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The New Arena: The Case for Enhanced US Strategic Engagement with Africa

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

By Nicholas Sinopoli



The United States Department of Defense should increase its footprint in Africa by expanding AFRICOM, working with US allies such as France and using integrated Army Civil Affairs teams to coordinate development efforts with African leaders to address the root motivators of terrorism in order to counter the rise of extremism in Africa by Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Al Shabab, ISIS and Al Qaeda that are detrimental to regional stability and prosperity.


In General Stephan Townsend’s 2020 Senate Armed Services Committee AFRICOM Posture Statement, Gen. Townsend emphasized that a stable Africa is key to US strategic interests due to its positioning at the crossroads of international trade and commerce and its status as the fast growing continent on the planet, which poses both opportunities and problems for the United States in ensuring global peace and prosperity in the current international order.

Africa holds immense potential for the United States in terms of new allies and partners that can expand the liberal international order’s prosperity and stability into a region that has historically been neglected and manipulated by colonialist powers to its detriment. Judd Devermont of CSIS writes that “U.S. global leadership is predicated on its networks of alliances and partners, including in Africa. These relations are essential to opening markets for the U.S. private sector; countering malign behavior by China and Russia; and shaping decisions at international forums, including the UN Security Council.”

The US has operated in Africa in many facets since its inception, with previous presidents concentrating development efforts in initiatives such as Bush’s PEPFAR and Obama’s Power Africa which have aided Africa’s rise into the first world, yet a major hindrance of African progress remains religious extremism, which has plunged regions of Africa into chaos. US counterterrorism and foreign internal defense operations have been conducted on a small scale by US Africa Command, or AFRICOM, a joint combatant command under the Department of Defense, however, current counterterrorism efforts have not been successful in containing radical Islamic terrorism.

In a recently declassified report by the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the Center concluded that in 2020, there was a reported 43 percent spike in militant Islamic group violence in Africa with the 4,958 reported events signaling a new record of violence since monitoring started in 2016. The report also concluded that Islamic fundamentalist violence was linked to the deaths of an estimated 13,059 deaths, a third higher than recorded deaths in the previous year. Lastly, the report surmised that Islamic terrorism was centered around five regions in Africa plagued by different groups, the regions being Somalia, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, Mozambique and Egypt. Only Egypt’s level of violence remained relatively the same from the previous years, while all other regions suffered from sharp increases in the level of violence.

The damage caused by Islamic extremism is apparent in Africa, as in Mozambique alone, nearly 670,000 people have been displaced by ISIS attacks. In March 2021, ISIS most alarmingly captured the large scale port of Mocimboa da Praia, a cargo hub near the Tanzanian border in the oil rich northern area of the country, destabilizing the region and giving ISIS a safe haven to operate from while disrupting economic activity throughout the country. Across Africa, violence caused by terrorist groups has stifled economic progress and displaced thousands and has started new branches in countries such as Mozambique which had not experienced violence from terrorist groups before.

The DoD report underscores the need for a new approach to American counterterrorism operations within AFRICOM’s area of responsibility, as current DOD policies are failing to stem the tide of insurgency and extremism. The US’s goal has always been to deter terrorist attacks on the US homeland, but the time to expand that mission from solely a counterterrorism mission to a mission that more fully promotes regional stability is needed, as Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Shabab are emboldened by the lack of action taken against them and are now capable of striking the US homeland. The need to stem the tide of radical Islamic extremism is crucial if America is to maintain its international reputation among its African partners, foster stability and prosperity within Africa and prevent attacks on the US homeland and European allies by denying terrorist groups safe havens within Africa.

The US Department of Defense is in a unique position to tackle this threat, as the US military serves as one of the only visible beacons of American power and strength on display to African nations, and by expanding counterterrorism operations against Islamic terrorist groups, America can cement itself as a responsible and trusted ally to countries which it has historically neglected, which will reap long term benefits for all parties involved. Judd Devermont of CSIS states “while U.S. embassies in Africa have been woefully understaffed for decades, the U.S. military presence has increased, serving as a crucial signal to African partners that the United States is a steadfast ally.” AFRICOM senior leaders make regular stops in many partner nations and are many times the only high level interactions African leaders have with American officials outside of US embassies as U.S. presidents have visited only 16 out of the 54 countries in Africa, making repeated stops in a handful of countries.

As part of Trump’s “America First'' policy that aimed to refocus American foreign policy around core American interests such as long term strategic competition with Russia and China, AFRICOM was left neglected as a combatant command. In late 2020, President Trump decided to pull most of the 700 US servicemembers out of Somalia in an effort to reduce the US’s global footprint ahead of the election, with many estimates saying that the withdrawal took place at the worst time, with the Somali military unready to take over counterterror operations from international forces and extremist groups such as Al-Shabab and the Islamic State becoming emboldened and more capable. President Trump framed his Africa policy around strategic competition with China and did little to develop beneficial ties with African leaders.

So far, President Biden’s policy towards Africa has focused on expanding COVID-19 assistance to African nations and a return to development programs that were suspended under President Trump. However, on January 20th, 2021 the Biden Administration imposed restrictions on the use of drone strikes outside of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, which states that any strike outside the war zones now requires the White House’s tacit approval. This policy is a departure from the Trump Administration stance that commanders were given authorization to sanction drone strikes if conditions on the ground necessitated them. US Army Col. Chris Wyatt, a key leader in AFRICOM stated that this policy may degrade AFRICOM commanders’ ability to strike key terrorist leaders before they escape.

Policy Proposals

The first policy recommendation the DOD should implement is an expansion of AFRICOM by supporting an increased presence of US Special Operations forces and a relaxation on approval over drone strike capabilities so that the US can effectively combat terrorist threats before they can strike African partners and the US homeland. US Special Operations Forces are among the world’s best operators in conducting foreign internal defense and advisory missions. Their technical and interpersonal expertise to train and advise national forces has been proven again and again in war zones around the world. With an increased presence of US Special Forces on the ground working with national forces, African militaries will be better equipped and trained to fight against extremist organizations having learned counterterrorism tactics from the best in the world. An increased presence of US Special Forces soldiers also means that the soldiers would have the manpower needed to conduct raids and operations against the leadership and infrastructure of terrorist cells, which would degrade their ability to commit acts of terror. In addition, an expanded AFRICOM will have enhanced monitoring abilities for violent extremist organizations, which will provide early warning and give US policymakers time to form effective policies towards new threats.

Drawbacks of this approach is that this policy will cost more than US policymakers are currently willing to allocate now due to the Coronavirus pandemic and Africa being seen as a peripheral interest of the United States by much of the foreign policy community and the American people, which makes it harder to galvanize support for increased involvement. Furthermore, in 2017, near the remote Nigeran village of Tongo Tongo, four American Green Berets were killed in an ambush by ISIS forces. After being briefed by the investigating officer Major General Roger Cloutier Jr, the families of the fallen servicemembers described the operation as a disaster even before the bullets started flying, stating that members of the team had almost no combat experience between them, the team’s leadership lost accountability of members of the team during the firefight and the undergunned and undermanned team was given the task of killing or capturing a senior ISIS leader surrounded by hundreds of mobile and heavily armed ISIS fighters. When avoidable tragedies such as the ambush in Niger occur, the American public withdraw their support for efforts in Africa and leave US policymakers in a difficult situation moving forward. If AFRICOM is to be expanded, it must be expanded with the proper support and means to ensure that American troops are able to function at their highest level so that further tragedies are unlikely to occur.

The second policy recommendation for the Defense Department to promote stability in Africa is to empower European allies with increased logistical, tactical support and the creation of joint centers that enable information sharing. Notably, France currently deploys over 5,000 troops to Africa’s Sahel region under Operation Barkhane in order to aid the G5 Sahel countries, made up of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Support that can be offered to France is increased intelligence sharing on terrorist activities within Africa, access to US drone surveillance capabilities and US logistics hubs. Strengths of this approach include a reduced cost for the US military to accrue as it works in a support role and permits the French and other European organizations to shoulder much of the economic burden for counterterrorism operations in the region. This will allow the Department of Defense the ability to allocate resources to combatant commands that the President and the American people deem more important in countering major threats such as China or Russia.

The weaknesses of this strategy is that the decisive action of combatting terrorism is left up to the French, while the US takes a backseat role, which puts the burden of success on them. If they fail, the fallout between African nations and the West might persuade African countries to seek assistance from malign actors such as China or Russia who have less scruples about creating regional stability through democratic rule of law than they have a desire to exploit African countries for their resources. Another weakness is that France is only involved in their former colonies in West Africa and currently does not have troops in places such as Somalia and Mozambique, so if the US was to rely on France and other European countries to lead the fight against terror in Africa, it will only account for a part of the problem, where if the US was leading the effort, a holistic and coordinated approach to continent-wide counterterrorism operations could be pursued.

The third recommendation is the use of long term integrated Army Civil Affairs teams to work with partner nations political and community leaders to combat the underlying socio-economic problems that contribute to terrorism. Army Civil Affairs teams specialize in building relationships with community leaders and are well versed in the political, economic, social background of their assigned country. Civil Affairs teams would be able to maintain relationships with indigenous leaders and effectively coordinate with USAID and the State Department to address the root causes that force people to turn to terrorism through diplomatic and developmental means. Issues such as poverty, wealth inequality, poor quality of life, religious and ethnic tension contribute to the rise of terrorism, and Civil Affairs teams are uniquely trained to deal with these problems. The strength of this approach is that the solution addresses the causes of terrorism, rather than counterterrorism operations that seek only to contain it.

Weaknesses of this approach is that the DOD is not currently equipped to handle the scale that Civil Affairs teams would be needed to form a comprehensive response across Africa. The Civil Affairs Branch of the US Army makes up a small part of the already small special forces component, and is made up of mostly reservists. The burden of calling these reservists up to perform a mission without a set end date may be politically unfeasible for a presidential administration. A larger weakness is that this mission may not be able to be assessed for success for many years to come due to its nature of treating factors other than ones specifically tied to the Department of Defense’s mission, which is reminiscent of US nation building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.


However, it is vital that the US continues to signal its support for African countries that are fast becoming important allies in a new area of competition in geopolitics by aiding in counterterrorism operations and security sector assistance. The stakes of losing the battle against extremism in Africa would mean the loss of the US’s African allies, exportation of threats to Europe and the US homeland and American influence in Africa, which would allow China and Russia to fill the void. If the US aids African countries in their fight against extremism, Africa holds the key for new economic prospects for American consumers, becomes a bulwark against increased Chinese and Russian expansion and will help create consensus at the UN. By aiding African countries now, the United States will reap long term benefits that will leave the United States and the world more prosperous and safer than before. Three policies that the DOD can take to begin to fight back against extremism in Africa are the expansion of AFRICOM’s special forces presence, empower regional allies such as France and the use of Army Civil Affairs teams to address the root causes of terrorism.


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