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Counterterror Efforts Stumble in North Africa

With recent reports of al Qaeda efforts to establish a foothold in the vast ungoverned territory of Northwest Africa and the Sahara desert region you would think counterterrorism efforts in the region would be a pretty high priority.

Not so, according to a new report from the watchdogs over at GAO, who found that the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), is hampered by the lack of any real plan, inadequate funding and bickering between participating agencies.

The countries included in the TSCTP are not exactly terrorism backwaters. The State Department said in its 2007 report on terrorism that al Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQIM, had formed an alliance with an Algerian extremist group and was using the Trans-Sahara region as a training base. Nigeria has long battled a list of insurgent and terrorist groups that routinely shut down the flow of oil from the West African nation. The Pentagon provides training, such as marksmanship and small unit operations; provides vehicles; constructs target ranges; provides intelligence training; and does a range of humanitarian assistance including digging wells and building schools. The military is also engaged in various information operations in the area designed to counter extremist propaganda.

But U.S. efforts to forge partnerships with Northwest African nations are plagued by an astounding lack of coordination. This far into the “long war” against extremist groups and the lead federal agencies in counterterrorism still appear unable to work together. Country teams are supposed to be led by and operate under the authority of the ambassador. But State and DOD cannot agree on who should run the show in the countries covered by the TSCTP, designed from the outset to be an interagency program. There are ongoing arguments about whether military personnel should answer to the country ambassador or to the EUCOM commander while on temporary assignment in African countries. After the ambassador to Niger limited the number of military personnel allowed in the country because of political sensitivities to American boots-on-the-ground, EUCOM pulled their people and suspended operations there. In Chad, the ambassador called a halt to DOD activities because there weren’t enough embassy personnel to provide support.

Another problem with the whole effort is that funding for TSCTP is not directed by Congress, rather the amounts spent are entirely at the discretion of the agencies themselves. That’s a problem right there. Evidence: for 2008 DOD, State and USAID committed $123 million to the entire North African counter terror effort; the vast bulk of the money has been provided by DOD.

GAO recommended that State take the lead and lay out clear goals and objectives for the initiative and specify the needed resources. The government auditors also suggested that State and DOD issue some sort of joint guidance on who is in charge of military personnel operating in the region. Counter terror efforts in Trans-Sahara appear desperately in need of direct attention from Defense Secretary Robert Gates who has spent the past year or so calling for greater use of “soft power” and for other government agencies to take a greater role in fostering closer cooperation with foreign governments.

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