America Should Not Overcommit Forces in North Africa

An army officer stands in a parade during a ceremony marking Nigeria's Armed Forces Remembrance Day in Lagos January 15, 2013. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

The past sixteen years have illustrated that combating a force as nebulous as “terrorism” is exceptionally difficult; there is little reason to believe that expanding the war will end it.

The problem of migration is particularly pronounced in the Sahel. Millions of Africans cross through the region’s porous borders every year, and local governments have proven largely incapable of providing meaningful border security. The Sahel is not only perfectly designed to facilitate the spread of jihadist fighters from east to west, but, should ISIS gain control of the valuable gold and uranium deposits throughout the region, it could also allow the organization to easily funnel the resources it extracts and sell them in exchange for weapons. The United States, which has historically faced great difficulty in combating terrorist groups operating in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, would face similar challenges in the Sahel, which would be exacerbated by our well-documented struggles in sharing critical intelligence with regional partners.

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Additionally, the problems facing American cooperation with regional allies go far beyond poor intelligence sharing. Soldiers from Mali and Burkina Faso were accused of torturing and executing civilians while conducting counterterror operations, while Nigeria left over 100 civilian casualties after it accidentally bombed a refugee camp it mistook for Boko Haram insurgents. These heavy-handed tactics have been criticized for bolstering extremist organizations instead of disrupting them, and the United States has thus far proven unable or unwilling to effectively corral its regional partners. Despite the multinational coalition of forces that have spent years targeting Boko Haram, the region has seen a marked increase in the number of suicide attacks committed by the group this year.

Most importantly, a significant American military presence is more likely to embed terrorism within the fabric of the Sahel than it is to successfully root it out. Opposition to perceived or literal occupation by a foreign power has historically been a leading driver in terrorist recruitment that can spark both nationalist and religious opposition against the occupier—this principle certainly applies to the Sahel. In its founding statements, Al-Murabitun, an ISIS-affiliated militia operating in Mali and Niger, called for the expulsion of the western imperialists that seek to subjugate Muslim lands and cited the need to attack French interests, “wherever they may be found.” The French presence in Mali, the U.S.-led coalition to topple Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and existing American military presence in the continent have all served to drive terrorist recruitment in Africa. Increased American counterterror operations would only exacerbate this trend. This is particularly true in light of recent revelations that American drone strikes have resulted in far more civilian casualties than originally thought, indicating that even a limited military intervention would likely result in blowback as civilian casualties mount.

One possible solution for resolving this occupier’s dilemma involves bombarding terrorists with overwhelming military force to significantly disrupt enemy operations, a strategy which was partially responsible for the initial defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, such an operation would require a massive, sustained deployment of ground troops to adequately secure such a large region and would certainly come with a lofty price tag—neither of which the war-weary American public would likely accept. Additionally, the rise of ISIS after the departure of American troops from Iraq calls into question the long-term effectiveness of such a strategy, as such a significant military presence does little to dissuade the narrative of America as an occupying army.

If America is interested in limiting the spread of terrorism in the Sahel region, it should instead adopt a strategy aimed at addressing the systemic, structural factors that contribute to the rise of terrorism, while assisting regional partners in doing the same. Instead of cutting economic and development aid, the United States should invest in the economic future of the Sahel by providing financial and humanitarian assistance designed to improve the opportunities of local populations. Combined with a reversal of the trend towards a military-first strategy, such a move could combat the image of the United States as a hostile force while giving disaffected communities a viable alternative to terror groups Additionally, the United States should continue to work with local partners and international organizations to address issues such as corruption and the use of overly aggressive counterterror tactics. America has helped Nigeria and Burkina Faso address deep-seeded issues like government accountability and promoting similar initiatives in the region could increase civic participation among local groups and give them a greater stake in the preservation of an improving status quo.