The Trump administration is ignoring Africa, and it shows. When twin truck bombs recently ripped through downtown Mogadishu and killed more than 300 people, it gave the lie to American-aided regional progress against Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda affiliate on the Horn of Africa. Despite relaxed rules of engagement allowing the Pentagon to conduct more aggressive operations against Al Shabaab targets, the group was still able to carry out the deadliest suicide bombing in Somali history.
The attacks on the Horn followed the loss of four U.S. special operations forces personnel in an ambush in Niger this month, an event that the president has yet to address or explain to the American public. Together, these events should remind the American people that we have sent forces forward to Africa to pursue national purposes. What those purposes are, however, is being left to those forces as an exercise in ambiguity.
On the Horn of Africa, the United States provided training and resources to the African Union Mission in Somalia’s troop contributors and to the Somalis themselves. In fact, this peacekeeping mission, known as AMISOM, is an excellent example of an African solution, and for at least a year, Kenyan offensives turned the tide against al Shabaab and gave the government in Mogadishu the space to establish itself.
But the Pentagon wasn’t the primary element of U.S. power brought to bear against African security challenges. The bulk of U.S. assistance was in the health and development sectors, using State Department authorities and oversight. Meanwhile, American diplomats emphasized the importance of comprehensive political and economic engagement between urban capital regions and rural communities where terrorists took root.
Yet, U.S. policy in Africa has always been about economical efforts. The best American and other international counterterrorism assistance has been able to do over the past several years is help regional forces make tactical gains and secure key urban areas while weak governments struggled to survive. Despite some successes against Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Al Shabaab, regional governments have not been able to consolidate security gains or use the ebbs in violence to build broader political legitimacy and institutional capacity.
In Nigeria, the defense sector is recovering from decades of neglect while operations against Boko Haram drag into their eighth year and the economy suffers from a recession. Mali remains fragile, and the fundamental dispute between Tuareg separatists and Bamako is unresolved. Despite an uptick in economic performance, the Somali government has not been able to extend its reach much beyond Mogadishu nor assume meaningful control over security. The occasion of a new U.S. administration called for a reassessment of Washington’s efforts and either a validation or redirection of America’s strategic purpose on both sides of the African theatre.
Instead, the Trump administration has abandoned serious diplomacy on the continent and has left the Pentagon to its own devices. The assistant secretary of State for African affairs is one of the many political appointments in the department yet to be filled, and a deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Africa seems no closer to being named. This leaves the commander of Africa Command, General Thomas Waldhauser, as the most senior U.S. official with the African portfolio. Meanwhile, President Trump granted Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default Pentagon chiefs say debt default could risk national security MORE and other military commanders the authority to use their discretion to skip high-level interagency deliberations over kinetic operations, making a specific provision delegating more power to Waldhauser for counterterrorism operations in Somalia.
Such delegation is only problematic because it was provided without commensurate guidance about the administration’s foreign policy objectives in the region and without ranking interagency partners to help contextualize the military elements of the policy. Thus, U.S. forces remain in Africa training, equipping, and advising partners in the fights against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab on policy autopilot. Now that Al Shabaab has demonstrated its continued ability to strike at the heart of the political and economic recovery in Somalia, what does the administration want U.S. policy to accomplish? Given their choices thus far, we can only assume more of the same.
Alice Hunt Friend is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She was previously a principal director for African affairs in the office of the secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense.