The Past is the Future with the Lights On: “What should we be thinking about for the war after next?”

 

It’s pretty obvious that Americans are uncomfortable about the U.S. getting into wars. They think Vietnam.  They think Afghanistan; that one was supposed to be “the good war.”  They think Iraq.  No more “war[s] on terror” please. But Americans have always been uncomfortable about getting into wars.  Yet, last May, Pentagon officials testified to Congress that keeping the AUMF in place is important to facilitate the ongoing “war on terrorism,” which will last “at least ten to twenty [more] years.”  Shortly thereafter, President Obama said in a speech at the NDU that it’s time for the United States to get off the trajectory of perpetual-war.  What gives? One thing you learn when studying History is that although the discipline itself deals with how things change over time, you come across many things that really don’t change all that much.  And while it’s true that we haven’t had a “great power” war in a long time, 1) we’ve had some pretty close calls, 2) we shouldn’t completely rule it out, and 3) even when we adopted this mentality by gutting our forces after the Cold War, we exposed ourselves to the other side of the conflict pendulum: the non-state actor.  We got caught flat-footed and here we are today.  With this in mind, here are some things to think about when thinking about what “future wars” will look like:

Many future wars will be fought off the backs of pickup trucks, dubbed “technicals.” Unlike tanks and heavy armor which are owned by the government, every rebel commander knows that all you’ve got to do is grab a Toyota pickup, strap on some military hardware, pile the back up with volunteers and speed off to the front line. Cheap, mobile, replaceable. What’s not to like?

I.  One thing that won’t change is struggles with insurgents and guerrillas; and neither will struggles with terrorist groups like al Qaeda.  After all, we may learn about the big “important” wars in History, with pitched battles and uniformed and organized armies, where one side wins and the other side loses, but a closer look of most of humanity’s violent conflicts have been smaller, prolonged, guerilla-like campaigns (Max Boot’s new book goes into great detail about this).  There is a spectrum of course; we can’t completely rule out the high intensity conflicts between nation-states, but a majority of conflicts will happen under the latter.   As for the AUMF, still in place and unchanged for over a decade, it will probably stick around for some time.  Those 60 words are too politically expedient to scrap altogether, but it will probably be reworked in the future, as it gives the Executive Branch extraordinary powers to handle the reality of the future of war: that wars have and will continue to take a really long time.  All guerrilla campaigns do. And so will counter-terrorism, which has been used synonymously with “war.”  A popular saying among Afghans when we invaded was, “You have all the watches, but we have all the time.” It’s pretty amazing how during the worst months of Vietnam, 2,000 soldiers died every month, but in this century running two wars at the same time in Iraq and Afghanistan, it took years to reach that level.  Fewer casualties can also mean a higher tolerance for pain, and therefore a higher tolerance for prolonged conflict, since it takes longer for the casualties to amass. It will also become increasingly uncertain as to what actually defines victory.  The war may be over for us, but will it necessarily always be over for the other guy?

Most of the world’s largest major cities and population centers are by the water. The United States Navy conveniently has a naval presence in every major body of water in the world. Littoral operations deploying from Carrier Battle Groups and allied ports are something that’s been done in the past and will continue to be done in the future, so long as there are oceans with people on the coasts.  The Marine Corps will be happy to be operating closer to their littoral roots, especially after fighting in landlocked deserts for over a decade.

II.   A second thing that won’t really change is geography. Geography should be a mainstay when thinking about the future of war, as it will determine where they will take place; and in the future, those places will overwhelmingly be in coastal cities and their immediate surroundings.  If current estimates that say 80% of the world’s population lives roughly within 60 miles of the coast are true, war will take on an increasingly littoral character.  And since a majority of the world’s cities, even in the developing world, are on or close to the world’s shorelines, war will take on an increasingly urban character too.  Yes, Kabul and Baghdad were “cities,” but imagine trying to do what we did there in a place like Mumbai, Cairo, Sao Paulo or Karachi. Surprisingly, the “developing world” has the majority of mega cities, with populations over 8,000,000 (that’s not accounting for undeclared residents and the suburbs). David Kilcullen reflects on his experience in Baghdad as a COIN advisor during the Iraq War:

We shut the city down. We brought in more than 100 kilometers of concrete T-wall. We put troops on every street corner. We got alongside people and try to make them feel safe. It was very, you know, sort of human intense and equipment intense. That option will not be open for us in the mega city. You won’t be able to do that in Karachi or just obviously, hypothetical examples, Lagos or Dakar or any of the big cities. There are 20 million people…

Enormous populations, weak governance and unresponsive institutions, growing inequality; all of this and more is a petri dish for trouble that can develop significant momentum and spiral into something else altogether.  This does not include the threat of rising sea levels, drought and famine, all of which are now grabbing the attention of Defense planners.

III.  Wars in the future will be littoral, urban and prolonged.  But many of them will also be “shadow wars.”  The post-9/11 counterterrorism model of intelligence-driven operations by multi-agency task forces around the globe will persist; the two snatch-and-grab operations by JSOC just hours apart in Somalia and Libya demonstrate that this war did not end with the killing of Osama bin Laden.  In fact, on the night of the bin Laden raid, special-operations forces based in Afghanistan alone conducted a dozen other missions with similar objectives.  Clandestine and covert operations go back to the Ancient Greeks, but with the technology we have today it’s going to get even easier to involve ourselves in conflicts, some of which we will claim responsibility for and others not at all.  Indeed, in light of the public’s general distaste for war, Defense brass will have to get more creative in how to wage it.   Our conventional dominance will continue to force adversaries to get more creative in their approaches to how they challenge us and our partners.  After all, why should they play our game?  Any formidable adversary will try to employ means to target our weaknesses and minimize our advantages.  Ramping up Special Operations, drone strikes, proxy-wars, cyber-warfare; all of those structures are here to stay, and they’ll only get more sophisticated and lethal.  Sun Tzu, the strategic sage, never limited war to the conventional battlefield; and if things like cyber-attacks and UAVs were at his disposal, he surely would have found a place for them in his maxims.

In the wars of the future, sometimes our presence will be acknowledged, sometimes it won’t. But in the Information Age, you’ll know it when you see it, even if it’s just a shadow.

IV.  Finally, another thing to keep in mind: war will always be rife with unintended consequences.  Von Moltke the Elder said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” essentially the modern version of that Mike Tyson quote: “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.”  You can tell yourself “The war will be over by Christmas” and plan for short, decisive engagements, but not every war is Desert Storm.  Working off of von Moltke, defense planners and decision makers will have to be flexible and adaptable.  The days when the U.S. can pick and choose its wars are coming to an end.  We have annual defense and intelligence assessments, battle plans, the works, but every now and then you’re going to get it wrong.  You have to be able to commit to a strategy, but be able to come up with something completely different if the circumstances require it.  We need to be balanced and flexible enough to deal with groups with increasingly advanced capabilities like other nation-states, while also keeping an eye on the non-state actors.  Doubling down on deterring a potential peer competitor (or an increasingly confrontational former peer competitor) without leaving yourself vulnerable to a lower-end confrontation will be a challenge.  Additionally, elements of future conflicts will be roboticized, and technology is certainly a force-multiplier, but let’s not kid ourselves and remove the human role from war and conflict.  Manpower will continue to play an important role in war and nothing will replace the good old-fashioned “on the ground” intelligence, or HUMINT.  The 9/11 attacks were [in part] an unintended consequence of gutting HUMINT during the Bush Sr. and Clinton years; with the end of the Cold War the conventional thinking at the time was that we couldn’t justify this large military and intelligence apparatus.  On the flipside the attacks were an unintended consequence of too much HUMINT, as we supported bin Laden and the mujahedeen in 1970s Afghanistan.  Clearly, a balance can be struck, but it seems we prefer the pendulum method instead: either too much, or not enough.

Technically speaking, the future of war won’t be “bloodier,” since our laser blasters and lightsabers will cauterize the wounds they make, so you know, actually less blood.  But as the saying goes, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.”  War will continue to be war.  But as we find newer ways to kill each other, the above-mentioned thoughts will hopefully ground us in certain realities that aren’t really new at all, but are less emphasized or forgotten.  But the past is only the future with the lights on; it’s best to look back for some insight we can use in the years ahead.

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You Reap(er) What You Sow: The Consequences of America’s Drone Program

This, my friends, is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. It is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of both remote controlled and autonomous (can fly by itself a programmed route) flight. The Reaper is the first of its kind. Far more advanced than its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, it is a “hunter-killer” UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance.

While there are many other UAVs, the words “Predator” and “Reaper” have taken on another name“drones.” As you all are probably aware, this has been a hot topic for a while now; the development and implementation of these “drones” has led to heated debate surrounding their legality under international and domestic law. In fact almost every debate I have come across has focused on that. But you do not need another person telling you whether it’s legal or not. I’m not saying that I don’t think it’s important, but I find the costs and consequences of their continued use and development far more interesting…and troubling…

The Lockheed U-2 “Spy Plane”

The drone program cannot be fully understood unless you first take a quick crash-course in some Cold War history. It is likely that the idea of UAVs had been floated around as early as we were able to put a man up in a hot-air balloon, but it had to have been seriously considered in the wake of the 1960 U-2 Incident during the Eisenhower presidency. In 1960, an American Air Force pilot flying a reconnaissance mission for the C.I.A. was shot down over Soviet airspace and captured shortly thereafter, resulting in a diplomatic fiasco. The incident inevitably led to the development of faster and more elusive recon aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird (It’s at the Intrepid in New York, check it out!) And while the U-2 is still being used in the 21stCentury to support U.S. military operations in theatres like Afghanistan and Iraq, the 1960 incident was a tipping point for aerial recon; it was probably at that point when strategists seriously started to consider developing something that could be flown remotely, without having to risk a perfectly good pilot. Fast-forward to 2011 with the loss of one of our RQ-170 Sentinels over Iran; while it’s not clear to the public whether our UAV was shot down or suffered a mid-flight equipment failure, no one was killed or captured, and Iran was unable to exact concessions. Imagine the diplomatic fallout of an American pilot being shot down and captured…in Iran…Scary thought, I know.

One of our UAVs went down over Iranian airspace. If a US pilot was in the cockpit the diplomatic fallout would have been the movie “Argo” on steroids.

In short, the drones of today are a byproduct of the Cold War. Building off of that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it became clear that major threats could now originate in any corner of the world. But it wasn’t just the USSR that was being carved away, it was also the U.S. defense and intelligence budgets. The mentality at the time was “the Soviet menace is gone, how can we still justify this enormous National Security budget?” Satellite imaging was expensive and slow, and their utility was limited in the sense that they operate on a particular orbit that covers a particular path along the Earth (in this case, Soviet missile silos, airfields, military installations, etc). These orbits couldn’t simply be diverted to new trouble spots, at least in a timely manner; and even if they could, the new threats of insurgencies, terrorists, and transnational criminal organizations do not generate the same kinds of signature (intel-talk for patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against U.S. interests) as the construction of a missile silo or Soviet-bomber runways. The footprint/signature of many of the Post-Cold War threats are much smaller, subtler and lighter. Aerial recon aircraft like the U-2 and SR-71, though valuable, faced their own problems, the most important of which were survivability (we don’t want another 1960 U-2 Incident), cost (if sold today, one SR-71 would go for around $250 million), and technological capacity (high altitude + fast plane with a camera = blurry pictures). It is in this context that the MQ-1 Predator was developed in the 1990s, though it was originally strictly used for recon purposes.

What makes the drone so special?

From an operational standpoint, slow-flying manned planes like the A-10 and the AC-130 have been particularly useful in places like Fallujah and other complex urban environments, and they will continue to serve in many capacities. Pilots and gunners can get a good sense of the situation from on high, and it’s for that reason they coordinate with platoon commanders and Special Forces team leaders engaged in tactical operations on the ground. But while those manned planes still must fly at 180 knots (~207mph) to stay airborne, the unmanned Predator can fly at 75 knots (a lot less than 207mph). And while many other UAVs have to fly low, drawing attention with that annoying buzzing sound, a Predator flies at 15,000 feet—almost three miles up—where no one on the ground can hear it or see it. Then someone in the U.S. National Security community got the bright idea to strap a missile to it, and after a few successful tests the Predator became a self-contained multi-purpose unit that was able to transmit real-time imagery intelligence (IMINT) and if needed, engage the enemy. Lt. Col. Jay Stout, USMC (retired) quotes Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III, U.S.A.F., U.S. CENTCOM in a piece he wrote for the U.S. Naval Institute that speaks to the level of development and integration of our drones into close-air-support roles: “I have seen our UAV force evolve from one that was principally an intelligence-collection platform in Bosnia to one that today has a very potent air-to-ground capability and represents a truly flexible, combat platform.” I think it’s pretty clear that UAVs have shown itself to be an effective instrument for low intensity conflicts, whether for surveillance, assault, or both. And they will forever be in the toolbox of its users.

When people say that they are debating the “Drone Program,” what they’re really talking about is the post-9/11 implementation of using U.S. armed UAVs like the Predator and the Reaper, to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan, Iraq and later in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia (the three “covert action” campaigns that we know of). Since assuming office, President Obama has greatly accelerated the program, and in just 2 years authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire 8 years in office. The drones are launched from air bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan but are controlled by pilots in the U.S. After Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush ordered U.S. drones to kill leaders of al-Qaida, in Afghanistan and later in Yemen and Pakistan. Since assuming office, Barack Obama has greatly accelerated the program. In just 2 years, the Obama administration authorized nearly 4 times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire time in office. The most comprehensive list of U.S. drone bases abroad that I’ve come across was from Micah Zenko’s column in Foreign Policy, where he reconciled news sources with satellite photos to determine where the U.S. has kept 12 of its UAV bases. Although most were in Afghanistan, Zenko’s pointed out that we base our UAVs in Turkey, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Seychelles, Qatar, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. The African continent’s US UAV launching bases are so many that it deserves its own hyperlink (the majority of these are used for surveillance flights.)

The implementation of UAVs in the Post 9/11 has enormous costs and consequences that I do not think have been seriously considered. And like I discussed before, I think we have a responsibility to ask more questions besides “is this legal or not?”

What do other people think about it?

I don’t claim to read or speak a lick of Arabic, Bengali, Urdu, or Pashto, but these people and the thousands of other people in pictures like this do not look very supportive of the United States.

Internationally, on a scale of “1” to “Greek mom who can’t let it go that I forgot to take out the garbage last week” lots of people are really, really mad about our drone program. One popular claim that is made is that the program violates the country’s sovereignty; for example, the Pakistani government has condemned their use as such a violation of sovereignty, but evidence that they’re allowing the strikes to happen is pretty clear. To get a better grasp on this, let’s go back to the Cold War: In July 1957, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower requested permission from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Huseyn Suhrawardy for the U.S. to establish a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan and for the U-2 spy plane to fly from Pakistan. Fast forward to the drone debates of today and it seems impossible to not conflate the words “drone” and “Pakistan.” So in fact, our “drone program” in Pakistan that everyone’s been talking about actually has quite a long history, going back almost 50 years! And the drones we have operating in Pakistan are being held in the old baseswe used decades ago. And the sites were built by Pakistani laborers and are guarded by Pakistani security forces. The Yemeni government has also agreed to the strikes, though some opposition has been beginning to emerge. It is unclear how many of the average citizens in these countries deplore the campaigns, since it is likely that they don’t particularly care for mass shootings and bombings by radical jihadis either. One thing is clear: the host governments silently agree for the continued use of American drone strikes in their countries, but publicly denounce them. It is not clear how sustainable this model is, since drones can certainly subject host-governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with US requests more costly.

That U2 the Soviets shot out of the sky in 1960 flew out of Pakistan. Does that country sound familiar when talking about drones?

Do our drone strikes “create more terrorists?” that is, do we create more terrorists than we kill? Excellent question, and to tell you the truth, I do not know. By asking this question I am also making the point that we do kill terrorists with these things, lots of them. Imagine showing up to work one morning at your company and the boss tell you that you’ve been promoted to No. 2 because old No.2 got killed by a US drone.  If you Google “al Qaeda number 2,” you’ll find this story, but it’s one of many others. In fact it looks like the average is a little over one-a-year.

But unfortunately, we cannot have a complete, enlightened debate on the drone’s actual effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) without the official numbers, which have yet to be disclosed. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has committed itself to trying to get their own numbers, and the New America Foundation’s database if also often cited. Sen. Lindsey Graham became the first public official earlier this year to have his own number, some 4,700 total deaths attributed to our Pakistan/Somalia/Yemen program. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations put the number at closer to 3,500.  All of the projects from advocacy groups, other non-profits and think tanks that cite numbers cannot be independently verified.  Though we do know that Faisal Shahzad, the man responsible for trying to set off the car bomb in Times Square in 2011, cited America’s drone program killing civilians as a reason for his actions. Arguments of their accuracy (killing terroritsts) and their inaccuracy (killing civilians) have been butting heads. I can see where someone can be coming from though: “A man in Yemen walking back from a hard day’s work, just in time for dinner, only to find what’s left of his wife and children, maybe even some good friends too, under a pile of rubble that used to be his home. He finds out that it was “the Americans” who blew up his home because they mistook the gathering of so many people in one area “suspicious”. He was pro-American at first; he hates the terrorists that make it unsafe for him and his family to move up in the world. But now his enemy is America, because it’s personal now, they killed the people he loved.” There are too many of these narratives to dismiss all of them as untrue, but it is unclear as to how many civilians have been killed. The Obama administration insists that civilian casualties have been minimal, despite the expansion of these strikes under his tenure. When you see photographs of women and children mangled, it could have been a hellfire missile, but it could have very well been shrapnel from a terrorist’s bomb.  The kicker to all of this is that the program remains shrouded in secrecy, and that although there may be some evidence, there is not enough to accept it (or reject it).

What are the implications for the victims and the pilots?

An eye-opening study was done by students at Stanford and NYU that focused on the psychological effects of living under drones, with a focus on Pakistan. The study is certainly an eye-opener, whichever “side” of the debate you happen to be on. But it seems that not enough is asked about the UAV operators, the pilots who are operating these vehicles from cubicles thousands of miles away in the United States. Are they detached and desensitized from the task of taking someone’s life? Has it turned the “human element” of war to a video game of “joystick killing”? We had a similar debate about the sniper, and the aerial bomber before that, and all the way back to the longbow. Recent numbers show that these pilots are just as prone to mental illnesses like PTSD and Psychosis as those who get into the cockpit and fly overhead on conventional runs. High operational stress is still there.

Inside the “cockpit”.

One epidemiologist was quoted saying: “[Drone pilots] witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”

Proliferation and the future

The technology itself, since it’s now readily available to the public, is only limited by the imaginations of those who wish to be innovative. The most recent military development was just this summer, when the X-47B drone successfully took off and landed on an aircraft carrier. In the next decade drones will have their own floating bases in the form of US Carrier Strike Groups. But Peru is using them for geological surveying, since the terrain is quite rough and human pilots don’t come cheap, especially since the terrain is not suitable for safely landing in an emergency. Even here in the U.S., drone technology is being implemented by the agriculture industry to monitor crops and spray pesticides. For kids, they’re the new racecars and kites. Maybe one day they can even serve as flying billboards in cities. These observation vehicles were around before; it just so happens that someone in the government got the idea to rig one with a hellfire missile and see what would happen. It was bound to happen at some point.

Big, small, fast or slow, if there is a need, there is a drone to help get the job done.

But a natural consequence of our drone program is that by us being the first to design and implement one (especially on the military front), other nation states can do so as well. And they are. China, Russia, Israel, Iran, India, the UK and Turkey all have their own drone programs.  Though not as sophisticated as ours, they are all making strides. In reality though, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about China, it’s that they are not particularly innovative when it comes to hardware; if anything, the recent NY Times story about the People’s Republic’s efforts to hack our networks to acquire our latest drone technology secrets tells me that we are still on top. Granted, this does not mean I am not concerned. Given the advantages of using drones, these countries may be inclined to use them in disputed territories or national airspace to test the resolve of their regional rivals.  Just this month Japan scrambled some fighter jets to address an “unidentified drone” near the Diaoyus islands which China claims is rightfully theirs, along with several others. With the already existent potential for miscalculation and escalation, we could see more conflicts with drones as the instigator.

Senator Rand Paul filibusters John Brennan’s confirmation as Director of the CIA. Made for some riveting CSPAN.

We all remember Sen. Rand Paul’s blitzkrieg of a filibuster that was covered by C-SPAN from start to finish, and perhaps for the first time in a long time, that channel was entertaining television. And once that happened it became pretty clear that the debate about America’s drone program was not going to go away. But elements of the existing debates do not consider the second-order consequences. Do drones subject governments to high levels of political pressure that make compliance with U.S. requests more costly? Do they create more insurgencies and resentment for the U.S.? What does our embrace of drones mean for their proliferation by our allies, but more importantly for our adversaries? Many of these consequences are also discounted in analyses of drones that focus exclusively on how many terrorists are killed relative to civilians. I do not see using UAVs in U.S. counterterrorism tactics going away anytime soon. But beware of the consequences because you will always reap(er) what you sow.

Let’s Get Down to Business: Mr. Obama goes to Africa

President Barack Obama and Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete kicked around a special soccer ball in Dar es Salaam on July 2nd that is designed to generate electricity for small gadgets like lamps and cellphones.

I was away for 2 weeks staffing a summer camp, removed from the comforts of home and technology, so I apologize for not giving you all something to read. But now I’m back!

Something that happened just a few days before I left for camp was President Obama’s trip to Africa. At the end of his June 27th to July 2nd tour of Africa, President Obama met with his predecessor George W. Bush in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to commemorate the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings there and in Nairobi, which brought Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to the attention of the American public for the first time.

Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush pay their respects to the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Tanzania, an attack that put al-Qaeda on the map.

On the surface, his talks were all about the economy and reengaging the continent in a new push: a $7billion, five-year initiative that would partner with African countries and the private sector to bring electricity to millions of Sub-Saharan Africans.

An excellent idea and stellar foreign policy move if everyone follows through on their commitments. And considering China has been ramping up its own foreign investment on the continent in exchange for their natural resources, we should certainly be positioning ourselves there to have just as much, if not, more influence there (most Africans would be more favorable in cooperation with us anyway considering we’re less likely to bring scores of our own workers to the continent, unlike China, who sets up shop there and typically bring over their own people to work).

China has been sending workers to Africa since the Mao years to build roads and railways, but investment has surged in the past 15 years as the People’s Republic has sought to secure vital resources it needs to fuel its economy.

But if you think this Africa trip was only about trade and investment in infrastructure on the continent, think again. Diplomacy is a game of give and take, wheeling and dealing, where no one side is expecting to come out of a talk empty handed. The intention of bringing economic stability and development is certainly there, but there were likely other issues on Obama’s agenda as he met with some of the African continent’s key leaders. And I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with my first paragraph and it rhymes with “commemorism.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the laying of the wreath on that memorial in Dar es Salaam was no accident (I’m not saying that they weren’t paying their respects and that the gesture wasn’t genuine). Is it a coincidence that the visit to Dar es Salaam marked the conclusion of the Africa trip? Of the 21 individuals charged with participating in the 1998 attacks, only 4 are still at large; the rest have been killed, imprisoned, or await trial in the United States (not a bad track record if you ask me).

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses a great threat to the continent, and boasts affiliates from coast to coast, from Mauritania in the West to Somalia in the East.

What I’m saying is that the trip to Tanzania with Bush was subtly conveying a message to the continent: we’re doubling down on Africa, in both the economic and security sphere. Development of a stable and growing economy is absolutely, positively, 130% necessary for the long term health and political stability of any country; foreign investment is also an excellent tool to that end. With that being said, there’s a Catch 22 here; few invest in a country that is considered unstable. Militants and terrorist organizations have become threats to governments and to the safety of populations all over the continent.

With the U.S. military pulling out of Iraq, winding down its operations in Afghanistan, and re-positioning itself in the Pacific, Pentagon leaders see the threat from terrorists and extremists groups growing in much of Africa. Our military presence in Africa is a heck of a lot bigger than sending 100 special operators into central Africa to play “Where’s Waldo?” with Joseph Kony.

As you can see from this fun, interactive map (courtesy of John Reed from Foreign Policy), the U.S. has been quietly positioning itself for a long-term commitment in Africa for the better part of a decade (And that map just shows the countries where the U.S. has operated in this past spring.) And aside from all the clandestine ops I just revealed to world by using the top secret database called Google, look no further than the Army’s Africa page for more details about their publicly disclosed African operations. Truth be told, it is subtle, but extensive; training African troops, intelligence sharing, surgical raids by JSOC (stay tuned for an upcoming article about those guys), drone strikes, etc. After years of task forces and temporary designations, the U.S. military under Donald Rumsfeld established USAFRICOM in 2008, a unified command for the continent like USNORTHCOM, USSOUTHCOM, USCENTCOM, USEURCOM and USPACOM.  For the most part, the U.S. has been engaging in preemptive, low intensity operations by empowering African militaries to counter militant threats, and is leading from behind.

With the threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab in the Horn and Boko Haram in Niger, M23 in Central Africa, and an uptick in drug trafficking with profits going to these groups there is certainly a great risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively.  Problems are also posed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine. Since the fall of Qaddafi we have seen Libya threatened by hundreds militia groups and M23 wreaking havoc in the entire Great Lakes region of Central Africa.

Check out AON’s 2013 Terrorism and Political Violence map and you’ll see what I mean when I say that Africa as a whole is an enormous security concern.

In West Africa there are also major narco-trafficking problems, with the profits feeding the insurgencies in Mali and Algeria. Similarly, East Africa has been experiencing upticks in heroin trafficking by way of the Indian Ocean from the poppy fields in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Sahel region of North Africa, cocaine and hashish trafficking is being facilitated by, and directly funding, organizations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The U.S. draw-down in Afghanistan presents an opportunity for Africa to become a theater of expansion for the U.S. military, and I’m certain that we’ll be seeing more African operations for the foreseeable future, though the footprint will be light as it will be mainly small deployments and training operations.  But as you can probably tell, the U.S. isn’t “reengaging” Africa; the truth is that it never left.