Early last summer the United States dismantled the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, sending home L. Paul Bremer III, effectively its proconsul, and causing some observers to proclaim the end of the American empire. But imperialism has always been less about proconsuls than about local alliances and the training of indigenous troops, both of which allow the imperial authority to project power with minimum risk and fanfare. This was true for Rome, and it was particularly true for France and Britain, two thirds of whose campaigns consisted of soldiers enlisted in their colonies.
Today it is also true for the United States—and not only in places that dominate media attention, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is training troops around the world, in Latin America and Asia and Africa. To witness it firsthand I recently traveled to the Niger River region of the Sahel, a belt of savannah and scrub on the Sahara's southern edge that has of late become an important focus for American interests.
The countries of the Sahel—which runs through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Sudan—are among the world's poorest and most unstable, with some of the highest fertility and lowest quality of life anywhere. Governments have little control beyond their capital cities, and throughout the region are many of the ingredients that breed terrorists and their sympathizers: a population disillusioned with its political leadership; a dangerously high number of unemployed young men; Islamic orthodoxy on the rise. Sahelian Africa provides the two conditions essential for penetration by al-Qaeda and its offshoots: weak institutions and the cultural access afforded by an Islamic setting. It is, in fact, already home to what is arguably the most dangerous and dynamic Islamic force in the northern half of Africa today: the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Big Oil, too, has lured the United States to the region: America already imports some 15 percent of its oil from West Africa—a figure expected to rise to 25 percent within a decade. Also of concern are the Chinese, who have been investing heavily in the region and whose influence the United States wants to limit.
Given these circumstances, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM)—which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, and oversees most of Africa beyond the Horn—set in motion the Pan-Sahel Initiative, designed as an economy-of-force measure to avert the need for a massive deployment against terrorists like that in Afghanistan. As part of the initiative the United States has already dispatched Army Special Forces to Mali and Mauritania, and Marines to Chad and Niger—and those troops have not been idle. In 2003 and 2004, for example, after the Salafists had amassed weapons and vehicles in Mali for use in Algeria, Navy surveillance aircraft helped push the group out of Mali and into Niger and Chad, where U.S. military planners advised Chadian troops, who killed or captured more than forty insurgents. A follow-up program, called the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, has received initial funding.
I met up with the Marines in Niger, the second poorest country in the world after Sierra Leone. Niamey, Niger's capital, unrolls along the Niger River's northern bank and is little more than a sprawling village; compared with the teeming slum cities to the south, such as Lagos and Abidjan, it is conspicuously clean and possesses the affecting, sensual intimacy of a small African city that has yet to experience a great wave of urban migration. But the city works better as a place to live than as the administrative center of a vast and unstable country. Niger's border with Libya, to the northeast, is farther from Niamey than the Great Lakes are from the Gulf of Mexico—and the country's governing elite, composed mainly of ethnic Hausas and Songhai-Djermas, has to control not only the 12 million people living in the sliver of territory that stretches east from Niamey along the Benin and Nigerian borders but also the often hostile population of the country's desert regions, which extend to Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Chad, and where recent violence has fueled fears that Tuareg tribesmen may try to relaunch their rebellion.
The U.S. military has the same daunting task here that it has in so many other places where it is deployed: to help make a "country" into something real, against considerable odds. I stress the military here with good reason: the State Department may constitute the official, public front for security-assistance missions, but it is the humanitarian-assistance projects, administered by EUCOM through a defense attaché at the U.S. embassy, that on the ground provide for almost all the charity relief by America to the wild and troubled north of Niger—a region where few NGOs have been able to penetrate until recently. In any case, no presence can be established in the north without the help of the Nigerien military, with which civilian aid workers have cultivated little contact. In a weak democracy like Niger's, politicians come and go but soldiers and security men remain, as silent, behind-the-scenes props—that is, if they haven't metamorphosed into politicians themselves. Niger's civilian head of state, Mamadou Tandja, is a former army lieutenant colonel.
When I left Niamey, it was in a white Toyota pickup driven by Major Paul Baker, of Drummond, Oklahoma. We were headed for the Nigerien military base of Tondibiah, fifteen minutes from Niamey, where the Marines had their barracks—or hootch, as it is often called. Major Baker was the commanding officer of a Marine training team that consisted of twenty-four men (including three Navy corpsmen) drawn from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; and EUCOM's Stuttgart headquarters. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, had a graying-blond high-and-tight haircut, and bore a frank, uncomplicated expression on his face. At forty, he was a bit long in the tooth for his rank—but so were some of his lieutenants, he told me. They had started out as enlisted men and later went to Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. It was a good platoon, because the officers had been grunts themselves.
After we entered Tondibiah, we saw millet fields and the occasional street urchin. But Baker said, "It's a dramatic improvement over Chad, where whole villages existed within the army bases." Having just come from a two-month training mission in Chad, Baker was struck after a week of his present mission by the stark differences between the two countries. On paper Chad was marginally better off than Niger, and I thought it might have boasted a flinty army, given its three decades of civil war. But the Marines had found Chad less developed, and not up to Niger in the quality of its military.
The Marine hootch was a one-story cement structure with a corrugated-iron roof, protected only by concertina wire. An American flag waved near a small barbecue grill. Mosquito nets covered the racks (what naval forces call bunks), and big fat lizards climbed all over the walls and did pushups in the dirt. It was 110° under a bleached iron sky. A fan whirred loudly. The place felt laid-back—unlike the Special Forces bases I had visited in Colombia, where car bombs and makeshift mortar attacks were a fact of daily life. Here there was no atmosphere of paranoia, no vast array of weapons, no high sandbagged walls. Here the Marines traveled stripped down, like backpackers. I felt as though we were in a fleabag hotel. But I had a sink that delivered cold water, a luxury I had never before experienced with the U.S. military.