Despite the historically low-priority status of sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S. military, the U.S. security focus on the region will continue to grow given the systemic weaknesses that militant groups exploit there.
The use of a light footprint strategy — including special operations forces, drones, and cooperation with local partners and allies such as France — will enable the United States to project force at minimal cost.
Although President Donald Trump's administration opposes funding multinational efforts such as U.N. peacekeeping missions, the U.S. military will continue to emphasize local partnerships with nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa has long been a low priority for the United States. Since taking office in January, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has confirmed that status, cutting foreign aid budgets that disproportionately affect Africa and turning its focus to other issues and areas. Yet events in recent weeks have magnified the region's prominence in U.S. foreign policy. On Sept. 24, for example, the Trump administration added Chadian nationals to the list of people facing travel restrictions. Four U.S. service members died in Niger the following week during a mission with local troops. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently visited Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And on Oct. 20, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly told senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military would increase its counterterrorism activities in sub-Saharan Africa, loosen rules of engagement and give commanders in the field more decision-making power. Despite the Trump administration's actions, the region now appears to be receiving more attention from U.S. policymakers.
A Rising Security Priority
U.S. military investment in sub-Saharan Africa has been quietly growing for years. This October, in fact, marked the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), one of nine unified combatant commands. The continent has been a key testing ground for the U.S. military's "small footprint" strategy, which emphasizes partnerships with local forces and cooperation with allies such as France. The strategy also stresses the role of special operations forces, drones and training facilities known as Cooperative Security Locations or "lily pads" in an effort to avoid the perception of an overbearing, neocolonial U.S. military presence. (Washington tried to establish a permanent headquarters on the continent when it first rolled out AFRICOM but moved its main offices to Germany after populations and governments in Africa pushed back against the idea.)
As the U.S. military's interest in sub-Saharan Africa has grown, its priorities in the region have shifted. The United States initially focused on East Africa — and particularly on the fight against the al-Qaeda affiliated militant group al Shabaab. In Somalia, U.S. military trainers have provided extensive assistance to the Somali army and to the multinational African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM. But over the past several years, West Africa has started drawing more of the United States' attention. The chaos that consumed Libya after the fall of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 spilled over into nearby Mali, along with militants and weapons. In 2013, an offensive from allied jihadist and Tuareg nationalist forces prompted France to intervene to bolster the Malian army and keep the West African country from collapse, with considerable logistical support from the U.S. military. The incident opened the Pentagon's eyes to the glaring security risks in the Sahel, the ecological transition zone between the Sahara and the savannah that traditionally has fallen in France's sphere of influence. Putting aside their Cold War rivalry in the region, Paris and Washington began working together more closely in sub-Saharan Africa.
Resistance From Washington
The Trump administration, however, may set a limit on the partnership. For months Washington has oscillated between wariness and hostility at the prospect of backing the Sahel joint force, a counterterrorism effort made up of battalions from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Though Trump has pledged $60 million to the project, he has also indicated his displeasure with funding multinational efforts. France, which has devoted considerable resources to help establish the force since President Emmanuel Macron came to power, is getting frustrated with the lack of financial and political support from the United States. During a trip to Washington in mid-October, the French defense minister reportedly asked the United States to increase its assistance for the Sahel joint force, stating that Paris was looking for a long-term strategy to ease its security burden in the region.
Trump's distaste for funding programs such as U.N. peacekeeping missions, combined with the reports that the Pentagon wants to increase its activities in Africa, makes for an interesting contradiction. Nevertheless, the current administration is unlikely to break with its predecessors' policies, which tried to minimize U.S. military action in favor of local solutions. Senior officials in the U.S. armed forces overwhelmingly agree on the need to keep investing in local partnerships, even as Trump pushes for more aggressive action against militant groups around the world. Considering that the Sahel — a region whose vast, isolated terrain falls largely under the governance of poor, weak states — will struggle indefinitely with instability, maintaining this strategy is essential. Increased activity in sub-Saharan Africa, moreover, comes with unavoidable risks for U.S. policymakers. To strengthen forces in Niger, for example, U.S. service members will have to accompany their local counterparts on potentially dangerous missions, much as they have in Somalia. And the inherent environmental and logistical challenges that await them in the desolate lands of the Sahel will raise the odds of complications or casualties.
The rise of terrorism has driven home the reality that the United States can't afford to disregard sub-Saharan Africa. Though the continent has long been low on Washington's list of priorities, the recent proliferation of militant groups in the Sahel offers a stark reminder that the United States ignores the region at its own peril.