West Africa: AFRICOM’s Strategy

This report examines the strategic concepts of AFRICOM applied in West Africa, based on the US interests in the region, military doctrine, and past experiences in other parts of the world. For collection and processing, the author used OSINT, therefore the report is safe to be further distributed.

Key Judgements

  • KJ-1. US’s military strategy in West Africa is to contain the terrorist threat by helping the local forces to develop their own capacities and tactics. AFRICOM is offering training, technical and logistical assistance as well as intelligence and surveillance. 
  • KJ-2. US’s involvement in the fight against the Islamist insurgency in the Sahel pushed the regional armies to step up their efforts by increasing military budgets and rethinking COIN and counter-terrorism strategies. 
  • KJ-3. Despite major operational and tactical improvements, West Sahelian law enforcement agencies lack a coherent strategy capable of containing deeper social issues that contribute to the success of the Islamist insurgency expansion.
  • KJ-4. US is likely to minimise its COIN efforts in West Sahel, due to geopolitical shifts. As the regional and French forces rely heavily on US logistical and surveillance support, the efficiency of their operations is expected to decrease. 

What is the AFRICOM strategic concept in West Africa?

Violence by militant groups in West Africa has spiked 250 percent over the last two years. Constrained resources and manpower have pushed the U.S. forces to switch strategies from degrading terror groups to containment. Resources for the overstretched American troops across Africa may be further limited should the Pentagon decide to cut funds and personnel. The US Secretary of Defense is yet to decide whether the US withdrawal from West Africa will be complete or partial.
Three groups, the Macina Liberation Front, Ansaroul Islam, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), are responsible for roughly two-thirds of the extremist violence in the central Sahel. Since 2017, the first two alongside other groups merged into the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM). Their attacks are largely concentrated in central Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger.

AFRICOM in the Sahel is conducting persistent counterterrorism operations that include commando raids, technical assistance, and intelligence collection. The increasing number of jihadist groups in the region determined the U.S. military West Africa to rethink its strategy of degrading the strength and reach of terror groups to containment.

The focus of the U.S. military operations is “African solutions for African problems “, meaning that the US’s role is to assist in the development of the indigenous capacity to respond to security threats. AFRICOM Commander Stephen Townsend declared that US’s strategy is to maintain a light and relatively low-cost footprint on the continent. This consists of a constellation of over two dozen outposts that stretch across Africa. The highest concentration of US forces is in the Sahelian states. In their missions, the American forces are sent to advise, assist and train African militaries — and not to take part in combat. However, when needed, U.S. forces have the permission to go into the field with their African partners, as was the case in Niger.

The U.S. military established its Africa Command in 2007, to work closely with African militaries often ill-equipped to deal with emerging extremist threats. While many African countries welcome U.S. assistance, they usually do not support a high-profile U.S. presence. AFRICOM headquarters are located in Stuttgart, Germany, and not in Africa. 

West Africa

According to the U.S. Defense Secretary, the U.S. military has more than 1,000 personnel in Niger, Mali, and Nigeria. The mission is centered on supporting the French-led and the African troops in their campaign to counter the jihadist threat. The U.S. is providing intelligence and surveillance, as well as logistical assistance (mainly air fuelling). After Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, the U.S. base in Agadez, Niger is the second largest one in terms of U.S. military personnel deployed there (around 800 according to AFRICOM; see Annex 3). 

What positive changes did the US involvement in the Sahel cause?

According to AFRICOM, there are three goals the local forces aim to achieve through their partnership with the U.S.: reform, professionalism and capacity-building. In the US vision, military professionalism is to be developed through joint combined exercise training and capacity building through operational and peacekeeping training. At the same time, the capacity to train must be conferred upon African militaries themselves. Therefore, the U.S. pushes the Sahelian armies to increase their military budget to enhance preparedness and capacity.

The governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have mobilized their security structures to respond to the rise in militant Islamist group violence. The budgets dedicated to the armed forces in the three affected countries have doubled since 2013 (from 5.4 percent of government spending, on average, to 10.6 percent; see Annex 2). 

Through Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), AFRICOM conducts special operations and works closely with the component, interagency, and partner nations in West Africa. The command builds tactical and operational counter-VEO (Violent Extremist Organization) capability and assists in developing regional security structures to create stability and combat transregional threats. SOCAFRICA also organizes Flintlock, an exercise focused on improving military interoperability and capacity building of participating militaries from Northern and Western Africa, Europe, and the United States. This way, regional forces in West Africa can observe militaries from other countries throughout operations and develop new tactics and strategies.

The Sahel-Sahara region has seen a major increase in aerial surveillance in the last decade. While the deployment of U.S. and French unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) since 2013 has garnered most headlines, these are fewer in number than the growing presence of manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft crisscrossing the Sahara.

There are currently two known UAV bases for external operators in the Sahel and both are used jointly by France and the U.S. N’Djamena International Airport is the headquarters for French counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel-Sahara, as well as hosting French air and ground forces. U.S. liaison officers are posted to the base. Since May or June 2014, the base has also hosted at least one U.S. MQ-1 Predator UAV and possibly MC-12W Liberty (King Air) manned ISR aircraft for use over northern Nigeria, supported by about 80 US personnel.

The U.S. has an official base in Burkina Faso but aircraft and special forces from both countries (or their contractors) have used Ouagadougou International Airport for counter-terrorism operations. France is formalising this arrangement under Opération Barkhane. U.S. air operations from Ouagadougou appear to be via private contractors but include transport of regular forces. Since 2006 there has been a dedicated hangar for U.S. Joint Special Operations Air Detachment (JSOAD) use.

Trends in Military Expenditures in the Sahel

This has been coupled with bolstered troop levels. In 2019, Burkina Faso announced a 50-percent increase in the number of annual military recruits. Similar efforts have been made by the Malian forces recruiting up to 5,000. Nigerien troop levels have remained at around 10,000 soldiers in recent years but increases in military spending have augmented troop salaries and equipment procurements. 

In 2017, the Malian armed forces launched Operation Dambé, deploying 4,000 soldiers to 8 zones in the northern and central regions to counter the jihadist groups. Mobile units are deployed to disrupt militant Islamist group activities through increased patrols. According to the U.S. Defense Department, while threats posed by JNIM in central Mali continue, the increased presence of security forces has curbed the extremist group’s influence in key population conglomerates in the region. 

The Burkinabe armed forces launched Operation Otapuanu in March 2019 to counter the jihadist insurgency in the eastern part of the country and Operation Ndofou in May 2019 for the Nord, Centre-Nord, and Sahel regions. Operation Otapuanu managed to limit ISGS’s ability to traverse the territory easily. On the other hand, Operation Ndofou has struggled to reinstate security in the north where militants are familiar with the environment and easily cross the border into Mali taking advantage of the terrain.

In Niger, the military has led several joint special forces operations with the French-led Operation Barkhane, targeting the leaders of militant Islamist groups. In April 2019, Niger provided air support and increased the troops committed to active military operations in the western regions of the country. 

Are there any negative consequences of the AFRICOM support in the Sahel?

The US counter-terrorism strategy in the Sahel is highly focused on containing the threat through military means. However, the success the Islamist insurgency is enjoying is due to complex social problems usually ignored by local governments.

While these deployments have demonstrated noteworthy progress, the threat posed by militant Islamist groups remains a serious concern. Furthermore, the groups have adapted their operational tactics by laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as well as ambushing security forces after monitoring their patrol routes. This can be perceived as a response to the modernization of West African countries in the sense that IEDs attacks are time and cost-effective, they cause scores of casualties and do not presume direct engagement in combat.

One strategy used by terrorist groups in the Sahel that have not been yet approached by the West African governments in partnership with AFRICOM is the exploitation of grievances for radicalization. The Macina Liberation Front and Ansaroul Islam particularly have incorporated local grievances to create recruitment narratives centered on marginalization. Frequently, these efforts have targeted young Fulani herders by stoking their feelings of injustice and resentment toward the government. While lacking deep local support, the militant groups have used this grievance narrative to radicalize individuals. 

This weakness is further exploited by the jihadists using the colonialist rhetoric. Both the American and French presences are boycotted in communities across the Sahel exposed to radicalism. Foreign military presence, in general, is described by radical groups as threatening to the interests of the people. Propaganda stories depict the American forces as natural resources chasers. This aspect could be ameliorated through better cooperation between armed forces and local humanitarian organisations so that the populations can observe and interact with the AFRICOM forces. Building trust and showing support is crucial in highly destabilized areas where the extremist rhetoric turns communities against each other.

Despite advancements made in terms of military strategy and tactics as well as equipment, the West Sahelian governments do not dispose of a clear approach aimed at containing social rifts. This is particularly relevant as the success of a military operation can bring temporary stability but will not achieve long-term peace. As long as social grievances persist, they will always represent a weakness of the West African security, and the terrorists’ radicalization efforts will continue.

ISGS has exploited anger over cattle theft to exacerbate tensions between Tuareg nomads, seen as cattle rustlers, and the Fulani herders along the Niger-Mali border. Growing animosity between the two groups has increased insecurity in these areas. This type of accusation leads to ethnic clashes in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. 

Overall, AFRICOM encourages local governments to upgrade their military capabilities and to improve their tactics. However, conventional measures are not sufficient in the fight against extremism. In this light, a greater emphasis has to be put on social countermeasures, such as enhancing the dialogue between the government and local leaders in areas with greater autonomy. Given U.S. military involvement in the Middle East in areas where jihadists are also exploiting local grievances, AFRICOM could also offer assistance to West African states in economic and social reforms. 

Apart from being accused of failing to protect the civilians, the Malian, Burkinabe, and Nigerien governments have also dissented for mass violations of human rights while conducting raids on villages. Intimidated communities have thus grown hesitant to collaborate with security forces. At times, this has fostered suspicion by security forces, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, leading to collective reprisals and human rights abuses. This has further deteriorated levels of trust between communities and security forces.

Intelligence collection becomes challenging for the national forces as locals refuse to cooperate and their dissent pushes them to support or at least remain tacit about the jihadists’ activities in their area. In this regard, AFRICOM forces could offer assistance and training in good conduct during operations as well as in fostering peaceful relations between the civilians and the military. 

What future developments are likely to emerge in West Africa’s military approach? 

The U.S. seeks to reorganize its troops across the Globe. Its foreign policy focus will shift from violent non-state actors active in the Middle East and the Sahel to state actors – primarily China and Russia. French troops rely on American-provided intelligence, as well as logistical support and aerial refueling. For France to stay capable of countering the West African jihadists, the country will have to push for a more aggressive European strategy against terrorism. Tensions are expected to rise due to European Union’s reluctance to deploy troops. The block is already struggling in spending the US requested 2% of the national GDP for defense inside NATO. The costs for the U.S. support are estimated at $45 million a year, money the U.S. Defense Department is no longer interested in spending for missions considered to be out of the U.S.’s strategic focus.

AFRICOM troops stationed in the Sahel are expected to face a decreased budget and personnel cuts, meaning that the U.S.-West Africa partnership will have to adjust its military approach in the region. This could lead to revised strategies and tactics, in order to make operations more cost-effective and to avoid a surge in jihadist activity. For now, AFRICOM relies heavily on private contractors to undertake ISR and infiltration/exfiltration activities. In case of budget cuts, it is likely that the US will pressure even more the West African countries to improve their counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism capabilities so that they can take over more tasks fulfilled now by AFRICOM and its private partners.

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