American Amnesia: Counterterror Strategy in Sub-Saharan Africa

By: Evan Cooper, Columnist

Photo Credit: The Nation

Prior to the disclosure that four United States special forces members had been killed in Niger, there was almost no discussion of the United States’ military presence in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the news broke, it has become clear that American policymakers continue to see the use of force as a panacea, while disregarding the underlying factors that allow terrorism to fester. US strategists are ignoring the most important lesson thus far learned in the Global War on Terror (GWOT): when it comes to countering terrorism, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

There have been strategic concerns about the conditions in sub-Saharan Africa being favorable for terror groups dating back to the early years of the GWOT.[i] Yet it took the death of American troops in Niger for Congress to ask even the most basic questions about America’s posture in the region. Going in front of the Senate, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford revealed, to the surprise of many, that the United States has 6,000 troops stationed across 53 of 54 African countries.[ii]

The details of the operation in Niger remain murky, but the mission of the troops there was elucidated by Chief of Staff John Kelly in a press briefing when he stated American troops were, “teaching them how to be better soldiers; teaching them how to respect human rights; teaching them how to fight ISIS so that we don’t have to send our soldiers and Marines there in their [sic] thousands.”[iii] Kelly’s statement epitomizes the Trump administration’s lack of strategy in sub-Saharan Africa. The most glaring absurdity was the notion that American troops are going to teach their hosts “how to respect human rights” on advise and assist missions. Not only has the Trump administration repeatedly made a point of distancing American foreign policy from the human rights agenda, the American military is by no means the best-suited institution to carry out such a mission. The State Department, for example, has an entire bureau dedicated to human rights, yet instead of enabling such institutions to carry out their missions, the administration is instead proposing massive cuts.[iv]

While the juxtaposition between Kelly’s comment and the budgetary desires of the Trump administration drip with hypocrisy, it is his argument that troops are in Niger to advise and assist so a larger contingent of troops will not be needed in the future that most reveals the United States’ inability to learn the larger lessons of the GWOT. There are real threats posed by groups like al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and al-Shabaab that need to be countered with military force, but for most of the sub-Saharan region it is the proliferation of smaller terrorist groups that is of utmost concern. Large swaths of the region lack strong governance structures and suffer from corruption, instability, and underdevelopment. These conditions, namely corruption and lack of economic opportunity, are what enable groups like Boko Haram to recruit new members, particularly from youth populations.[v] It is perverse that American troops are spread across 53 African countries, while funding for stability and development initiatives by the State Department, USAID, and non-government organizations is slashed.

Sending small contingents of special forces for advise and assist missions will do nothing to meaningfully address the conditions that fuel terror groups, and instead could very well lead to mission creep. Ever-expanding missions have been a reoccurring issue in the GWOT, and the United States has been forced to confront the pressures of mission creep in Africa in the past, during the intervention in the Somali civil war.[vi] Expanding military contingents will in no way reduce the terrorist threat either, as evidence has demonstrated; in his study on the GWOT, Erik Goepner found that increases in terror attacks were correlated with two figures: the amount spent by the United States on counterterror operations and the number of American troops sent to fight.[vii]

The only change to the counterterror strategies of the past implemented by the Trump administration has been asking partner countries to do more, while simultaneously cutting nonmilitary aid to these partners.[viii] Sub-Saharan governments are focused on fighting the terror threat, but have made it clear that they require assistance to effectively do so.[ix] Nonmilitary aid can make a difference in preventing insurgent groups from gaining a foothold in new areas, as evidence from Afghanistan has demonstrated.[x]

While nonmilitary aid to partner states is needed, providing such assistance should not be confused with a policy of spreading democracy. In this, the inclinations of the Trump administration seem more constructive. An effective sub-Saharan strategy should support strong and effective governance structures, not dictate what form they take. As David Oakley and Philip Proctor wrote in the Journal of Strategic Security, the idea that forced democratization works as a counterterror strategy is “mere conjecture, if not outright fantasy.”[xi] Rwanda is an example of both the consequences and advantages of prioritizing security and development over democracy. Rwanda’s government, led by Paul Kagame, has become increasingly authoritarian, imprisoning citizens at a high rate and holding sham elections, but has simultaneously improved security and undertaken rapid development.[xii] Such compromises are necessary if terrorism is to be effectively prevented in the long term without the United States military continuously assisting in almost every African state.

Sub-Saharan Africa offers an ideal opportunity to apply the lessons that the United States should have learned from the GWOT thus far. The conditions that were identified as being conducive to the establishment and growth of terrorist groups in countries like Afghanistan—namely weak governance and economic underdevelopment—are present in large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa, but terror groups have yet to establish themselves in most of the region. The United States is wracked by amnesia when it comes to the importance of supporting local good governance and development efforts to counter the spread of terror groups. It must stop conceptualizing military force as a panacea; a far more effective strategy, in terms of both cost and outcome, is to assist countries in establishing conditions in which terror groups cannot form in the first place. In this mission, the United States is failing once again.

[i] Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Military Operations in the Global War on Terrorism: Afghanistan, Africa, the Philippines, and Colombia,” The Library of Congress, Aug. 26, 2005.

[ii] Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston, “Dunford has questions about Niger deaths; Tillerson jets to Iraq, Afghanistan; USAF sets first F-35 deployment to Japan; ISIS’ foreign fighters head home; and just a bit more…,” Defense One, Oct. 24, 2017.

[iii] “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff General John Kelly,” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, Oct. 19, 2017.

[iv] Nicole Gaouette, “Trump administration looks to cut State budget by 32%,” May 23, 2017.

[v] “Motivations and Empty Promises,” Mercy Corps, April 2016.

[vi] Michael F. Beech, “‘Mission Creep’: A Case Study of US Involvement in Somalia,” School of Advanced Military Studies, May 26, 1996,

[vii] Erik Goepner, “Measuring the Effectiveness of America’s War on Terror,” Parameters, 46(1) Spring 2016, 111. Accessed at

[viii] Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, “Exclusive: Trump counterterrorism strategy urges allies to do more,” Reuters, May 5, 2017.

[ix] “At UN Assembly, African leaders call for more support to fight terrorism in sub-Saharan Sahel,” UN News Centre, United Nations, Sept. 21, 2017.

[x] Renard Sexton, “Aid as a Tool against Insurgency: Evidence from Contested and Controlled Territory in Afghanistan,” American Political Science Review, 110(4), November 2016, 731-749.

[xi] David P. Oakley and Patrick Proctor, “Ten Years of GWOT, the Failure of Democratization and the Fallacy of “Ungoverned Spaces”.”Journal of Strategic Security 5, no. 1 (2012): 6.

[xii] Jason Burke, “Paul Kagame re-elected president with 99% of vote in Rwanda election,” The Guardian, Aug. 5, 2017.

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