US nightmare in Afghanistan is keeping White House focused on the Sahel

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: US – Africa: Evolving relations

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 5 October 2022 12:03, updated on Monday, 10 October 2022 17:21

U.S. Army soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division on a mission to bolster the security of Manda Bay Airfield, Kenya after an attack by Somalia's al Shabaab militants that killed three Americans, board a transport plane in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti January 5, 2020. Picture taken January 5, 2020. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez/Handout via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

To date, Africa has been a sideshow in US defence planning, characterised mostly by reactive crisis response. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden's officials have changed their tune.

The Joe Biden administration has committed to reframing Africa’s importance to US national security interests, vowing to work “by, with and through” African partners to promote civilian-led, non-violent approaches to conflict resolution whenever possible. The new focus is spelt out in a new National Defense Strategy, which the Biden administration shared with congress in March.

While the document is classified, deputy assistant secretary of defence for African affairs Chidi Blyden outlined its security priorities for Africa in a 12 July testimony before the Senate.

They are: countering violent extremist organisations; strengthening allies and partners to support ‘mutual security objectives’; and addressing strategic competition by US ‘adversaries’, namely Russia and China.

Sahel crucible

No region better exemplifies the multi-­pronged US approach than the Sahel. The zone stretching from Mauritania to Chad is home to the world’s “fastest-growing and most-deadly terrorist groups,” according to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, accounting for more than a third of terrorism deaths worldwide in 2021.

With rising insecurity fuelling a rash of military coups, and Al Qaeda-linked groups increasingly threatening coastal states along the Gulf of Guinea, the Biden administration has prioritised good governance to help break the cycle of violence. “When governments struggle to maintain security, deliver essential services, uphold humanitarian principles or even provide economic opportunities and conflict environments, conditions are ripe for [violent extremists] to exploit and appeal to vulnerable and unprotected marginalised populations,” Blyden told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July.

Unmentioned, but implied in her remarks, is the disastrous 20-year US intervention in Afghanistan, where Taliban forces easily overwhelmed government forces after US troops pulled out last year. “As we have seen in other key theatres,” Blyden said, “failing to understand root causes at local levels and understand our partners, and especially their will to fight, can have significant consequences.”

In response to the lessons learnt in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has announced several adjustments to US military policy. In January, the State Department announced it would be seeking full US membership of the Sahel Alliance, a regional partnership launched by European countries to help coordinate aid as the international community shifts from counterterrorism to institution building.

Charting a new path

On 1 April, the White House launched the implementation of the US ‘Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability’, with a focus on seven countries in Africa, including five in coastal West Africa (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Togo), along with Libya and Mozambique.

The stated goal is to ‘chart a new path toward positive results that strengthen democracy, rule of law, security, good governance, gender equity and equality, health, education and respect for human rights, all aligned to fuel reservoirs of peace, strength and recovery and extinguish potential discord before it is sparked.”

Meanwhile, the new US Strategy for Africa, which secretary of state Antony Blinken released during his third trip to the continent in early August, vows to denounce military coups, human rights violations and corruption in the armed forces.

Mvemba Dizolele, the director of the Africa programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a veteran of the US Marine Corps Reserve, calls the new Africa strategy a “welcome” shift that – if done right – can help the US rebuild trust on the continent and reclaim its brand as a promoter of freedom.

“Security for the sake of security does not lead anywhere,” Dizolele tells The Africa Report. “When we talk about security, often we talk about the failure of security. In the Sahel, we’re talking about how the social contract has failed. The populations are not free, they’re not safe, they’re not being protected by the government.”

Internal tensions in the US approach abound, however. In Chad, for example, the State Department has not labelled President Mahamat Idriss Déby’s rise to power a coup. But the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, disagrees. His objections have blocked US security assistance to Chad. “While Chad remains one of the most capable partners in the region, and N’Djamena is the new host of the G5 Sahel Headquarters, ending US security cooperation has affected our bilateral engagement,” Blyden testified before Menendez’s committee.

Russia’s influence on the continent is a prime concern for the US, particularly the presence of Kremlin-backed Wagner Group forces, which have been accused of human rights abuses and promoting anti-Western rhetoric. While keen to avoid dictating the countries Africans can work with, the new Africa strategy makes it clear that the US hopes to be the continent’s partner of choice. ‘In line with the 2022 National Defense Strategy,’ it states, ‘the Department of Defense will engage with African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative PCR [China] and Russian activities in Africa.’

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