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US Strategy in the Sahel

Oct. 13, 2017 Xander Snyder and Allison Fedirka discuss U.S. strategic use of force in Africa. Sign up here for free updates on topics like this.

Xander Snyder: Hi and welcome to the Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m Xander Snyder and I am joined today by Allison Fedirka. We’re going to be chatting with you today about something that doesn’t always reach the news but has been in the news quite a bit for the last week and half. And that’s this area in Africa called the Sahel.  So first Allison, why don’t we just talk about what the Sahel is and where it is?

Allison Fedirka: Ok so the Sahel is in Africa and if you can imagine a picture of Africa, you have that really wide portion on top. And it’s starting from the Mediterranean on top, you have the coastline of northern Africa. Then you get into the Sahara desert, which all of us are very much familiar with. When we think of deserts in Africa, that is the one that always comes to mind for most people. Then just south of that desert, you have a semi-arid climate that runs in a band west to east across Africa and that is the Sahel that we are talking about.

So it is not as lush as some of the more jungle climates that you will find further south in Africa. It is not as barren a desert as the Sahara. But it’s that middle zone where you have that climate change and geographic change between those two other major regions of Africa.

XS: So the reason that the Sahel has been in the news recently is four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed recently in Niger and the southwest portion of Niger sits within this strip that is the Sahel, that sits right south of the Sahara desert. And in addition to this actually hitting some outlets, there is a fairly long Politico piece on the U.S. presence in the Sahel that basically took the position that you know this is an occupation of inertia, that the US really has no strategy there and these troops were just deployed without purpose. Now Allison you just wrote a “Reality Check” that published today on Friday. Is this a reasonable interpretation of the U.S. presence in the Sahel?

AF: So I would argue that there is always, there is definitely a strategy for the U.S. troop deployments in this region of Africa. If you look at the types of troops that the U.S. has deployed there, you have a lot of elite forces. And so, the training that these individuals have, the percentage of them as far as the total armed forces in the United States is a much smaller number of people.

And so when you have a group of resources like these individuals, they are not deployed arbitrarily. They are not deployed for fun or anything like that. And in general, military deployments have a strategy behind them. You are talking about national strategy, national interests, people’s lives. And these are decisions that are not taken lightly. The U.S has many different types of conflicts going on in the world, some of which they choose to engage with militarily, some of which they choose don’t.

We’ve spoken in the past about how one of the major strategies the U.S. is pursuing right now is try to offload some of the regional responsibilities onto other regional player because the U.S. is getting overextended and they do have a lot of military commitments. So because of this, these decision are not made lightly.

And the decision to have U.S. troops in the Sahel, in Niger, in Mali, in all of these different areas, it’s all related to this idea of trying to contain several of the Jihadist elements that are present in these areas. They can’t directly affect the U.S. at this point in time, somebody in Niger is not going to be able to physically harm the United States from there. But they pose a threat, it’s not direct but it is a threat that the U.S. needs to take seriously and think of how it relates to the bigger dynamics both in Africa and also other parts of the world like the Middle East with different Islamist extremist and Jihadist movements.

XS: I think as you look at a superpower, and we’ve written on this before, as it grows in strength, as the United States has over the last several decades and really has become the sole global super power, its interests span larger geographies as well.

So to your point about deploying forces and always having some sort of strategy at the back of or underlying those deployments, there is some purpose going on with the U.S. presence in the Sahel. Now you talk about or you mention the Jihadist groups in this region and people have probably heard of Boko Haram in Nigeria and they might not be as familiar with how those Jihadist groups in western and central or I guess north-central Africa relate to the Jihadist groups in the Middle East.

Now in your piece you talk about a supply line being established across the Sahara that would connect groups in the Sahel to northern Africa, what’s the strategy there and why is not necessary to completely defeat the Jihadist groups in order to accomplish that strategy? And what would Jihadist groups like to do if they were to establish that supply line?

AF: So the appeal of these supply lines are being able to recruit new individuals, like minded individuals who believe in similar causes and bring forces together. There is also the appeal of getting revenue flows. All of these movements need funding and in this region, you have mineral deposits, things like metals. Gold is a popular item that you can easily, for in terms of black market, trade. There is a black market for gold that would be accessible to these people. There’s even higher strategic elements like uranium that would be attractive for them to potentially get onto the black market as well.

So there’s a lot of space for illicit activities, human trafficking, drug trafficking, where they can get money even just by providing security for transit routes or giving transit to other groups. So that’s the appeal for revenue. And as you mentioned before, this idea of joining the groups, this idea of recruitment, we’ve heard of this idea of wanting to have stronger forces become a transnational threat, occupy territory or build out the areas where they already have strong influence.

So with that in mind, the goal here would not be to necessarily eradicate these groups because they’re quite a few of them, they’re sporadically placed and this is a massively large area of land to cover. So the goal is to really just disrupt the flow of potential revenue, disrupt the potential flow of recruits and prevent these groups from linking up and forming a more formidable force that would require more resources to be directed against it.

So when you think about military strategy, the idea is that the force you deploy needs to be proportional to your objectives. If you’re just looking to stop trade routes and cut off communication and cut off flows of people or make it very limited, you don’t need to physically occupy all of this territory. You can achieve that accomplishment with a containment strategy and that’s the approach that the United States is taking in this case. They don’t necessarily need to eradicate all of these groups. If you look for example at Boko Haram, keeping it in Nigeria, as long as it stays in Nigeria, the U.S. can work with that. Strategically that is an acceptable outcome for the United States and containing all of these other groups as well.

XS: So the idea being there that the U.S. doesn’t have to eliminate Boko Haram in order to accomplish its goal, it just needs enough force to cut these supply lines.

AF: Correct. And keep in mind that there’s a lot of other groups besides Boko Haram. And so we’re not talking about going through each individual group, it’s about having influence over the area and just cutting those supply lines, exactly.

XS: Yeah it seems as Islamic State in Syria is increasingly on the retreat losing ground there, it has a greater need to either it itself or other Jihadist groups establish some sort of presence elsewhere in the world.

Yeah so we’re seeing this U.S. activity in the Sahel and you’ve written before about U.S. strategy in Somalia as well about deploying just enough force necessary to accomplish some limited objectives. There is this narrative that exists about a secret war in Africa, the U.S.’s secret war. What exactly does this narrative entail and do you think it’s an accurate explanation of the situation there?

AF: So the idea of a U.S. secret war is in part related to this idea of lesser known or clandestine activities to describe some of the operations by more elite forces and it’s also this idea that the U.S. doesn’t address these issues or talk about them. I don’t think secret war is the most accurate label for these operations. They have increased over time. Since about 2006, we’ve seen a large increase in troops relative to what was there before.

But we know this is going on, it’s not common for people to read the news from Niger, from Chad, from Cameroon. But if you look at these newspapers for example, they openly have reported U.S. building drones, U.S. troop movements, battles and things like that going on. It also is a point of reference.

If you were French, you would be very much aware of what is going on in this region. And there is no secret in France, they have 3,500 troops about in Mali. And they are also a very strong, international presence in this area also fighting the Jihadist movements and looking to protect French interests there. And people in Paris know this is going on, people are very much aware. The French President has already visited this region of the world.

So I don’t think we should confuse people not always paying attention to something as the same as a secret. If it was the same as a secret, we wouldn’t know about it. We wouldn’t be able to having this conversation right now. But it’s just not something that usually draws U.S. attention and it’s not until something like U.S. troops lives are lost, that the general media will be paying attention to these areas.

XS: I think that’s a great point and something that we try to do here at Geopolitical Futures is dig in and find those nuggets of information that are freely available that maybe some more widely distributed media outlets are missing. And that’s why we’re able to for example, write a piece about US strategy in the Sahel right now.

Now you mentioned France and we’ve haven’t talked about them yet. But the U.S. is of course collaborating with France in Africa. What are the French interests there? And it is more immediate than the U.S.’s given their proximity to Africa?

AF: So the proximity of France to Africa definitely raises their interest in the region and also the potential threat of any type of migration of Jihadists from this region to domestic lands. So it’s a lot easier for these fighters to get into France than it would be for example to get into parts of the United States.

So France has a historical colonial tie to these areas. They have been close to these governments even after independence. They have an influence there. And France has also been a target of a lot of terrorist attacks in the last few years as well.

So they take these operations very seriously. And do have an interest in also stopping those flows of persons and revenue especially for anything that could migrate further north and actually have people making their way into France and posing any threats to French interests and French lives that way.

XS: So it’s an under covered region of the world where nonetheless the U.S. and France have a presence and there’s some notable events going on right now. Now if you’re listening to this and this seems like a topic that interests you, as I mentioned Allison just wrote a piece on this that published today. It’s at our website. It’s really great. You should go check it out. It touches all of these topics but includes greater detail. It’s called “In Africa, Jihadists see a chance to expand” and you can get that at geopoliticalfutures.com So with that Allison, thanks for the invigorating conversation. Listeners, check out her piece and we’ll catch you next week.

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