram attracted worldwide attention for kidnapping several hundred innocent young girls, and their terrorism has only increased in lethality and seriousness since. And even though they haven’t made international headlines lately, they are as deadly as ever and have kept up a campaign of killing and plundering throughout Cameroon -- including recent attacks specifically targeting Christians.

Founded in 2002, Boko’s stated goal is the overthrow of the Cameroonian government and the establishment of an Islamic state in the heart of Africa.  To achieve its ends, Boko Haram has used everything in the modern-day terrorist toolbox: kidnappings, assassinations, suicide bombings, and wholesale slaughter of civilians.  It is also savvy enough to use public relations tools and the Internet to spread its message, as well as fan the flames of disinformation about its intentions.  Its “schools” breed militant fundamentalists, and its ideology forbids anything Western -- which befits a group whose name literally translates to “Western education is sin.”

Even though they have a lower public profile in the U.S., Boko has gained in influence and power in the region.  And if that weren’t troubling enough, its ranks include terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda -- links which are reportedly still active today.  In 2009, a senior Al-Qaeda leader went so far as to publicly pledge to strengthen the union between the two groups.

In the face of this, America’s short- and long-term security interests would be best served by more diplomatic, military, and cultural exchange with Cameroonian leaders, not less.  Some in Congress seem to disagree.  They have called for a halt to aid funding to Cameroon, and some pundits have argued that travel restrictions ought to be placed on senior Cameroonian leaders.

These steps are misguided and would be deeply counterproductive, and they would be potentially dangerous to the American needs in the region.  Not only is the United States in a position to continue to aid Cameroon in their fight against Boko Haram, but the alternative is a situation the U.S. cannot countenance: a government that falls further victim to Boko’s attacks, and, in a worst-case scenario, falls apart altogether, leaving a Boko-run Islamic state on Africa’s western coast.

Consider another important fact: the U.S. operates a drone base in the Cameroonian town of Garoua.  Today, over three hundred American service members operate there -- even against the wishes of some in the region, who would prefer that Cameroon not play host to the U.S. military.  That begs the obvious question: what would be the value for the U.S. in jeopardizing a critical military partnership, particularly one that allows us to gather intelligence in the region without having a hefty number of boots on the ground?

But set even that narrow self-interest aside.  The government of Cameroon is an ally and economic partner, to the tune of $200 million in exports from the U.S. each year.  We get nothing by isolating them, nor from targeting their leaders, and by contrast, our economic, diplomatic, and political linkages could do a great deal more to encourage the changes we’d like to see in the country’s leadership.  If we distance ourselves from them, we give up our soft power.  And more troublingly, the African continent will hear a worrying signal: the U.S. is a fair-weather friend and an uncertain ally in the global war on terrorism.

This matters more today than ever.  China’s influence in Africa has increased substantially.  By lavishing African countries with money and attention, the Chinese have gained influence in the continent -- to the point that some African countries have flirted with the idea of ditching the U.S. dollar and making the Chinese renminbi their reserve currency.  This is a prospect that should trouble U.S. officials, and it wouldn’t get any better if we abandon critical African allies.

If Osama Bin Laden’s time in Sudan ought to teach us anything, it is that countries not in the headlines can end up breeding headline-producing events.  We need to take action before such things happen, and in the case of Cameroon, we need to strengthen -- not weaken -- our alliance with a government that is actively fighting our common foe.

Distancing ourselves from the Cameroonian government in the name of human rights might help win over some editorial boards in our country -- but in Cameroon, it could lead to the U.S. and the Cameroonian military losing the actual, vital fight on the ground.  Democrats and others who criticize the Cameroon leadership would do well to keep this in mind as we determine the future of this strategic alliance.

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