Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara (OEF-TS), operates across 10 countries source, those being Algeria, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. OEF-TS is said to be part of a related endeavor called the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP).
• strengthening regional counterterrorism capabilities,The perceived threat
• enhancing and institutionalizing cooperation among the region’s security forces,
• promoting democratic governance,
• discrediting terrorist ideology, and
• reinforcing bilateral military ties with the United States.
Operating within these some of these countries is a group called (among other things) Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). GSPC was an offshoot of the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA).
One need not waste any tears for GIA; they were gang of murderous scum of the Pol Pot/Einsatzgruppen variety. It is the surviving group, GSPC, now associated with Al-Qaeda, which forms the basic justification for the U.S. operations in the Sahel countries. (See here for an excellent recent scholarly article on this.)
There are roughly two tiers of states in the general operations area. The northern tier countries, from west to east, are the four Magreb states, Morocco (Pop. 32 million, per capita GDP $5000), Algeria (Pop. 36 million, per capita GDP $6,949), Tunisia (Pop. 11 million, per capita GDP $9,025), Libya (Pop. 6.4 million, per capita GDP $13,804), and Egypt (Pop. 81 million, per capita GDP $6,354).
The great prize in the region are the oil and gas fields of Algeria. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (yes, we have such an agency):
Any major disruption to Algeria's hydrocarbon production would not only be detrimental to the local economy but, depending on the scale of lost production, could affect world oil prices. Also, since Algeria is the fourth largest natural gas supplier to Europe, unplanned cuts to natural gas output could affect some European countries. (source}
The Algerian oil and gas fields are located far out in the vast desert southern region of the country. They are readily vulnerable to attack from fighters based in other countries, as occurred in January 2013, when the Tingantourine gas facility was the subject of an attack which became known as the In Amenas hostage crisis, which featured the usual brutal killings of civilians, including 3 Americans, by Islamic militants during the course of the taking of over 800 people hostage.
The economic and political stakes are very high, and all of this is made worse by the abject poverty and political instability of almost every country in the region.
The Sahel countries.
South of the Sahara is a large semi-arid region known as the Sahel. Straddling the Sahara and the the Sahel regions are an entire tier of countries stretching across Africa.
Of interest for this post are four countries, all of which were once under the de jure control of the French colonial empire, and French military forces continue to operate, more or less at will, within them. From west to east these are Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad.
Attrib: U.S. Army.
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania (Pop. 3 million, per capita GDP $2,000) consists chiefly of the capital city of Nouakchott, which has swelled to an estimated 2 million inhabitants, up from 800,000 in 1999, and a vast desert hinterland of about 400,000 miles in area, roughly equal to the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana combined. Along the coast north of Mauritania lies the former colony of Spanish Sahara, now governed by the Kingdom of Morroco, a long-term U.S. ally. Regular military coups in Mauritania produce headlins like this one from 2012 (CNN 10/14/12:
Mauritania's president mistakenly shot by his nation's troopsMauritania's trigger-happy troops have not kept the US from trying to build ties to the country's military, as shown in the image at right. And in 2013 Mauritania was the host country for the annual US/European/African joint training exercise known as Operation Flintlock.
The hour-glass shaped Republic of Mali (pop. 14.5 million per capita GDP $1,251) lies to the east of Mauritania and, at about 480,000 square miles in area, it is larger. Much of Mali is desert, but there are significant rivers (the Niger and the Senegal) in the southern half of the country.
From 1991 until the coup d'etat in 2012, Mali had had a fairly stable and somewhat democratic government. Most of the population of Mali live near the Niger river, with the very large desert area of the country, which includes the famous city of Timbuktu, only sparsely inhabited.
This desert region was taken over following the coup by separatist Islamic radical rebels and declared to be independent, as the supposed country of Azawad. The rebels fell out among themselves. Later French military operations resulted in the recapture, in 2013, of the major cities of the region.
The 2012 coup created a major legal problem for U.S. operations in the country, because under U.S. law, military aid to the post-coup government was required to be suspended. However, this was not treated by the U.S. government as requiring non-assistance to the French in their war against the Azawad rebels. source)
Publicly the U.S. acknowledged giving aid to the French by way of intelligence. Covertly there seems to be good reason to believe that the US continued to be involved at the special forces level, as was perhaps demonstrated by the still-mysterious late April 2012 accident where three special forces soldiers were killed, supposedly in the company of three prostitutes from Morocco, who were also killed. The official explanation for this was the soldiers were on some kind of wrap-up detail made necessary on account of the recent coup.
Hmmm. I wonder. But in any case, in April, 2013, it was announced that the U.S. would be sending a small number of troops (approximately 20) to Mali (Washington Post 4/30/13. The official military forces in Mali are extremely weak. A well-disciplined and well-equipped force of three or four thousand could simply take over the country, as the French recently demonstrated in their (apparently) successful intervention against the rebels in the north. The presence of U.S. special forces, with their access to U.S. intelligence and their presumed ability to call in U.S. air support (although so far limited to transport only) multiplies their effectiveness many times.
To the east of Mali lies the similarly-sized (490,000 square miles) Republic of Niger (pop. 15.3 million, per capita GDP $755) . Like Mali, the country is divided into a temperate area in the southwest around the Niger river, where most of the population lives, and and a much larger desert zone over the rest of the country.
Although the government of Niger is unstable, nevertheless the U.S. has established, you guessed it, a drone base. Supposedly this is for intelligence gathering, obviously and admittedly over Mali, as this NYT article (7/10/13) reports, but likely throughout the entire region.
East of Niger is the Republic of Chad (pop. 10.3 million, per capita GDP $1,698). At about 495,000 square miles in area, Chad is about the same size geographically as Mali and Niger, but Chad extends further south than both of those countries, thus including three major climate zones, the Sahara, the Sahel, and the African savannah in the south.
Chad has been governed by a series of presidents for life. Civil war occurred in the country for many years, and at one point Libya intervened on the part of the rebels. French military forces have operated in Chad for many years.
In late 2012, the U.S. sent 50 troops to Chad for the purpose of assisting U.S. civilians who would be evacuating the neighboring (to the south) Central African Republic ("CAR"), which was then undergoing a widespread rebellion. (AFP (12/30/12). Chad, already beset by its own troubles, has had to absorb refugees not only from the CAR, but also from Darfur.
The politics and military operations in the vast Sahel region defy summation in so small a spot as a blog post. Certainly war and rebellion are constant and the U.S. is deeply involved, although for appearance reasons, the actual fighting is done either by the French or by local forces.