Does America Need an Africa Strategy?


“I could make your life hell,” Senator Lindsey Graham reportedly told Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, if the Pentagon withdrew American troops from Africa. While Graham later denied the report, the senator confirmed that he warned against any potential force reductions as a part of the ongoing “blank slate review” of America’s military posture. Esper, meanwhile, pushed back against bipartisan Congressional support for a U.S. military presence in Africa, stating that the Defense Department’s review represents a key part of the National Defense Strategy’s ongoing focus on “great power competition.”

This recent debate over American military posture in Africa begs a more fundamental question — does the United States need an Africa strategy? For a continent so large and diverse, facing widely divergent challenges, is applying a continent-wide strategy even worthwhile? Layer on competing U.S. domestic interest groups, an independent-minded Congress, and unexpected crises, such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak or the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and one might be tempted to see attempts to conjure a coherent Africa strategy as either folly or neo-colonial hubris.



However, the United States needs a continental strategy because it has real interests in Africa — and increasingly limited means with which to advance and protect them. Chinese activities have sharpened the need for a continent-wide policy, but American interests in Africa go well beyond zero-sum conceptions of competition with Beijing. By 2050, one in every four persons in the world will be African, and African markets are rapidly growing. According to Brookings, combined consumer and business spending from Africa will reach $6.7 trillion by 2030. Observers have dubbed this era “Africa’s democratic moment,” as political reform in Ethiopia, Sudan, and elsewhere has swept away corrupt autocrats and brought decades-old conflicts to an end. Meanwhile, jihadist groups, affiliates of al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, continue to menace and attack American regional interests and even plot international attacks.

America’s broad interests in Africa — from counter-terrorism, global health, democracy promotion, strengthening the American economy, and supporting European allies — demand an Africa strategy that can reconcile these divergent strands into a complete whole. Absent a continental strategy, policy for this critical region will remain vulnerable to distraction and brittle to setbacks — particularly American military casualties. A positive vision for sustained American engagement, supported by congressional buy-in, would provide a ballast against swings in popular opinion around U.S. involvement towards this increasingly important continent.

Continental vs. Country-By-Country Approach

The Trump administration’s Africa strategy was published in December 2018 following a speech by former National Security Advisor John Bolton at the Heritage Foundation. It emphasizes countering what it perceives as uniformly negative Chinese influence while enhancing reciprocal economic activity between the United States and African nations. However, increasing signs suggest that this strategy has been ignored and become irrelevant since the “abrupt removal” of Bolton, the only senior administration official to outline a grand policy statement on Africa.

In February, The Economist suggested that America’s current Africa policy, might, in fact, be best served by what it asserts has already emerged — a flexible, country-by-country approach under the steady hand of experienced practitioners given wide latitude by “a disinterested administration.” This perspective is far from unprecedented. The Carter Administration, for instance, found Latin America so complex that, in the words of then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, “the best policy overall may be a non-policy.”

While perhaps appealing in the short-run as a departure from Bolton’s adversarial and China-centric vision, such a piecemeal approach would represent a profound mistake with serious consequences for America’s long-term interests in Africa for five key reasons. First, the United States holds limited resources and means, both globally and within the continent itself, and faces tough trade-offs. It is difficult to assess the appropriateness of current and proposed resource commitments absent a continent-wide strategy. A piecemeal approach risks a form of ad-hocery that can create imbalances between America’s globally strained means and ambitious regional ends. Such imbalances risks overstretch. In America’s limited military history in Africa, from the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia  to the 2017 Niger ambush, overstretch has repeatedly led to tragedy — followed by American disengagement. Secondly, on the opposite extreme, total disengagement risks sustaining damaging terrorist attacks against American citizens and regional interests on the continent — to say nothing of those of our European allies and African partners.

Third, absent a clear strategy, the apparatus of U.S. statecraft can be left vulnerable to distraction and incoherence, as a variety of interest groups and bureaucratic actors may seek to steer or co-opt policy towards contradictory objectives. Fourth, an ad-hoc or country-by-country approach would likely lack public consensus and Congressional support — leaving it brittle and vulnerable to headline-grabbing crises or military defeats. Finally, the emergence of a true continent-wide geostrategic competitor, China, necessitates the formulation of a truly continental strategy. While America’s interests in Africa go well beyond competition with China, a coherent Africa strategy is required to account for Chinese activity, while maintaining a balanced perspective about how Beijing’s activities in Africa might actually threaten American security and prosperity.

Limited Resources Force Continental Choices

As the recent Department of Defense posture review indicates, resources are inherently limited, especially after the economic and budgetary impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Pentagon is far from the only agency facing tough constraints, America’s military posture in Africa offers the clearest illustration of this dilemma in practice. As Frank Hoffman recently noted in War on the Rocks, Africa sits sixth in the National Defense Strategy’s prioritization, behind the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, and Western Hemisphere. While the document emphasizes the need to “support relationships to address significant terrorist threats in Africa,” Secretary of Defense Esper recently reiterated that great-power competition had replaced counter-terrorism as his top priority for the region.

Therefore, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) will not receive the means required to deal with every problem or exploit every opportunity, especially in the realm of counter-terrorism. This is not a new phenomenon; AFRICOM has been dogged by resource shortfalls since its creation in 2007. In 2015, then-AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez testified that his command operated at 13 percent of its requested intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity and faced tough trade-offs between supporting French operations in Mali and the search for the kidnapped Chibok girls in Nigeria. These choices continue today, with or without a clear strategy. Most resources allocated to the continent, absent those earmarked by Congress, are highly fungible. Means applied against one country or problem set are not available elsewhere, necessitating tough continental choices and prioritization.

Meanwhile, vast intra-theater geographic distances create a “tyranny of distance” in Africa that further diminishes the impact of any assigned military resources. Weak existing infrastructure and extreme weather conditions render logistics difficult and construction and maintenance more costly than in other theaters. Under these conditions, America’s highest civilian leaders should articulate priorities and goals for the United States in Africa, and Congress should hold them to account with robust oversight. Only top-down guidance can ensure consistent and appropriate resourcing of priority and high-risk missions, and when needed, cancellation of legacy operations of dubious benefit.

Preventing Overstretch Without Hazarding Disengagement

Doing more with less is always a possibility. This desire for economy informs the core of America’s preferred “light footprint” operational approach to African security issues. Indeed, the U.S. military spends approximately $2 billion, or 0.3 percent, of its overall $700 billion budget on operations in Africa to support an approximately 6,000 troops spread across the continent. The 2018 National Defense Strategy called for a continuation along these lines, emphasizing that the United States “seeks to work by, with, though local partners and the European Union to degrade terrorists” in Africa. The “light footprint” approach has delivered some partial successes, such as helping the Lake Chad nations contain Boko Haram. The United States also assisted efforts by the African Union Mission to Somalia and Somali forces to re-establish a Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu, without the massive troop commitments that characterized many of America’s interventions in the Middle East. In Somalia today, there are only a reported 500 special operations forces, and there are less than 1,000 troops across West Africa.

However, the “lights footprint” approach can also leave the United States with a limited ability to influence situations on the ground. The chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Libya intervention, which was originally hailed as a model partner-led operation, illustrates the potential downside.

Trying to do more (or the same) with less can also lead to dangerous degrees of overstretch. In an African context, overstretch hazards a catastrophic event with global policy implications such as the “Black Hawk Down” incident and the ambush of Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3212 outside Tongo Tongo, Niger in 2017. While leadership failures at all levels proved detrimental in both of these instances, the lack of reach-back firepower, dedicated air support, armored vehicles, and medical evacuation made matters worse, and turned tactical setbacks into historic tragedies. Washington’s commitments to the region are especially brittle in the wake of American casualties. Within six months of the “Black Hawk Down” incident, President Bill Clinton withdrew all U.S. forces from Somalia. Less than a year following Niger ambush, AFRICOM withdrew a reported ten percent of its assigned special operations forces from West Africa.

Despite Washington’s sensitivity to casualties in Africa, retrenchment will not lead to better outcomes. Pulling resources from Africa at this time, given rising instability in the Sahel and the significant and ongoing jihadist threats to American interests at home and abroad, would be short-sighted.

The Sahel, to quote the U.N. Special Representative to the region, “has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks.” Indeed, fatalities from terrorist attacks in the Sahel region have increased five-fold since 2016, and over a half a million refugees have fled what the United Nations calls “unprecedented violence.” Such instability undermines U.S. interests. On multiple occasions, most recently the bombing attack against the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, West African jihadist groups have plotted or conducted attacks against U.S. regional interests, including embassies and American-frequented locations. In East Africa, al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda franchise, remains resilient and capable of deadly regional terrorist attacks, such as the DusitD2 hotel attack in Nairobi in 2019 that killed 21 civilians, including one American, and the January 2020 breach of the joint Kenyan-American base at Manda Bay, which resulted in the death of one American soldier and two U.S. contractors. According to the New York Times, al-Shabaab is also actively attempting to conduct international attacks. Recently, two al-Shabaab operatives were arrested while taking flying lessons in “eerie echoes of the original September 11 plotters.”

Disengagement risks leaving the United States unable to defend its interests against these continued threats. Removal of America’s hard power backbone in the region, moreover, could also degrade the capabilities of the valuable intelligence, diplomatic, and humanitarian actors needed to detect emerging threats, pursue political solutions, or mitigate the harmful humanitarian impacts of conflict. Policymakers face the difficult, but achievable, task of minimizing the risk of terrorist attacks against American interests while avoiding large troop commitments in Africa and balancing China in the Indo-Pacific region.

A continental strategy would not be a panacea against these dual hazards of overstretch and disengagement. Rather, it would help illuminate risks and provide a guiding structure from which to adjust means-ends imbalances.

Africa Strategy in a Democracy — Passing the “Acid Test”

An American strategy for Africa can only succeed in the long term with the support of Congress. Any local or regional initiative constructed without congressional and public backing, however brilliant or nuanced, will ultimately prove ephemeral. As Henry Kissinger warned in his 1957 A World Restored, “the acid test of a policy is its ability to gain domestic support.” Put plainly, the American people need to know why Africa matters to the United States, or they will not countenance the expenditure of blood and treasure on the continent.

The most effective way to win congressional support for U.S. foreign policy in Africa is to develop and present a continent-wide strategy. America’s Cold War history in Africa highlights the importance of congressional backing. When the Ford administration sought to secretly arm anti-communist rebels fighting in the Angolan Civil War, Congress not only banned funding to that group, but set a strict $40 million ceiling on military assistance to the entire continent. Fortunately, in this contemporary era of partisan rancor, Congress has taken a remarkably bi-partisan approach to Africa policy issues. Recent attempts to cut foreign aid or humanitarian assistance to African countries, for example, have been met with disapproval from both parties. This bipartisan consensus concerning Africa’s importance to the United States represents a solid foundation on which to formulate a collaborative Africa strategy that is resilient to tactical setbacks.

An Absence of Strategy Increases Vulnerability to Distraction or Co-Option

Absent firm central guidance, policy around African affairs can be vulnerable to the influence of various humanitarian, religious, and bureaucratic interests. While far from unique to Africa policy, these sometimes-opposing influences can accelerate the aforementioned risk of overstretch and lead to the dilution of already limited resources. This phenomenon also accelerates the chances of distraction. As scholar Gorm Rye Olsen notes, “because policymaking has been influenced by a number of different actors, American Africa policy may appear incoherent and ambiguous if judged narrowly on the expectation that it only aims to take care of U.S. national security concerns and economic self-interests.” It is, for example, difficult to identify traditional U.S. interests in the now-concluded American Counter-Lord’s Resistance Army mission spurred by the viral social media campaign “Kony 2012.” Dubbed “Operation Observant Compass,” this multi-year commitment cost between $600-$800 million and saw U.S. military forces deployed throughout central Africa in an effort that ultimately failed to capture the notorious warlord.

Vague strategic guidance can also render Africa policy more malleable by energetic actors within the government, who often hold their own bureaucratic, institutional, or geographic self-interests. A lack of clear policy directives and fixed interests can open the window for freelancing and mission creep by opportunistic actors on the ground. “Strategic ambiguity,” warns former Defense Department Principal Director for African Affairs Alice Hunt Friend, may lead to risks of “bureaucratic entrepreneurship” by aggressive military commanders who “may even seek to drive policy.”

China: A Continental Competitor

Finally, the emergence of a true continent-wide geostrategic competitor, China, necessitates the formulation of a truly continental strategy. Absent a continental approach, American policy in Africa risks becoming reactive to Beijing’s moves on a country-to-country or issue-to-issue basis. This is not to suggest that Chinese activity should represent the organizing principle of American foreign policy in Africa. As I’ve previously written in War on the Rocks, reflexively defining U.S. interests in Africa in opposition to China would be an expensive and potentially dangerous mistake. A binary and zero-sum approach is also unappealing to African nations, which resent being seen as pawns in a new Cold War. Moreover, many African nations have deep trade relationships (in 2009 China surpassed the United States as the continent’s largest trading partner) and historical ties with China that date back to the liberation era. African leaders do not want to be forced to choose between super-power rivals. These leaders understand the potential perils of financial dealings with China, but, as Caleb Slayton recently noted, are “not buying Washington’s message on China.” They may in fact perceive American chidings and blunt warnings around “debt trap diplomacy” as paternalistic.

Washington simply will not out-build or out-finance Beijing, whose totalitarian system and command economy provides it with certain undeniable advantages. However, as the Cold War experience illustrates, free-market democracies hold critical long-term strengths and appeals of their own. Currently, democracy remains overwhelming popular in Africa, according to AfroBarometer polling, while corruption and crony capitalism are widely reviled. A more nuanced Africa-wide strategy would harness these advantages and prepare America’s foreign policy apparatus for what will likely become a decades-long competition in Africa with a determined and authoritarian state.

America’s approach to China in Africa should emphasize U.S. strengths — transparency, high quality goods and services, and democratic governance — and trust the appeal of those fundamental values as a compelling alternative to the Chinese model. Such an approach could provide American leaders the framework to understand and, when necessary, respond to Chinese activity in a patient and measured manner that reflects local realities and context.

To have any appeal on the continent, such a strategy, to paraphrase former NSC Africa Director Grant Harris, should say what America is for — democratic values, open and reciprocal economic growth, global health, transparency, and security from terrorist threats — and not just what America is against (China). From this positive basis, a modern continental strategy would also upgrade America’s soft-power policy toolkit, reinvigorating initiatives such as Prosper Africa while updating existing programmatic authorities like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and Power Africa for this new era of competition with China. American diplomats should stress the United States’ role as an honest broker, and genuinely offer assistance with contract negotiation and transparency to African nations considering engagement with China.

Finally, American diplomats in Africa must be untethered from burdensome security restrictions adopted in the wake of the Benghazi attack. While well-intentioned, these regulations have morphed into a serious weight on U.S. diplomacy that limits the ability of America’s remarkable Foreign Service Officers to understand local dynamics, facilitate political solutions to regional conflicts, and recommend locally feasible approaches to counter Chinese activity on the continent.

The False Choice Between Counter-Terrorism and Competition with China in Africa

While counter-terrorism will likely remain a key American interest in Africa for the foreseeable future, these campaigns do not necessarily detract from the effort to counter Chinese influence. As AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend recently testified to Congress, “Counter VEO [Violent Extremist Organization] is Global Power Competition.” Serving as a reliable ally against terrorism for African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia (not to mention key NATO allies such as France) will only strengthen American relationships with these pivotal states — bonds the United States will need to maintain in the decades to come.

In the short-run, radical terrorist groups will continue to menace American regional interests from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa. However much one hopes that the scourge of terrorism in Africa will end, or simply not harm Americans, recent history tells us this is wishful thinking. While “the line between vigilance and paranoia,” as Robert Jervis warns, “is always hard to draw in international politics,” balanced attentiveness is still required towards the enduring threat of terrorism in Africa.

Through continued burden-sharing with partners and allies, the United States can reduce the risk of devastating terrorist attacks to its citizens at home and on the continent at a bargain price to American taxpayers. This can be accomplished with minimal distraction from higher strategic priorities — as most of the limited military assets required, such as low flying surveillance aircraft, would be of limited utility for deterrence or high-intensity conventional combat against a peer or near-peer competitor. A continental strategy would help set clear requirements for and facilitate the allocation of such resources while mitigating the ever-present risk of overstretch.

Towards a Resilient Africa Strategy

The United States should pursue a continent-wide approach to Africa that reflects the totality of America’s significant and expanding interests in the region. Whatever strategy is ultimately chosen will require the backing of the American people and its elected leaders if it is to be sustained. America’s post-1945 history in Africa, from Angola to “Black Hawk Down,” illustrates that military or foreign policy commitments in Africa made absent strong congressional support and active White House oversight, however initially well-designed, will prove ephemeral. Absent this support, buy-in, and oversight of implementation, any initiatives will prove fragile to the strong headwinds of friction and chance, and may ultimately lead to further American disengagement from the continent.

It would be ill-advised to walk away from Africa, a continent of over a billion people with vast economic potential and a rapidly transforming political landscape. This includes a new wave of democratization, most notably in Sudan and Ethiopia, but also increasing Chinese inroads. While Chinese activity is not always a zero-sum calculus, Beijing’s growing presence sharpens the need for a positive strategy that emphasizes America’s unique values abroad, provides opportunities for American businesses to invest in African markets, and protects American interests at home and abroad from the continued threat of jihadist terrorism.



Sam Wilkins is an active-duty U.S. Army Special Forces officer with deployments to Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Sam is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and is currently a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). These views are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, Johns Hopkins SAIS, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ruano)