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Time to terminate US counter-terrorism programs in Africa

They don’t work, they don’t achieve the projected goals, they waste funds, and they are counter-productive.

Analysis | Africa

Every so often I am reminded of how counter-productive US engagement in the world has become. Of how, after miserable failure after failure, this country’s foreign policy makers keep trying to run the globe and fail again. From the strategic defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan to the feckless effort to sway the excessive Israeli military operation in Gaza, the US has squandered its power, exceeded its capabilities, and just plain failed.

My reminder was a recent New York Times piece lamenting the failure of US efforts to keep terrorists out of the Islamic areas of West Africa.

For more than 25 years, spending billions of dollars, the US has been providing weapons and training for African militaries, has established a separate US military regional command for Africa, has provided both intelligence and military support for counter-terror operations, and established operating military bases or deployed forces in West Africa, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Guinea. The Times report is incomplete; it does not include Chad, Somalia, or Djibouti, where the US has deployed and operated forces for more than two decades.

Ostensibly the goal of all these military efforts has been to strengthen the ability of African militaries to prevent and defeat terrorism and, secondarily, to build or strengthen democratic governance.

The Times, which has reported on these efforts rather uncritically for two decades, acknowledges that there are more terrorists than ever in these countries. Moreover, Christopher Maier, DoD Assistant Secretary for special operations policy in the Pentagon, admitted to the Times that “our general desire to promote democratic governments and having healthy governance there has not gone particularly well.”

That’s an understatement. Beyond increasing the number of terrorists and terrorist organizations, the military forces trained and armed by the US have taken over governments. This year, those new leaders began throwing the US military out of their countries, along with the French military, who have been deployed there for years. In Niger, the US military is closing down its new $110 m. operating base, from which the US used drones to spy on and attack terrorist groups in the region.

“It’s about time,” is my reaction. The US military should never have been in these countries to begin with or, if they were, only as a secondary aspect of US efforts to help strengthen governance and the economies of these impoverished nations. Even then, it is not clear the US has any capability either to stop terrorists, train other militaries to stop terrorists, or “strengthen governance” in another country. We certainly can’t do that using military force. But military force has been at the heart of US policy in Africa for more than two decades.

So what went wrong and what to do about it? Is this just a case of adjusting US policy to be more effective, as the Times article suggests? Or is something fundamentally wrong with US policy? After years of working on security assistance and cooperation policies, I think it is the latter. The US way over-militarized the security problem. The US does not do the training and equipping job particularly well – military effectiveness is uneven, at best. And US programs have proven counterproductive with respect both to counter-terrorism and democratic governance. It’s not time to reform the policy; it is time to close down US security cooperation and assistance in Africa.

It has been clear to me for nearly 15 years that these programs were doomed. As Becky Williams and I concluded in a 2011 report for the Stimson Center, the fundamental flaw in US security assistance and cooperation programs, especially in Africa, is that the Pentagon is in charge. Over the past three decades, the Defense Department and, specifically, the US military has taken over how these policies and programs are defined, what their goals are, and how they are implemented. The State Department, which once had the lead in security assistance programs, has lost a good deal of its authority to oversee and evaluate these efforts.

The military’s definition of security in Africa is a major part of the problem. I call it a “security first” approach. The focus of the military’s view is that you can’t have a functioning government unless the border and interior of a country are “secure” or safe. From this point of view, one cannot have a responsive government before there is military security. Democracy and good governance have to wait.

As the West African experience is amply demonstrating, “security first” actually leads to greater insecurity. Militaries in these countries consume more and more of the nation’s budget, impoverish their economies, and, through their operations, stimulate the very threat the military says it is trying to eliminate. Too many of these US-trained and supported military leaders seize political power, with greater arbitrary oppression the result. More terrorists and less democracy are certain to follow.

Research suggests, instead, that security depends on strong civilian governing capabilities and more effective civilian administration. The administration of a nation needs to be in place before the military can be properly controlled and used. Governance and stronger states actually come before strong militaries.

That’s a fancy way of saying militaries that are too powerful in nations where government is too weak, are a threat to security and to democracy, and are an incentive to greater terrorist activity and internal unrest.

So I have thought for some time, that if anything can be done to help other nations with a security problem, strengthening the governance of that nation and, alongside that, its economy need to take precedence over bulking up their armed forces.

Consulting with the State Department between 2008 and 2012, I made a stab at trying to link security funding to good governance, as an incentive to the African countries with which we were engaged. I wrote a paper for State that proposed a challenge fund – some of US security assistance dollars would be put in a pool. Countries that wanted help could compete for the funds, but the criteria for getting them would include such practices as a free press, legislative oversight, publicly disclosed military budgets, a civilian ministry of defense, among other things. Good governance, in other words, would be the road to support for security needs. I wish I could direct you to the paper, but like many ideas, it was killed before it made the State Department’s budget request.

I even took a shot at consulting with the World Bank to make the examination and reform of military institutions in the countries they assisted part of their regular budget reviews of those countries, something the Bank had never done before. They produced a great report, but it sank like a stone at the Bank, which has been averse to examining this growing sector of government spending in places like West Africa lest the scrutiny alienate the Bank’s more authoritarian members.

So here we are, at what could be the end of the line. Lots of money, lots of failure, and sent packing by the militaries the US supported. And today I wonder whether even the reforms I was suggesting would have made any difference. These now seem to be the reforms the policy makers are examining; the Times piece indicates that people at State and DoD are now saying “ gee, we need to integrate this military stuff with governance and economic development stuff.”

I have no doubt we are about to see lots of budget requests for programs that purport to do just that. But based on the abysmal failure of US governance and economic reform plans in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have little faith that the US civilian institutions can properly define and implement such reforms from the outside.

The world is not hungering for such reforms, especially in Africa where authoritarianism and corruption are expanding. Moreover, the Chinese and the Russians have made it clear they will provide plenty of assistance without any such governance and reform strings attached.

What’s more, the US is now at the brink of being a failed democracy itself; hardly a model for anyone else.

So I think it is time for restraint; to bring these military forces home and bury US assistance programs. They don’t work; they don’t achieve the projected goals; they waste funds; and they are counter-productive.

Real reform can only come from within. Were an outside power, say France or Britain, to intrude into the dysfunctionality of US politics and try to change things, that intrusion would be unwelcome.

As with the US, so it is with any country, the prospects for change in Africa depend on the awareness and willingness of the population in these countries to own their own change processes, demand accountable and responsive governance, and then seek the external support they need to make it happen. Then, and only then, can outside support become useful and effective.

This article was republished with permission from The Sheathed Sword.

A U.S. Special Forces Soldier demonstrates a kneeling firing position before a live fire range, March 6, 2017 at Camp Zagre, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso Soldiers also practiced firing in seated position, standing position, and practiced turning and firing. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Britany Slessman 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Multimedia Illustrator/released)
A U.S. Special Forces Soldier demonstrates a kneeling firing position before a live fire range, March 6, 2017 at Camp Zagre, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso Soldiers also practiced firing in seated position, standing position, and practiced turning and firing. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Britany Slessman 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Multimedia Illustrator/released)
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