The withdrawal of US troops from West Africa will affect the region as well as the militarisation in Africa

A Nigerien security agent participates in a simulated raid on a militant camp during the U.S. sponsored Flintlock exercises in Ouallam, Niger April 18, 2018
A Nigerien security agent participates in a simulated raid on a militant camp during the U.S. sponsored Flintlock exercises in Ouallam, Niger April 18, 2018 (Reuters)

The Pentagon is considering a significant reduction or complete withdrawal of US troops from West African countries, as the first phase of its global redeployment of military forces, the New York Times revealed. 

As much as it symbolises a significant shift in the US foreign policy, the decision will most likely affect geopolitics and security in West Africa. 

The vast Sahel region has been gripped by violence since 2012, in addition to instability and poverty. A loosely aligned network of militant groups has been causing security problems across the entire region, stretching across Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

The withdrawal of the US military presence will put an end to cooperation with local troops in counter-terrorism operations, as well as a recently built $110 million drone base in Niger, the largest construction project of its kind ever taken by US air forces. 

 It will also put an end to the US support for French military operations in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso against various militant groups aligned to Daesh and Al Qaeda. 

For the US, the decision to withdraw marks a drastic shift in its foreign policy. After the September 11 attacks, the US had launched a “War on Terror”, vowing to crush the militant groups globally. Shifting its resources to fighting terrorism, the US has deployed thousands of its military forces to dozens of countries and conducted operations across the globe.

However, after 18 years and trillions of dollars spent, the US President who promised to end US’ “endless wars abroad”, is pushing the Pentagon to focus on confronting arch-rivals, Russia and China.  

The establishment of AFRICOM

 Established by George W. Bush in 2007, the new military command for Africa, AFRICOM, is designed to “help Africa improve its own stability and security through good governance, the rule of law and economic opportunity”.

 However many point out that the creation of the military command was aimed at securing the flow of resources, especially oil from West Africa. 

US Special Forces helped local troops in West African countries to develop counter-terrorism skills and tackle threats from al Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahel and Boko Haram factions, which have pledged allegiance to Daesh. 

Washington has long seen the Sahel as a security threat but involvement increased in 2012 when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely-aligned militant groups seized the northern two-thirds of Mali.  

The following year saw French intervention in Mali consisting of 4,500 strong troops. The US government provided logistical and intelligence support at an annual cost of about $45 million a year. 

However, rather than stabilising, security has progressively worsened with militants strengthening their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and fuelling ethnic tensions. 

As relations between the two Nato power became strained, the withdrawal of the US’ military presence in West Africa seems to leave a hole that France could struggle to fill. 

Although the Trump administration claims the withdrawal aims to focus on countering Russia and China, the presence of Russian and Chinese military forces is growing in the continent. While the Russian military becomes an important actor in many countries, notably in the Central African Republic, China is using its military base in Djibouti to expand its influence across the region as a part of Belt and Road Initiative. 

In this file photo taken on July 25, 2016 American soldiers of 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division take position near a hut during a combined training exercise with Senegalese 1st Paratrooper Battalion in Thies.
In this file photo taken on July 25, 2016 American soldiers of 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division take position near a hut during a combined training exercise with Senegalese 1st Paratrooper Battalion in Thies. (AFP)

Has the US military been successful in Africa?

However, most Americans did not have any idea that their country is fighting in West Africa where it has between 6,000 and 7,000 troops; until a Niger ambush made it to the headlines. 

The ambush that left four American soldiers, the US military’s largest loss of life in combat in Africa since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia prompting questions among the US public.

Even though, the US military insisted that it has “a light footprint” in Africa, various reports shed a light on secretive operations across the continent. 

In 2017 Vice News revealed that US troops carried out nearly 3,500 exercises and programs in at least 33 countries, ranging from counter-terrorism operations to training local troops. 

The Intercept also reported that the US has 34 outposts across the continent from East to West Africa. 

But as the US military presence drastically increased over the past decade, so have terrorist attacks. 

Terror-related incidents in West Africa have gone from 41 in 2006 to 2,498 in 2017. 

Not just terror-related incidents, but the scale of violence has rapidly increased as well. 

In northeastern Nigeria, Amnesty International report revealed that US-backed and trained Nigerian military forces starved, suffocated and extrajudicially executed more than 8,000 people, most of whom were victims of Boko Haram. 

“They [Nigerian soldiers] have arbitrarily arrested at least 20,0001 people, mostly young men and boys; and have committed countless acts of torture. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Nigerians, have become victims of enforced disappearance”, the report said. 

Moreover, dozens of US-trained military personnel have been accused of human rights abuses. 

The brutality of conduct by US and French-trained troops in the region has led to increasing animosity towards the two states.

In 2018, thousands of people in Ghana protested against the government’s deal with the US which would allow a US military presence in the West African country. 

“They [the American military] become a curse everywhere they are, and I am not ready to mortgage my security,” Gifty Yankson, a 49-year-old trader said. 

Mauritania ended its US military training program, Politico reported, as US General Donald Bolduc said, “Mauritania was never comfortable with what they signed up for”. 

Back in Niger where the largest US air force base has been established, Souleymane Mohamed, a tribal elder who heads the association of traditional chiefs in the city of Agadez, said the US military is “a magnet for the terrorists”. 

Even a report sponsored by AFRICOM said, that the US military in Africa “has largely failed to achieve its goals”.

As militant groups strengthen their foothold across the region, the withdrawal of US troops will have an effect on security in West Africa, and may well give competing powers, such as Russia and China, an opportunity to fill the gap. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies