News of the recent deaths of four U.S. servicemen in Niger has been met with both dismay and surprise. Dismay at the tragic loss of life and lingering questions about what happened. And surprise because most Americans, including many members of Congress, were unaware the U.S. had a military presence in the West African nation.
The incident is bringing to light a fact well-known among those who closely follow events in Africa: Violent extremism is a present and growing threat in the Sahel, a belt running across the continent immediately south of the Sahara Desert that includes Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Both al Qaeda and ISIS use the nations of the Sahel as bridges to move fighters and resources between north and sub-Saharan Africa.
I was in Niger at the time of the tragic attack on the U.S. and Nigerien military, visiting local impoverished farming communities. The story of one woman from Konni, near Niger’s border with Nigeria, stuck in my mind. She told me how through our American-sponsored assistance program she was given training on animal fattening: how to identify healthy sheep in the local market and to care for them to quickly and naturally increase their weight. She said she came up with 20 percent of the purchase price, and the local cooperative provided her the other 80 percent as a loan. After three months, she sold the plumper sheep for the festive Eid holiday, receiving twice what she paid, enabling her to pay back the loan, buy another sheep and pay for school expenses and other family needs.
This might seem like a small investment to us, but it had a major impact for her and her family. In fact, when I shared this story with Niger’s President Issoufou, he noted that the program had effectively moved her family into what could be considered the middle class of that rural community. He went on to underline how urgent and critical this work was to addressing the economic challenges in these rural areas to counter the spread of violent extremism.
Based on my experience, both as a U.S. diplomat stationed in Iraq and with NATO and in my current role leading a humanitarian organization, I wholeheartedly agree. Investment in long-term development at the local level to address extreme poverty, hunger and powerlessness are critical to addressing factors that drive insecurity in much of the developing world. The countries of the Sahel, which struggle with recurrent food and nutrition crises, are among the poorest and least developed in the world. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are among the nations with the lowest rating in the U.N. Human Development Index.
There are 800 U.S. troops stationed in Niger to combat this growing threat. As Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted, "Their presence is part of a global strategy." But military leaders stress that an armed response is only a short-term answer. Defense without diplomacy and development is inadequate. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump's 'Enemies List' — end of year edition The US can't go back to business as usual with Pakistan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike MORE famously told Congress, "If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately."
While there is no fast, magical solution to extremism, the good news is that there are models showing signs of success. These include finding ways to engage the private sector to stimulate local employment, management of natural resources that helps reduce competition and conflict over scarce water and land, promotion of civil society engagement with local and national authorities and boosting food security that helps build resilience to shocks and disasters. All of this helps to reduce pressure that could lead to conflict and violence among already highly vulnerable populations and supports peaceful pathways forward.
Economic empowerment and supporting the development of democratic and inclusive institutions from the ground up are substantial and prolonged investments. But there are no quick fixes or military-only solutions to the violence and brutal movements threatening peace and stability in West Africa. Even though it is a continent away, the insecurity and extremist ideology from distant lands inevitably finds its way to our own shores as shown once again in the recent attack in New York.
What is clear is that the poorest countries in the world are the most vulnerable and least equipped to deal with these threats. They deserve our support through the work of our brave military personnel as part of a clear strategy that includes the help we can provide in building resilience through grass-roots democratic and inclusive economic development. In today’s interconnected world, our future security and prosperity depend on countering the attempt of violent and extremist forces to pick off the weakest members of our global family.
Daniel Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, an international humanitarian organization. He previously served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as ambassador to Greece and to Belarus, Deputy Chief of Mission in Iraq, and a senior official at NATO.