Published: Feb. 4, 2020 By

Why the U.S Should Refocus, not Reduce, Commitments in West Africa

Author: Dylan Yachyshen


            In December 2019, news emerged that the Pentagon was considering reducing U.S involvement in West Africa, ostensibly to divert resources from combatting terrorism in Africa to the new “great power competition” with Russia and China. Combatting terrorism and great power competition are not mutually exclusive. Pulling U.S troops and funding from West Africa not only runs contrary to the U.S interests of peace, prosperity and stability articulated in the Prosper Africa policy, it would allow Russia, China and even Iran to consolidate new spheres of influence. Several dangerous conflicts are proliferating throughout West Africa and the Sahel, and the U.S ceasing West African operations will neither resolve the spreading conflagrations or ameliorate the Trump administration’s position in its competition with illiberal powers. Instead of withdrawing, the U.S should refocus its policies, prioritizing rural development, collaborating with the G5 Sahel and working to augment local governance capacity while continuing the current initiatives of assisting with logistics, intelligence and small-scale operations. These steps will allow the U.S to advance its Prosper Africa policy goals while inhibiting further Russian, Chinese and Iranian influence.  

Dangerous Trends in West Africa

West Africa attracted international attention in October of 2017, when the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) ambushed and killed 4 American and 5 Nigerien soldiers. However, major conflict had been brewing in the Sahel since 2012, when a coup in Mali, and the subsequent declaration of an autonomous state by a secessionist group of the Tuareg ethnic clan, offered enclaves to terrorist and radical secessionist movements. By 2014, France had initiated Operation Barkhane, committing 4,000 troops to shore up the Malian state, and the Sahelian states of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, with Western financial backing, had created the G5 Sahel, a military and developmental partnership to combat terrorism. Supported by around 1,000 U.S soldiers, these forces started combating the numerous terrorist groups that had begun proliferating. Despite these efforts, as of 2020, Islamic State oriented groups and an Al Qaeda affiliated coalition, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims, have seized gold mines across West Africa, implemented systems of parallel government in ungoverned areas and managed to kill 71 Nigerien troops at a remote outpost in December of 2019. Abandoning this situation would diametrically oppose the goals of peace, stability and prosperity articulated in the Trump Administration’s Prosper Africa policy.

U.S Withdrawal in the Context of Great Power Competition

A U.S withdrawal would provide even more room to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and create another conflict vacuum for Russia or Iran to enter. With the BRI increasingly focusing its efforts on oil-rich states in the Gulf of Guinea, a lack of U.S presence would only invigorate China’s resource grabs. Concomitantly, the power vacuum left by the U.S would prove a perfect target for the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC) that often acts in the interest of the Russian state, and other Russian multinational companies, to enter and begin augmenting Russian influence while chasing natural resources, mimicking their previous actions in Libya and the Central African Republic. In the Central African Republic, Russia negotiated simultaneously with rebel groups and the state for control of diamond mines in their respective territory, indicating Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s willingness to foment and take advantage of conflict for Russian profit. Furthermore, fresh off his recent Africa summit in Sochi, Putin would find new suitors for arms deals and opportunities for official Russian involvement, as the U.S would stop providing 45 million USD in logistics support and intelligence support to regional missions. Finally, Iran’s newly appointed Quds general has close contacts in the region, an area where the Quds have been slowly fomenting instability. A U.S withdrawal would benefit a Quds force increasingly searching to thwart U.S by giving them Quds leeway in a region where Iran has a record of promoting terrorism. While new opportunities would arise for China, Russia and even Iran, the U. S’s West African and French partners would feel betrayed by U.S disengagement and forge partnerships with these illiberal regimes, who are willing to step in at the U.S’s expense. Consequently, a U.S withdrawal would only cede power to China, Russia and Iran, and enable illiberal regimes to exploit the resources and conflict present in West Africa.

What can the U.S do?

            Terrorist groups took root in West Africa and the Sahel due to limited governance and the absolute poverty plaguing the region. However, major developmental tools exist to combat this poverty and to improve or extend governance to these areas. First, the U.S should revitalize the development finance arm of the BUILD program, an underfunded initiative aimed at coordinating U.S public and private international development finance, especially to West Africa. Furthermore, the U.S and its allies must fund the G5 Sahel Priority Investment Program’s 40 development projects, lacking 1.5B USD, that aim to provide water, electricity and transportation infrastructure to remote regions. Using the BUILD and PIP programs, the U.S and partners can improve the lives of the West African people, provide remote areas more opportunity and close avenues not only to jihadist entry, but to the emergence of Russian PMCs or opaque Chinese development projects. The U.S should also coordinate with partners to strengthen the governance capacity of isolated local governments, which play a crucial role in restoring the rule of law and reducing illicit economic activities in these remote regions. If these local governments become stronger, terrorists will not find it as easy to establish black market economies and Russian PMC’s will face increased difficulty in fomenting conflict. While improving rural development and governance, the U.S should continue its support of small-scale operations with France and the G5 Sahel to inhibit terrorist and illicit activity. Finally, the U.S must maintain its drones in an intelligence-gathering capacity, as lethal drones could wreak havoc on innocent civilian populations while also contributing to further radicalization. President Trump’s proposed withdrawal would only encourage terrorist movements and enable China, Russia and Iran. On the other hand, a refocus to development and collaboration will allow the Trump administration to intelligently combat terrorism and improve lives in West Africa while remaining a democratic bastion against illiberal powers trying to subsume the region.