As the Pentagon looks to redistribute and possibly draw down its troops in Africa, it should consider not trimming but boosting its presence in the continent’s western region.
Why is West Africa so important to America’s interests? Made up of more than a dozen countries and with a population larger than that of the United States, the region is host to several transnational threats, including Islamic extremism, criminal activities, and pandemic vulnerabilities. Left uncontained, any of these threats could travel to American shores.
Think back to the West Africa Ebola outbreak that threatened to spread around the world from 2014 to 2016. That only 11 people were ultimately treated for the disease in the United States is the direct result of a rapid, coordinated global response, which itself was largely due to the longstanding presence in the region of U.S. organizations and their international associates. With the coronavirus rapidly spreading across the world, West Africa is particularly vulnerable right now to becoming a major hub for the disease to grab hold and further disseminate globally.
As for terrorism, U.S. troops provide critical assistance to regional and allied forces fighting militants in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. These threats have increased dramatically over the last year more than doubling militant Islamist activity from 2013. And in the last month there has been unprecedented escalations of violence in the region. U.S. train-and-assist programs, intelligence sharing, and logistical support are necessary to keep terrorists with destructive international ambitions from establishing safe havens in what might otherwise be militant-controlled areas. Nor does the United States shoulder the burden alone. Senegal and France, among others, have been active and resolute partners in this work.
Beyond transnational threats, West Africa also holds some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Farming is the primary economic activity for many of the people living in West Africa—three-quarters of the labor force in Niger and 80 percent in Mali are engaged in agriculture. American support to agricultural growth now helps build tomorrow’s trade partners. In fact, the World Bank estimates that the African food market could be worth as much as $1 trillion by 2030. That represents a massive opportunity for U.S. producers.
Yet the United States is not the only major international player in West Africa. As noted by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, China’s increasing presence on the African continent represents a geostrategic challenge. Public opinion polls in Africa confirm this. A 2016 poll by Afrobarometer found that favorable views of China were most prevalent in Mali, Niger, and Liberia. Additionally, China was seen as a greater external influence than the United States. In the competition with Beijing, Washington is already losing the hearts and minds of Africa’s populace. American influence in the region will only be further damaged if we reduce the U.S. military footprint, which is often a critical precondition for further U.S. engagement in the form of aid, travel, and commercial enterprise.
Without the United States, West African countries may very well turn more toward China for support, and Beijing may turn more toward supporting leaders less interested in building and supporting democracy and upholding basic human rights. As a result, the weaker democracies in West Africa could quickly slide more toward the autocratic and lawless tendencies of their counterparts in East Africa, with all the expected outcomes in terms of increased violence and oppression. Let’s not forget that the United States has a national interest and obligation as the world’s global leader to promote its values of stability, development, and human rights.
Over the last decade, the United States has put forth considerable aid and efforts aimed at stabilization. For example, five of the 12 target countries for Feed the Future, USAID’s flagship agricultural development program, are located in the region. Feed the Future seeks to give people the tools to lift themselves out of poverty and food insecurity via agricultural improvements. Investment in agriculture has been found to be more effective at eradicating poverty and instability than investment in any other sector.
However, regional food security and agricultural development are threatened by ongoing conflicts. In Niger, Feed the Future notes, conflicts “make local populations more receptive and vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups active in the region.” This concern is echoed by an Food and Agriculture Organization report on Niger in 2019. Armed violence and inter-community conflict are highlighted as reasons for food-security concerns—especially conflict emanating from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The report notes that thousands of people have already been displaced due to these conditions. Displacement from one’s community and land, even if temporary, means the loss of one’s main source of livelihood. This loss can be dangerous. According to the World Bank, nearly 40 percent of people who join rebel movements are motivated by a lack of economic opportunity.
What could more U.S. troops do?
Its longstanding presence in the region gives the United States a choice: support growth and prosperity, or allow further conflict, radicalization, and instability. The best answer, as outlined in a recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on China’s rising influence in Africa, is intensified investment in the region, especially in agricultural development. These development efforts need to come with consistent and adequate security support, and no one is better at that than the U.S. military.
Military presence, training, and operations in the region are preconditions for growth and prosperity because they curb the effects of violence and criminal activities from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other extremist elements.
Importantly, counterterrorism efforts do not only support and protect regional security and stability efforts. The operations also take the fight to violent extremist organizations. Since September 11, 2001, America’s forward operating strategy has prevented large-scale foreign terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Nor should the U.S. fear that it is shouldering the lion’s share of the region’s security burden. Washington has been calling for U.S. partners and allies to do more globally in the fight against extremism, and in West Africa this is in fact the case. France, which leads international counterterrorism efforts in the region, currently has about three times more troops there than does the United States. Yet U.S. forces are still needed to provide critical intelligence, surveillance, and logistical support. Let’s not pull back from a relationship that is working just to save a bit of money.
America’s interests and unique security partnerships in West Africa argue for sending more, not fewer troops. This would reassure U.S. partners in Africa and European allies that Washington will not leave them to fend for themselves. The move would bolster American credibility around the world, adding another advantage on top of the substantive security and economic opportunities that would materialize as a result.
Make no mistake; extremists, terror organizations, and other strategic competitors like China and Russia are watching every move made by America’s military. Those nation states and extremist organizations would welcome a U.S. military reduction in West Africa to seed their shadowy values and influence, undermine food security and development efforts, create dependencies among local leaders, and allow openings for foreign terrorism to return to the United States. Now is not the time to give U.S. adversaries and competitors the opportunity to further their objectives and make America less safe.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.