Trump shirks West Africa commitments amid growing Islamist crisis, calls time on flawed US Sahel strategy

Image: Fred Marie @Flickr

The dire security situation in Africa’s Sahel has seen Jihadi violence spread with militant attacks now threatening coastal population centres from the region’s vast arid interior.

Despite the raging Islamist insurgency, Donald Trump seems set on reducing U.S. presence – much to the dismay of French defence chiefs and his own top generals.

Over Christmas, The New York Times first reported that the United States was weighing up its options in Africa – up to and including the full withdrawal of U.S. ground forces.

This would see some 6,000 and 7,000 troops removed from counter-terrorism operations in West Africa – part of a global pivot towards Russia and China led by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

While some experts worry such a move will undermine France’s efforts to shore up security in countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, others believe ongoing efforts have not done enough to halt the advance of Jihadi fighters.

READ MORE: Amid Saharan conflict, one refugee finally breaks his silence

“The US approach to the region has been challenging because I don’t think they understand the region,” one close observer of the conflict admitted to Redaction.

Counter-terrorism expert Dr Isaac Kfir said: “The American approach to the region has focused on hard power and on working with existing regimes, many of whom are problematic, to say the least, as they have a poor record on human rights and in dealing with corruption.

“For example, the Mali government of Amadou Toumani TourĂ© was vicious and abused the Tuareg who ‘discovered Salafi-Islam’ because it gave them access to the training and support of such groups as Al-Queda, AQIM and later on Islamic State.”

Image: Magharebia @Flickr

Kfir argues US operation in West Africa has been too heavily focused on tighter border control and on training state forces in better counter-insurgency tactics.

“A lot of the soft policies and initiatives have been culled under the Trump administration and this has not helped reverse the tide of violent extremism because these groups offer salaries and some human security,” he told Redaction Politics.

“President Trump cut so many of the soft power programs, including aid to small business, all of which have drastically weakened the American footprint in the region.

“While I think the recent decision to add Nigeria to the travel ban list countries will make it even harder for the Americans to win and maintain friends in the region, “

Kfir stresses that development goals – such as dealing with structural unemployment or the effect of climate change – need to be delivered on in order to push back the lure of the extremists.

“Under President Trump, the State Department is but a shell of itself – the Bureau of African Affairs has been weakened, especially when you compare it to the Bush and Obama years.

“The Americans have not addressed the issue of energy and food insecurity in the region.

“Even when President Obama organised an energy summit in the White House as part of his Power Africa initiative, very little came of it.”

Image: Magharebia @Flickr

Last weekend, suspected Islamic extremists launched a brutal night attack in north-western Burkina Faso massacring 20 villagers.

In neighbouring Niger, terror attacks claimed by extremists killed 89 people in January and 71 government soldiers in December.

U.N. officials say the number of casualties across the region has increased five times since 2016 with more than 4,000 victims in 2019.

So as Sahelian armies flounder in an ever-deepening insurgency, facts on the ground don’t suggest a U.S withdrawal will alter much. To the benefit of none.

With the Trump administration looking to go AWOL, it seems any sustainable America security strategy in the Sahel has been absent for quite a while already.

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