It is irresponsible and senseless for the U.S. to pull back U.S. resources and presence in the Sahel and West Africa in general. It defeats any attempt to successfully pursue the strategic vision that President Trump himself undersigned in the December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States of America: “protecting the American people and preserving our way of life, promoting prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence in the world”, as well as “promoting a balance of power that favors the United States, our allies, and our partners.” This “beautiful vision” will come to naught if the Department of Defense loses “sight of our values and their capacity to inspire, uplift, and renew.”
Indeed, according to the text in first two pages of the December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) undersigned by Trump, “serious challenges remain”. Pulling back from West Africa and the Sahel definitely charts “a new and very different course”, but not the one required to ensure “[t]he whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership.”
Differentiate between the merely urgent and what’s important
While it’s true, as U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote in a January 6, 2020 memo
to department leaders, that National Defense Strategy (NDS) “requires relentless and ruthless prioritization in order to balance near-term challenges” and prepare for shifts in geopolitical realities, the strategic imperative of a defense agenda reform that includes a planned $5 million budget cut requires differentiating between seemingly urgent issues, like building a wall at the Mexican border, and really important issues, like stemming the spread of terrorism’s tentacles.
U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper needs to revisit Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important matrix
principle to better identify the activities he should focus on and the ones that should be ignored. Urgent tasks are often not important and are marked by defensiveness, negativity, hurriedness, and a narrowly-focused mindset. Important tasks are things that contribute to our nation's long-term mission, values and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, like containing the spread of the coronavirus, but typically they’re not. The responsibility of any leader is to prioritize time and resources in order to deal with truly urgent issues while at the same time working in a responsive mode towards important, long-term goals.
Although no decisions have been made with regards to a U.S. force reduction in Africa, Esper has not suggested any reconsideration of potential cuts in the region either. Acknowledging that military solutions have clearly not been successful in the fight against terrorism anywhere in the world, which is one of the most important lessons to be drawn from America’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan, does not mean abandoning America’s important and unique role in combating nihilistic enemies – terrorists, insurgents and transnational criminal cartels.
Achieve a higher order of understanding
Acclaimed national security expert James Kitfield recounts in his excellent book Twilight Warriors (2016) the evolution of American warfighting since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. It is an informative and eye-opening read about how the experience gained in the crucibles in Iraq and Afghanistan helped America build a pioneering, hybrid, interagency approach. Today this approach can be used to successfully align sophisticated intelligence gathering, cutting-edge airpower, and Special Forces shock raids into a seamless cycle of operations. Coupled with effective geoeconomic statecraft and constructive economic engagement, this style of operations represents the best hope for all nations fighting against terrorism and for defending the international community of nations in an age of asymmetric warfare.
The current administration should not dedicate efforts to rebuilding the institutional barriers that the brilliant innovators in intelligence, law enforcement and military agencies broke down by working together following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They were able to forge a new style of operations that today can synthesize greater amounts of information and achieve a higher order of understanding at the level of grand strategy, one that addresses the cultural, economic, social and military issues that should inform national security and defense strategy.
Before reducing U.S. capabilities in the Sahel, Esper needs to build a higher situational understanding of the violent non-state actors in the region. It’s not just about where and how many “enemies” are on a grid. It’s about understanding why there’s an enemy that is replicating in the first place. Momentary political expediency motivated by budgetary urgency should not trump critical thinking or statecraft. Nor should collaborative efforts to address a source of instability that is putting the world on edge be weakened. Doing so would belie the National Defense Strategy’s strategic approach: build a more lethal force, strengthen alliances and attract new partners, and reform the department for greater performance and affordability.
In the struggle to align forces with strategy, prioritizing capability over capacity requires improving readiness and sustaining investment for long-term competition and collaboration. It would be foolish to focus exclusively on great power politics, i.e. China and Russia, without also including an understanding of how violent non-state actors – which include criminal organizations, popular liberation movements, religious and ideological organizations, private military contractors, self-defense militia, and paramilitary and armed resistance groups established by state governments to further their interests - increase global disorder and volatility in inter-state competition.
Instability in the Sahel cannot be divorced from intra-state competition
Intra-state competition is now, according to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the primary concern in U.S. national security. But competition among states cannot exclude or ignore terrorism. Nor can it be oblivious to potential areas of collaboration. There is no greater and more evident proof of this than the growing instability in the Sahel.
China’s latest catch in Africa is Burkina Faso, where peer pressure and domestic policy underlined by security concerns were coupled with check book diplomacy – China pledged $44 million in support to the regional G5 Sahel force - to motivate the West African country’s allegiance shift from Taiwan to China. Meanwhile, U.S. reluctance to step up its presence in the Sahel is opening doors for Russia. Governments in the militant-plagued region are seeking to maximize Moscow's support and have asked Russia for enhanced strategic partnership for the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region.
But, as Yun Sun argues in a Brookings Institution Africa blog, the rising terrorist threats in Africa need not create a zero-sum competition for influence over African security affairs and economic development. The stakes that all three countries have in Africa can lead to an enhanced security cooperation with African governments to protect common interests. So perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to identify potential counterterrorism cooperation with the other players in the Sahel’s evolving security situation. The terrorism “plague” affects the national interests of everyone present in the region and poses a direct threat to the security of U.S., Chinese and Russian investments and the safety of their respective personnel on ground
What is becoming clear is that the major draw down in West Africa being contemplated by the U.S. Secretary of Defense is definitely not, in the words undersigned by Trump in the National Defense Strategy, the way to “bring about the better future we seek for our people and the world, by confronting the challenges and dangers posed by those who seek to destabilize the world and threaten America’s people and interests.” Although the security situation in the Sahel requires a paradigm shift from a strictly military solution, paraphrasing James Kitfield: continued subtraction of abstract numbers in a budget document not only increases the gap between the nation and its defenders; it’s an effort wherein the U.S. neither leads nor supports. And it will one day translate into blood spilt and American lives unnecessarily lost on future battlefields.