Resetting U.S. West Africa Policy

Resetting U.S. West Africa Policy

After a setback in Niger, the United States must forge more resilient alliances in Africa to secure long-term interests.


The United States’ defense strategy in North and West Africa seldom gets the media attention it deserves. A recent decision by Niger’s ruling military junta to suspend its military cooperation with the United States, and its pivot towards Russia, signals that it’s at a critical juncture. Taking the correct steps to address this development is crucial.

It won’t be easy, however. Niger’s pivot, set against the backdrop of the disintegrating G5 Sahel alliance, rising security threats, and escalating great power competition, underscores the need for a comprehensive reassessment and recalibration of the U.S. approaches to strategic partnerships in the region.


For too long, American engagement in Africa relied on a narrow set of partners and a uniform model of security cooperation. While this approach has yielded successes, such as the neutralization of vital al-Shabaab leaders in Somalia through U.S. partner-supported missions, it has also left us vulnerable to shocks, as the Niger episode demonstrates. The loss of the Agadez airbase, which supported American efforts across the Sahel, significantly diminishes the United States’ regional counterterrorism capabilities.

The unraveling of the G5 Sahel, a regional counterterrorism alliance supported by the United States, underscores the limitations of relying on a narrow set of partners. Despite the United States’ contributions in the form of training, equipment, and financial support, the G5 Sahel has struggled to effectively address transnational threats, as evidenced by the continued expansion of terrorist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. The recent decisions by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to leave the alliance further highlight the need for a more adaptive approach to strategic partnerships in the region.

To secure its long-term interests, the United States should prioritize establishing and nurturing partnerships with robust, sustainable partners with shared interests akin to those based elsewhere on the continent. This requires working with countries that possess the capability, stability, and political will to be influential allies in the long term, ensuring that cooperation is tailored to their unique security needs and political contexts.

Integral to this strategic framework is retaining competent rapid response forces in Africa. Supported by a network of expeditionary bases and logistics hubs, these forces are essential for conducting counterterrorism missions and responding swiftly to crises. This operational flexibility, crucial on land, air, and sea, underpins U.S. strategy of maintaining a versatile maritime presence to safeguard vital commerce routes, counter illicit networks, and secure offshore infrastructure critical to the region’s economic prosperity.

The significance of this maritime strategy is highlighted by the substantial volume of global trade that passes through West African waters annually, which was made more significant in the aftermath of the disruption of the Red Sea traffic by Houthi attacks. The recent deployment of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams to the Gulf of Guinea exemplifies the adaptable, regionally-focused assets needed to enhance deterrence and counter illicit trafficking, showcasing how maritime security efforts are deeply interconnected with broader American goals of stability and security in the region.

However, recalibration of the United States’ posture may involve navigating challenging decisions and inherent risks. Striking the right balance between maintaining existing security cooperation frameworks and forging new ones will require careful consideration of each country’s capabilities, stability, and alignment with the United States’ interests. While some partners may offer strategic advantages, their limited capacities or political complexities could constrain the depth of engagement. Nevertheless, exploring these opportunities is essential to building a more resilient and adaptive presence in the region.

One potential avenue is expanding cooperation with partners such as Mauritania. Its strategic location and counterterrorism experience make it a valuable prospective asset. Despite the unraveling of the G5 Sahel, Mauritania’s recent success in preventing terrorist attacks on its soil and its active participation in regional counterterrorism efforts demonstrate its commitment to combating extremism.

Strengthening security cooperation with Nouakchott could enhance the United States’ regional capabilities and provide a bulwark against the southward spread of instability. While the challenges of enhancing Mauritania’s military capabilities and infrastructure are significant, the strategic benefits of such investments may well justify the effort required to deepen U.S. engagement.

Morocco stands out as a particularly promising avenue for expanded U.S. regional partnerships. The Trump administration significantly strengthened the U.S.-Moroccan relationship by brokering a historic agreement normalizing relations with Israel and recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. These diplomatic milestones, combined with Morocco’s strong military capabilities, proven counterterrorism cooperation, and strategic location along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, make it a linchpin for U.S. security efforts in North and West Africa.

Moreover, the annual African Lion exercise, the largest U.S. Africa Command exercise, is a testament to the enduring security partnership between the two countries. Leveraging Morocco’s advantages, such as potentially hosting AFRICOM assets recently advanced by U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), could significantly enhance the United States’ crisis response capabilities and regional deterrence. The next administration could build on the trust established during the Trump presidency to negotiate an expanded scope of partnership with Morocco in alignment with both countries’ regional objectives.

The United States must consider its longstanding military ties with European allies such as Spain, which hosts vital assets at Naval Station Rota and Morón Air Base. An expanded presence by the United States in North and West Africa should be pursued in a manner that complements, rather than detracts from, these existing commitments. By explaining that strengthened U.S. cooperation with Mauritania or Morocco can be a pillar of regional stability that bolsters collective security, the United States could assuage any potential concerns among its Spanish partners.

Implementing this shift will require a concerted effort from the U.S. Department of Defense to update its global force posture plans and from the U.S. Department of State to intensify diplomatic engagement to forge new or expanded partnerships. Congress must provide the necessary authorities and resources to enable this adaptive approach. Though formidable, these bureaucratic challenges pale compared to the risks of inertia in the face of the changing regional geopolitical landscape.

Overreliance on a static set of partners leaves the United States vulnerable to disruption while ceding the initiative to great power competitors risks perpetuating instability and undercutting long-term American interests. The setback in Niger should catalyze a reimagining of how the United States pursues its objectives in the region.

By committing to adaptive and sustainable partnerships, such as expanding cooperation with strategically located countries like Morocco and Mauritania, the United States will secure its interests and promote regional security.

Amine Ghoulidi is a Visiting Fellow at the Allison Center for National Security at The Heritage Foundation.