Can the U.S. Fight Terrorism in Africa While Supporting African Democracy?

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America's increasing emphasis on counterterrorism could undercut democracy promotion there.

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Nigerian police guard a suspected Boka Haram bomb site. (Reuters)

The White House recently released its new Africa policy. The top two pillars -- support for democracy and economic growth -- remain the same from previous policy statements. The new policy reorganizes conflict prevention, presidential initiatives, and transnational issues to reflect increasing concerns over terrorism on the continent.

Nevertheless, recent comments by Africom's commander, General Carter Ham, that "countering the threats posed by al-Qaeda affiliates in east and northwest Africa remains my number one priority," underscores how U.S. foreign policy establishment priorities can occasionally be at odds.

For example, counterterrorism efforts, unfortunately, do not always complement democracy promotion. Take Mali. Alleged international terrorist training camps in that country have most certainly caught the attention of the American counterterrorism establishment. And yet, who will it partner with after the March 22 coup and Azawad's de facto independence (or as one interlocutor put it, "Azawad's occupation")? Should we collaborate with the military government, then how can we support the reestablishment of democracy?

Nigeria is another difficult case. There are questions about the legitimacy of Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan administration and its heavy-handed response to Boko Haram in the North. (The actual nature of Boko Haram is actually more complicated.)

Do we partner with the Nigerian government, at the risk of attracting the ire of the hitherto domestically focused Boko Haram?

These are tough questions. And favoring one approach can easily undermine another. Think about constructive engagement with South Africa's apartheid government -- a policy that has not been forgotten in that country -- but was particularly problematic given our own dark history of segregation.

The answer, I believe, lies in a principled approach. As Americans, we value democracy, human rights, and the rule of law above all else. U.S. foreign policy should reflect that.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Asch Harwood is the Council on Foreign Relations Africa program research associate.

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