Africa

America's Wars Are Spreading Chaos in Africa

Once again, the hunt for one enemy is creating many more victims.

Aftermath of the al-Shabaab bombing.

Photographer: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

The Indonesian military killed as many as 1 million suspected communists in the mid-1960s, paving the path for a dictator, Suharto, who ruled the country for more than three decades. Newly declassified documents from the U.S. embassy in Jakarta reveal an extraordinary degree of American complicity in what remains one of the Cold War's biggest crimes. The U.S. not only ignored information that could have prevented the atrocity; it facilitated the killings by providing the Indonesian military with money, equipment and lists of communist officials. 

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Those shocking revelations barely registered in the U.S., at least partly because attention spans have shrunk along with the general collapse, in Washington D.C., of moral and political norms. Yet Donald Trump's dreadful circus ought not to distract us from U.S. government policies that precede him. Many counterterrorist campaigns have proven to be more inimical to human rights and democracy than anything Trump has unleashed. Like anti-communist misadventures of the Cold War, they face little political and public oversight, even though their consequences flow right before our eyes. 

It's astonishing, for instance, that it took the death of four American soldiers in an ambush in Niger early last month to alert many, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading foreign policy hawk, to the presence of nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in the country. Another interventionist, Sen. John McCain, is now pressing the Pentagon for more details about a mission that costs American lives and about which even he knew nothing.

The Niger mission is in turn only a small part of an ambitious strategy of fighting terrorism in Africa since the early 2000s. Africans, of course, pay the biggest price for such policies, in both human lives and human rights. Just two weeks ago, the security forces of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, one of America’s closest allies in Africa, fired into an opposition rally, nearly killing opposition leader Kizza Besigye.

In "Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror," a stunning new book of reportage and analysis, Helen Epstein reveals Museveni, like Suharto before him, as one of the biggest beneficiaries of an ill-conceived and sparsely monitored war on America's enemies abroad. Epstein, a professor of human rights and global public health at Bard College, lays out in appalling detail how Museveni, who seized power in 1986, has helped worsen every major conflict in eastern and central Africa since then.

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This neighbor from hell shares blame for not only the wars in the Congo that have destroyed millions of lives, or the rise of the warlord Joseph Kony and the terrorist outfit al-Shabaab, which killed more than 300 people in the Somali capital of Mogadishu last month. He also bears considerable responsibility for the rebel invasion of Rwanda in 1990 that triggered the genocide there in 1994. And this extraordinary catalog of crimes should include as well Museveni’s role in the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. 

As with Cold War allies such as Suharto and South Vietnam's venal Ngo Dinh Diem, Museveni has managed to keep successive U.S. administrations on his side by presenting himself a stout defender of American interests and an indispensable buffer against the ideological foe of the day -- now Islamist extremism, rather than communism.

But, as Epstein reveals in disturbing detail, this new war has spread violence, chaos and repressive rule across Africa; it has spawned terrorists as well as Diems and Suhartos. To take only one example: Al-Shabaab flourished in Somalia, eventually enlisting in al-Qaeda's network, after the country was ravaged, and its moderate government undermined, by a U.S.-assisted Ethiopian invasion in 2006. Today, the U.S. ignores Museveni's dictatorial ways partly because it uses Ugandan troops to fight al-Shabaab.

Such moral expediency in pursuit of hazily defined and short-term goals is a recipe for brutal anarchy. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, "the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end."

Means have indeed overwhelmed the end in Africa, empowering figures like Museveni. Our continuing political and public indifference to their misdeeds suggests that black lives matter even less in Africa than they do in the U.S.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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