7 June 2018
By a unanimous vote, Congress has demanded answers on Washington’s vulnerability in Africa, just as the Pentagon is set to slash troop numbers across the continent. And an attack in Mozambique shows the war on terror is far from won.
In an act reminiscent of Islamic State, a faction of Somali terror group al-Shabaab has murdered 10 people in Cabo Delgado province near the Mozambican border with Tanzania and cut off their heads.
Police have detained hundreds of suspects in an area where Islam is the dominant religion — and claim to have killed nine “insurgents” — though government is yet to release a full account.
Northern Mozambique is marred by poverty and unemployment, two factors common in areas where terror groups are active, from Nigeria to Kenya and Somalia.
The headless bodies mark a push south by al-Shabaab that is likely to worry the United States.
President Donald Trump has pledged to win the war on extremists but a review of the country’s special forces ordered by defence secretary Jim Mattis could see troop numbers slashed in Africa.
According to American media, more than 7 300 “special operation” troops are deployed around the world. A decade back it was nearly double that, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Mr. Mattis, a retired general, believes the army is now spread thin across too many countries.
Last year when four soldiers were ambushed and killed in Niger, there were calls from Congress and the Senate for an enquiry into the so-called “shadow wars” where some claim the Pentagon operates without a clear mandate from the House.
The stand-off between lawmakers and the administration has grown worse in recent days, led by one of Mr Trump’s key supporters, Donald Hunter, who represents the border town of San Diego in southern California and is himself a veteran of the war in Iraq where he served with the Marines.
He is still a major in the army reserve.
In late May, Mr Hunter tabled a surprise order in Congress, requiring both Mr Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — a former army captain and one-time head of the CIA — to brief both Congress and the Senate on some of the most sensitive issues in foreign policy.
The questions relate to Camp Lemonier, America’s base in the tiny country of Djibouti north of Somalia.
Djibouti is home to one of the Africa’s most repressive regimes, led by President Ismaïl Guelleh who, as a long-time ally, has escaped questions on human rights and the credibility of elections where he routinely takes more than 80 per cent of the vote. Where Washington imposed sanctions on the likes of Zimbabwe, even Russia, there has been almost no censure of Guelleh despite reports by Amnesty International of torture, control of the press, even killings.
Then, last year, China opened its own naval post in Djibouti with capacity for more troops than the US and French bases combined.
The Hunter amendment requires that, by the end of June, Mattis and Pompeo reveal:
1. What impact China will have on Camp Lemonier, the only permanent US base in Africa
2. Beijing’s ability to obtain secret information on US troops and their work
3. Truth about a recent attack on pilots flying into Camp Lemonier where laser beams were trained on their eyes (banned under international law)
But most difficult to answer is a question about land used by the army in Djibouti.
In February, President Guelleh issued a decree stripping Dubai-based DP World of its contract to run the country’s only container port. The state says DP World breached the terms of engagement, a claim the firm denies and the matter is likely to be heard in a London court.
Now Congressman Hunter wants, “an assessment of the ability of the President of Djibouti to terminate by all methods including by simple decree, the Department of Defence’s lease agreement for Camp Lemonier”.
This puts Mr Trump in a difficult position. If his government claims there is no risk from China or president Guelleh, and they are proved wrong, it will rock confidence in the administration and could lead to further problems with Congress. But any statement to the contrary would likely anger both Djibouti and Beijing, straining relations that are already tense.
Critics claimed Donald Hunter had raised the issue to detract from his own problems. He is under investigation for allegedly using campaign funds to pay for entertainment and his children’s tuition.
That line of attack vanished when Congress voted unanimously for his proposal.
President Guelleh insists Camp Lemonier is secure and has pledged to continue working with the US as it carries out operations from Djibouti across East Africa, Yemen and beyond. Over the past month, special forces have killed 49 militants in Somalia.
A defeat or a narrow win in Congress for Mr Hunter’s questions would have left the status quo intact, but the unanimous vote has brought focus to operational issues that are rarely discussed in the open.
China has increased its spend and presence in Africa, recently persuading Burkina Faso to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and signing what it calls a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Mozambique, including new projects worth $100m, though for now its military presence is limited to
It is not yet clear whether a cut in US troop numbers will affect the nearly 4 000 personnel at Camp Lemonier or what role special forces may have in curtailing the growth of militia groups.
The grisly attack in Mozambique is yet another sign that the “war on terror”, far from being won, is spreading.
However, the 10 headless bodies along with Boko Haram’s continued presence in West Africa and a threat from al-Shabaab in Kenya and along the Horn will put further pressure on Washington to justify keeping so many troops in Djibouti instead of maintaining a string of bases across the continent.
And Donald Hunter’s motion will add to calls within Congress and the Senate for a review of relations with Mr Guelleh.