News that the U.S. Department of Defense is contemplating a major drawdown in West Africa – potentially cutting support to France’s 4,500-strong combat mission in the Sahel as well – comes as the region is in crisis. Islamist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have spread violence across central Mali, northern Nigeria and throughout Burkina Faso. West Africa’s much more heavily populated coastal nations, such as Benin, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, could be next.
France has been lobbying its European allies to help stem the tide, but they appear torn between a desire to help France and a reluctance to become more entangled in a war that is looking like another Afghanistan.
For Americans, who are much less directly involved, the Sahel crisis raises a fundamental question: Beyond basic humanitarian concern, if the Sahel falls apart, why should Americans care?
Yes, the Sahel and surrounding countries could get a lot worse. But rather than thinking in terms of falling dominos, a better metaphor might be a spreading airborne virus that ravages organs and limbs without fully killing the patient. International aid may keep capital cities alive, but a complete recovery is hard to imagine. Life will become more difficult for growing populations, who will become more susceptible to radicalization. Radical Islamist groups could consolidate power and end up governing large areas with significant populations. Such African emirates might bring order, but also bloodshed, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and cruelty of the sort exhibited by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
For the United States and others not directly affected by the crisis, there are two primary concerns. The first is that Islamist-controlled territory might become an incubator for international terrorist attacks. The second risk – potentially far more dangerous – is population displacement. A mass refugee crisis would destabilize countries throughout the region and even in Europe, where immigration debates already have poisoned politics and strengthened far-right parties in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
Both concerns are serious, but admittedly less so for the United States. Sahel-based Islamist terrorists are far more likely to target their fellow North and West Africans or France and its European coalition partners than Americans. Likewise, although some West African refugees and asylum seekers have already arrived on America’s shores, and presumably more will follow, far more will move within Africa or head to Europe.
As far as U.S. interests go, the significance of the crisis in the Sahel ultimately depends on how much one values having friends and allies, and how much one equates their stability with the well-being of the United States. Not caring about Ghana’s fate is deplorable but understandable; not caring about France is at best reckless.
Leaving France in the lurch in the middle of the war could significantly damage that relationship. It would also signal to the world that the United States is not committed to helping even one of its closest and most important allies. Of greater concern, though, is how mass migration stemming from the Sahel crisis might destabilize friends and allies throughout Africa and Europe. Instability profits only America’s adversaries.
This is not to say that everything the United States (or France and its European partners) currently does in Africa is beneficial. Policies, programs and deployments always need to be reviewed for their effectiveness. But choosing to do nothing – pulling up stakes in West Africa and cutting support for France’s war effort – has dangerous implications, even if the dangers are not immediate.
Michael Shurkin is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.