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.