On October 26, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) forced a debate and vote on the U.S. military presence in Niger. The Senate overwhelmingly voted to keep our troops in that troubled country. There has been an increased focus on Africa due to widespread instability and a contest between superpowers for the continent. The presence of U.S. troops puts Americans in danger while failing to solve any of Africa’s problems.
During the Cold War era, the United States mostly relied on “soft power” in Africa, but U.S. military presence has continued to increase over the past 30 years. It is time to acknowledge that the U.S. military presence in Africa is a failure, bring our troops home, and replace violence with diplomacy and commerce. It is the right thing for America and the best thing for Africa.
Prior to the advent of the Global War on Terrorism, U.S. military actions in Africa were primarily evacuating American nationals in times of crisis, something which they did on many occasions due to frequent volatility. The first major U.S. deployment was the United Nations Operation in Somalia, which has transformed into one of the longest conflicts in American history while failing to make Somalia secure. The U.S. footprint has continued to expand; currently the largest U.S. base in Africa is in the small Red Sea nation of Djibouti, while there is also an enormous and expensive drone base in Agadez, Niger in the central Sahel. Further, the United States trains troops around the continent, having commandos deployed to at least 22 African nations in 2022.
When U.S. troops were first permanently deployed to Africa following 9/11 there were no known transnational terrorist organizations on the continent. The United States got a better excuse for its presence after the Islamic Courts Union took control of Somalia in 2006. The ICU were then expelled by an Ethiopian-led invasion, leaving in their wake an offshoot known as Al-Shabab which later pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. Following the Ethiopian invasion, the United Nations authorized the African Union Mission in Somalia [ANISOM] which the United States has supported since it began in 2007 with a large air and ground presence.
Radical Islamic terrorism did not spread across Africa in earnest until the 2010s, when it was greatly spurred by U.S. and NATO actions across North Africa and the Middle East. Most notably, when a NATO coalition overthrew Libya’s longtime leader Gadaffi in 2011 fighters he had been employing looted his armory and returned to their home countries, restarting dormant rebellions. The war in Syria began around the same time, and ultimately led to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda gaining a great deal of power and territory in the Middle East. This was simultaneous to the increasing popularity of drone warfare within the Obama Administration, who saw it as a “cheap” way to conduct counter-terror operations throughout the Muslim world. When they were chased out of some of their strongholds by airstrikes, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State expanded rapidly in West Africa, giving the United States yet more of a justification to increase its military presence in the region, most notably in Niger.
For a time, the presence of U.S. combat troops in West Africa was such a well-kept secret that when four U.S. servicemen were killed in an ambush in Niger in 2017, multiple prominent legislators in charge of overseeing the U.S. military, including noted warmongers Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ), acknowledged that they were not aware there were U.S. troops in the country. One exception to this was Representative Charlie Dent, who told CNN’s Chris Cuomo:
“With respect to Niger, I serve on the appropriations committee. I oversee military construction projects. We have a presence there. Not just there, but within that whole Lake Chad region, supporting local troops to support fight Boko Haram, support operations in West Africa and the operation in Mali. So we have all sorts of people in that region fighting a very dangerous foe, and ISIS in West Africa, especially.”
This is a stunning insight into the lack of thought the United States was putting into its military presence in Africa at the time—the civilian leadership in charge of overseeing military activity were unaware of the military’s presence in West Africa. The only oversight from Congress related to spending the money, which at the time included the construction of the Agadez drone base.
Persistent failure in Africa has not deterred U.S. policy makers from continuing the same strategies. Writing for The Intercept, journalist Nick Turse reports that in 2002 and 2003 the U.S. State Department reported just nine terrorist attacks in all of Africa, whereas in 2022 there were 2,737 in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger alone. The source for these statistics is the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, run by the U.S. Department of Defense which released a devastating report in early 2023 about security in the region following 20 years of heavy U.S. counter-terror involvement. The report states that terrorism fatalities across Africa rose by 48% in 2022 alone; the report notes the irony that terrorism has spiked since the Mali coup, for which poor security was used as a justification, but doesn’t mention the fact that there was almost no terrorism at all before the United States got involved in counter-terror operations in the region.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the training programs which are a key component of U.S. Africa policy have a proven track record of overthrowing the very governments they are meant to prop up. At least 12 coups by U.S. trained personnel have occurred since 2008, as of August 2023. A 2022 study showed that U.S. training makes soldiers more supportive of one-party states and less interested in preserving human rights. Following training, they see the value of reducing conflict within a state by taking sole power and also have been trained in skill sets conducive to conducting successful coups. Don’t worry though, AFRICOM commander General Michael Langley has full faith and confidence in our “curriculum” of telling them “please don’t do coups.”
Nowhere in Africa has U.S. troop presence achieved its goals. After 20 years, Africa has much more terrorism and fewer democratic governments. Both of those things are supposed to be key American objectives. The most important thing for the United States to have a productive future in Africa is to shed the Global War on Terror. Abukar Arman, a Somali geopolitical analyst and former diplomat, argued earlier this year that, “so long as U.S.’ policy toward Africa remains one driven by counter-terrorism and is implemented by AFRICOM drones that are accountable to no one, there will never be a sustainable strategic partnership with key countries such as Somalia.” He is correct that both the men running U.S. Africa policy and the machines which they use are drones and neither are producing desired results.
The U.S. Senate has shown that it intends to continue zombie policies by voting to stay in Niger and put our troops at unacceptable levels of risk without the potential of achieving any goals. The only wise path forward is to end our African terror war and engage with African nations as genuine partners in commerce and development.