Thursday, November 27, 2008

Africa: A war on terror's hidden front

Chicago Tribune | U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Cynthia Ramirez roared through it in an unmarked Land Cruiser, projecting the awesome might of the U.S. military into a wasteland little seen, much less penetrated, by outsiders. The landscape was like a slap—an eye-stinging waste of salt pans and glass-blue mountains that was still inhabited by Muslim warrior-nomads, the Afar, tough customers who long ago had swapped their traditional spears for Kalashnikovs.

Behind Ramirez, in an expanding cone of dust, bucked three more Toyotas, an Army truck loaded with corrugated metal sheeting, and 14 armed, sweating American soldiers and sailors. Their improbable objective: reroof a school at a fly-speck nomad camp called Lahossa.

The bad guys were potential Islamic extremists. But anywhere, at this jaded stage in the global war on terror, was literally and metaphorically off the map: a remote African laboratory for the long anti-terror struggles of the future.

As the Bush administration draws to a close and prepares to hand the job of ending the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to President-elect Barack Obama, few Americans may realize that another major U.S. military campaign is taking shape elsewhere on the globe—this time in the most obscure, lawless reaches of Africa.

The Pentagon recently unveiled AFRICOM, its historic new military command devoted exclusively to Africa—a sprawling continent of 1 billion people, roughly half of whom are Muslim, that has long been overlooked by Washington's strategic planners.