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U.S. Can’t Afford to be Out of Africa

There hasn’t much foreign policy discussion this election season, either in the Republican primaries or in the general election campaign. Certainly, there has been some lip service paid to Iran, but it is like pulling teeth to get either candidate to talk about Afghanistan, let alone any other country.

If there are two lessons policymakers across the aisle should learn from the pre-9/11 era, it is that problems ignored do not go away, and that no matter how remote a security vacuum is, it can still pose a threat to American national security.

It is time both the Obama administration and Romney’s foreign policy team take Africa seriously. Over the past four years, security has declined significantly across a continent too often forgotten in Washington’s policy debate.

Take, for example:

  • Mali: Once labeled by Freedom House to be the most democratic, Muslim-majority country, a  March coup enabled Islamists and Taureg separatists to seize control over the Saharan north of the country. Not surprisingly, the alliance between Tuareg and Islamists did not last, and Islamists consolidated control, implementing strict Islamic law and destroying UNESCO world heritage sites. Northern Mali now threatens to become a safe-haven for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group which profits from drug smuggling networks as far south as Mozambique now has not only the material but also the territory to plot something bigger than beheading French tourists, all the more so since they seem to have taken possession of much of Muammar Qadhafi’s loose weaponry.
  • Nigeria: The seventh-most populous country on earth is also one of Africa’s most diverse. While counter-terror experts once celebrated the demise of al-Qaeda’s short-lived Nigerian affiliate, the rapid growth of the violent Boko Haram jihadist group should concern just about everyone. Boko Haram’s slaughter of Christians threatens to take sectarian violence to a new level. The spread of jihadism into Nigeria’s urban slums, let alone state failure, would also have profound repercussions.
  • Somalia has actually been somewhat of a good news story in recent months, although if there’s one lesson from recent Somali history, it is that no one should take positive security trends for granted in the Horn of Africa.

We can chase Joseph Kony around Africa’s Great Lakes region, and his capture or killing would strike a blow for human rights. But, while it’s all well and good to pursue a humanitarian policy, the White House should never forget those areas that could pose a growing threat to American national security. Radical Islamism and state failure is never a good mix. There is no easy answer about what to do in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, but failing to have a conversation is policy malpractice.


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