West Africa and U.S. Strategy
A recent terror attack in Mali killed two dozen soldiers with the incident following French claims that its military forces – supported by American intelligence and surveillance aircraft – successfully neutralized Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaeda’s West African affiliate.
This successful counterterrorism operation highlights the invaluable role that the United States currently plays in helping its allies in West Africa battle al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s fierce terrorist campaign that last year alone killed over 4,000 civilians and soldiers.
Earlier this year, however, there were reports that the Department of Defense was weighing the possibility of either downsizing its force presence in Africa or withdrawing completely so that it could shift focus towards confronting Russia and China.
At the time, this announcement shocked West African nations with Niger’s Ambassador to the U.S. openly questioning how his country could “trust a partner who’s withdrawing while the [security] situation is deteriorating.”
This question of ally confidence in American leadership came up again this month after the sudden announcement that the United States will withdraw 9,500 soldiers from Germany. Though this move has purportedly been made to punish Berlin for not contributing enough financially to NATO, security experts are concerned that this move weakens the Alliance and plays to Moscow’s advantage. Emily Haber, Germany’s Ambassador to the U.S., has argued that U.S. forces “are not there to defend Germany [but] to defend transatlantic security [and] to project American power in Africa [and] Asia.”
This impending military drawdown from Germany now raises significant questions about the fundamental notion that underpinned the Pentagon’s earlier Africa withdrawal plans. Specifically, that troop reductions were necessary for reorienting Washington’s grand strategy towards great power competition against Russia and China in Europe and East Asia, respectively.
Seemingly, that logic no longer applies. That being said, it is worth highlighting that AFRICOM’s Commander, GEN Stephen J. Townsend, testified to Congress that “Africa is key terrain for competition to China and Russia who are aggressively using economic and military means to expand their access and influence.” Similarly, Brig Gen Dagvin Anderson, Commander of Special Operations Command Africa, argued that “providing counterterrorism assistance is… another way [that] the United States can counter Chinese and Russian influence in the Sahel.”
Terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali doubled annually from 55 in 2015 to 803 in 2019. Consequently, the terror threat in West Africa is not dissipating, and the resurgence in violence has prompted calls from Washington’s partners that the presence of American forces is essential for their continued counterterrorism efforts.
Or, as French President Emmanuel Macron warned, a U.S. withdrawal “would be really bad news.”
Closer to home, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned that “any reduction in U.S. military presence…would have real and lasting negative consequences for our African partners.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) likewise expressed their own serious concerns about the matter in a bipartisan letter to Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper.
While senatorial critique may well have played a role in pushing the Pentagon to backtrack on the prospect of a wholesale withdrawal, there were other drawdown options which included shuttering a brand new $110 million drone base built in Agadez, Niger that provides intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assistance to U.S. security partners.
So, what does the future hold for America’s force posture in West Africa? Well, there have been calls for Washington to send more troops to confront the metastasizing terrorist threat, but it is important to recognize upfront that numbers aren’t everything. Instead, as Brig Gen Anderson has rightly remarked, “a small footprint can have a large impact,” especially when the correct force size is deployed with the “right capabilities…in the right places.”
This notion also holds true for efforts that try to address the underlying socio-economic issues that have contributed to terrorist and insurgent recruitment throughout the area; success here is vital for defeating these movements over the long-term.
Consequently, Washington would be better off choosing to work even more closely with France and its African allies to determine the best way forward.
These multilateral discussions will be necessary for determining what further military capabilities and force levels are necessary to combat the threat as well as how much each affected nation might require additional economic aid.
Over the past five years, our West African allies have attempted to live up to the current administration’s belief that U.S. allies should shoulder a greater burden when it comes to their defense. They’ve done their part, but it’s clear that they need more help to win this fight. Washington needs to step up or run the risk of creating a great power vacuum that Moscow and Beijing will not hesitate to exploit.
Originally published in RealClearDefense