Time to change US policy toward Niger and its West African neighbors
There are three main problems—including that it's not working.
The coup in Niger last week should be a wake-up call for U.S. policymakers: the current approach to security in West Africa isn’t working. The United States is using too much force against too little threat in the region. Leaders must resist the temptation to escalate in the current crisis. Instead, they should draw down forces from Niger, limit missions to reconnaissance, and focus on peacemaking in conflict zones.
Today, there are about 1,100 U.S. soldiers in Niger on two bases. These troops are the centerpiece to a decade-long U.S. effort to fight terrorist groups affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Niger and West Africa generally. U.S. special forces train, assist, and accompany Nigerien forces on combat missions against local jihadists. These missions are not risk-free for U.S. soldiers. In 2017, four U.S. commandos died in an ambush near Tongo Tongo.
There are three problems with U.S. policy toward West Africa.
First, U.S. force against these groups is unnecessary, for they lack the intent and capability to attack the United States. Their affiliations with ISIS or al-Qaeda are generally meant to increase recruits and raise their profile, not gather resources to strike the West. Their records tell the tale, experts say: groups that strike only regionally pose no global threat. No West African terrorist group has ever planned or attempted a strike against the United States or its allies. ISIS in Greater Sahara, Ansaroul Islam, and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin have been around for nearly a decade, but they attack targets only in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. These groups aren’t global menaces to U.S. security. Instead, they are insurgencies with local interests centered on toppling local governments. And yet, U.S. troops are in harm’s way fighting wars against them.
Second, U.S. policy isn’t working in West Africa. Despite U.S. troops’ valiant efforts, terrorism has exploded in the region since U.S. operations began there in 2013. Terrorist attacks in the region increased seven-fold between 2017 and 2020. Last year, attacks increased by 36 percent regionally and 43 percent in Niger alone, a point Niger’s military used to justify last week’s coup. In short, U.S. forces are on the frontlines of a perilous losing cause in West Africa.
And third, the potential for U.S. escalation runs high. U.S. partners in the Economic Community of West African States have applied sanctions and are threatening military intervention to reverse last week’s coup. Direct U.S. military participation here is unlikely. But if ECOWAS succeeds in reversing the coup (by sanctions or force), the United States will inevitably help with the domestic stabilization efforts that follow. In short, Washington could be headed toward nation-building in a place—Niger—where it has no strategic interests. That isn’t good for U.S. national security.
What should U.S. policymakers do?
First, the United States should withdraw its troops from Niger and end advise/assist/accompany missions for U.S. special operators in West Africa. Too little threat and the danger of escalation today justify retrenchment.
Second, the United States should move the airbase in Niger to a more stable West African country—perhaps, Ghana or Senegal—and limit its efforts to gathering intelligence that could help indicate when a West African terrorist group might become a global-reach threat. If such transitions occur, the base could also be used for necessary future strikes, like the one that killed ISIS leader Bilal al-Sidani earlier this year in Somalia.
Finally, if the United States really wants to help West Africa, it needs to center policy on the local dynamics of West African conflicts. This requires greater attention not to force but humanitarian aid and peacebuilding, which would deliver more help at far lower cost.
The coup in Niger offers an important opportunity to adjust current U.S. policy in West Africa. Let’s hope policymakers have the imagination and courage to seize the moment.
C. William “Will” Walldorf, Jr. is Associate Professor and Shivley Family Faculty Fellow at Wake Forest University as well as a Visiting Fellow at Defense Priorities.