North Africa: AFRICOM’s Influence

This report seeks to offer a current assessment of the United States Africa Command’s Strategic Purpose and US National Interest in North Africa. 

Key Judgements

  • AFRICOM’s mission on North Africa is limiting the effects of instability resulting rom the 2nd Libyan Civil War. This mission has almost certainly had limited success.
  • AFRICOM, and by extension, the United States has a de-facto neutrality policy on the 2nd Libyan Civil War; the US is highly unlikely to pick a side or get involved beyond hunting IS and AQ affiliates, and other extremists, in light of Trump’s “America First” withdrawal.
  • Despite denial by Tunisian authorities, and strategic ambiguity by U.S. authorities, it is almost certain that Tunisia hosts a politically sensitive drone base and US SOF, who use the country to operate across North Africa.
  • Scenario Generation: The US is highly unlikely to begin to support either side in the Libyan Civil War, however, scenario generation of limited US support to either side is at the end of this report.

Context

United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is the unified command structure responsible for managing all US military activity in Africa, with the exclusion of Egypt, which falls under another command. Due to the politically charged and controversial nature of hosting US Headquarters on the African Continent, and for security and financial reasons, AFRICOM is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. AFRICOM also delivers a wide variety of projects, including the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) programme.

Mission in North Africa

AFRICOM itself describes its mission in North Africa as one of containing the spread of instability from Libya. It claims that AFRICOM will accomplish this by building up the resilience and security capability of regional nations to counter threats from Libya. This mission has been mostly effective in North Africa. Terror attacks have been kept to a relatively low number in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, with particularly effective cross-border counter-terrorism cooperation between Algeria and Tunisia (see previous Grey Dynamics Report). However, the mission to contain regional instability resulting from events in Libya has not been an unmitigated success.

Low level terrorism continues to plague North African nations. Islamic State, though greatly weakened, still has a presence in Libya. Most importantly, the current conflict in the Sahel region of Africa has its origins in the Libyan Civil War. Tuareg fighters returning from the 1st Libyan Civil War destabilised Mali, and the resulting French intervention and Islamist exploitation of the situation started the conflict seen today in the Sahel. AFRICOM’s mission to prevent the spread of instability from Libya has been a limited success, though AFRICOM is far from solely responsible for this, and the conflict in the Sahel mars this success.

US Position on Libya 

AFRICOM, as an extension of the United States government, clearly displays the US ambiguous position on the Second Libyan Civil War. AFRICOM is content to mostly sit on the side-lines within Libya and has not endorsed either the Government of National Accord, or its rival government, the House of Representatives. AFRICOM’s participation to conflict in Libya is mostly limited to raids and drone strikes targeting Islamic State. The US Government perceives that the national interest is best served through the “America First” policy, and withdrawal from needless foreign entanglement. While this non-participation has not led the US to become embroiled in another never-ending conflict, it comes at a cost; other powers have entered the war and filled the power vacuum in Libya left by the United States.

North Africa

AFRICOM Presence in Tunisia

Despite US strategic ambiguity as to the displacement of troops across Africa, and the Tunisian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge active US military presence within its borders for political reasons, it is a badly kept secret that Tunisia hosts the largest US drone base in North Africa. Drone missions are run from Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Northern Tunisia. Both the US and Tunisia claim that drones are unarmed and merely conduct reconnaissance, mainly for the purpose of “cooperation and training” with Tunisia and securing borders. The second major component to active military operations is the Special Forces’ ongoing missions, of which relatively little is known. 

An exception is a 2017 gunfight between Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Tunisian forces, supported by Marine Special Operations Command. It resulted in several Marines gaining valour awards. The official US version of the story leaves the exact country in North Africa unnamed for “classification considerations, force protection, and diplomatic sensitivities.” The Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed drone base and 2017 firefight exemplify the significant AFRICOM presence in North Africa, and highlight how AFRICOM approaches its mission, preserving regional stability and building capability and resilience in North African Nations. 

Extracted from MENASTREAM Twitter: Aerial Image of Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed Airbase, showing evidence of drone shelters and US presence
Extracted from MENASTREAM Twitter: Aerial Image of Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed Airbase, showing evidence of drone shelters and US presence

Scenario Generation

A) Support given

This section will create two scenarios where the US gives limited support to either side of the Libyan Civil War. Limited support would likely constitute training support, technical support, intelligence, equipment and limited special forces involvement, rather than “boots on the ground” as that kind of presence would be politically unpalatable for the Trump administration.

B) US Support for GNA Scenario

US Support for the GNA would be legitimised by the claim that the GNA is the government officially backed by the United Nations. In supporting the GNA, the US would join with its other international backers, of which the most important is Turkey, a NATO member. Other motivation for US support for the GNA is the counteraction of growing Russian influence in Libya, as Russia backs the Libyan National Army currently.

US support for the GNA would displease regional allies such as the UAE and Egypt, which currently support the LNA. While the GNA is currently in a precarious position, US support has the potential to reverse LNA advances. The GNA is extremely unlikely to win the war militarily and conquer the rest of Libya by force. The goal for the US and Turkey would be to support the GNA so that it is in a position of strength from which to negotiate a settlement. 

C) US Support for LNA Scenario

US Support for the LNA would be legitimised by the claim the LNA is fighting terrorists, imported by Turkey from Syria, and that the LNA provides the best possible chance for a stable future in Libya. In supporting the LNA, the US would join with its other international backers, of which the most important is Russia. Other major international backers are Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

US support for the LNA has the possible advantage of displacing Russian influence by becoming the new biggest international sponsor. US support could almost certainly end the war in the LNA’s favour relatively quickly, given the tenuous position of the GNA. The goal for the US would be a resolution of the Libyan Civil War, the installation of a stable government, and potentially, the securing of favourable terms for extraction of Libya’s natural resources. 

D) Likelihood of Scenarios

US Support for either the GNA or the LNA is highly unlikely in current circumstances. The US has little to gain by supporting either side, and in choosing one side, it would alienate the supporting countries of the other. While supporting the GNA, which is the officially backed UN government, would be the theoretical legally mandated position, the GNA is in a particularly weak position currently. The LNA, headed by Haftar, almost certainly represents a return to military dictatorship for Libya, and given the US history of backing dictators to ensure stability, would be unpopular both domestically in the US and internationally.

Ultimately, with oil prices at all-time lows, the importance of Libyan natural resources is also extremely low, and thus the motivation for entering the conflict to obtain favourable terms for resource extraction is also currently low. Lastly, unlike Russia, the US has no shortage of friendly naval bases and airbases around the Mediterranean Sea, and thus has little motivation to enter the war to obtain basing rights. Thus, US entry into the Libyan Civil War represents several drawbacks with few advantages.


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