America's Africa Enigma: Why U.S. Troops are Taking Unnecessary Risks

Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense
February 21, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: TroopsTrainingTerrorismAfricaNational Security

America's Africa Enigma: Why U.S. Troops are Taking Unnecessary Risks

Africa doesn’t matter militarily to America. No doubt, a “secure and stable” Africa would be welcome and thus an “interest,” but it is not an important one. Nor is it attainable, at least at a reasonable cost.

Alice Hunt Friend of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed: “It’s not that the terrorist groups in the Sahel and in West Africa are all that large or strong or capable, it’s that they are very bold and the African militaries out there are really incapable.” But that problem is both pervasive and long-standing. It cannot justify an American troop presence, potentially forever.

America’s overriding role is war. According to Joe Penney of Reuters, “the U.S. has a military presence in almost every country in Africa and conducts ‘advise-and-assist’ missions with local counterterrorism units in Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Libya and possibly elsewhere.” In Nigeria, U.S. troops accompany soldiers on combat missions. Americans aren’t supposed to fight unless attacked but given the nature of such missions, in this case against the group Boko Haram, they should be considered combatants.

Officially the United States does not lead combat missions but there is little oversight of actual operations and American personnel often effectively take charge. The ambiguity of America’s role is reflected in the 2017 ambush in Niger in which ISIS in the Greater Sahara killed four Americans along with five Nigerians.

Washington needs to stop treating African states as defense dependents and return responsibility for security to them. Even Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy admitted that: “At the end of the day, the problems in the Sahel are not going to be solved by France or by the United States or the international community. They have to be solved by the states in the Sahel.” For instance, Boko Haram has prospered because of the Nigerian government’s infirmities, including the military’s brutality. The case is similar across Africa.

Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, took a different tack, telling the Senate Armed Services committee last month: “A secure and stable Africa remains an enduring American interest. In the past, maybe we’ve been able to pay less attention to Africa and be OK in America. I don’t believe that’s the case for the future.”

However, Africa doesn’t matter militarily to America. No doubt, a “secure and stable” Africa would be welcome and thus an “interest,” but it is not an important one. Nor is it attainable, at least at a reasonable cost. For Africa terrorism actually is a minor problem compared to major disasters such as devastating civil wars and conflicts involving Sudan, Liberia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. There remains plenty of tragedy in countries like Somalia. There may be cases in which more limited advice and training could be justified. Unfortunately, too often such intervention delivers few practical benefits and creates abundant opportunities for blowback.

Judd Devermont, Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, complained that discussion of a possible withdrawal “is reinforcing a view in West Africa that the U.S. is not interested, that it does not see it as a strategic importance and that it is going to cut and run and abandon its African allies.” But such talk is the policy equivalent of emotional blackmail. The region is not strategically important to America. Ending an unnecessary commitment is not cutting and running. The United States has not promised eternal support for any African state.

France also wants the United States to stick around Africa. “Any reduction would limit our effectiveness against terrorists,” said French defense minister Florence Parly. President Emmanuel Macron is worried that “If the Americans were to decide to withdraw from Africa, it would be bad news for us.”

So what? The former colonial power remains deeply involved in Africa and has come to rely on Washington for aerial refueling, intelligence, and logistics in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Understandably, France would like to continue offloading as many tasks as possible—Macron’s government also lobbied to keep the United States entangled in Syria. However, Washington officials are skeptical of the value of French efforts. One anonymous American told NBC that “We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a French force that has not been able to turn the tide. It’s not even a case of whack a mole. For all that we’re spending, we’re not getting much out of it.”

Anyway, Paris can afford to do what is necessary. While trying to convince Washington to stay, France announced plans to deploy an additional six hundred troops to the African Sahel in the wake of the death of thirteen soldiers in a helicopter accident. This augmented the forty-five hundred men already stationed in West Africa. Parly explained: “It’s an important effort for the French Army. The fight against terrorism is our priority.”

Paris also should push its neighbors to act. Some other European governments are contributing to Africa’s efforts in small ways that have their share of shortcomings. The European Union has declared the Sahel to be a “strategic priority.” Washington should refuse to bail out Europe, which has a greater interest in Africa. Esper rejected French complaints about his review: “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.”

Nevertheless, Townsend contended that AFRICOM “accomplishes with a few people and a few dollars, on a continent three-and-a-half times the size of the continental United States, is a bargain for the American taxpayer and low-cost insurance for America in that region.” Coons argued, “I think we would be foolish to ignore a wide-open, lightly governed space that is as big as the continental United States and from which attacks might be launched against Western Europe and the United States.”

However, terrorists can operate from almost anywhere on earth. They don’t need a lot of territory. Washington cannot occupy every empty space. Entangling the United States in endless wars in Africa is no bargain. For instance, last month an attack by al-Shabab on a Kenyan base in Manda Bay, manned by Americans, overcame the Kenyan guards, overran the facility, shot down an aircraft, destroyed several others, killed three Americans, and wounded two others. Washington sent in another one hundred soldiers for security. Townsend admitted that he feared another attack on the base.

America cannot afford to continue doing everything around the world. After meeting France’s defense minister, Esper opined: “My aim is to free up time, money and manpower around the globe, where we currently are so that I can direct it” elsewhere. Such a review is long overdue. Most of America’s forces deployed overseas should come home.

Of course, withdrawals should not stop with Africa. There are some fifty-two hundred troops in Iraq, which that nation’s government wants to see withdrawn. Roughly thirteen thousand remain in Afghanistan, nearly twenty years after Washington first intervened. There is talk that Esper might cut those numbers by twenty-five hundred and four thousand. That would be another good start.

But the administration should begin with Africa and by bringing American forces home. It is time for President Donald Trump to walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to halting endless wars.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Image: Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense