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The U.S. can’t fight terrorists in Africa. So guess what it does instead.

- February 1, 2016
A crashed MQ-9 Reaper drone seen on the ground in Niamey, Niger, on Oct. 20, 2014. The cause of the accident was pilot error. (U.S. Air Force)

Boko Haram kidnaps hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls to be used as sex slaves. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb guns down dozens of victims at the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Still other terrorists attack the Radisson Blu in Mali, just one week after the Islamic State attacked Paris. Africa has been suffering from still more terrorist shootings, bombings and suicide attacks, regularly.

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How should the United States respond to these increasing Islamist attacks in Africa? The U.S. command there has figured out a clever way to make a significant difference without overstepping its orders. But as the problem of Islamist insurgencies continues, the United States will have to watch out for mission creep.

How the U.S. usually approaches insurgencies

Currently, U.S. military policy tilts back and forth between counterinsurgency and counterterror operations (or COIN and CT, in military parlance).

Counterterror operations aggressively target people who are violently attacking (or planning to attack) the United States or its allies. The goal: Destroy our enemies, or at least, make it much harder for them to attack our friends. The United States now has counterterrorism operations — teams of Special Forces troops and armed drones — underway in Yemen and Afghanistan.

The other major approach is counterinsurgency, or COIN. Counterinsurgency tries to strengthen local social structures to “win hearts and minds,” so that local people stop supporting armed combatants. Counterinsurgency does include limited direct combat or police actions against terrorists or insurgents to protect efforts to build a functioning local community. But its real goal is to build a social and stable state that’s less likely to deteriorate into terrorism, usually through developing representative government structures like constitutions and voting, and local investment, and building infrastructure that will improve citizens’ lives.

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However, as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy and insurgency expert Andrew Exum observed, these two approaches are really a continuum rather than opposing ideas. Those working to defeat non-state violent actors can shift efforts across the spectrum — building up a working government and functioning state or destroying terrorists and insurgents — to find the proper balance on the way to the goal: peace and stability.

But AFRICOM is different from all other U.S. military commands

Striking that balance is particularly difficult in Africa. The United States Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, controls all U.S. military activity on the continent. Most of the other regional combatant commands, such as Pacific Command, are almost purely military.

AFRICOM is a very different animal. While it rolled several preexisting military missions into its structure when it was founded in 2008, AFRICOM commanders also oversee efforts for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in addition to running its skeletal military headquarters staff.

AFRICOM was conceived with a commitment to being a noncombatant with a “small footprint” on the continent. Its mission is to coordinate diplomacy, development and defense policies while keeping a small presence on the continent and avoiding direct combat missions. These constraints are intended to reassure  African governments afraid of new colonial ambitions, even though the United States had also remained cautious in Africa since its experiences in Somalia in 1993.

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As a result, defense operations have been deemphasized in favor of diplomacy and civic development. The military operations pursued have been largely focused on training and equipping U.S. allies’ militaries so that they could safeguard ongoing development efforts.

So if it can’t fight, how can AFRICOM help fight Islamist terror?

Here’s the problem. Since Muammar Qaddafi fell, leaving Libya in violent turmoil and without a clear government, violent Islamists have surged across the Sahara Desert into the weak states along the Sahara’s southern border, a region called the “Sahel.”  Despite AFRICOM’s multiyear efforts to build up partner militaries in Sahelian states, such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, the militaries have been largely inadequate in fighting off this new wave of violent extremists.

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And so AFRICOM’s military-minded officers have started counterterror operations in West Africa. The idea is that the United States could shift more efforts to bring down local threats like Boko Haram while continuing to help partner states like Mali and Nigeria strengthen their police and military efforts through training and armament programs.

But while other combatant commands run counterterror operations by sending in U.S. Special Forces and armed drones in partnership with local governments, AFRICOM cannot — because it has neither the personnel nor the mandate.

The solution: Send in unarmed drones to help with surveillance, while continuing to train and equip local allies like Nigeria and Cameroon to foster regional cooperation among those allies.

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The unarmed drones strike the right balance. By sending them, AFRICOM refrains from military adventuring, as per its mission, while helping its partners tremendously. The militaries of Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Niger have found it challenging just to locate the violent extremist organizations threatening them. The surveillance drones solve that problem, enabling U.S. allies to target their military forays effectively. Not only do the surveillance drones help tremendously while staying within the mandates for a “small footprint” and for avoiding combat, but Americans stay in control of the drones — avoiding the potential embarrassments (like a U.S.-trained military officer launching a coup) that have been far too common. It’s a creative, low-cost, low-risk extension of the U.S. military’s mission in Africa.

It’s a creative solution — but there are drawbacks

Of course, there are flaws. Popular local figures have worried that even the smaller numbers of noncombatant U.S. military personnel can destabilize the region. And the effort shifts resources away from AFRICOM’s primary goal: building a functioning civil society across the continent.

The most significant danger, however, is that these proliferating counterterror operations are increasingly undermining AFRICOM’s basic principles, which guide its overall strategy.

Because the United States has been reacting quickly, bringing its counterterror operations where needed, AFRICOM’s counterterror efforts are expanding rapidly and with little outside notice or popular outcry. This should be watched with extreme caution, lest it become a major military commitment.

British historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson assert that Victorian Britain never intended to maintain a large presence in Africa and that its massive empire on the continent came from continuously reacting to local threats to its local interests and allies.

Since this British experience is central to the first “Scramble for Africa,” U.S. mission creep may be a greater danger than anyone now recognizes.

Charles G. Thomas is an assistant professor of comparative military studies at the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Ala. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.