The deadly, cowardly U.S. drone wars in Africa

Summary: The Black Agenda Report examines with cold harsh logic America’s drone wars in Africa. Not secret wars, just ignored by Americans and so seldom in our news – and then usually misreported. Here is a look at how we are seen by the people at the other end of the US wars in Africa. Our ignorance of that perspective is a major cause of our inability to win the wars we wage at such great cost.

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Deadly, Cowardly U.S. Drone Wars in Africa

By Mark Fancher at the Black Agenda Report.
17 October 2018. Graphics added.

The anticipated reduction of US troops in Africa will be matched by an increase in killer drones.
The U.S. is completing construction of a $100 million drone base in Agadez, Niger.


War is romantic only when it is limited to the confines of a sanitized imagination. Movies that portray heroic soldiers vanquishing demonic enemy combatants or rescuing fallen comrades may whip up jingoistic war fever, but horrific images of real children and elders maimed, scarred, dismembered and killed during armed conflicts have the power to end wars. Graphic pictures of civilian victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings account for a universal fear of nuclear weapons. Soldiers themselves are often deeply affected. Countless Vietnam veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder because of up-close and personal observations of unspeakable violence directed at non-combatants.

Although it is claimed that some military strikes are designed to hit only military targets with surgical precision, far too often there are unintended civilian “casualties.” Gil Scott-Heron said it best when he noted there is nothing “casual” about dying. Civilized societies know this and in 1949 nations concerned about civilian deaths signed on to the Fourth Geneva Convention that was designed for the specific purpose of protecting wars’ innocent bystanders.

“Barack Obama, with his ‘kill list’ in hand, became the King of Drones.”

Notwithstanding the actual horror of civilian deaths, the U.S. apparently believes this loss of life is less horrible if nobody — not even soldiers — are able to see it. George W. Bush used remotely controlled lethal armed drones, but it was Barack Obama who, with his “kill list” in hand, became the King of Drones. In a 2016 article in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf: “The Obama Administration’s Drone-Strike Dissembling.

“The notion that the Obama Administration has carried out drone strikes only when there is ‘near-certainty of no collateral damage’ is easily disproved propaganda. America hasn’t killed a handful of innocents or a few dozen in the last eight years. Credible, independent attempts to determine how many civilians the Obama administration has killed arrived at numbers in the hundreds or low thousands. And there is good reason to believe that they undercount the civilians killed.”

The New America Foundation reported that U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004 have caused between 245 and 303 civilian deaths. In Yemen between 111 and 142 civilians have been killed by U.S. drones, and in Somalia there have been 22 to 37 civilian drone deaths. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, since 2015, anywhere from 150 to 313 civilians were killed in Afghanistan, including between 36 and 77 children. And if that isn’t enough, in 2012, The New York Times reported that when chronicling drone deaths, the U.S. “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

“Drones have a smaller footprint, they are easier to run and deploy, and they don’t attract as much attention.”

It is against this backdrop that the U.S. has announced plans to expand and increase drone strikes in Africa. The catalyst was the attack that killed four U.S. soldiers in Niger last year. The U.S. has blamed the killings on terrorism, but there is a political context into which these deaths must be placed. A decision to deploy approximately 800 U.S. troops in Niger was not made on an arbitrary whim. France has been a longtime collaborator with the U.S. in Africa, and that country has extensive uranium mining operations in the city of Arlit in Niger. Notwithstanding anti-terrorism rhetoric, France maintains a military presence in Niger to protect its mining operations and the U.S. assists. However, this engagement became a liability when four U.S. soldiers lost their lives, and the reality of military conflict smacked the U.S. public in the face yet again. Thus, a remote-controlled drone war has become a very attractive, far less messy option.

The U.S. is completing construction of a $100 million drone base in Agadez, Niger. “Drones have a smaller footprint, they are easier to run and deploy, and they don’t [attract as much] attention,” said Joshua Meservey, a Heritage Foundation analyst. Agadez will be the second armed drone launch site in Africa. Drones launched from Djibouti have had destinations in Yemen and Somalia.

Unlike previous administrations the Trump CIA will not limit its drone attacks to conventional war zones. All of this means civilian populations are endangered in regions of Africa that have not been drone target areas in the past. Africans’ horror, misery and death will be no deterrent to the violence because it will occur outside of the gaze of not only civilian populations worldwide, but also the soldiers in remote locations who cause it.

“Civilian populations are endangered in regions of Africa that have not been drone target areas in the past.”

As the use of drones increases, hundreds of U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Africa. They will be pulled out of Niger, Libya, Kenya and Cameroon among other places. It is also anticipated that the number of Special Operations troops in Africa will be reduced by 50 percent over three years.

In the end, the U.S. recognizes that the deaths of even four anonymous U.S. soldiers in Niger caused extraordinary pain for their families, which in turn created broad public resistance to U.S. war ventures in Africa. The horror of armed conflict became very real to an American population accustomed to ignoring misery experienced by much of the rest of the world.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. is gathering up its own troops and scrambling from Africa like rats leaving a sinking ship. Although the U.S. wants no more of its own youths to die, it is leaving behind drone operations that have the potential to kill hundreds if not thousands of African civilians out of sight and out of mind of a U.S. population that would be horrified if only they could see the twisted, mangled and shredded bodies of innocent Africans. It is perhaps the ultimate profile in cowardice.


Editor’s note

America loves the blood of its enemies. Not seeing it, but knowing that it flows on the ground because of us. As a strategy, this is folly. Our inability to recognise this after so many wars is stupidity. We involve ourselves in wars in which we have no rational interest, and usually leave those people worse off. How long until somebody strikes back at us again?

Two notes from history. First, about killing.

At an early intergovernmental meeting {1962} on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong. But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

“Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.

— From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972).

Second, about losing and our inability to learn from experience.

Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation): “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”

Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation): ”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

— From Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982).

Mark P. Fancher

About the author

Mark Fancher is a staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan. He was formerly the Senior Staff Attorney for the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice.

Fancher has played a leadership role in the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) as a past chair of the organization’s International Affairs Section and as NCBL’s national co-chair from 1995-1998. He is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan Pro Bono Initiative.

Fancher has lectured written on self-determination for Africa and the African Diaspora, indigenous peoples’ land and resource rights, and political repression in the U.S.

The Federalist website has additional details about his career. See his articles at the Black Agenda Report, Critical Studies, and at NewAfrican77. He has written three books. The most recent is I Ain’t Got Tired Yet: The Spiritual Battles of Enslaved African Christians and Their Descendants (2010).

Black Agenda Report

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If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Africa, about drones, and especially these…

  1. America’s Shadow Wars in Africa – by Nick Turse.
  2. The real significance of our drone war, and why you’ll hear little about it in Campaign 2016.
  3. America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired).
  4. The Psychology of Killer Drones: action against our foes; reaction affecting us – by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  5. Review of “Kill Chain: Rise of the High-tech Assassins” – by Chuck Spinney.

To understand our done war in Africa

Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa by Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse.

Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa by Nick Turse.

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Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa
Available at Amazon.

15 thoughts on “The deadly, cowardly U.S. drone wars in Africa”

  1. I assume that the drones are replacing human killing with machine killing. I understand calling out the cowardice. Still, IMO, the human tragedy should not need calls about cowardice. The abandonment of our principles, with the resulting loss of innocent life should be sufficient.

    Perhaps, the ACLU should start or re-invigorate a suit to make the U.S. obey the laws that it has signed in international treaties. I appreciated an argument made that if rights are inalienable, they should apply outside the borders of the U.S., when the U.S. steps outside its borders.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Still, IMO, the human tragedy should not need calls about cowardice.”

      No, that’s not correct. We have to see these things thru the eyes of the people on the other end. The net effect of our actions is shaped not just by our logic, but by theirs as well.

    2. Larry, I don’t disagree. I wanted my emphasis on the abandonment of OUR principles. My point is that our principles should be enough, IMO. That the calls of cowardice are needed shows the moral bankruptcy that occurs when we abandon our principles, IMO.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        It’s not that I disagree. But our relentless focus on ourselves — our goals, our values, our principles — might help explain why we can’t win wars.

  2. Due to the results, I can’t say I believe that we are actually trying to win wars anymore. I understand that winning requires a correct application of force and effort. I believe it was Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart who pointed out how many times those on the losing side adjusted after the loss to at least become more competitive, if not winners. And If not, it was usually a matter of money, numbers, or technology that was the deciding factor. If not those it was loss of the moral aspect. I don’t think money, numbers, or technology is an issue for us.

    I agree about the relentless focus causing myopia, Know thy self, know thy enemy.. Sun Tzu. You don’t get half credit if the bridge falls down, a saying of engineers. Going into battle half blinded doesn’t seem to work well either.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Due to the results, I can’t say I believe that we are actually trying to win wars anymore. ‘

      Are you kidding? Failure is a commonplace in society. It’s a daft way to judge intent.

    2. It appears I was less clear than I thought. I agree that “Failure is a commonplace in society.” I would disagree about war and intent. In Liddell, IIRC, the loss of the moral aspect of a war was often because of lack of or the wrong intent. It was his assertion, and Sun Tzu’s, that proper intent, moral high ground, was often a necessary ingredient in winning. IIRC, Liddel, in particular, used the U.S. involvement in Police Actions to discuss this.

      Since I don’t disagree with your statements in general, and your specific points are good, it is probably cause I am looking at something specific and viewing from a different angle than you, and then making a general comment. And it may be that I am using winning as indicating intent because that is how I see our continued failure in war.

      Summary: Our military loses quite consistently, but not for lack of lack of knowledge how to win. Here is one of the many books by our warriors explaining how we can win Guardian Joe: How Less Force Helps the Warrior By H. John Poole (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired) Published 2018. Review by G.I. Wilson….Regrettably Congress and DOD have lost sight of what it takes to win wars and setting the necessary priorities of investing in people, ideas, and hardware in that order….“We invest a great deal of resources and time in training and educating our warriors in how to apply an ever more lethal and technologically advanced panoply of physical materiel. We also make an equal investment in the mental aspect, to out-think and out-maneuver the enemy. How much, however, do we invest in the moral aspect.” From one of FM 4GW posts.

      I have concluded our failure to invest in the moral aspect as showing intent. It may be Congress’ or the President’s or the MIC’s or the top brass’ intent.

      I could be missing a nuance or even an obvious relationship. It won’t be the first nor the last time for such.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        I agree with your cites about “intent.” My point was that belief that losing means intent to lose is daft. I doubt you can find anything in Sun Tzu to support that logic.

  3. Hi Larry,

    My only nit with this otherwise powerful, heart-rending article is ending with a notion of any sort of cutting and running by US/AFRICOM. We’ve raised our “defense” budget more than 100B since Trump came into office; that increment is more than the total defense budget of any country other than China and Saudi Arabia. Much of that is showing up in Africa, where we are expanding forward operating bases, or FOBs. FOB Leego doesn’t sound as permanent as Ramstein Air Base, which is older than modern Germany (as reconstituted after the war in 1949; of course “Germany” is older). We’ll see. Africans will see, too, alas from a much more consequential perspective.

    The drone ops are adding to the body count, not replacing other things that add to it, too. Compare Franco-American grand strategy (if you can all it that) kill ’em all and let God sort them out with Chinese, who, by developing infrastructure in Africa both appear to be helping (which they are) but also put nations (and thus peoples) in debt to them. It’s colonialism, too, just not at the point of a bayonet or the blast radius of a Hellfire missile. Debt can be restructured. Lives cannot be given back. Africans know this, and they won’t forget.



    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That’s a great catch! When I was fact-checking this, I noted that – and then forgot to check that claim. Classic checking the small and easy-to-check claims, forgetting the big one.

  4. ACLU? Please. Members of that organization are human drones firing hell fire missiles up the arses of the American people. The recent Kavanaugh confirmation is an example. Politicized, left wing organization.

    So, now we are cowards for using drones. Sounds like smart fighting to me.

    Africans butcher and kill their own civilians on a regular basis. Why no mention of that?

    All in all Africa is not worth our time. It’s one of those ‘shitholes’ we’ve heard about.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Sounds like smart fighting to me.”

      Yep. That’s why we keep losing.

      “Africans butcher and kill their own civilians on a regular basis. Why no mention of that?”

      Because that’s not our problem. You are welcome to raise money, get a gun, and go with your family over there and fight. Leave my taxes and my children (in the Army) to help America.

      “All in all Africa is not worth our time. It’s one of those ‘shitholes’ we’ve heard about.”

      So why are we fighting over there? If only those like you, so enthusiastic about fighting in others wars, would be the targets of the inevitable blowback. But the rest of us will also.

      “Members of that organization are human drones firing hell fire missiles up the arses of the American people”

      Yep, that’s the balanced kind of thinking that makes the US people such easily manipulated sheep. BAA louder! Our elites love to hear you.

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