American foreign policy and the prospect of strategic relations with Africa

With the presence and activity of Russia China and other Eastern countries in Central and West Africa the situation for the US is increasingly unfavorable.
28 April 2024
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Mohammad Javad Shariati

With the presence and activity of Russia, China, and other Eastern countries in Central and West Africa, the situation for the US is increasingly unfavorable. The US Department of State has announced that it will soon begin an orderly and responsible withdrawal of more than 1,000 troops currently stationed in Niger. Subsequently, there were reports that the Pentagon was withdrawing 75 of its special forces from neighboring Chad. The US has tried to align itself as much as possible with the military regimes in both Chad and Niger, hoping to preserve long-standing counterterrorism ties and preserve its military assets, including a $110 million drone base in Agadez, Nigeria, which served as a monitoring center for the entire Sahel. Even in the April 24 statement, the Department of State emphasized that Washington welcomes [the junta's] interest in maintaining strong bilateral relations. We have witnessed such expansions in the field of US military presence during the last six decades. But currently, the limiting elements of America's presence in this continent are more dynamic than in the past. This makes the challenge of American foreign policy in the African continent at the end of the Biden administration more tangible and criticized by the domestic circles of this country.

Over the past four years, the world has witnessed political developments on the Sahel, including two trends that have interacted to fuel current criticism of Washington's foreign policy: one is the wave of military coups and a sharp rise in Anti-Western sentiment-especially anti-French (although anti-French sentiments in the Sahel region are not a new phenomenon) and the other is legitimate grievances both about the colonial past and the heavy political, economic and military influence of France at present.

However, in the last decade, anti-French sentiments have taken new forms and reached a new generation. In particular, many residents of the Sahel are disillusioned with the implications of France's Serval operation in Mali[1] in 2013. An initially successful counter-jihadist mission has turned into a never-ending quagmire of regional counterterrorism, while the current level of security for many people in Mali and its two neighbors, Burkina Faso and Niger, has declined. It should be noted that the coups in the Sahel, which spread one after the other across the region since 2020, were actually a kind of response to popular protests about insecurity and led to the elimination of pro-French civilian elites in these countries.

The 2023 Niger coup, after taking over Mali and Burkina Faso, repeated the strategy that the Mali and Burkinabe governments had already drawn up, wrap themselves in the national flag, declare new strength and determination against the jihadists, drive out the French military and other Western-backed security partners, and increase cooperation with Russia and Eastern countries such as China and Iran.

At the same time, the US adopted an incoherent and ultimately ineffective approach, calling the waves of change slow and weak, thinking that it could simultaneously win over Niger's military regime and dictate its own conditions.

Chad's situation has different dynamics but clearly tends toward a similar outcome. Although Chad's 2021 coup was not to overthrow the regime but to preserve it, when longtime President Idriss Deby (and staunch friend of Paris and Washington) was killed in the war, his son Mahamat and a cadre of regime insiders staged a palace coup. To maintain power, France and the US made little pretense of caring about the principles of democracy, even accepting the Mahamat Deby and seeming to accept the (almost bloody) transition as a done action. Indeed, Washington seemed willing to deepen its ties with N'Djamena. This is while in Chad, like other African countries, Washington tried to preemptively inform the government of this country about the implications of the presence of the Wagner group related to the Kremlin and Russia's alleged ambitions in the region. However, Chadian authorities appear to be assessing their domestic imperatives and may distance themselves from the US like other countries in the region, as Deby is distancing himself from the US for the May 6 presidential election, which observers see as certain to win.

 

Are the challenges of spreading terrorism an opportunity or a threat?

According to a new study by a Pentagon research institute called the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), deaths from terrorism in Africa have increased by more than 100000% during the implementation of the US war on terror strategy. Meanwhile, the report's findings contradict the US Africa Command's (AFRICOM) claims of neutralizing terrorist threats in the continent and promoting security and stability.

In 2002 and 2003, across Africa, US Department of State statistics showed a total of only nine terrorist attacks, resulting in a total of 23 deaths. At the time, the US had begun a decades-long effort to provide billions of dollars in security aid, train thousands of African military personnel, establish dozens of outposts, send its commandos on a wide range of missions, and create proxy forces.

According to a report by the ACSS, last year, casualties from armed Islamist violence in Africa increased by 20% from 19412 in 2022 to 23,322 and reached unprecedented levels of deadly violence. This represents a nearly doubling of deaths from 2021 and a 101300% jump from 2002 to 2003.

For decades, US counterterrorism efforts in Africa were focused on two main fronts: Somalia and the Sahel (Coast) of West African. Each of these countries saw a significant increase in terrorist incidents last year. For the first time in 2002, US special operations forces were sent to Somalia, and then military aid, consultants, and private contractors were sent to Somalia. More than 20 years later, US forces are still conducting counterterrorism operations there, mainly against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. According to the 2023 report of the War Cost Project at Brown University, Washington has provided billions of dollars in aid to the fight against terrorism. The Americans have also conducted more than 280 airstrikes and commandos there and have created numerous proxy forces to conduct military operations.

Somalia saw a 22% increase in casualties in 2023, reaching a record 7,643 deaths, according to the ACSS report. This represents a threefold increase in homicides since 2020.

The findings are even more negative for the Sahel. In 2002 and 2003, the Department of State counted a total of only nine terrorist attacks in Africa. Today, the countries of the Sahel of West Africa are plagued by terrorist groups that have grown, evolved, branched out, and reinvented themselves. According to the ACSS report, casualties on the Sahel are expected to increase almost threefold from levels seen in 2020. Casualties on the Sahel accounted for 50% of all militant Islamist-related casualties reported on the continent in 2023.

At least 15 officers who have benefited from US security assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the Grand Sahel during the war on terror. This list includes officers from Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, and twice in 2022), Chad (2021), Gambia (2014), Guinea (2021), Mali (2012, 2020 and 2021); Mauritania (2008), and Niger (2023).

Mohammad Javad Shariati, a senior expert in American studies

 (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)


[1] This operation aimed to expel Islamic militants from the northern regions of Mali. It was carried out in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2085. The operation's name is derived from a type of African wild cat.

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