Pulling Troops Out of Africa Could Mean Another Endless War
Just as Islamist militants are resurging in Africa, the Pentagon is making an unforced error by planning to reduce its presence there, particularly in volatile West Africa.
The foreign policy and national security establishment recoiled at an initial New York Times report in December, that the defense secretary’s review of global deployments included “proposals for a major reduction — or even a complete pullout — of American forces from West Africa,” in service of “a push to reduce post-9/11 missions battling terrorist groups, and instead to refocus Pentagon priorities on confronting so-called Great Powers like Russia and China.”
The idea was so poorly conceived that it elicited rare bipartisan and bicameral outrage in Congress. Even members typically predisposed to endorsing President Trump’s decisions loudly objected. A group of Republican and Democratic representatives jointly introduced the “U.S.-Africa Strategic Security Act,” requiring Defense Secretary Mark Esper to submit public reports on any potential risks before a withdrawal can take place. Both the Democratic chair and the Republican ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee wrote to Esper to warn that “a decrease in our investment now may result in the need for the United States to reinvest at many more times the cost down the road.”
Separately, a bipartisan group of 11 House members wrote to Esper to call the drawdown plans “a shortsighted action that both diminishes our overall national security posture and our ability to lead with American values and influence.” Senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Coons sent their own letter, expressing “serious concern,” while Graham was forced to deny threatening to make Esper’s life “hell” if he dared to cut troop numbers. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe reacted by proposing an increase in troop presence.
In the face of this barrage, Esper is trying to assuage congressional fears. He has insisted that the U.S. military will not withdraw completely; that no decisions on reducing U.S. forces have been made; and that Congress will be updated with the review’s results “at the appropriate place and time.” Yet after French President Emmanuel Macron called the reported plan “really bad news,” Esper said that “it is time for other European allies to assist as well in the region, and that could offset whatever changes we make as we consider next steps in Africa,” implying the creation of substantial new gaps in the United States’ force posture.
Esper’s equivocations are unlikely to provide much reassurance for elected officials or allies, but it does not seem likely that the pullout will proceed in the face of this unanimous resistance from Capitol Hill. The congressional reaction makes clear that practically no one in Washington thinks a pullout is a good idea. Why would the Defense Department propose this move now? And what would a constructive reevaluation of its African deployments look like?
A Shortsighted Decision
Under the Trump administration, foreign aid and development assistance to Africa has largely continued as it did under previous presidents. White House budget proposals may make political headlines with calls for cuts to African aid, but Congress largely ignores them, and Trump signs reauthorizations without complaint. And contrary to allegations that Africa is not a priority for this administration, Trump’s tenure has also been marked by a number of diplomatic initiatives there: a successful push for elections and a peaceful transition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was followed by negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt, pressure on Cameroon for its human rights abuses, and the deployment of special envoys to Sudan and the African Great Lakes. So it is puzzling that the Pentagon would seek to draw down its military deployment in Africa — accounting for about 0.3 percent of Defense Department personnel and budgetary resources — where U.S. troops largely serve in training and advising roles.
The stated reason — refocusing deployments to counter threats from Russia and China — rings hollow. African allies are being actively courted by those nations just as the Trump administration is looking to withdraw its military support. Russia in particular has sent mercenaries from the Wagner Group private military company to advance its interests in Mozambique, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere.
Russia has little to offer Africa beyond arms and mercenaries, but China has made large investments in infrastructure and development, in addition to a pledge to expand its military presence on the continent. Chinese engagement has paid a public opinion dividend. Nigeria — perhaps Africa’s largest economy — is one of China’s closest partners in Africa, and a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that fully 70 percent of Nigerians have a favorable view of China.
There are certain shortsighted political incentives for a military withdrawal. “America First” is a Trump campaign slogan. Bringing troops home from a place that can seem distant and unknowable may feel, to many Americans, like an overdue restructuring of American priorities. After all, why should American men and women fight Africa’s wars?
Warning Signs in the Sahel, West Africa, and Mozambique
A terrorist attack in the United States plotted in Africa would make this readily apparent. A withdrawal would not only endanger Americans by emboldening African terrorist groups with transnational ambitions, several of which are well-financed, well-armed, and closely tied to ISIL or al-Qaeda. It could ultimately result in a broader and deeper foreign entanglement, by allowing these groups to grow and attack U.S. bases or even the mainland, requiring a more costly retrenchment in Africa later on. This move would be myopic even when viewed narrowly through the lens of U.S. interests.
If anything, Africa deserves more attention from the U.S. military. In particular, direct American support for Niger, Nigeria, and Cameroon in their campaign against Boko Haram — which has declared itself a province of ISIL — must be more forthcoming. Yet the current approach may not be enough.
“Western and international and African efforts there are not getting the job done,” in West Africa and the Sahel, warned Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, in March. “ISIS and al-Qaeda are on the march … if ISIS can carve out a new caliphate, or al-Qaida can, they will do it … they aspire to attack Americans wherever they find us, to include the homeland.” Townsend’s concerns were echoed by Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, head of Special Operations Command Africa: “They’re quietly establishing their connections … they want to eventually establish a caliphate … we’ve seen them intermarry into the local tribes. We’ve seen them become very entrenched in local politics and do this very quietly.”
The danger is no longer limited to these long-unstable regions. Recent scenes in Mozambique — once a focus of U.S. diplomacy during my tenure as assistant secretary of state — illustrate these warnings. Terrorism is relatively new there, but Islamic State-affiliated extremists are launching increasingly sophisticated attacks: arriving in the Cabo Delgado province on speedboats (likely from Tanzania) they have captured government buildings and cleaned out banks. AFP is reporting that after years of targeting isolated villages, they are operating in the open, taking control of three districts while no longer bothering to cover their faces, and making no secret of their goal: to establish a new caliphate in the region. On April 7, the militants massacred 52 villagers who refused to join their cause.
While America is looking to pull out troops, Russia is paying close attention to conflicts like Mozambique’s. Seven mercenaries from the Wagner Group were reportedly killed in Cabo Delgado. Erik Prince, founder of the controversial private military company Blackwater (and an occasional adviser to Trump) offered to supplant the Russian efforts in Mozambique with his own contractors.
COVID-19 has not slowed the onslaught. In fact, there appears to be an increase of attacks by Islamist militants, especially in West Africa, taking advantage of the ways in which the pandemic has occupied the time and resources of already overstretched African militaries. Besides the escalation of Mozambique’s insurgency, nearly one hundred Chadian soldiers were killed in a devastating seven-hour Boko Haram attack last month, probably the worst-ever single-day toll for the Central African country.
A military drawdown under these circumstances would be unwise. Yet merely maintaining or increasing U.S. troop levels and military assistance to Africa is not sufficient to win the war against extremism. American military operations, in tandem with French and regional militaries, have been able to contain the jihadists, but they have not made significant progress toward shutting them down. The drawdown threat is an opportune moment to review how current U.S. deployments there could be more effective against still-festering extremism.
Anderson’s observations are the key to Mozambique’s insurgency, and the African terrorist threat more generally; a new African caliphate would be built not just through military incursions, but through close ties with the local population. As David Kilcullen writes in The Accidental Guerrilla, the ideology of transnational terrorist groups has little inherent appeal to ordinary people — extremists exploit preexisting security shortcomings, socioeconomic grievances, local conflicts, humanitarian crises, and governance failures.
They also use counter-terrorist responses to rally the people to their cause. When African militaries attempt to crush insurgencies with an overwhelming and repressive response, they often end up exacerbating the problem. The presence of international troops can act as a means for extremists to rally locals against a perceived foreign threat. The optics of Western deployments in Africa is a longstanding consideration of U.S. policy; President Dwight Eisenhower resisted sending European and American military units to Africa since this would appear to be a return of colonialism. He wanted United Nations “blue helmets” to conduct stability operations instead. His National Security Council unanimously supported this view.
Kilcullen’s study concentrates on the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, but the theory has a great deal of explanatory value for African conflicts, which threaten to become the next endless war. African poverty and desperation are as endemic as the graft and corruption that perpetuates them. Extremists are also using preexisting enmities to their advantage. In the Sahel region, a hotbed of insurgent violence, they are exploiting the resentment of northern pastoral peoples against the southern farmers who have controlled power since independence. It is a fertile ground for Islamist groups lately finding it more difficult to gain a foothold in the Middle East.
U.S. military operations in Africa do thus need a reevaluation; just not the kind Esper is proposing. Stepping up U.S. military assistance there would be a better choice than drawing it down, but troops and arms are not enough on their own. The method of U.S. intervention in Africa and its conflicts is just as important as the fact of it. As the United States works with African militaries to coordinate a counter-extremist response, it must adopt and advocate for strategies that address the underlying reasons Africans may become radicalized — without further contributing to their radicalization. Moving from containment to defeating militants in Africa will require a comprehensive, integrated socioeconomic approach. It must be made clear that repressive crackdowns by U.S. military partners breed further extremism. Legitimate grievances must also be addressed.
COVID-19 is a missed opportunity in this regard. While the United States is being accused of diverting masks and medical supplies from needy nations to its own shores, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma is making headlines with shipments of face masks, tests, and other supplies to Africa. As the continent faces the dual crises of a pandemic and rising attacks by jihadists, the relative actions and tone of the major powers is certain to have lasting geopolitical ramifications, both for U.S. African engagements and the “great power competition” which this White House is focused on.
The American presence in Africa serves crucial U.S. interests with a small contingent of troops and resources. Reducing the commitment now could lead to another endless war. Congress may well prevent the Trump administration from pulling out. But this interbranch dispute is a reminder that it is in America’s best interests to bring more than its military to African conflicts.
Herman J. Cohen is the author of US Policy Toward Africa: Eight Decades of Realpolitik. He was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), U.S. ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), Senior Director on the National Security Council (1987-1989), and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service.