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Why the US’s counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel keeps failing

NEWS ANALYSIS

In mid-2011, Matthew Page and his team at the United States Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) began to suspect something was awry in Mali.

As the DIA’s senior analyst for West Africa, Page had access to highly-classified signals intelligence from the National Security Agency and reports from the department of defence (DOD) and CIA. Together, they told a troubling story: one of corruption and discontent in the Malian military, a long-term beneficiary of US training and weapons that had recently sustained brutal losses to armed groups in the northern deserts. 

But Page, now an associate fellow with the Africa programme at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, felt the diplomatic cables coming out of the US embassy in the capital, Bamako, were painting a far rosier picture.

“We were pretty sceptical of how all this training and engagement had magically transformed the Malian military into a much more professional fighting force,” he said.

So, at their huddle of desks in the DIA headquarters in Washington DC, Page and his colleagues wrote several reports on the fragilities in Mali’s military.

“This narrative was really not welcomed by the ambassador at the time,” said Page, referring to then-US ambassador to Mali, Gillian Milovanovic, who “really savaged the assessment we made”.

She declined to answer questions about her recollection of this exchange.

Analysts sometimes get pushback from ambassadors, said Page, who spent more than a decade in government as an intelligence analyst covering West Africa and Nigeria. 

Page’s concerns proved to be well-founded. In March 2012, Amadou Sanogo, a Malian captain who had trained in the US, overthrew Mali’s democratically-elected government. It was a disaster for the US, who for a decade had pumped tens of millions of dollars in counterterror training and weapons into Mali. 

“Nine months after [the embassy] received our note,” said Page, “the elite unit had killed the other half of the elite unit we had trained and buried them in shallow graves.”

Unresolved problems

The 2012 Mali coup is one of the more extreme examples of bungled US counterterror assistance in the Sahel. But some of the problems it exposed appear to remain unresolved: this past August a US-trained officer again overthrew the Malian government.

Government reports and interviews with Page and a former US ambassador to Nigeria raise troubling questions about institutional flaws in the current US counterterror strategy in the Sahel.

As well as sometimes toxic dynamics between intelligence analysts and embassies, red flags include over-militarised policy, local troops abandoning US tactics, trainers’ poor cultural and tactical awareness and no scrutiny of partner country human rights violations. These factors make botched past counterterror ventures in places such as Mali and Cameroon — where US-trained troops have been accused of war crimes — seem all the more likely to repeat themselves. 

A major part of US counterterror strategy in the Sahel and elsewhere is to give weapons and training to partner countries’ security forces instead of deploying US troops to fight violent extremist groups. There is little desire back home for soldiers to be embroiled in more foreign wars, and the National Security Strategy prioritises “great power competition” with countries such as China, Russia and Iran. So military top brass say such programmes will only increase.

A declassified defence department document from May 2019, obtained by arms trade watchdog Security Assistance Monitor, shows the US approved tens of millions of dollars in training, equipment and weapons for security forces across sub-saharan West Africa, including in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin and the Ivory Coast, under a US security assistance programme called Section 333, sometimes referred to by the name of a past iteration, Global Train and Equip. Pentagon spokesperson Commander Jessica McNulty said the defence department “has transitioned to virtual engagements where possible and is re-scoping engagements to mitigate additional Covid-19 constraints. Once conditions improve, we plan to resume full activities.”

Long-term strategy

Recently, most of the Train and Equip money — $3.7-billon of a total $4.1-billion worldwide between 2009-17 — has funded counterterror efforts.

In Africa, Train and Equip is part of a long-term US policy to help partner nations take charge of their own security, said John Campbell, Africa policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador to Nigeria. But, he added, “in almost no case has [that goal] been accomplished”.

US security assistance to the Sahel rose post-9/11. The US developed infantry units in Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger under the 2003 Pan-Sahel Initiative. Nigeria and Senegal were among the countries added to the group in 2005, with the creation of the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, which now also includes Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Libya. 

Between 2001-19, the US gave at least $1.44-billion in security aid to partners in the Sahel, according to Security Assistance Monitor.

‘Surge in terrorist attacks’

But despite US counterterror assistance, and the tens of thousands of local and international troops deployed across the Sahel, extremist groups in the region such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Boko Haram are driving the fastest-growing Islamist insurgency in the world.

“Nowhere scares me more than the Sahel,” said Mark Lowcock, the United Nation’s emergency relief coordinator, in October. “I fear the region is very close to a tipping point,” he added, citing a deadly mix of poverty, fast-growing numbers of displaced people, shoddy local governance, dwindling resources, an increasingly inhospitable climate and violent organised groups. 

An internal report to the US congress, published in early 2020, said the US was no longer aiming to “degrade” violent extremist groups in the Sahel, but to merely “contain” them, after what the UN described as a “devastating surge in terrorist attacks” against civilians and military targets. Deaths from such attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger increased five-fold between 2016-19. And in June last year, the UN warned that jihadist groups were exploiting uncertainty caused by Covid-19.

The same internal report said US and local forces needed to constantly put pressure on terrorist groups if they want to pin them back — former defence secretary Mark Esper called it “mowing the law” — adding that this and the “often slow development of partner forces” meant Sahel allies would “likely require assistance and advising for a long period of time before they can fully address violent extremist threats on their own”. This after nearly two decades of US assistance.

The commander of US Special Operations Command in Africa, Major-General Dagvin RM Anderson, said in August last year that several partner forces in the Sahel had made improvements, before admitting, “there are oftentimes mistakes that happen”.

‘Act of God’

Page was sitting in an office in the basement of the Pentagon late one afternoon in March 2012 when news broke of the coup in Mali. 

“Come check this out,” he recalls a colleague saying, and they sat glued to Twitter, watching the meltdown of a key counterterror ally in real time.

Coup leader Captain Sanogo — who wore a US Marine Corps pin on his uniform after a spell with the unit in Virginia — seized power to reunite what he saw as an under-resourced and undervalued Malian military. But the chaotic ouster only loosened the army’s already weak grip on the north. By June, much of the region was in the hands of Islamist groups. 

The US suspended security assistance, but there was no internal post-mortem of the calamity, according to Page, who said US policymakers instead treated the coup as an “act of God”.

“There was no real self-reflection,” he said. “All the same people who were mopping up the crisis … were people who just weeks before had said everything was fine.”

Page’s exchanges with the Mali team are classified, but a former department of state colleague in West Africa intelligence — who requested anonymity because his employer forbids speaking to journalists — corroborated his account. 

This past August, a Malian colonel named Assimi Goita led a group of officers to oust President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after anti-government protests. Goita had previously taken part in Operation Flintlock, an annual US special ops-led training operation for regional partner troops.

A UN report published just days before the overthrow had accused the army of graft, dire leadership and taking money from criminal groups.

The US, which has called for legitimate elections to be held, once again suspended all training and support to Mali’s armed forces.

Embassy knives its own department

Page said he had a similar experience as the department of state’s Nigeria expert. He “ran afoul” of two consecutive ambassadors for writing reports describing gross human rights violations by national troops, including by units the US had trained or wanted to train. 

On several occasions the country team requested training and assistance for particular units “hastily”, Page felt, “and with as little scrutiny as possible”. When the department asked him to vet the troops, the intelligence he sent back put a stop to the training.

“The embassy got very upset when these [violations] were highlighted,” said Page. “Rather than being at least an even-handed go-between and delivering the bad news [to the Nigerians], instead the embassy pulls its knives out on its own department to defend the perceived interest … of the host nation military.”

Internal emails show the ambassador at the time saying Page’s intelligence reports had “pretty much spiked our mil-mil cooperation with Nigeria” and “brought our bilateral relationship to its lowest point in three years”.

This and the experience in Mali highlight for Page the “clientelism” that can develop between local and US officials. Ambassadors are under pressure to make counterterror gains so they are often keen to jam through security assistance programmes, he said, and sometimes develop a “Pollyanna” mindset towards local troops. 

“As much as diplomats do have a view from the ground, they also are within their bubbles, within the capital, at their embassy,” Page added, whereas analysts have all intelligence sources at their disposal.

Ambassadors are in “a challenging position”, Page added, “but you can’t be incentivising bad behaviour. Not just bad behaviour, but, like, murderous behaviour”.

 John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, says ambassador-analyst friction is normal given the nature of the different roles: embassies try to advance local relationships day-to-day while intelligence analysts in Washington look bigger picture and longer-term.

Where it can get “dysfunctional,” he said, is when members of the intelligence community suppress embassy reporting they don’t like, or embassies ignore “uncomfortable reports” from Washington. 

Floundering strategy?

The biggest limitation on the effect of US training is its scale, he added. The US currently has just more than 1 000 troops in West Africa, most of whom are in Niger, according to various reports.  The US Africa Command and the defence department declined to give up-to-date numbers. France, in contrast, has 5 100, with other European countries set to send soldiers soon

“You can have the most brilliantly conceived training programme but if you are not adequately resourcing it … what do you have?” Campbell asked during a Zoom interview. 

“The question you might be asking is, do these Train and Equip programmes matter? Do they have any long-term significance? To what extent are [they] … a diplomatic gesture?”

So while “the people that are actually involved in the programmes tend to believe quite passionately in them,” he said, “[US counterterror training] doesn’t have a transformative effect on the ground.”

“Not only is Train and Equip not good value for money for the US taxpayer,” said Page, “it’s not obtaining the outcomes it purports to.”

In recent years, various government reports have highlighted other fundamental flaws in the strategy. 

The poor cultural awareness of some US trainers in Africa meant they didn’t understand the needs of the soldiers, according to one 2019 defence department inspector general report. One official said his troops “had no clue until we were on the ground as to how the … military doctrine differed from our own” and spent most of the mission trying to learn it. This “figure it out” mentality delayed the progress of missions, said the report, while unadapted and inapplicable training meant local security forces “reverting back to their old ways” when trainers left.

“The amount of training and understanding of the local situation should probably be increased before troops are on the ground,” said former assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carso.

Next, reports criticised the lack of monitoring and evaluation. The defence department published a policy in 2017 for assessing effectiveness of Train and Equip programmes, but it is yet to be fully implemented, said Elias Yousif of Security Assistance Monitor, which often leads to different country teams “doing things their own way”.

“One of the bigger problems is that there isn’t really a single ownership of the process,” said Yousif. The Defence Security Cooperation Agency (part of the defence department) is meant to implement and monitor security assistance, “but because this cuts across different agencies, areas of responsibility and geographies, it really is difficult”.

“There’s money coming from DOS, there’s money coming from DOD, there’s money coming from USAID. It’s a conglomeration of various authorities, dollars and areas of responsibility that I don’t think are necessarily well co-ordinated.

“If there isn’t a system of ownership, it’s easy for things to slide.”

In 2018, the department of state opened a training centre in Senegal under its Antiterrorism Assistance programme — the budget of which has increased five-fold to more than $180-million since 2001 — despite internal criticism for poor oversight and transparency.

Little or no oversight is perhaps best typified by section 127e, a legal authority governing secretive special operations counterterror missions. In 2014, special ops commander Admiral William McRaven said the previous iteration of Section 127e — Section 1208 — was “probably the single most important authority we have in our fight against terrorism”. Yet these operations are exempted from assessment, monitoring, evaluation and human rights vetting.

In October 2017, four US soldiers were killed on a previously-unacknowledged mission in Niger. The murky nature of the incident raised questions about congressional oversight of security assistance in Niger and the transparency of operations on the ground. A recent Mail & Guardian investigation revealed US special forces troops had been deployed to 22 African countries in 2019 alone.

Page said that during his time at the state department there was a culture of viewing oversight as obtrusive, especially among policymakers having to justify certain decisions. “You get a request from the Hill and people roll their eyes,” he said. “That’s understandable — it just isn’t particularly constructive.”

What’s more, former president Donald Trump’s state department hiring freeze has harmed African embassies’ ability to support counterterrorism initiatives, according to a department of state inspector general report, and left country teams worldwide struggling to vet units for human rights violations.

Reports also mention mishaps with equipment. One unit in an unnamed African country received bright orange life jackets for tactical maritime operations, while Nigerien forces were given the wrong type of military vehicles. In an unclassified account, a sergeant major training soldiers in Nigeria in 2001 wrote that he suspected kit, including weapons, ammunition and trucks, had ended up on the black market. 

“You certainly hear [about local troops reselling equipment] all the time,” said Campbell. “It’s not a criticism,” he added, just a product of the “crushing poverty” many local soldiers face.

Partner country complications 

“Many of the areas in which we see these insurgencies taking place are the result of people in rural areas feeling extraordinarily marginalised, and the inability of governments to meet their social and economic and political concerns,” Carson said, emphasising the need for a holistic solution. “The success of these efforts have to be led by the commitment of the partner governments on the ground.”

But Campbell doubts the commitment of some local leaders to addressing the root causes of the violence. “To do so, they essentially would have to turn themselves upside down,” he said, losing “their privileged positions and probably much of their wealth. That’s hard to ask a ruling elite to do.”

Local leadership often benefits from instability, said Page. “It innoculates them from the criticism they’re not governing well.”

Countries across the Sahel score poorly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The same nongovernmental organisation found in 2017 that Nigerian officers and officials had been siphoning off money meant for the fight against Boko Haram, and that their corruption had directly helped the group’s rise.
The security crisis in the Sahel is “a symptom of a larger crisis of governance”, a state department spokesperson said. “We will continue to provide equipment, training, logistics support, and advisory support to assist partners in the fight against terrorist groups in the region, while simultaneously using bilateral assistance to strengthen the justice, and law enforcement capabilities of our partners.”

The recently-appointed US special envoy to the Sahel, ambassador J Peter Pham, said at a recent press briefing that the US approach to the Sahel was to “ensure that in the long run … the basic challenges of security and governance are addressed by Africans themselves— African-led solutions, with our support and that of our other international partners”.

He cited recent peaceful elections in Burkina Faso and Niger as successes, adding: “There is no quick military solution.”
But others say US assistance is overly-militarised.

Training and engagement, on a basic level at least — from marksmanship to medical training to sending officers to US military academies — is “always desirable,” said Page, because local troops are often under-equipped and under-skilled. 

But “the drivers of terrorism are a lot more complicated than military capability,” he continued. “And the factors underlying military capability are more complicated than: ‘they don’t have enough training.’”

Professor Kwesi Aning, director of the Faculty of Academic Affairs & Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, said that “America’s unending fascination with terror and extremism” has meant “dictators have learned to couch their narrative and relationships with the US within a discourse of preventing terror”. 

But “people can’t eat military interventions,” he added. Helping provide drinking water, clean energy for cooking, education for girls, all the “basic needs of ordinary people … would cut the counterterrorism budget by hundreds of millions of dollars”. 

Pham said the over-militarisation argument was a “trope”, adding that the “numbers speak for themselves”. Between 2017-19, he said, the state department and USAID allocated nearly a billion dollars in health and development assistance to Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as $519-million in humanitarian assistance. In the same period, said Pham, they provided about $467-million in security assistance.

Lowcock, of the UN, said in October: “Solutions being tried [in the Sahel] are both inadequate in scale and lop-sided in composition: too high a proportion of the effort on security and humanitarian need, and too little on the underlying causes of the problems.”

For Page, “the problem fundamentally is that US training and engagement in the Sahel isn’t conditional.” Security assistance should depend on good governance, transparency in the defence sector and respect for human rights, he argues, and not go to units with problematic backgrounds or supporting an authoritarian regime.

Brittany Brown, who worked on Africa for the Trump and Obama National Security Councils and is now chief of staff at the International Crisis Group, told The Horn podcast: “When it comes to the African continent we’ve got into a very bad habit. Either priority country or not, ally or not … when it’s moved over there it becomes harder to hold those governments accountable.”

A 2017 Amnesty International investigation said Cameroon’s Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) — a unit first trained by the US military two decades ago — had tortured hundreds of suspected Boko Haram militants since 2013. US soldiers had for years been stationed at one of the bases used as a torture facility. In 2016, the US ambassador to Cameroon had praised the BIR for showing “all of the values we expect in our own armed forces”. The US cut some security assistance to the unit in 2019 over human rights concerns.

In Togo in February last year, security forces — trained by the US National Guard in 2015 — surrounded the house of the main opposition candidate before elections.

And Amnesty said in June that it had documented 200 unlawful killings and forced disappearances by security forces in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali — all US security partners

“When you come and align yourself with those who have stolen public funds, who intimidate and use the military to shoot and kill, and sometimes to rape, then your counterterrorism strategy from Washington has already failed,” said Aning, who was the African Union’s first continental expert on defence, security and counterterrorism in the mid-2000s.

“We need to rethink: who are those perceived as threatening the ordinary lives of people?” Often, “it is not those that we call terrorists, extremists and radicals — it is those who are located within the intestines of the state”.

The US said in July that it was “deeply concerned by the growing number of allegations of human rights violations and abuses”, and that “without prompt and thorough action to address these allegations, US security assistance may be at risk”.

An inert system

None of the numerous concerns with Sahel counterterror involvement have been assuaged, said Page, by a “lack of strategic direction” from the Trump administration, which last year considered a drawdown of US troops from Africa. 

Former defence secretary Mark Esper was due to finish a review of all US combat commands in September before Trump fired him. Africa Command has “already been through the process” of cutting inefficiencies and realigning priorities with the National Security Strategy, according to the Pentagon, though details are scarce.

But Page and Campbell see the problems plaguing the US counterterror set-up as largely nonpartisan. The lack of a holistic policy was raised in a 2007 diplomatic cable — published by Wikileaks — from the US ambassador in Senegal, who wrote: “The current TSCTP [Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership] programme focuses too much on military and security assistance.”

Campbell describes the lack of oversight as “a chronic problem” related to under-resourcing of the department of state, “which dates from at least the Reagan administration”.

President Joe Biden has pledged to “advance lasting peace and security” in Africa, and his staffing appointments suggest he may be taking the continent more seriously than the previous administration. But he has not made any further security commitments to Africa. Little — beyond the tone of US-Africa diplomacy — is likely to change, making the questions hanging over current counterterror strategy all the more pressing.

The US alone is not responsible for the negligence and corruption of partners in the Sahel, or for the coups and war crimes US-trained forces have committed. But the US has been training foreign militaries for more than 50 years now, and the pattern of calamity – in the Sahel and beyond – suggests a reevaluation of US security aid is urgently needed. One government report said that between 2006-15 only eight in 21 Train and Equip programmes worldwide had made any clear improvements to local units. A 2017 Journal of Peace Research paper suggested US foreign military training in any given country doubled the likelihood of a military coup.

If, for example, human rights violations committed by partner troops don’t consistently trigger withdrawals of security assistance, the US will continue to face questions about its involvement in the deterioration of the Sahel and the often febrile dynamics between locals and those meant to protect them.

“We firmly believe that US engagement has better equipped and enabled our African partners as they work to fight terrorism and instability in their communities,” a state depatment spokesperson. “Every year we refine the approach based on partner performance; programme monitoring and evaluation; and changing conditions on the ground.” 

But former officials, such Brown of the ICG, describe “an inertia about the counter terrorism mission that is hard to slow down and hard to stop”.

Everyone understands Train and Equip has been pretty ineffective, but everyone continues to go through the motions,” said Page, “the system is designed around [it] … There’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome.”

Aning points out that the size of most of the armed groups in the Sahel only numbers in the hundreds

“So why can’t these troops — that we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on — fight them? There’s something fundamentally wrong … We are using different understandings of a fundamental problem and applying totally different, impractical tools. We need a new type of dialogue.” 

While “Africa’s leaders and elites must stop the theft of their own resources”, the US needs to have “the humility to listen to its partners and understand their insecurities — through their lenses”, he said. “This is what has led to the repeated failures of American security policy to achieve long-term success. Until the US learns to listen, to truly be a partner, then it will always fail.”

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