After the killings of U.S. soldiers in Niger and a potential U.S. link to the Mogadishu attack, author Bill Fletcher says that an increased American military role in Africa threatens even more violence
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Since the killing of U.S. troops in Niger earlier this month, the fallout from President Trump’s bungled condolence call to one of the widows has dominated headlines, but what’s gotten less attention is the issue of why the U.S. military is in Africa to begin with, and how that role appears to be expanding. Late last week, Defense Secretary James Mattis told lawmakers the U.S. will ramp up its operations in Africa. Afterward, Senator Lindsey Graham said that effort will lead to “more aggression.” LINDSEY GRAHAM: The war is morphing. You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less. You’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less. You’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field, and I support that entire construct. AARON MATÉ: We just saw another deadly reminder of what more U.S. aggression in Africa might lead to. In Somalia, over 300 people were killed when a trunk bomb hit center of Mogadishu. The Guardian has since reported that the killer was a former Somali soldier who may have been taking revenge for a raid on his hometown involving U.S. forces that left 10 civilians dead. Bill Fletcher is a racial justice, labor and international activist, also the former president of TransAfrica Forum. Welcome, Bill. I guess let’s start with your reaction to the discussion that’s followed from the killings of these soldiers in Niger, so much focus on President Trump’s strange response, his weird condolence call to one of the widows. Not so much focus on the U.S. role in Africa itself. BILL FLETCHER: Well, thanks for having me on the program. I guess I would start with my guess is that Trump knows probably very little about the background to U.S. involvement in Africa and probably cares even less. I think what’s important for your viewers, however, is that U.S. involvement in the Sahel region on north, the area that stretches across the continent and the southern part of the Sierra on north; this is not new. That after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. began to look at virtually every problem around the world through the lens of fighting terrorism, and so one of the things that it started was a Trans-Sahel military project in the early 2000s to work very closely with the militaries of a number of the countries in that region. Now, this was irrespective of the character of those governments. Whether the governments were open tyrannies or not, the U.S was there and the U.S. was insisting that terrorism was the main problem. The difficulty was that it wasn’t, that terrorism was not the major problem in Africa. That there were other issues including poverty, environmental crises, the role of multinational corporations, but the U.S. was making terrorism the issue. They began working very closely with the militaries of various countries. Thus, we have the example of Niger, where I would probably guess most people in the United States had no idea that there was any U.S. military involvement, but the U.S. has been working with those militaries to prepare them and to train them in counterterrorism. It’s important that we understand this did not come out of nowhere. AARON MATÉ: Right. In terms of U.S. expansion, military expansion in African since AFRICOM was unveiled in 2007, if I recall right, the lens or the rhetoric may be counterterrorism, but was that the action goal? BILL FLETCHER: Well, AFRICOM started then, but the involvement started much earlier. I mean, one can argue that involvement really goes back to the 1960s, but like I said, the more contemporary was in the aftermath of September 11th. The objective … The U.S. has apparently had several different objectives in militarizing. One is to better position itself and to gain greater stability for multinational corporations and investors in the continent, and that particularly means shoring up regimes that are prepared to work hand and glove with the United States. The second is that, you know there’s that saying. What is it? If you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail, or something along those lines. With the U.S., the way that they look at the world, the upper branches of the United States, they look at the world through the lens of terrorism. They define problems when there are … when there is instability, when there are uprisings. One of the first things that they look for is alleged terrorism, and this results in very frequently in the U.S. supporting incredibly repression measures taken against populations that are involved in some of level of an uprising or insurgency. That takes us to Somalia, where the United States has insisted first in ignoring the crisis in Somalia after the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991, who was a longtime dictator; allowing Somalia to degenerate into warlord states, and then assuming when there was an Islamist movement called the Islamic Courts that arose; assuming that that movement was somehow a terrorist operation and had to be crushed, and it was crushed through an invasion by Ethiopia with the support of the United States. There’s this constant attempt to repress things that the United States does not understand but perceives as a threat. AARON MATÉ: Right. Speaking of Somalia, I want to go actually to what I mentioned earlier, which is that, so we just saw this terrible bombing in Mogadishu, over 300 people killed. Everyone initially assumed it was the militant group Al-Shabaab, which is an offshoot, a fringe offshoot of the Islamic Courts you mentioned. BILL FLETCHER: That’s right. AARON MATÉ: Actually, Al-Shabaab has not taken credit, and since then, The Guardian has reported that the killer was a former Somali soldier who may been taking revenge for a U.S. involved raid on his hometown that killed 10 civilians. I want to go to a clip from a local official at the time of that raid, speaking about the civilian toll. ALI NUR: [Foreign Language 00:07:42]. Translator: We confirm that the dead are not members of Al-Shabaab. They were not fighters. They were civilians working on their farms when they were killed. AARON MATÉ: That’s a local official from the area where 10 people were killed in a raid involving U.S. and Somali forces. Again, Bill, that’s a case where we this violent attack recently in Mogadishu, gets a lot of world attention. The Guardian has this one report saying that according to its sources, it may have been an act of revenge. Almost no attention on that since. BILL FLETCHER: First of all, I wouldn’t be surprised. One of the criticisms that many people have made with the increase use of drones, is the failure to make a distinction between hard targets and soft targets, that is military targets and civilian targets. What we see around the world in Somalia, in Yemen, other places, are the killing of civilians and it’s all treated as what’s called collateral damage. This is happening because of this failure of both intelligence as well as technology. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if that is actually what happened, but the deeper problem is that Somalia remains racked in a de facto civil war, and that was needed more than anything else is a mediated settlement of several different crises that exist there. It’s not just Al-Shabaab. It’s Al-Shabaab; there are secessionist movements; there’s issues about corruption. There are a number of these things that have to be taken on as part of a comprehensive peace program. Again, what you don’t find from the United States is any encouragement for that kind of resolution of the problem, and a constant return to we smash these forces with more drones and ultimately with troops on the ground. AARON MATÉ: Right. Also, you have military interventions like the NATO intervention in Libya that overthrew Gaddafi, which also had repercussions for the region because one of its impacts was to spread Gaddafi’s weapon cache into neighboring countries including Mali, which also saw a very deadly insurgency. BILL FLETCHER: That’s true, although it’s more complicated because there was an uprising in Libya against Gaddafi. That will take us in a somewhat different direction, but I would agree with you absolutely that with this overthrow and with the chaos that existed in Libya afterwards, there was proliferation of arms all over the place. That contributed to the insurrection that took place in northern Mali and the emergence of the Al-Qaeda branch there that displaced the Tuareg rebels that were protesting against the government. When you have those kind of guns out there, any number of things can happen. AARON MATÉ: Right. You know, Bill, wanted to read from you … I want to read for you just some excerpts of a recent UN study about violent extremism in Africa. It’s called ‘Journey to Extremism,’ and it found some … it interviewed former extremists in Africa and looking at their reasons for joining militant groups and this is what it found. It said, “In a majority of cases, paradoxically, state action appears to be the primary factor finally pushing individuals into violent extremism in Africa. Of more than 500 former members of militant organizations interviewed for the report, 71% pointed to government action, including killing of a family member or friend or arrest of a family member or friend, as the incident that prompted them to join a group.” 71% with that response, saying that it was a government action that prompted them to take up arms. BILL FLETCHER: That comes as absolutely no surprise. See, here’s the problem. When the United States props up these tyrannies that repress their populations, repress peaceful descent in many cases, why then should it surprise us when the response is in a military form? No, that comes as absolutely no surprise. If you look at these different governments, they are not paragons of democracy. AARON MATÉ: Bill, let me try to answer your question by saying that the reason why it might surprise people is because we’re given such a different picture by our leaders here in the U.S. As an example of that, let me go to the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly from his infamous news conference last week when he talked about the reason why U.S. troops are in places like Niger. JOHN KELLY: Why were they there? They’re there working with partners, local … all across Africa in this case, Niger. Working with partners, teaching them how to be better soldiers, teaching them how to respect human rights, teaching them on to fight ISIS, so that we don’t have to send our soldiers and Marines there in their thousands. That’s what they were doing there. AARON MATÉ: Bill, as we wrap, that’s the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly saying that we’re there to defend human rights and to make sure that we don’t have to send even more of our own troops over there than are already there. BILL FLETCHER: I wish it was so, but it’s not an accurate description. Whether it’s U.S. troops being sent there or U.S. mercenaries being sent there, the fundamental thing that’s missed is that the United States continuously props up undemocratic regimes that are repressing their people. One of the responses to that can be peaceful protest. Another response can be revolutionary activity. A third response can be extremist terrorism. Any number of these things that can happen when people basically feel that the doors are closed and they have no options. That’s what the U.S. government refuses to see. AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Bill Fletcher, racial justice organizer, labor international activist, also the former president of TransAfrica Forum. Thank you, Bill. BILL FLETCHER: My pleasure. Take care. AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.