How Not to Spend $1.4 Billion

From a recent article in HealthAffairs:

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has been the largest funder of abstinence and faithfulness programming in sub-Saharan Africa, with a cumulative investment of over US $1.4 billion in the period 2004–13. […]

Using nationally representative surveys from twenty-two sub-Saharan African countries, we compared trends between people living in countries that received PEPFAR abstinence and faithfulness funding and those living in countries that did not in the period 1998–2013. We found no evidence to suggest that PEPFAR funding was associated with population-level reductions in any of the five [tested outcomes indicative of risky sexual behavior].

In other words: For most people, abstinence sucks and telling them that it's cool doesn't change their minds, even if you spend $1.4 billion on it. Not very surprising, because as NPR notes:

At the time, there was little evidence to suggest abstinence programs work. Randomized-control trials in the U.S. had shown that abstinence education programs didn't prevent teenage pregnancies or decrease high-risk sexual behavior.

The results of the study are pretty damming:

PEPFAR funding wasn't associated with changes in young people's choices about sex. Bendavid and his team could find no detectable differences in the rates of teenage pregnancies, average number of sexual partners and age at first sexual intercourse in countries that had received PEFPAR money compared with those that hadn't.

As the NPR story points out, PEPFAR is credited with saving millions of lives by providing HIV drugs and preventing HIV transmissions from mothers to newborns. That work is commendable. But it makes me sad to think about how many more lives could have been saved, if some conservative politicians wouldn't have insisted on spending a ridiculous amount of money on programs that had little hope of achieving the desired outcomes, simply because they hoped to push their opinion about the right way to have sex on others.


U.S. Doubles Down on Failed Military Strategy in Africa

U.S. military forces are taking a more active role in combating the Boko Haram insurgency that has killed more than 30,000 people since its outbreak in 2009 and spread from northeastern Nigeria to neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The move is consistent with the general U.S. approach to security on the African continent, which leans heavily on enabling local forces to combat terrorist groups, but which has failed to stem a rise in Islamist violence in recent years.

President Barack Obama notified Congress in mid-October that he had ordered 300 military personnel into northern Cameroon to support reconnaissance flights of MQ-1 Predator drones. U.S. troops will also work with local forces on intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as “enabling operations, border security and response force capability,” according to an unnamed defense official quoted by Voice of America. ...

Read more on World Politics Review.

Why counter-terrorism failed as a foreign policy objective

Soldiers from Senegal and Mali train with US instructors. US army photo.

When news of the coup in Mali hit the airwaves last week, much was made of the fact that the apparent coup leader, Capt. Sanogo, received US army training. The captain, who used to be an English teacher before assuming leadership of Africa's latest junta, proudly sports a US Marines pin on his fatigues and generally likes to brag about his several trips to the US for various trainings.

Commentators who noticed this generally questioned the US military aid in the sense of if it is good that the troops which were trained then proceed to topple democratically elected governments. This is an interesting question, of course, but it is also a bit beside the point.

While I'm critical of US policy, I don't assume that they teach partnering militaries to stage coups. And it is highly unrealistic and patronizing to assume, that you need US military training to successfully chase your president out of his palace. So far, the amateurishness of the coup in Mali should probably make US military trainers more concerned, if their students didn't take a nap during some lessons.

But we should take the opportunity to review some other aspects of US (and increasingly EU) counter terrorism foreign policy. Namely: does it succeed in solving the problem?

I would argue that instead of solving the problem (of terroristic/criminal behavior in the Sahel region), counter terrorism foreign policy has helped create and sustain it.

Take the example of Mali: despite Millions of Dollars that the US poured into training of the Malian army, AQIM activity in the remote desert north has only risen. No tourist ventures out into Timbuktu nowadays for fear of being abducted. Smuggling of weapons and drugs is common and the criminal groups running these schemes have a strong overlap with AQIM.

But what is most worrying is that the government of Mali, which counter terrorism foreign policy is supposed to support, seems to be deeply implicated in these criminal activities. Army commanders and politicians all take their share, happily cooperating with extremists they are paid and trained by western militaries to fight.

In one infamous episode a Boeing 727 (!) full of cocaine landed close to a remote desert town (happened to be governed by a close associate of the president), where the load was distributed upon trucks and send on its way towards Europe.

Meanwhile, the political establishment of Mali has been happy to put the blame for these kind of incidents squarely on the Tuareg, which of course comes in handy if one is fighting (and loosing) against a rebel group of this ethnicity.

Financial and military counter terrorism aid seems to result in the perverse incentive for the ruling class to get involved and profit from exactly these criminal  activities. This makes sense of course: by cooperating with AQIM and smuggling networks, politicians and army generals not only profit from kickbacks and corruption, but also ensure that the problem stays around and more aid flows into the country (and their pockets).

Western powers should wake up to the fact that transparent and legitimized governments are the best antidote against extremism and criminal groups, not military professionalism.

Upcoming articles

Just to fill the blank space: I'm working on several articles at the moment, which may be of interest to you.

First of all, you will shortly find an analysis of the military situation in the North of Mali on ThinkAfricaPress. Mali will also feature in an additional article for Waging Non-Violence, that will focus on why Senegal succeeded where Mali did not.

Finally, I'm also working on an article for this blog, looking at US (and EU) counter terrorism foreign policy and its contradicting results in the Sahel region.

Watch this space!

Well done everybody! Al Shabaab is now part of al Qaida

Al Shabaab fighters. Photo by Christian Science Monitor.

So the Somali islamist movement al Shabaab has now sworn allegiance to al Qaida. Several officials in the United States, Ethiopia, Kenya and in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia will have silently thanked their deity at this news, as it makes it much easier to justify the ongoing invasion of Somalia and the frequent targeted assassinations against radicals on Somali soil.

But this view is short sighted. It disregards the direct responsibility of U.S. anti-terrorism strategy for the ever-increasing radicalisation of fighters in Somalia. In a way Somalia and al Shabaab is the best example how the mantra of a militarized anti-terrorism campaign has been successful at nothing, except at creating its own enemies.

It may be hard to remember (it happened over five years ago), but al Shabaab was once part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) - it's youth movement to be precise. While the ICU was certainly no progressive, freedom-loving organisation, it was the first institution to return something resembling order and a functioning (albeit archaic) legal framework to large parts of Somalia, after years of often chaotic inter-tribal and militia fighting.

This of course ended abruptly when Ethiopia decided to invade Somalia in 2006. The Ethiopian government was suspicious of the islamist rhetoric of the ICU and was supported in this stance by the U.S. government, who saw every "islamic" movement as a potential safe haven for al Qaida terrorists (no matter that at this point no evidence suggested a link between the two groups).

The ICU proved to be unable to resist the technologically advanced Ethiopian army. After suffering a series of defeats, the ICU officially switched sides and today its former leader, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, is the President of the TFG.

But the grievances that gave rise to the ICU did not go away when the Ethiopian army invaded. So the most hard-core part of the ICU - al Shabaab - decided to keep fighting, but with a change of tactics. Suicide bombings against Ethiopian and TFG troops became frequent. I spoke to many people on my recent visit to Ethiopia who said that in these times you could here the cries of mourning of family members every day, when they received the news of the death of their son, brother or husband via SMS (!) from the army.

The new way of fighting proved to be successful and in 2009, Ethiopian troops began to withdraw from Somalia without adequate alternative troops being in place. The result was simple: soon, al Shabaab was in possession of much of the territory of southern Somalia, exactly the area that was ruled by the ICU before the Ethiopian intervention. Of course the laws and regulations enforced by al Shabaab reflected their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and it is safe to say that many Somalis and also the neighboring states preferred the ICU in hindsight.

Not so the military strategists. They just saw al Shabaab as a new and even greater threat to "security and stability" and reacted in the usual way: targeted assassinations through U.S. drones, warplanes, special forces and even bombardment by U.S. Destroyers instead of negotiation.

This "strategy" culminated in 2011 with a renewed invasion of Somalia - this time Kenya made the start and Ethiopia joined after some deliberation (or persuasion by the U.S.?). History repeats itself as the troops of various African nations with U.S. support manage to use their technological superiority to achieve military victories (though so far this has not translated into territorial dominance yet).

With enough time, money and life spend, this campaign may defeat al Shabaab as we know it today. But it will not make anybody more "secure" - not the average Somali, nor Kenyans, Ethiopians or Westerners. Al Shabaab may cease to exist, but the proclaimed merger between the group and al Qaida points to the inevitable consequence: the most motivated and radical elements of al Shabaab will keep on fighting, one campaign richer in experience and many lost comrades less likely to ever consider a peaceful solution for their grievances.