Trump's possible Africa withdrawal sends the wrong signal at the exact wrong time

As terrorists build increasingly strong roots there, we leave. How does this make anyone safer?
Members of the Nigerian and United States military next to some of the 24 armored vehicles donated to the Nigerian government
Members of the Nigerian and United States military stand next to some of the armored vehicles donated to the Nigerian government to help fight Boko Haram on Jan. 7, 2016.Stefan Heunis / AFP via Getty Images file
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By David A. Andelman, Executive director of The RedLines Project

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was quite right when he told Secretary of Defense Mark Esper last weekend that there would be consequences if the Trump administration withdrew American forces from some of the most dangerous territories of Africa. NBC News reported that Graham told Esper he could “make your life hell” if President Donald Trump went through with his plan to effectively eviscerate Africom, the U.S. joint command for Africa, and effectively shutter the world’s largest drone base in the nation of Niger.

Rapidly spiraling events on the ground would likely make life hell in very short order not only for the United States, but also for most of its allies as well.

But frankly, Graham wouldn’t have to do very much at all to make good on his threats. Instead, rapidly spiraling events on the ground would likely make life hell in very short order not only for the United States, but also for most of its allies as well.

The principal mission for American forces in West Africa these days is preventing the arrival and expansion of terrorist organizations that are increasingly taking root, from Niger and Mali to Burkina Faso and Chad, as well as in the continent’s most populous nation, Nigeria.

Plenty of these terrorists are imported from the Middle East, a trend that has accelerated after successes in eradicating or suppressing the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq, and al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “ISIS is now a threat to the entire African continent, from north to south and east to west,” Nathan Sales, acting U.S. undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, said at a conference last July. “While the world has understandably been focused on ISIS, al Qaeda has [also] quietly reconstituted itself,” adding that “it is active here in Africa … and it aims to establish an Islamic state in Mali, while targeting Western and local interests in West Africa and the Sahel.”

At the same time, homegrown terrorist groups like the fearsome Boko Haram in Nigeria continue their horrifying attacks. (Of the 276 schoolgirls famously kidnapped from a government secondary school in 2014, at least 100 are still missing.)

The United Nations estimates there were at least 4,000 terrorist-related deaths last year in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger alone, while half a million refugees fled what the U.N. labels “unprecedented violence.” Clearly the American terrorism mission remains unfinished.

But while Trump says he cares about terrorism, he also cares deeply about confronting the challenges posed by Russia and China, as spelled out in his 2021 military budget released this month. But Russian and Chinese influence are expanding all but unchecked across this region. As the U.S. departs, these two countries will be more than willing to step in to fill an expanding and lucrative vacuum.

While Trump says he cares about terrorism, he also cares deeply about confronting the challenges posed by Russia and China.

In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited some 40 African heads of state to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to preview military hardware that would be available for a simple exchange of oil, gas, diamonds and a host of precious minerals, not to mention treaties of friendship and cooperation. Not to be outdone, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has paid a number of personal visits to strategic African nations, seeking to enlist them in China’s Belt and Road Initiative designed to help Africa industrialize and become a major trading partner. And he invited a host of high-ranking military officials from 50 African nations to Beijing for the first China-African Defense and Security Forum in 2018.

The extra burden on European forces, especially the French, is another immediate and dangerous consequence of any sudden American pullout. In December, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife pried themselves away from the strikes that were paralyzing France and paid a visit to the Ivory Coast and nearby Mali.

“We will keep up the fight against jihadist terrorists. We will continue to do so with our African partners and with our European and international partners,” Macron told French troops. “Because if we let the threat flourish, it will impact us too.” At least 4,500 French troops are based in the Sahel region and form a backbone of the 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali.

The concern is that France and other European nations will be unable to fill any vacuum left by an American departure — and maintain their commitments to assist the U.S. in the Middle East, Afghanistan or Asia. “This level of sustained commitment for many years is unprecedented and it will not decline in the years to come,” Gen. François Lecointre, chief of staff of the French armed forces, warned.

In 1884 and 1885, a “scramble for Africa” at the West African Conference of Berlin divided up the continent as the major powers of the day — France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and even Russia — dashed to establish colonies and kingdoms. At that time, the United States was the only major power that did not enter into the agreement. For decades after, the U.S. has played a far less hands-on role in the region, especially as compared to Europe.

But this changed once the U.S. government realized the strategic importance of West Africa. The establishment in 2007 of the United States Africa Command (Africom) by President George W. Bush cemented this new policy strategy.

Pulling out of Africa, even just West Africa, sends the wrong signal at the exact wrong time. As terrorists build increasingly strong roots there, we leave. How does this make anyone safer? America’s enemies — large powers and small terrorist groups alike — want nothing more than our withdrawal, of course. In December 2018, then national security adviser John Bolton revealed Trump’s new Africa policy, all but unhinged from today’s realities: “Every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities.” But such nationalism and blatant self-interest does not work when we are perceived as the principal enemy of globalists and terrorists alike.