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U.S. engagement in Africa should be led by civilians, not the military

The U.S.'s military-first approach to counterterrorism in Africa has failed.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Even as the world faces a global health crisis of epic proportion, America’s militarism marches on behind the scenes. Americans might be surprised to know that in April, while our government struggled to develop a coherent pandemic response, U.S. airstrikes in Somalia hit an all-time high.

Our military footprint in Somalia has been expanding since 2013, but a corresponding reduction in terrorist activity has not followed. Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group we are targeting there, has in fact seen a recent resurgence, as demonstrated by a January 5 attack on a U.S. base in Kenya that killed three Americans and a December 28 attack killing nearly 80 people.

This uptick seems to have coincided with the surge in American airstrikes, after the administration’s 2017 decision to give the military greater authority to conduct strikes with less vetting. Here, as elsewhere, we have no evidence to suggest that our increased counterterrorism activity hasn’t in fact had the opposite effect. But in the current foreign policy climate in the United States, forging ahead with our military is reflexive, so forge ahead is what we do.

We are so conditioned to lead with our military that we willfully avoid opportunities to do otherwise. This was reinforced for me when the news that Defense Secretary Mark Esper was considering a drawdown of U.S. forces in Africa was met with shock and disappointment, despite general acknowledgment that our efforts there weren’t getting the job done.

Two recent responses captured how dependent we’ve become on the military leading our foreign endeavors. In War on the Rocks, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen asserted that “Africa deserves more attention from the U.S. military,” while at the same time conceding that these military operations had failed to reduce the terrorism threat.

In Lawfare, Judd Devermont and Leanne Erdberg Steadman, both former National Security Council staff, argued against the drawdown because U.S. military presence in Africa is critical for its non-military contributions, such as forging close ties with African governments and responding to humanitarian and health crises.

I agree with so many of the observations made in both of these pieces, but I’m led to a different conclusion. If our counterterrorism efforts aren’t fixing the problem, we shouldn’t double down on them. We should use that as an opportunity to change course and return to a foreign policy led by civilians, not the military.

And when we’re taking non-military action to address the underlying instability that invites terrorism, the military shouldn’t be taking the lead there either. It is a testament to how entrenched military primacy is in our foreign policy toolbox that one would automatically conclude that a plethora of non-military problems must be solved by a bigger military footprint.

Now, to turn to the factors these authors and I agree on. It is in the U.S. national interest to enhance engagement with Africa. The attraction of extremism on the continent is due more to poor governance, security shortcomings, and socioeconomic grievances than to ideology. These causes will require more than a foreign military intervention to address. Current counterterrorism efforts are not getting the job done. Merely maintaining or increasing our military presence will not address the problem. African conflicts could become the next endless war. And, as Cohen concludes in his piece, “[I]t is in America’s best interests to bring more than its military to African conflicts.”

These observations, and others, have led me to conclude that what we need is not a continued military-first approach, but a complete review of our engagements, with an honest assessment of what has succeeded and failed in our interventions to date. This is true in Africa and elsewhere. That review should be conducted by civilian leadership, with military support and input, not the other way around, and certainly not secretively behind the walls of the Pentagon.

Such a review may well conclude that reducing troops makes sense, particularly if we prioritize non-military engagement to address the underlying problems. But without looking at the implications of a drawdown holistically, while analyzing the full complement of our engagement vis-a-vis our genuine national security interests, we simply won’t know what the best next move is.

Critics might agree, but claim that first we need to protect that space, so we don’t create a power vacuum filled by Russia or China. But our reflexive desire to fill voids with our military is an expensive and dangerous impulse with which we’ve grown too comfortable.

Our national security interests in these far-flung locales are often tenuous, only materializing in real terms with our presence on the ground, when it should be the other way around. Our interest in stability in threatened regions is real, but we have yet to prove that our military presence doesn’t actually do more harm to that interest than good. Russia and China might find that filling that space comes at a greater cost.

Returning civilian leadership to our foreign affairs will not be easy or promptly cure all our foreign policy ills, but America’s deference to a military-led foreign policy, which has increased steadily since 9/11, has clearly led us astray. It has damaged our reputation abroad even as it has captured our imagination in Washington. It has led the breadth of the foreign policy establishment to believe that only the military can answer the call, whatever that call may be.

It’s time the United States revisited this approach and accepted its failures. We must insist that civilian leadership take back the reins and lead these assessments and decisions of the future of our national defense strategy, from a holistic rather than solely military point-of-view. In Africa and elsewhere, if America stopped putting war fighters in the lead, perhaps America’s foreign policy will one day no longer be dominated by fighting wars.

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper participates in a roundtable discussion with the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, Stuttgart, Germany, Sept. 5, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
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