The Problem with The Sahel

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. [...] Read more

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OPINION — With little public notice, the two-decades-long U.S. war on terrorism continues in the Sahel, the semi-arid region of western and north-central Africa.

According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, 48 percent of terrorism deaths worldwide occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. And three countries in the Sahel; Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, suffered some of the largest annual increases.

Last Tuesday’s sparsely attended meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reminded me that US troops, Foreign Service officers and Agency for International Development (AID) personnel serving in Sahel countries are still attempting to deal with terrorists under the most challenging circumstances.

“We see a region that is particularly fragile with weak governments characterized by corruption and lack of accountability, unprofessional security forces, limited services and opportunities for citizens, inter-communal conflicts, large gender inequality, and armed groups looking to recruit,” Robert W. Jenkins, AID’s Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization told the Senators last week.

He described it as “a region with decades of undelivered promises that continuously eroded what were never strong, thriving democracies. It’s a region where we see young people dancing in support of military take-overs waving Russian flags and repeating the disinformation that targets them relentlessly. And it’s a region where violence seems to prey on a generation that sees little promise, holds little hope, feels little agency and is desperate for life’s most desperate needs.”

Jenkins added, “In Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Chad, armed groups have challenged states’ authority and legitimacy, recruited disaffected youth into their ranks, exacerbated ethnic tensions, aligned themselves with groups like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram, and used an extended period of simmering war and violence to grow and expand their influence.”

Since 2013, the U.S. has supported French counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, providing French troops with airlift and sharing intelligence. In 2017, the G5 Sahel states (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) deployed a roughly 5,200-strong counterterrorism Joint Force which operated along the region’s porous borders.

However, a January 2022 military coup in Burkina Faso was the third in Africa’s Sahel region in less than two years. The other two were carried out in August 2020 in Mali, and in April 2021 in Chad.

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The Mali situation has been interesting because its roots lay in the 2011

ousting and killing of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Mali mercenaries, who had been serving as guards for Gaddafi, returned home to Mali and joined with al-Qaeda-linked Islamists.

Together they took control of northern Mali and threatened to seize control of the whole country. The May 2021 “coup within a coup” in Mali just emphasized again, the region’s instability.

The Mali junta earlier this year invited mercenaries from the Russian company Wagner to replace French and other trainers to help in the fight against the jihadist groups.  France’s Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that “we will not be able to cohabit with mercenaries.”

Withdrawal of French troops from Mali began last month with most going to a new base in Niger, where they will continue anti-terrorism operations in the Sahel region. Last Wednesday, as he was addressing French troops ahead of the Bastille Day parade in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to “rethink of all our (military) postures on the African continent,” adding he had asked his ministers and army chiefs to work on it.

Meanwhile, with the world focused on the war in Ukraine, the problems in Saleh have faded from public view.

Against that background, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Chidi Blyden and Jenkins last Tuesday, talked about a new strategy for the the Sahel.

The goals are distant and unlike the past, attempting to destroy terrorist groups because they pose a threat to the U.S. homeland is no longer the primary effort.

As Assistant Secretary Phee put it, “The new interagency Sahel strategy seeks to build the capacity of governments in the Sahel to regain public confidence at the national and local levels by providing the equitable delivery of government services, law enforcement, and justice.”

“In other words,” she said, “we will provide the resources and guidance to encourage accountability, anti-corruption measures, and dialogue between capitals and the periphery and among communities. These are the keys to winning the support of civilian populations. The five-year strategy is sufficiently broad to withstand the blows of the kinds of crises and shifts we have seen in the Sahel in recent years.”

Blyden, however, pointed out that despite the new Sahel strategy that emphasizes democracy building, the still-classified Biden 2022 National Defense Strategy outlines three high-level security priorities in Africa, with the first being, “countering violent extremist organizations that pose a threat to the US homeland and US interests.”

“There are over a dozen active ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates on the continent, from the Sahel to the Lake Chad Basin,” Blyden said, adding, “These groups vary in their intent and capability to attack US interests, with those in the Sahel among the most capable.”

 The US dilemma when dealing with the Sahel countries was illustrated by an exchange between Committee Chairman Robert Menendez and Blyden over what to do with Chad’s Transitional Military Council. The Military Council seized power unconstitutionally in April 2021, when Chad’s former President, Idriss Deby Itno was killed while fighting rebels.

The former President ruled Chad with an iron fist but at the same time, worked with the French and Americans in the fight against terrorists operating within the Sahel region.

Complicating today’s situation is that the Military Council then installed the former president’s 38-year-old son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, as head of government.

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The Military Council suspended the country’s constitution, postponed negotiations for new elections, harshly put down demonstrators, and then ended security cooperation with the US. Promised elections have been put off until a future time.

Menendez asked Blyden, “Are you suggesting we engage in business as usual with the [Chad] military junta? How would doing so reflect US values in your view and what message would that send in that region and for that matter, throughout the world?”

Blyden responded, “I would not suggest that we support a junta. I would say in our pulling back and not engaging regularly with the military – and many in the [Chad] government – we are absent. And our ability to be able to provide influence, whether it be at the government sector or training where we emphasize human rights values, where we emphasize a democratic approach has eliminated our ability to have access.”

She continued, “While I don’t necessarily propose that we should continue to work with juntas, I do think having an ability to be able to work and talk to them is thus able to support our influence.”

Menendez responded, “Our engagement with the military entities that are not under civilian control ultimately continues and perpetuates them. That’s a problem.”

The reality is that it’s been a practical US problem for decades and will remain so in regions such as the Sahel.

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Fine Print

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

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