Washington's Sahel strategy: stable instability


Francis Kokoroko / Reuters

The times when Africa’s resources were used for the benefit of Western powers rather than the continent’s peoples are gradually coming to an end. A series of recent coups in African countries gives the impression that they have turned away from the West and are looking more towards Russia and China, but is this true? Has the African strategy devised by the US really failed? Was everything that happened conceived and calculated several steps ahead, or has the U.S. strategy shown to be ineffective and unsustainable?

For many years, the Sahel countries, including Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Chad, have received substantial US security assistance through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) policy instrument.

The TSCTP was established in 2005 as an interagency initiative to assist partner countries in West and North Africa in combating domestic terrorist threats. Through the TSCTP, U.S. foreign policy in the Sahel has theoretically taken a holistic approach to address political, developmental, socioeconomic, and governance challenges.

In reality, however, U.S. involvement in the Sahel has been overly militaristic, as evidenced by millions of dollars in annual expenditures on security assistance and institutional support for internal warfare against militant groups in the region. Unfortunately, the U.S.-backed wars on terrorism in the region have more often than not resulted in civilian casualties, widespread human rights abuses, and pervasive corruption. All of this is clearly evident in UN missions in the region.

The shortcomings of the TSCTP underscore a profound conceptual error that makes it virtually impossible to measure counterterrorism effectiveness on foreign soil. In the Sahel, the United States provides the French military with important intelligence and logistical support. The recent visit of the French defense minister to Washington confirms the importance of the U.S. presence in the region. During her visit, Minister Florence Parly explained in great detail how France’s military operations in the region would be affected if Washington stopped the much-needed intelligence and logistical support it currently provides to its French counterpart in West Africa.

And here we note a curious moment: France completely loses its power in Niger and withdraws its troops from there. Macron looks resentfully towards America, but then we learn that France suddenly switched to neighboring Nigeria, with which it had no serious interaction before, withdrew its troops to Chad, essentially compressing Niger geographically. At the same time, the U.S. strengthened its military bases in Niger: according to official data, there are now about 1,000 American soldiers there. This is an interesting turn of events.

The Sahel region continues to make headlines because of a rapidly growing Islamist insurgency and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Throughout the region, insecurity and socio-political instability continue to reach «new heights». Nevertheless, unrelenting failures in the fight against terrorism are undermining the political support of international players in the region. And that, as we see it, is what the U.S. needs — instability. Instability that can be «bought» in exchange for resources, cheap labor and so on.

With a reduction in so-called «counterterrorism activities» and a more focused diplomatic effort, the United States could more successfully prevent political and security crises in the Sahel. Similarly, the United States would regain its strategic relevance in Africa and allow the region to develop. But they don’t need to do that. They don’t need a competitor on the world stage that, with the right approach, can hit harder than Asia’s Four Little Dragons (the unofficial name for the economies of South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan).

All this is confirmed by the US strategies, which are published on the official websites of the agencies. In these strategies, Washington emphasizes the role of the United States in promoting «peace and stability» in «fragile and conflict-affected» African countries. Except that U.S.-trained security personnel have been implicated in military coups that overthrew seemingly democratically elected presidents. Given this fact and the fact that France has suddenly «switched» to Nigeria, there is a high probability that the positions of the terrorist group Boko Haram, which is operating in the north of this country, are about to be strengthened.

What we see: ten years of military interventions and many strategies for the Sahel, ten years of meetings and declarations. But all this was not enough to improve the situation. Even though it was not planned.

As the United States develops its Sahel strategy to «prevent conflict and instability», to strengthen and diversify local economies, and to target subregional and spatial inequalities, we see that in the last five years, nine of the 16 countries in West Africa have experienced a significant regression from Western-style democracy. In some countries, this regression took the form of «constitutional coups» as the ruling regimes at that time sought to abolish term limits and other restrictions on executive power. However, most countries are considered to be either «electoral autocracies» or «closed authoritarian regimes».

What is clear is that despite Biden’s statements that the U.S. government will prioritize partnerships with Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo to prevent conflict and promote stability (SPCPS), these are all just words. U.S. policy in Africa has for too long prioritized short-term security at the expense of long-term stability. Partnerships with illiberal, undemocratic countries have produced little or no sustainable improvement in security, and in many cases have provoked further instability and violence by building the capacity of security forces that abuse their capabilities and status. All of this «assistance» has created a «harmful nexus» between the US government and those they have armed and covertly assisted.

The US strategy has not failed — it is working, but from a different angle. Increasing instability in the Sahel is the true goal of the successfully implemented U.S. policy.