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America’s African Rifles

With a Marine Platoon

African Sahel, Summer 2004

In the early summer of 2004, just as the United States was dismantling the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, sending home its effective proconsul, L. Paul Bremer III, U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces were in various stages of deploying to the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, the Sahel, one of the few battlegrounds left in the Global War on Terror for the U.S. military to enter, as it was already deployed in so many other parts of the world.

Local alliances and the training of indigenous troops have been a traditional means of projecting power at minimum risk and fanfare. This was true of Rome even in regard to adjacent North Africa, to say nothing of its Near Eastern borderlands; and it was particularly true of France and Britain, two-thirds of whose expeditions were composed of troops recruited in the colonies.* As Tacitus writes, “We Romans value real power but disdain its vanities.”1 Taking Tacitus to heart, I went to

* See Sallust’s The Jugurthine War, composed between 44 and 40 b.c., and Douglas Porch’s introduction to the Bison edition of Col. C. E. Callwell’s Small Wars: Their Principles & Practice (1896; Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1996). These are but two examples of a vast military literature about how imperial powers used their influence.

the Niger River region of the African Sahel, or “coast,” a belt of savannah and scrub on the Sahara’s southern edge, to witness a version of America’s reach that was radically different from Iraq, certainly more modest, and hopefully more successful.

Among the great rivers of Africa, after the Nile and the Congo there is the Niger, which medieval Arab geographers such as Ibn Battuta called “the Nile of the Negroes.” The Niger rises within 492 feet of the Atlantic Ocean in the jungly, mountainous borderland of Guinea and Sierra Leone and flows northeast into Mali, past the desert caravan centers of Timbuktu and Gao. Then, arcing southeast through Niger and along the Benin border, it drops down into Nigeria, breaking up into an immense delta amid the malarial swamps of the Bight of Biafra. The curvilinear journey of 2,600 miles from the sea deep into the desert, and back to the sea again, seems almost contrary to the laws of nature.

Herodotus, in the course of his travels in the fifth century b.c., heard mention of the river. In the vicinity of eastern Libya he was told about a group of young and adventurous Nasamonians, who lived in nearby Syrtis along the Mediterranean coast. These Nasamonians had packed a good supply of food and water and set off into the interior of Libya. After traveling for many days southwestward through the desert they came upon a region of sparse vegetation where they were attacked by black men “of less than middle height,” speaking an unintelligible language. These “dwarfs” carried the Nasamonians through a marshy country whereupon they sighted a “great river with crocodiles” that “flowed from west to east.”2

The Niger was no less remote to twenty-first-century Americans than it had been to the ancient Greeks. It passed through some of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world. The Sahara Desert had effectively cut West Africa off from the traffic of peoples, ideas, and technology that moved between the Mediterranean and Eurasia from the classical age onward. Islam itself was weakened in the course of its arduous journey south. The Tuaregs, for example, a Berber people who began moving south from the central Sahara to the Niger River about a.d. 1000, were only nominally Muslim. They built few mosques; few of them made the haj to Mecca. Tuareg men wore veils; not Tuareg women. The word “Tuareg” itself is Arabic for “the abandoned of God.” The flowing robes and headdresses of Tuareg warriors recalled not Muslims but medieval Christian knights.3

A Tuareg empire grew up around the caravan city of Agadez, only to be conquered by the empire of Songhai. The empires of Songhai and Mali later overlapped near the middle part of the Niger River, the part with which Ibn Battuta was familiar, and where U.S. Marines had recently ensconced themselves.

These medieval imperiums had raised impressive armies and bureaucracies, with their names enduring through the ethnic identities of the inhabitants. Yet given the sleepy underdevelopment that now defined the region, such mighty kingdoms might as well have been ghosts.

By 1900, the French had conquered much of the Sahara and adjacent Sahel. But as other imperial powers had learned and were still to learn, conquest came easily; remolding a difficult terrain in one’s image was another matter. The Tuaregs, as though precursors of modern-day Islamic terrorists, faded into the landscape and waited out the occupiers.4 A century later it would be the region’s political and social failure that raised its stature in the eyes of the American military.

Throughout the Sahel were the ingredients that bred terrorists and their sympathizers: large populations of unemployed young men, growing political disaffection, and increasing Islamic orthodoxy.5 At each end of the Niger were bustling ports with questionable security, coastlines teeming with pirates, and Arab e;migre; communities with links to international diamond smugglers and terrorist outfits. Sahelian Africa had the two requirements essential for penetration by al-Qaeda and its offshoots: collapsing institutions and cultural access afforded by an Islamic setting.

The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which boasted links to al-Qaeda, had amassed weapons and vehicles in Mali for use in Algeria. With the help of U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft, it was pushed out of Mali into Niger and Chad, where U.S. Army Special Forces helped Chadian troops kill and capture over forty insurgents.6 Still, the Salafists were arguably the most dynamic Islamic force in the northern half of Africa. In Algeria they had eclipsed the Armed Islamic Group as the leading threat to the government. Too, they were active along the Libyan-Chadian border. Though founded in 1998 in Algeria, the Salafists traced their ideological roots to the reform movements in nineteenth-century Egypt that had raised the level of political consciousness among Muslims, then mired in antique and decaying colonial systems.7 This venerable Salafist legacy lent cachet to al-Qaeda extremism.

Big Oil also lured the United States to the region. In 2004 the U.S. was importing 15 percent of its oil from West Africa, a figure expected to rise to 25 percent within a decade.8 There was, too, the rising specter of the Chinese, who were investing significantly in the Sahel and whose influence the Americans wanted to limit.

Given such circumstances, the U.S. military had dispatched Army Special Forces to Mali and Mauritania, and marines to Chad and Niger. Senegal and other countries would soon be added to the pan-Sahel initiative, designed as a preventive, economy-of-force measure to avert the need for a massive deployment against terrorists as in Afghanistan.

I planned to meet up with U.S. marines in Niger, the second poorest country in the world after Sierra Leone. Yet my first impression of Niger was one of august, primordial beauty. The great river did not disappoint: a vast, smoky engraving so wide that it seemed less an actual river than a still life of the sea itself. In the middle, majestically parting the waters, stood long sandbars topped by rich green grass at the beginning of the rainy season. Thickets of coconut palms, neem, and eucalyptus lined the banks, beyond which stretched panels of cultivation that culminated in a series of low mesas. Camels plodded back from the fields at dusk, approaching the bronzed water where gurgling hippos bathed and men in shallow-draft boats fished for perch.

The capital city of Niamey, which unrolled along the river’s northern bank, was little more than a sprawling village: absent of tension compared to the teeming African slum cities by the Atlantic Ocean to the south, such as Lagos and Abidjan. Parallel to the river were tranquil streets with stoplights that actually worked, and one-story government buildings with few guards at the entrances. The loose laterite gave the entire townscape a rich orange tint, as though a camera filter had been placed before one’s eyes.

There were mud-walled houses and tulip-shaped wattle roofs. Boys stricken with polio went by on makeshift bicycles that they operated with hand pedals. Women in loud robes, buckets atop their heads, appeared almost to float by. There was an affecting, sensual intimacy to these dusty orange lanes. I thought of how the cities of coastal West Africa must have looked decades ago, before massive urban migration had shredded kinship patterns, ignited ethnic strife, and substituted the pageant of earthen colors for the prison hues of iron and concrete. Yet despite a spate of violent crime in parts of town and periodic anti-Christian riots near the Nigerian border, Niger’s relatively slow pattern of development had caused it to lack an explosive edge. The traditional class structure of nobles, artisans, and former slaves still survived, leading to unspoken understandings that braced the social mortar.

But Niamey worked better as a city than it did as the administrative center of a country so vast and empty that the Libyan border to the northeast was farther away from the Nigerien capital than the Great Lakes were from the Gulf of Mexico. Seventy-five percent of Niger’s twelve million people lived on just a sliver of territory stretching from Niamey eastward, along the Benin and Nigerian borders. Alas, Niger was little more than a demographic spillover of Nigeria, even as Niger’s governing class, composed mainly of ethnic Hausas and Songhai- Djermas, had to control a hostile desert extending to Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Chad—a desert where Tuareg bandits were providing sanctuary and logistical support to Islamic terrorists. Niamey was pleasant, even as it was a vacuum surrounded by unstable regional forces.

The U.S. military had the same impossible task here as it had in so many other places where it was deployed: against considerable odds, help make a country that existed only on the map into something real. I stress the military because in weak democracies such as Niger’s, politicians came and went, but soldiers and security men remained as silent, behind-the-scenes props—if they hadn’t metamorphosed into politicians themselves. Niger’s civilian head of state, Tandja Mamadou, was a former army lieutenant colonel. The fact that the State Department constituted the front for security assistance missions like that of the Marines did not mask European Command’s importance to Niger. The Pentagon’s humanitarian assistance projects, administered at the time by European Command (EUCOM) through a defense attache; at the U.S. Embassy in Niamey, accounted for almost all of the charity relief that the American people provided to the troubled north of Niger. Northern Niger was too insecure for either the Peace Corps or nongovernmental organizations to penetrate. You couldn’t establish yourself in the north without the help of the Nigerien military, with whom civilian aid workers had cultivated few, if any, contacts.

Beyond Niamey, as I traveled north along the river, dark green scrub and tall millet fields competed with eroding layers of bright orange clay and dust. Niger was losing 7,800 square miles a year to desertification, though for the moment it wasn’t apparent because of the seasonal rains.

I was inside a white Toyota pickup driven by Maj. Paul Baker of Drummond, Oklahoma, the commanding officer of a platoon-sized Marine training team, which consisted of twenty-four men, including three Navy corpsmen, drawn from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and EUCOM’s Stuttgart headquarters. At forty years old, Maj. Baker, with wire-rimmed glasses, a graying-blond high-and-tight, and a frank, uncomplicated expression stamped on his face, was a bit long in the tooth for his rank. But so were some of his lieutenants, he told me, who had started out as enlisted men and later gone to Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. It would turn out to be a good platoon: the officers had been grunts (noncommissioned combat infantrymen) themselves.

Baker’s father had served twenty-eight years in the Army and the National Guard. His oldest brother had joined the Air Force, his middle brother the Navy. “So the only option for me was the Marines,” he said in a flat prairie accent. It wasn’t so simple. After graduating from Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Baker had tried farming. Then, in the slow burn of a job search during the Texas-Oklahoma oil bust of the 1980s, he called the local Marine recruiter. Months of back-and-forth brought news that he was unqualified to be an officer. So the next day he enlisted and was dispatched to Marine boot camp outside San Diego.

Baker rose to lance corporal and was eventually accepted at Officer Candidate School. This came after serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War, and evacuating refugees from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines soon afterward. Through a friend in the Navy he met “the wife,” a Vietnamese American whose father was a Vietnam veteran and a “Brown & Root type”—a private military contractor, that is. Baker was married at Camp Lejeune five days after returning from a deployment in Norway; his son would be born seventeen hours before he left for Okinawa on another deployment. He had no complaints. “I’ve been lucky in the Corps, and this,” he went on, looking out the truck window at the thorny African scrub, “is a great opportunity for a log officer.” For a logistics officer who had not made it to Afghanistan or Iraq, commanding a training mission in two African countries where the U.S. Marines had never been constituted the high point of Maj. Paul Baker’s career.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
United States. -- Army.
United States. -- Navy.
United States. -- Air Force.
Soldiers -- United States -- History -- 21st century.