Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in Africa

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in Africa

America's involvement in Africa, historically limited by a number of factors, has been steadily increasing since the African nations began to gain their autonomy in the last half of the twentieth century. Recently, a variety of humanitarian crises across the continent caused considerable debate on how best to put America's vast resources to use for aid and support. Additionally, Africa is also considered a secondary front in the War on Terrorism. Military interventions have occurred in both the name of humanitarian relief and antiterrorism.

The Barbary Wars

With one significant exception, American intervention in Africa has been restricted to the postcolonial era. The exception occurred during the formative years of the United States, when the Barbary pirates of the North African coast clashed with the nascent American Navy and Marine Corps.

The coast of North Africa had long been a haven to the semiautonomous states of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco, known collectively as the Barbary States. The coast was long held in check by the Knights of St. John, based on the island of Malta. However, the destruction of the Knights during the Napoleonic Wars (c. 1799–1815) opened up a power vacuum in the Mediterranean, which the pirates were quick to exploit.

Meanwhile, the United States, newly independent and no longer able to benefit from British naval protection, found its merchant fleet at the mercy of the resurgent Barbary pirates. The United States adopted a policy of paying “protection money” to the Barbary pirates. Thomas Jefferson, ambassador to France under John Adams, vigorously opposed this policy. Upon becoming president in 1801 he immediately cut off the payments, which were amounting to 20 percent of the government's annual revenue by that point.

The result of this new hard-line policy was the First Barbary War, which lasted until 1805. Although an undeclared war, Congress did appropriate funds for its execution, enabling the fledgling U.S. Navy to operate against its North African foes.

The course of the war took a dramatic turn in 1804 with the capture of the USS Philadelphia and its crew. On February 16, Captain Stephen Decatur led a raid on the Tripoli harbor, where the Philadelphia was moored, to destroy the ship, thus denying its use to the pirates. It was a daring raid and a complete success. Decatur returned home as one of the country's first national heroes.

Two months later, a unit of marines under General William Eaton landed on the “shores of Tripoli.” With an assortment of five hundred Arab, Greek, and Berber mercenaries, the Marines executed a fifty-day, five hundred-mile march over vast tracts of Libyan desert to find victory at the Battle of Derne, the decisive conflict of the war. A negotiated settlement was soon reached: in exchange for $60,000, the Barbary states pledged to hand over three hundred prisoners and cease attacks on American ships. Although money had once again been paid, a distinction was drawn: this was no longer tribute, but rather a ransom.

The power of the Barbary pirates was not broken, however. As the United States became embroiled in war with Great Britain in 1812, the Dey of Algiers began renewed raids on U.S. shipping. With the British defeat in 1815, Congress once again sent Stephen Decatur to North Africa to deal with the pirate threat. Within a month of departure, Decatur had captured two Algerian ships and forced the Dey to turn over all American and most European prisoners and to pay America a $10,000 indemnity.

The Second Barbary War marked the effective end of the North African pirates as a significant threat. By the 1830s, the region had been divvied up between France and the Ottoman Empire, even as the rest of Africa began to rapidly fall under European colonial domination. This domination necessarily prevented the United States from exerting influence in African affairs for over a century.

Postcolonial U.S. Influence in Africa

Many African nations have found the postcolonial transition to self-governing democracy difficult. The United States military has a long history of providing logistical assistance to the young governments, as well as protection to U.S. embassy staff and private citizens.

In 1964, the U.S. Air Force assisted Belgian forces in rescuing two thousand American and European hostages held by Congolese rebels. The United States provided logistical aid and military support to Zaire in 1978 and 1991, and again in 1996, when Zaire was flooded with refugees fleeing the genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

Elsewhere on the continent, the U.S. military has provided increased security for embassies and facilitated evacuation of American citizens in times of unrest, particularly in such unstable countries as Sierra Leone (where American troops intervened in 1992, 1997, and 2000) and Liberia (where American troops intervened in 1990, 1996, 1998, and 2003). The crisis in Liberia in 2003 also required over four thousand military personnel to be dispatched to that country's territorial waters, where they stood by to assist United Nations relief efforts.

The United States has occasionally offered direct military assistance to African nations. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan dispatched two airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance aircraft and eight F-15 fighters to Chad, which was embroiled in conflicts with Libya and internal rebel factions.

Military Operations in Africa

Outright U.S. military intervention in Africa has been rare. The one time it was attempted on a relatively major scale—in Somalia in 1993—has generally been seen as a mistake. Somalia had been wracked by internal strife and the civilian population was suffering. Chaotic conditions on the ground made it difficult for United Nations peacekeeping forces to provide relief and restore order.

A food relief program instituted under President George H. W. Bush was escalated under President Clinton into military intervention that eventually resulted in the Battle of Mogadishu (1993), a short but savage firefight that saw eighteen American servicemen killed and seventy-three wounded.

The disaster in Somalia convinced U.S. leaders of the wisdom of limiting U.S. military action in Africa to air and missile strikes. Libya was the target of such strikes in 1986. Libya was a frequent target of the Reagan administration's fight against terrorism. Operation El Dorado Canyon, a series of air strikes on the night of April 15, 1986, destroyed multiple targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The operation came in response to an escalating series of aggressive confrontations between the two countries, as well as allegations that Libya was funding terrorists and was behind a bombing in a Berlin nightclub that killed two servicemen. The raid was meant to harm Libya's military infrastructure and demonstrate that the United States would take action against nations that supported terrorists.

Aside from the strikes on Libya, the other notable U.S. attack on Africa came as part of Operation Infinite Reach in August 1998, in the form of missile attacks on a suspected nerve gas plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The plant later turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory. The missile attacks, which also targeted al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, were in direct response to terrorist bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania earlier in the month. In retrospect, the attacks did little to discourage terrorist attacks. A bombing of a Planet Hollywood restaurant in South Africa shortly after the strikes was reportedly carried out in retaliation, and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden pledged renewed attacks on the United States.

Supposed terrorist links between Iraq and Sudan were used as a justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, Sudan is in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis in the region of Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been murdered and brutalized and millions have been left starving and homeless during several years of armed conflict between the Sudanese military and various rebel factions. The United States has not, as yet, intervened militarily.

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in Africa

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