America’s shadow war in Africa is dangerous and counterproductive

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Later this month, the Pentagon is scheduled to release the results of its investigation of the circumstances surrounding the preventable deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger last October.

Their deaths were a tragedy in their own right, and a thorough assessment of the decisions that put their lives at risk is necessary to prevent similar outcomes in the future. 

{mosads}But the Pentagon’s review begs a larger set of questions. What is the United States doing in Africa? What are the goals and interests driving a policy that is increasingly militarized? And why is the U.S. reducing its commitment to economic development and human rights in Africa? Surely it will be investments in the latter that will determine security and stability across the continent.


The U.S. military footprint is far larger than most members of Congress, much less the American public, could have imagined. The U.S. has over 800 troops in Niger alone, along with one drone base and another under construction.

There are an estimated 6,000 U.S. troops in Africa, and many more rotate through for training missions, military exercises, or mentoring and educational programs.

A Pentagon spokesman told independent journalist Nick Turse that the U.S. military undertook 3,500 such missions in 2016, a nearly twenty-fold increase from when the U.S. Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, was first rolled out nearly a decade ago.

And after a briefing by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) indicated that we should expect more, not less, U.S. military activity in Africa in the months and years ahead. Before we double down on military intervention, we should consider whether this approach is working to promote peace and stability in Africa or simply making a bad situation worse.

U.S. military activism has done little to curb terrorism in Africa. In addition, the focus on building up military forces at the expense of civilian authorities can weaken already fragile democracies, even as it enables corruption. It also increases the flow of deadly weapons to a region already awash in them.

The increase in U.S. military involvement has been paralleled by a weakening of civilian engagement on the continent. The diplomacy deficit starts with a lack of personnel assigned to these tasks: Of the 54 countries in Africa, President Trump has appointed ambassadors to only five. And nearly a year into his administration, there is still no one at the State Department in charge of developing and implementing a coherent U.S. policy for Africa.

Nor are there funds available to carry out a more balanced approach to the challenges posed by the current conflicts in Africa. The Trump administration’s proposals for deep cuts at the State Departmentand reductions in support for United Nations humanitarian aid and peacekeeping efforts, leave military action the largest tool in a rapidly shrinking U.S. foreign policy tool box. 

In Niger, one of the poorest countries on the planet, the U.S. has spent more in the past two years on unproven counter terrorism strategies ($88 million) than it has contributed to either humanitarian relief ($79 million) or food assistance ($49.9 million).

This comparison doesn’t even include the $100 million the U.S. is spending to build a second U.S. drone base in Agadez, the largest city in central Niger — a volatile area with an increasingly young and unemployed population and is a major trading post for arms, drugs and human trafficking.

The new base — from which the U.S. will operate the deadly MQ-9 Reaper drones — is a massive undertaking described as the largest U.S. Air Force-led construction project of all time. Once the funding for Agadez is added in, the U.S. military investment in solving Niger’s security problems is significantly higher than spending on nonmilitary aid. 

It is long past time for a sober assessment of what U.S. policies can and cannot achieve in Africa, and whether our extensive military commitments on the continent need to be rolled back.

It will be up to Congress, the public and the press to take the first steps in reviewing the pros and cons of the current U.S. approach. We should consider alternatives that may better meet the needs of the U.S., its allies — and, most importantly, the people of Africa. Their voices are rarely heard in debates over policies that will have a huge impact on their safety, their economic prospects, and their basic human rights. The sooner this discussion begins, the better.

Salih Booker is the executive director of the Center for International Policy. William DHartung runs the Center’s Arms and Security Project.

Tags Africa Donald Trump International James Mattis Niger Salih Booker William D. Hartung

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