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It’s time for a new Sahel strategy

US security assistance to partner militaries for counterterrorism missions further destabilizes the region.

Analysis | Global Crises

Colonel Assimi Goïta mounted his second coup in a year last week, removing Mali’s interim president and prime minister for their alleged “demonstrable intent to sabotage the transition.” The coup marks the third time since the 2012 Malian civil war that a U.S.-trained military officer has overthrown a Malian leader, fitting into a pattern of American policy that has long prioritized arming and training Sahelian militaries in the name of counterterrorism. Although the United States finally cut off military assistance to Mali after Goïta ousted the democratically elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in 2020, the imbalance between civilian governing structures and U.S.-funded military institutions persists.

A militaristic American strategy have failed to address the root causes of armed conflict and fragility in the Sahel for more than 15 years. The Trump administration met resistance when it tried to draw down troop levels in the region, but withdrawal alone is not enough to remedy the damage of the war on terror. Instead, the United States needs to do away with its tired counterterrorism paradigm and build a diplomatic strategy centered on inclusive governance, poverty reduction, and environmental resilience.

After 9/11, the Bush administration ramped up engagement in the Sahel and Sahara as part of its global war on terror. Counterterrorism came to dominate U.S. policy in the region. The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a nominally whole-of-government program that mostly emphasizes security assistance, became the cornerstone of American Sahel policy.

Arming and training partner militaries in the region has not worked. The United States has presided over the proliferation of militant groups and intensification of armed conflict. In 2001, there were no significant al-Qaida affiliates in the Sahel. Today, a constellation of Salafi-jihadist militant groups have exploited existing intercommunal tensions and hold more sway than ever. Civilian casualties are approaching an all-time high with 450 fatalities in the first three months of 2021 alone.

Pouring resources into partner militaries to carry out counterterrorism missions further destabilizes the region. Security assistance distorts incentives in Sahelian governments, making them more accountable to donor countries than to citizens. Abuses by security forces, including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances of civilians, run rampant, fueling militant groups’ recruitment efforts. For governments, the war on terror provides a convenient justification to crack down on marginalized groups instead of building more inclusive governing institutions. The imbalance between military power and governing institutions has contributed to military coups.

All the while, the root causes of armed conflict — governance issues, environmental pressures, and poverty — remain mostly unaddressed.

These failures show that the Biden administration needs to reject the militarized status quo in the Sahel and adopt an affirmative strategy of diplomatic engagement to effect lasting change. Such a strategy must center civilian diplomacy and human development to better address the factors that exacerbate fragility and conflict.

The United States should reduce military commitments in the Sahel. Despite a nominally “light-footprint” approach, recent years have seen an uptick in facilities and deployments — the Pentagon and CIA now maintain bases in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad. The Biden administration should consider whether these bases are necessary and proportional to limited U.S. interests in the Sahel, where Salafi-jihadist groups remain too occupied with local concerns to target the United States. As Congress debates the laws that authorize the war on terror, they should repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and tailor future authorizations to accomplish specific objectives against groups that pose a direct threat to the United States. Congress should consider the totality of the circumstances for each group rather than broadly characterizing all nominal affiliates of al-Qaida or ISIS in the same manner.

The Biden administration should phase out the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which is emblematic of the shortcomings of U.S. strategy in the Sahel. Congress is trying to salvage the Partnership. Marred with inefficiencies, communication breakdowns, and a lack of accountability, the Partnership was the subject of a State Department audit recommending a series of reforms. On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan bill would permanently authorize the Partnership, increase congressional oversight, and require implementing the audit’s recommendations.

Unfortunately, Congress’s efforts will not fix the Partnership’s fundamental flaws. The problems with U.S. policy in the Sahel stem from broken assumptions about counterterrorism and conflict, not the implementation of American strategy.

The Global Fragility Strategy should guide a revitalized U.S. approach to the Sahel. Passed in 2019, the Global Fragility Act and the corresponding Strategy offer a “framework for U.S. government efforts to prevent conflict, stabilize conflict-affected areas, and address global fragility.” Specifically, the Strategy prioritizes engaging with a broad array of stakeholders to build peace and foster resilience. By recognizing the root causes of conflict and offering an integrated U.S. approach to address them, the Strategy stands in stark contrast to the last 20 years of counterterrorism. The Trump administration omitted priority regions in its 2020 Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, offering an opening for the Biden administration, which should reaffirm U.S. commitment to the Global Fragility Strategy and designate the Sahel as a priority region. Even where partnering with national governments is not viable — as is the case in Mali — the underlying principles of the Global Fragility Act offer an alternative to the counterterrorism-focused status quo.

In implementing a fragility strategy for the Sahel, the United States should dedicate attention to the interaction between environmental insecurity and conflict. Climate change has already changed land-use patterns in the region, exacerbating tensions between communities of herders and farmers. Governments will struggle to absorb the environmental shocks that will come with climate change, ranging from unpredictable rainfall to rising temperatures. Considering the effects of climate change in a region reliant on rain-fed agriculture and herding, U.S. policy in the region should place environmental concerns front and center.

Security assistance in the Sahel drives a wedge between citizens and the state, a problem the Biden administration can work to remedy with security assistance reforms. The United States should adopt an outcomes-based approach to security assistance rooted in consultation with local civil society and ample monitoring and evaluation. Conditioning security assistance on security sector governance reforms and greater accountability for killings of civilians may help dismantle harmful incentives and restore the balance between military and civilian institutions.

President Biden should appoint a new Sahel envoy with the experience and authority to implement a new strategy. Doing so would show American commitment to the region and to a revitalized, diplomacy-centered approach. The Sahel’s challenges are trans-regional, but bureaucratic silos make coordination difficult. Porous borders and transnational cultural ties have long facilitated the spread of people and goods between the Maghreb, Sahara, Sahel, and coastal West Africa. An envoy could cross regional divisions to inform better policy.

The United States cannot act alone. Adopting a new approach to the Sahel will have limited effect if other stakeholders maintain a strategy akin to the American war on terror. France is a key player, having 5,000 soldiers deployed to carry out an unpopular mission in its former Sahelian colonies that began in 2013. Therefore, the Biden administration should collaborate with partners to adopt a cohesive new policy among regional stakeholders and, if necessary, use U.S. leverage as a provider of logistical and intelligence support to encourage partners to change their strategies.

The Sahel’s conflicts have not been as conspicuous as the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but U.S. policy has had an outsized impact on regional dynamics. Colonel Assimi Goïta’s recent coup is only the latest instance in a long line of adverse consequences from U.S. policy in the region. As the Biden administration considers how to make good on its promise to end the forever wars, it should wind down the U.S.-backed war on terror in the Sahel and offer an alternative that addresses root causes of fragility to advance peace and prosperity.

Members of the Senegal army's 3rd Infantry Battalion honor platoon greet Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan Oct. 30, 2009, at Dakar, Senegal. General Callan served as guest speaker at the graduation ceremony for the first class of Senegal NCO academy instructors. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Paula Kurtz)
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