Close to 10 years after the French military intervention pushed al-Qaida affiliated fighters out of northern Mali, the Sahel region continues to make headlines with the world’s fastest growing Islamist insurgency and one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises. Across the region, insecurity and socio-political instability continue to reach new heights. Yet, unrelenting setbacks in the fight against terrorism are undermining political support for international actors within a region where a donor “traffic jam” is currently at play. For these reasons, a change in international policy toward the Sahel is not only necessary, it has become inevitable.

An American Special Forces sergeant and Nigerien forces on April 14, 2019, in Agadez, Niger, during a joint training exercise with several African countries’ militaries. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/The New York Times)
An American Special Forces sergeant and Nigerien forces on April 14, 2019, in Agadez, Niger, during a joint training exercise with several African countries’ militaries. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/The New York Times)

More importantly, it is high time the United States rethink its strategy in the region. With less counterterrorism-related activities and better, targeted diplomatic efforts, the United States would more successfully avert political and security crises in the Sahel. By the same token, the United States would regain its strategic relevance in Africa in a time of global distress.

What Went Wrong: An Overly Militaristic Approach

Over the years, Sahel countries, which include Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad, have received substantial U.S. security assistance under the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) policy instrument. The TSCTP was created in 2005 as a multi-agency effort to assist partner countries in West and North Africa in addressing domestic terrorist threats. Through the TSCTP, U.S. foreign policy in the Sahel — in theory — takes a holistic approach which addresses political, development, socioeconomic and governance challenges. In reality, the United States’ engagement in the Sahel has been overly militaristic, as proven by the millions of dollars of yearly spending in security assistance and institutional support for domestic warfare against militant groups in the region. Unfortunately, the U.S.-backed wars against terror in the region have more than often resulted in civilian casualties, pervasive human rights abuse and widespread corruption. In February, Human Rights Watch reported more than 600 unlawful killings since 2019 committed by the security forces of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso during counterterrorism operations.

In September 2020, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General released an unclassified audit of TSCTP efforts, concluding that inadequate oversight of contracts and activities managed by the State Department’s bureau of African Affairs has led to mismanagement of funds and complete inefficiency of TSCTP programs. The audit report concludes that TSCTP spending — over $1 billion since 2005 — is “wasteful” and that the department has “limited assurance that TSCTP is achieving its goals of building counterterrorism capacity and addressing the underlying drivers of radicalization in West and North Africa.” Since its inception, the TSCTP has received similar criticism from the Government Accountability Office warning that “documents used in planning the activities do not prioritize proposed activities or identify milestones needed to measure progress or make improvements.” 

The shortcomings of the TSCTP highlight a deep conceptual fault, one that makes it almost impossible to measure the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism on foreign soil. In the Sahel, the United States has provided the French military with critical intelligence and logistical support. The recent visit of France’s minister of defense to Washington confirms the importance of U.S. presence in the region. During her visit, Minister Florence Parly explained very explicitly how France’s military operations in the region would suffer should Washington remove the much needed intelligence and logistical support it currently provides to its French counterpart in West Africa. As such, a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Africa would be highly undesirable. However, as France remains the lead on counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, the opportunity arises for the United States to become a diplomatic leader in the region.

Four Ways to Reorient U.S. Foreign Policy in the Sahel

The United States' foreign policy apparatus is not currently organized properly to deal with the humanitarian, development and security issues of the Sahel. For the problems of the Sahel to not outrun Washington’s reactive efforts as they have in the past, the United States needs to change the way foreign policy bureaus conduct business.

1. Recognize the connections between political and security developments in North Africa and the Sahel and reorganize accordingly.

There is a need for reorganization at the State Department, which places North African countries into the Africa Bureau. Terrorist groups like Ansar Dine, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun have their roots in Algeria and operate across the borders of several countries of northern Africa. Particularly since Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, arms and fighters have flowed into the Sahel from Libya, which in turn is now the favored route for trafficking people and drugs from the Sahel to Europe. Drugs, human trafficking and poaching finance both disaffected groups as well as terrorists and criminal organizations. Yet the U.S. State Department continues to divide the region into two bureaus, linking North Africa to the Middle East not to sub-Saharan Africa.

While the Department of Defense has taken steps to operate regionally across these borders, the State Department provides no comparable counterpart. The rationale for separating North Africa from the Africa Bureau, taken in the Kissinger era, was that the North African countries were important to and actively engaged in Middle East diplomacy, particularly between Israel and the Arab world. That might have been true then, but it is largely no longer their focus. Although Morocco and Sudan signed U.S.-brokered normalization agreements with Israel last year, all North African countries — save Egypt in part — are consumed today with problems of stability, extremism, terrorism and criminal activity, tying them more to the countries to their south than to the east.

2. Develop a single U.S. aid program for the Sahel, avoiding stove-piped efforts.

U.S. programs are divided by function between drug trafficking, protection of wildlife, development and security and are primarily bilateral rather than regional. A positive step forward would be for the Biden administration to request Congress to appropriate a single Sahel aid program, which can be apportioned as needed between bilateral and regional programs, for addressing transnational crime, environmental resilience and development.

3. Develop economic opportunities in the region.

By utilizing such structures as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Club du Sahel, the United Nations and regional African structures, the United States can more effectively direct efforts on such plans as regeneration of the Lake Chad basin and other programs that provide more economic opportunity across the region, an area often neglected in U.S foreign policy in the Sahel.

4. Assert U.S. diplomatic leadership in the Sahel.

The United States only recently created a special envoy for the Sahel position. The special envoy is first and foremost tasked with “maximizing U.S. diplomatic efforts to address the threat of Violent Extremist Organizations.” The special envoy also “engages actively in support of governance, political liberalization, economic growth and development to achieve long-term peace and stability in the region.” Dr. J. Peter Pham was the first-ever U.S. special envoy for the Sahel when he was appointed in March 2020 by the Trump administration. He remains to be replaced by the Biden administration. A central piece to the coordination of American diplomatic efforts in the region, the new Sahel envoy should be a highly regarded professional with strong relationships both in Washington and the region. While Pham reported to the State Department, the new envoy’s position could be upgraded to a U.S. presidential envoy for the Sahel, like John Kerry’s appointment as U.S. presidential envoy for the climate, which would sit at the National Security Council and could directly influence U.S. foreign policy in a holistic manner. This would certainly send a strong signal to regional leaders and international partners alike. Qualified staff and adequate resources should also make for a successful envoy. 

At the epicenter of the Sahel’s multilayered crises, Mali has been in turmoil since a military coup toppled a democratically elected president in 2012. History repeated itself in August 2020 when another military takeover removed democratically elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Following the coup, a transitional government was put in place and a new president appointed. At the U.N. Security Council in early April, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations urged Mali to hold free and fair elections at the end of the 18-month transition period. While the United States’ recent remarks at the Security Council did not go unnoticed by Malian officials, Washington has remained extremely cautious in statements condemning key destabilizing events in the region. Asserting U.S. diplomatic leadership in the Sahel will require unambiguous U.S. positioning through clear and targeted statements and strategic leverage of U.S. representation at the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, commonly referred to as ECOWAS.

Keeping in mind that localized conflicts and terrorist threats are better tackled by national and regional entities, it is still time for the United States to recast its Sahel policy. Due to weak militaries, porous borders and fragile states, international assistance has been essential in the region. However, it will not hurt the United States nor its Sahelian partners to redirect funds toward a cleverly articulated diplomatic architecture. Continuing a policy overly focused on militarized counterterrorism won’t cut it. Enhancing and expanding diplomatic efforts in Washington and in the region will certainly be a step in the right direction.

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