By: Glenn Ojeda
During the fall of 2017, the tragic deaths of four U.S. Green Beret soldiers in the West African country of Niger sparked a debate in Washington D.C. These soldiers were engaged in training and assisting local security forces in counter-terrorism operations when Islamist militants ambushed them. Following the incident, policy debates in Washington centered around what these U.S. soldiers were doing in Niger and whether the United States should be engaged in a country that most people cannot even locate on a map.
The presence of US and French military forces in West Africa is essential to enforce global security and to deny insurgent groups safe havens in the region. Even though the most infamous and commonly referenced terrorist groups are based out of the Middle East, Africa is a major “hotspot” for insurgents. Therefore, the international community must assist national governments on the continent as they combat violent extremism.
One of the key flashpoints for non-state actors, namely political insurgents and violent extremists, on the continent is the region known as the Sahel, which divides northern and sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahel runs from Senegal in the west all the way to Djibouti in the east. Not only does it mark a geographic transition from desert to savanna and eventually rainforest, but also an ethnic or racial transition from Arabs, Moors, and Tuaregs in the north to black sub-Saharan ethnic groups in the south. Likewise, the majority of countries or communities north of the Sahel practice Islam, whereas those to the south practice Christianity and traditional animist religions, which means that the Sahel is a zone of encounter for religious and cultural traditions.
To the multifaceted layout found along the Sahel, one must add the fact that global climate change is drying up the region and expanding the Sahara desert southward. This means that the lifestyle of nomadic and pastoral communities to the north of the Sahel as well as that of farming communities to the south are under threat, which creates economic difficulties and accentuates communal tensions.
In the specific case of West Africa, these social and economic dynamics have led to a sharp increase in insurgent groups and violence. Today, the region has several insurgent fronts including ethno-nationalist groups such as the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in northern Mali, which vindicates a national homeland for a specific ethnic group or peoples. These ethno-nationalist groups are an additional challenge on top of religious extremists in the region, such as AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), MUJAO, and Boko Haram, some of which have pledged allegiance to ISIL or Daesh.
During 2012 and 2013, MNLA and Islamist insurgents, such as Ansar Dine, led a bloody campaign from northern Mali towards the capital city of Bamako, located in the south. This violent conflict, which is still largely unresolved, started because the Tuaregs and Moors in the northern Azawad region desire a larger degree of autonomy from the mainly black sub-Saharan elites living in the more economically and politically relevant southern region, which includes the capital city of Bamako. This social and ethnic tension is similar to that which led to the partition between Sudan and South Sudan in 2011.
The socially and economically divided Mali has proven to be fertile ground for recruitment by violent non-state actors. Ultimately, in January 2013, the threat of an insurgent takeover of Bamako and the totality of Mali had to be stopped by the French military under the orders of President François Hollande. The former French President, whose approval ratings were much higher in West Africa than in France, had to act, despite of his non-interventionist government platform. Otherwise, Mali would have collapsed and neighboring countries would have shortly followed.
This event launched yet another French operation in Africa, this one known as Barkhane, which unified two previous French operations in the region and involved most of France’s military forces throughout the Sahel. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that President Macron’s first trip outside of the European Union was to visit the French military forces stationed in northern Mali.
The case of Mali exemplifies why the United States, France, and other NATO allies must maintain a military presence throughout Africa and the Sahel. Collaboration with African governments and capacity building for their armed forces are essential for weak states, such as Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria, to enhance their counter-terrorism capabilities.
To this end, governments along the Sahel have also taken some matters into their own hands, particularly with the creation of the G5 Sahel Group in February 2014. This group brings together Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad as they seek to strengthen and coordinate security operations in the region. Nevertheless, at least during the near future, these countries will come under increased pressure and risk as weapons and fighters trickle down the Sahara desert from combat zones and terror strongholds, mainly in Libya.
The reasons behind the U.S. military presence in West Africa and the Sahel are numerous and hard to understand. However, leaving the region as the battles in Iraq and Syria are coming to an end would be a grave mistake. Such a move would leave the vast Sahara desert and the porous borders of the Sahel region as a safe haven for insurgents to regroup, train, and renew their terror campaigns.
Glenn Ojeda Vega is an emerging markets consultant focused on Latin America. He was a Boren Scholar focused on West Africa and based in Dakar, Senegal, in 2012-2013. You can read more articles from Glenn here and here.