US doubles down on Sahel amid inroads from Russia, terrorism

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Thursday, 27 October 2022 12:22

Soldiers from the Russian private military company Wagner (pictured here on an unknown date in northern Mali). ©AP/SIPA.

The Joe Biden administration sent a high-level team of diplomatic and military officials to the Sahel earlier this month to reassure local governments of continued US support amid the twin challenges of terrorism and Russian influence in the region.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s fourth highest-ranking official, led the delegation which also included top Sahel and counter-terrorism officials from the White House and Pentagon.

In a call with reporters upon her return, Nuland described the trip to Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso as an opportunity to assess the new US strategy toward a region that has been wracked by coups and terror attacks over the past two years.

“We were looking in particular at how the US strategy towards the Sahel is working,” Nuland said, describing it as an effort to “try to bring more coherence to our efforts to support increased security, strong governance, in those countries that have had coups” and assist their return to democratic rule.

“It is a very important region with a vibrant civil society,” Nuland said following her third multi-country visit to the continent since taking office 18 months ago.

“We wanted to ensure we are doing all that we can to help the people of the Sahel and to strengthen their trust in their governments’ ability to meet the challenges they face, whether it is on the security side, the food and development side, education, etc.”

Countering Russia

Much of the focus of the trip was on countering growing Russian influence in the region. The US is particularly worried about the presence of the Wagner Group of Kremlin-linked mercenaries in countries such as Mali, where a UN peacekeeping mission finds itself pressed both by Col. Assimi Goïta’s junta and affiliates of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“In Mali,” Nuland said, “we were there to express our concern both about the shrinking space for MINUSMA and the constraints that both the government and Wagner forces have put on their ability to operate and fulfil their mandate, but also to raise concerns about the fact that terrorism is going up, not down, and that we are firm of the view that Wagner works for itself, not for the people of the country that it comes to.”

She said US officials had had “very intense conversations” with the prime minister, Lt. Col. Abdoulaye Maïga, and other officials, adding that US military assistance will remain curtailed until the civilian rule is restored.

“I will repeat what I said in Mali, which is that the Malian interim government is holding to its commitment to ensuring it will meet the agreed timeline of elections in 2024,” Nuland said. “However, there are going to be a number of challenges, largely having to do with security, which is in fact becoming more difficult as Wagner forces and others take on a larger role in the country and squeeze out UN peacekeepers.”

Bad security choices

Incidents of terrorism have increased by 30% over the past six months, she added.

“We’re all trying to help the people,” Nuland said, “but we are limited by the bad security choices that the junta has made.”

Some are worried however that the US is keen to get back to business as usual in countries including Mali and Chad if it means icing out the Russians.

A 21 October tweet she posted of her bumping fists with Maïga, in particular, caused some consternation on Capitol Hill, says Cameron Hudson, a former State Department Africa official now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They just look like they look like the oldest of friends,” Hudson told The Africa Report. “It’s very obvious she is trying to fill a vacuum now that France is leaving.”

Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso, Nuland said Capt. Ibrahim Traore had assured the Americans he had no intention of inviting in Russian forces after taking control of the country in a coup earlier this month.

“We had a chance to sit with interim President Traore and his leadership team, including his defence minister,” Nuland told reporters. “He was unequivocal in saying only Burkinabe will defend their country. They have no intention of inviting Wagner.”

Shifting alliances

Here again, Hudson was sceptical, however.

“I wouldn’t believe what any of these guys say,” he said on a phone call from Mali, where he’s conducting research on Russian influence. “Because these states are so fragile, they are one disgruntled, mid-level military officer away from depending on Wagner for their survival.”

The same holds true of officials in Chad and Niger as well, Hudson says.

“These are all the most fragile states in the world. It is a very active and evolving political environment in all of these countries right now.”

That evolving situation has had an impact on the US strategy toward the Sahel, which Hudson said was initially developed under the Donald Trump administration after four American soldiers were killed in an ambush in 2018.

The strategy was never released publicly but has been subsumed into the US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa that Secretary of State Antony Blinken unveiled over the summer.

Trump “started the process of the US sort of saying, it can’t just be a CT (counter-terrorism) solution. We need real governance, capacity-building, and state stability,” Hudson says.

“In the last two years, especially since Biden came in, you’ve had a much more robust effort to strengthen” elements such as state capacity-building, transparency and anti-corruption. It de-emphasizes the kinetic side of countering violent extremism,” he says.

But the strategy is once again evolving following the coups and the subsequent Russian penetration of Mali, he says, which has further eroded popular support for America’s longtime ally France.

“I mean, the French have cast a long shadow in Mali for a long time, which creates opportunities for the US, Germans, and the Russians,” Hudson says.

Eye on energy

One area where the US is swooping in is energy.

Unlike the other three coup-plagued countries on the itinerary, Nuland described Mauritania as a “10-year island of stability in a very, very rough neighbourhood.”

“Among the reasons we wanted to go was to talk to President (Mohamed Ould) Ghazouani and the prime minister and defence officials about the success that they are having in working against terror, particularly on their border with Mali,” she said. “With our strong support, other international support, they have largely been able to manage their borders and terrorist issues.”

She said the delegation addressed the situation in Mali along with economic opportunities, notably the major natural gas find offshore Mauritania that BP and the American deepwater exploration and production company Kosmos Energy announced in 2019.

“We are looking at whether we can do more together on the energy security side,” Nuland said. “There is a new gas find off the coast of Mauritania, a field it shares with Senegal. We have an American company, part of the consortium, exploiting that. We believe there is a huge opportunity for wind and solar [energy] in Mauritania.”

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