Why counter-terrorism failed as a foreign policy objective

Soldiers from Senegal and Mali train with US instructors. US army photo.

When news of the coup in Mali hit the airwaves last week, much was made of the fact that the apparent coup leader, Capt. Sanogo, received US army training. The captain, who used to be an English teacher before assuming leadership of Africa’s latest junta, proudly sports a US Marines pin on his fatigues and generally likes to brag about his several trips to the US for various trainings.

Commentators who noticed this generally questioned the US military aid in the sense of if it is good that the troops which were trained then proceed to topple democratically elected governments. This is an interesting question, of course, but it is also a bit beside the point.

While I’m critical of US policy, I don’t assume that they teach partnering militaries to stage coups. And it is highly unrealistic and patronizing to assume, that you need US military training to successfully chase your president out of his palace. So far, the amateurishness of the coup in Mali should probably make US military trainers more concerned, if their students didn’t take a nap during some lessons.

But we should take the opportunity to review some other aspects of US (and increasingly EU) counter terrorism foreign policy. Namely: does it succeed in solving the problem?

I would argue that instead of solving the problem (of terroristic/criminal behavior in the Sahel region), counter terrorism foreign policy has helped create and sustain it.

Take the example of Mali: despite Millions of Dollars that the US poured into training of the Malian army, AQIM activity in the remote desert north has only risen. No tourist ventures out into Timbuktu nowadays for fear of being abducted. Smuggling of weapons and drugs is common and the criminal groups running these schemes have a strong overlap with AQIM.

But what is most worrying is that the government of Mali, which counter terrorism foreign policy is supposed to support, seems to be deeply implicated in these criminal activities. Army commanders and politicians all take their share, happily cooperating with extremists they are paid and trained by western militaries to fight.

In one infamous episode a Boeing 727 (!) full of cocaine landed close to a remote desert town (happened to be governed by a close associate of the president), where the load was distributed upon trucks and send on its way towards Europe.

Meanwhile, the political establishment of Mali has been happy to put the blame for these kind of incidents squarely on the Tuareg, which of course comes in handy if one is fighting (and loosing) against a rebel group of this ethnicity.

Financial and military counter terrorism aid seems to result in the perverse incentive for the ruling class to get involved and profit from exactly these criminal  activities. This makes sense of course: by cooperating with AQIM and smuggling networks, politicians and army generals not only profit from kickbacks and corruption, but also ensure that the problem stays around and more aid flows into the country (and their pockets).

Western powers should wake up to the fact that transparent and legitimized governments are the best antidote against extremism and criminal groups, not military professionalism.