As the United States sensibly backs its military out of Afghanistan and considers drawing down the remaining 5,000 American troops in Iraq, it is time to review the expanded U.S. military presence in West and East Africa (~7,000 troops), particularly counterterror operations. Such a review was announced by Secretary of Defense Mike Esper in December 2019.
Our African deployments were practically invisible until October 2017, when four American soldiers died in an ambush in Niger. Suddenly Americans — including at least one U.S. Senator — realized that the U.S. military was in Africa getting the U.S. into deeper and deeper trouble.
It is time to pull back these forces. They reflect a militarization of U.S. foreign policy that has accelerated since 2001. Claims to the contrary, the military does not do these operations particularly well and there is growing evidence that they are counterproductive, generating more terrorists than they eliminate and exacerbating instability. They do nothing to counter Chinese or Russian influence in Africa, despite claims that they do. The threat they target is not a vital U.S. interest. In sum, by militarizing U.S. engagement in Africa, security assistance, training, and operations are harming U.S. security interests.
The U.S. military’s African adventure started in 2007. Until then, Africa had been a Pentagon backwater, with forces supplied by other regional commands when Americans needed to be evacuated or humanitarian relief delivered, as in the Rwandan civil war. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was created as a separate regional command in 2007 making security relations with the African continent an important part of the Pentagon’s global “Building Partner Capacity” (BPC) program.
The BPC goal included a whole new set of Defense Department legal authorities to provide training, arms, funding, and support for the militaries of other countries. Security, the argument went, took priority before strong governance and economic growth could happen, and DoD was the right agency to do the job.
As a result, almost invisibly, over the past 13 years, the U.S. has established a continuing presence on more than 27 bases in at least 15 African countries, according to research by investigative reporter Nick Turse. The presence is concentrated in the Sahel region (Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger), and in the Horn of Africa, much of it at Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. Operations include training and military exercises, supplying arms to local militaries, flight operations and logistical support, drone flights for both attack and intelligence missions, bombing, and even limited ground combat operations, like the one ambushed in Niger. U.S. forces also support French operations in the Sahel.
Critics of this growing military engagement have argued that creating a large security assistance and training program and putting the U.S. in charge militarizes the U.S. engagement in these regions (and elsewhere) at the cost of stability, good governance, and economic growth. As Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, the security focus overwhelms and distorts the orientation of governments, corrupts political institutions, can exacerbate conflict and corruption, lead to human rights abuses, and divert public resources from investment in economic progress.
The American military is not the right tool for the counterterror mission. The Sahel operation is not making progress, despite the claim by one U.S. special operations captain that U.S. forces are “uniquely suited” to provide this training and support. As the U.S. effort has grown, the number of terrorist attacks in the region has grown exponentially. Since 2010 the number of Islamist groups operating in North, West, and East Africa has risen from five to 25, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, DC.
The number of violent incidents for which these groups are responsible has risen 14 percent in the past year. AFRICOM and special operators argue that the increase in violence justifies an even greater U.S. commitment. It is equally plausible that a militarized approach to counterterrorism has set in motion a tit-for-tat process that has accelerated the threat.
Supporters of U.S. military engagement also argue that the American presence is essential to counter growing Chinese and Russian involvement throughout Africa. The timing of this “great power” theme may not be accidental. After all, U.S. military operations in the Sahel and East Africa are under review. Discussions of that review suggest that Esper wants to redeploy forces to deal with what the National Military Strategy calls “great power competition” with China and Russia.
Such a redeployment puts AFRICOM resources at risk. The magical response to a budgetary fight is to relabel the program to fit the priority mission. It’s hardly surprising then that special operations commander for Africa Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson has called his counterterror operations in Africa “great power competition.”
But counterterrorist operations in Africa are not critical to U.S. security. There is little evidence that the organizations involved constitute a strategic threat to the U.S., though they may be vitally important to the countries in question. The U.S. military presence does little to counter any known Russian or Chinese activity in Africa.
If U.S. truly wished to “compete” with China and Russia, policy should focus on diplomacy, trade, and investment, rather than diminishing state capacity in these countries by bolstering the least accountable, most corrupt institution — the local military.
In sum, the growing U.S. military operations in the Sahel and East Africa involves the U.S. in political events in countries that are not vital national interests. It needs more congressional oversight, and not the boosterism key senators recently provided. Restraining this militarized engagement should be the first step in confronting the “mission creep” that has militarized U.S. foreign policy for the past 20 years.
France is significantly better placed to help with the security mission. Even the French role is a mixed blessing, given the historic French colonial regime which did little to empower local governance and security capabilities. But France has the local presence, knowledge and experience to better assist these countries.
The French government is understandably uneasy about a U.S. pull-back, as it relies heavily on U.S. logistics, transportation, refueling, and drone-supplied intelligence and combat activities. But arrangements can be made to ensure these gaps are filled once the U.S. military leaves.
The U.S. military is the wrong tool for our African engagement. A more restrained U.S. policy in the region would restore the role of diplomacy and help create new multilateral policies that open up opportunities for many African countries — like Ghana, Ethiopia, and Rwanda – already experiencing economic growth and effective security. Interestingly, Mauritania, part of the G5 Sahel, has had significant success in preventing terrorist attacks, attributed to a well-trained military and frequent patrolling, among other things.
Ultimately, the countries in the region are responsible for their own security. It will depend on effective governance and well-distributed economic growth. It is not a case of “security first,” but of governance first, which only the local governments can provide.