US military presence in Africa falls under the spotlight

US military presence in Africa falls under the spotlight
The Pentagon is examining the level of support needed for military operations across Africa, which are conducted by the US Africa Command, known as Africom. (Photo: Unsplash / Diego Gonzalez)

Amid rising attacks by Islamic extremists, the American military presence in Africa has come under scrutiny in US policy circles as well as among African analysts.

First published at All Africa.

Some two-thirds of the approximately 6,000 US troops in Africa are stationed at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti City. As many as 800 are deployed in Somalia and Kenya, and another 1,400 are reportedly in West Africa.

Members of the American Congress have voiced concern about indications that the Donald Trump administration is moving towards reduced military engagement on the African continent. Deteriorating security in several African regions has prompted fears of growing instability, as well as fears about the methods used to contain the spreading violence.

“A devastating surge in terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets,” is producing “alarming humanitarian consequences,” Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the United Nations Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel told the Security Council earlier this month. An update issued on 18 January 2020 by the US government-funded Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) says, “militant Islamist groups in Africa set a record pace of activity in 2019”, with attacks doubling since 2013.

The Pentagon is examining the level of support needed for military operations across Africa, which are conducted by the US Africa Command, known as Africom.  Army General, Mark A Milley, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest-ranking officer in the US military, said in February 2020 that he expects the review to be completed within two months.

News of the review has sparked what government relations consultant Riva Levinson calls “bipartisan, bicameral Congressional push-back”. A drawdown of US forces, if implemented, “would be in defiance of the White House’s own Africa policy, of US national security interests in preempting threats to the US homeland and in contravention of commitments to our NATO allies,” Levinson wrote in a column for The Hill.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe, a senior Republican from Oklahoma, opposes a downsizing of Africom, which he says, “provides an enormous value to the nation for an extremely modest level of investment”. In a 16 January 2020 statement, Inhofe said: “Africa has been and must remain a key theatre for our counterterrorism efforts.”

Eleven members of the US House of Representatives have voiced similar concern, led by Armed Services Committee Vice Chair Anthony G Brown, a Maryland Democrat. “Rather than retreat from African affairs, it is in the interest of the United States to continue to share democratic values and military expertise with developing nations across the continent,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on 14 January 2020. The letter argues that US troops are vital for regional stability and for countering terrorism, human trafficking and illegal trade.

Three days later, the chairman and ranking member of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith and Mac Thornberry – the committee’s senior Democrat and Republican, respectively – warned Esper to “carefully consider the adverse implications of reducing our force posture in Africa,” according to MilitaryTimes.

Limited security resources for Africa

The American National Defense Strategy adopted in 2018 allocates military resources first to deterring China in the Indo-Pacific, followed by opposing Russia’s expanding influence and supporting European allies. Those priorities leave fewer resources for Africa, Milley said on 17 January 2020, following a meeting with French Army General Francois Lecointre to discuss the terror threat in west Africa. “But, economy of force doesn’t mean zero, and that’s important,” he added.

“A large-scale pullback from West Africa,” that could shut down operations at the recently completed $110-million US-built drone base in Niger is under consideration by the Pentagon, the New York Times reported in December 2019. The newspaper said the cutback could include ending cooperation with French forces countering the expanding insurgencies in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Those policies could lead to a “significant reduction”, in the number of American intelligence officers posted to Africa, the Times reported in a follow-up story.

A prior pull-out of 700 US troops, mostly from West Africa, was announced by the Pentagon in late 2018 – a 10% reduction in the 7,200 American military personnel then stationed across the continent.

Cutting back on US military resources for Africa “makes little sense”, says career diplomat Phillip Carter III, who served two years as deputy to the Africom commander for civilian-military engagements and was ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea. “Africom is the second-busiest US combatant command, but is also the smallest. It should be enhanced in order to support US national security objectives,” Carter told AllAfrica.

Senator Inhofe said the Defense Department, “is rightly focusing” on China and Russia, but should take into account “that both countries view Africa as a critical battlefield to fulfil their global ambitions and challenge US interests”.

Two other influential senators, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chris Coons, voiced a similar view four days later in a joint letter to Esper. They warned that “any withdrawal or reduction would likely result in a surge in violent extremist attacks on the continent and beyond as well as increase the geopolitical influence of competitors like Russia and China”.

Al-Shabaab Islamic extremists, once focused on Somalia, have spread south into Kenya. Splinters of the Islamic State have been reported in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, in Tanzania in East Africa and in Mozambique in southern Africa.

A 5 January al-Shabaab attack on the Manda Bay Airfield, an oceanfront Kenya Defense Force base on the country’s northern border with Somalia, killed an American soldier and two contractors. At the base, US forces provide counter-terrorism training for African partners in the region. Although neither the US president nor the White House has commented on the attack, Africom responded with stepped-up security measures and a vigorous publicity offensive.

The Africa Command dispatched members of its East Africa Response Force. On 19 January, US forces conducted an airstrike on al-Shabaab fighters “who posed a direct, immediate and significant threat to our partner forces” – a Somali National Army Unit near Bangeeni – Africom said in a press release.

The Manda Bay attack “so alarmed the Pentagon,” the New York Times reported, that 100 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were dispatched to bolster base security. The loss of three Americans was the largest since four US soldiers died in Niger during an ambush in 2017 – and “underscores the American military’s limits on the continent,” which includes limited intelligence capacity, the Times 22 January 2020 article said.

In a guest column submitted to AllAfrica, Africom spokesperson Colonel Christopher Karns dismissed al-Shabaab claims that 17 Americans died in the attack. The insurgents “specialise in lies to create doubt about the international community’s resolve to reduce their influence,” he wrote. “US Africa Command’s cost-effective efforts are helping to keep the United States, Africa, and international partners more secure.”

The challenge in west Africa

Part of the US west African contingent is stationed at a $110-million air base in Agadez, Niger, which became operational two months ago. The facility, built and paid for by the United States, but owned by Niger, is used by the US Air Force to launch armed drones to surveil and target insurgent groups across the Sahel.

US forces in the region provide logistical and air support for France, which has 4,500 troops fighting alongside a G5 Sahel Force that includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Following a G5 Summit in Pau, France on 13 January 2020, where the African presidents endorsed French military support, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he would send another 220 experienced troops to bolster the counter-terror campaign. The six leaders agreed to form a new “Sahel Coalition” to boost coordination between Sahelien forces and the French counter-terrorism mission.

Macron called the African heads of state together after facing public protests in west Africa over the continued French presence as well as criticism at home for problems in the counter-terror campaign, including a November 2019 crash of two helicopters in Mali, which claimed the lives of 13 French troops. A week earlier, 30 Malian soldiers died in an attack in the area bordering Burkina Faso and Niger.

This week, after a recent visit to Chad and Mali, French Defense Minister Florence Parly is in Washington, DC, seeking to convince her American counterparts to maintain support for the multi-national effort in the Sahel.

Casualties from terrorist-attacks rose five-fold since 2016 in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the UN’s Chambas said in his report to the Security Council, adding that, “the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening west African coastal States”.

Nigeria is facing similarly escalating challenges. As Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, it is key to whether the west African region will become more chaotic, or find pathways to peace.

In northeastern Nigeria and the border areas it shares with Niger, Chad and Cameroon, Boko Haram and its offshoots – including the ascendant Islamic State in West Africa – are widely estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions. Seven million people in three Nigerian states are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

“There has been a notable resurgence of Boko Haram activities across the three Northeast states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, and especially around Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, trying to cut it off from surrounding cities and environs,” according to a special report by Nigeria’s Daily Trust, published 26 January 2020, which adds, “the insurgents are becoming more daring”.

Vehicles travelling on the main traffic artery into Maiduguri are regularly attacked, with Nigerians on Twitter complaining that optimistic statements about the road’s safety by military spokespeople are lies. A 20 January attack took Maiduguri off the power grid.

The same day, a United Nations-run displaced persons camp serving 55,000 people at Ngala near the Cameroon border was hit. The UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs said the aid hub, “was the direct target of a complex assault”, which killed at least a dozen people, burned a section of the camp and destroyed one of the only UN vehicles available for distributing food and supplies.

Military solution or dialogue?

A single strategy for building peace is seldom seen as viable. But whether to lead with military might, or with addressing underlying causes of conflict is a critical choice.

While policymakers proffer various strategies for combating extremist violence, there is general agreement among African researchers, analysts and peace activists that military solutions are insufficient at best – and often counter-productive. To be effective, UN peace envoy Chambas told the Security Council, “counter-terrorism responses must focus on gaining the trust and support of local populations”.

Africom’s reliance on drone strikes “is just playing whack-a-mole”, tweeted Hussein Sheikh-Ali, a former Somali national security adviser and founder of the Mogadishu-based Hiraal Institute research centre. He advocates dialogue with al-Shabaab as the only viable path to peace, telling the Washington Post: “I believe that this strategy will not in any way affect al-Shabaab’s short- or long-term capabilities.”

Al-Shabaab “forms part of Somalia’s socio-political fabric”, according to Roselyne Omondi, a conflict and peace researcher, and associate director of the Nairobi-based HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Unlike in Kenya, where al-Shabab is a stubborn stain on the Kenyan social fabric,” in Somalia – she writes – the group collects taxes and provides services, such as sanitation, improved roads and security.

Rather than reducing spending on counter-terrorism efforts in Africa, the US, she says, should review its policy, “and revise it in ways that will help to counter violent extremism in the two countries, and, by extension, the region”.

The Africom commander, US Marine Corps General Thomas D Waldhauser, is also pressing for using military force as a complement to other approaches, rather than as the solution, telling the US Congress that “very few, if any, of Africa’s challenges can be resolved using only military force. Consequently, US Africa Command emphasizes military support to diplomacy and development efforts”. When his successor, US Army General Stephen J Townsend, testifies on Capitol Hill in a few weeks, he will likely be asked to elaborate on how Africom is employing non-lethal actions, alongside drones and training, to fulfil its mission.

A range of actions beyond armed response is required to address not only the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, but also the escalating conflict between farming and herding communities over scarce land and water, Dr Jibrin Ibrahim, a leading Nigerian peace and conflict specialist, said in an AllAfrica interview.

One vital “pathway to peace” lies with the civilian population, said Ibrahim, a Senior Fellow and former Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, who chairs the editorial board and writes a column for Premium Times. Local leaders, especially religious leaders, have an important role to play in conflict resolution and diminishing the recruitment efforts of extremist groups.

The recent rise in al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya and Somalia could lead to African security planners, “rethinking their counter-terrorism policy”, the East African reported on 20 January 2020. “In a year when the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) is considering reducing its troops in Somalia, al-Shabaab has launched several assaults in the two countries since December 2019, killing at least 130 people.” The article says that “some experts think Amisom and partners like the US have been too focused on the armed efforts to tame al-Shabaab”.

After a year-long reporting project focused on “Countering militancy in the Sahel: What works? What doesn’t?”, the New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News) listed “amnesty and demobilisation schemes backed by financial and vocational support for surrendering fighters”, as essential ingredients for a successful peacebuilding strategy.

Yemi Adamolekun, head of the good governance and accountability organisation Enough Is Enough Nigeria, says, “part of why Nigeria is unpeaceful is huge amounts of poverty: people fighting over scarce resources, insecurity, distrust – people desperate to survive”. Only when human needs are addressed, she says, can troubled nations such as Nigeria build peace. DM


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