Defending the U.S. Military Presence in Africa for Reasons beyond Counterterrorism

This commentary was originally published in Lawfare on March 18, 2020.

Since Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a potential drawdown of U.S. troops in Africa, U.S. congressional leaders, military officers, and various commentators have defended the importance of the military in Africa. But they’ve focused almost exclusively on the fight against terrorism. This is not surprising, since the public has for decades really only heard about the U.S. military in Africa when drone strikes hit terrorists in Somalia, when Navy SEALs raid pirate ships in the Gulf of Aden, and when Army Rangers hunt down genocidaires in the jungle.

But the overwhelming focus on terrorist threats oversells the military’s role and undersells Washington’s comprehensive investments in Africa. If advocates want to dissuade the Pentagon from cutting some of its 6,000 troops stationed in Africa, they need to stop valorizing its counterterrorism missions while disregarding the U.S. military’s more lasting contributions. The real selling point is that, every day, the U.S. military forges closer ties with African governments, promotes U.S. values and interests, and responds to humanitarian and health crises—including the coronavirus pandemic.

It is time to rethink the U.S. military’s contributions to peace and security in sub-Saharan Africa. Secretary Esper’s mulling of a scale-back of U.S. troops while the coronavirus spreads demands a reckoning. It is imperative for the U.S. military to reaffirm its non-counterterrorism missions in the region and to reform how it executes its counterterrorism programs to ensure that the United States continues to preserve and protect its national security interests.

A Reevaluation of the U.S. Military’s Role beyond Counterterrorism

The most profound benefits to American national security from U.S. military engagement on the African continent have little to do with the headlines. Since the 1990s and notably after 9/11 and the establishment of Africa Command (AFRICOM), the U.S. military has often been the most visible and concrete symbol of U.S. commitment to the region.

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.

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. For example, most African countries rarely receive visits from the president, vice president, secretary of state, or even senior officials from other departments. In fact, U.S. presidents have visited only 16 out of the 54 countries in Africa, making repeated stops in a handful of countries. In contrast, AFRICOM’s senior leaders travel to the continent more often and to more countries than anyone else in the U.S. government. Interactions with U.S. military officials are the key diplomatic relationships in Africa outside of the embassy. Such interactions are often an African leader’s highest-level connection to the U.S. government, and they are what many African governments view as the most reliable form of U.S. engagement.

It is through the U.S. military that the U.S. government promotes values such as civilian oversight of the military and rule of law. According to a recent RAND Corporation study, U.S. security sector assistance, when conducted in conjunction with UN peacekeeping, decreases the likelihood of political violence in a given African country. And senior African military officers, with close ties to the United States, have defended civilian rule during turbulent political transitions. In Malawi, for example, Gen. Henry Odillo, who often engaged with AFRICOM, refused to permit politicians from preventing then-vice president Joyce Banda from ascending to the presidency in 2012.

In any given year, AFRICOM co-leads seminars with regional military and defense officials on military justice and the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse. It also stops providing military support when African forces commit human rights abuses—sending a signal that the rule of law matters and, in theory, deterring security forces from committing future abuses. The U.S. military, which has a far from perfect record itself, also leads by example, confronting its past mistakes and launching investigations when U.S. forces have committed crimes or lost their lives in ambushes. In response to legitimate criticism from journalists and human rights organizations, the U.S. military recently started reporting civilian casualties from its Somalia operations and adjusted its assistance programs following a coup led by a U.S-trained army captain in Mali in 2012.

When natural disasters strike and viruses spread, the U.S. military’s presence in several African nations has enabled quick and decisive support. In response to Cyclone Idai in 2019, U.S. military aircraft helped deliver food and other humanitarian assistance to communities in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe just days after the storm submerged hundreds of thousands of miles of land. And the U.S. military’s presence in several African nations has been an essential part of the fight against the coronavirus, providing mobile hospital capacity in Ghana, Senegal, and Uganda. The capabilities and partnerships created through U.S. military engagement are helping African nations including Benin, Nigeria, and Senegal to deal with the coronavirus and contain future pandemics.

These non-counterterrorism missions are not mere charity or ideological niceties. Building partnerships, promoting U.S. values and interests, and acknowledging past mistakes to reinforce U.S. leadership distinguishes the United States from its adversaries. China, for instance, has been unwilling to take responsibility for racist treatment of Africans in Guangzhou during the coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, the coronavirus proves that diseases do not respect borders. Like terrorism, trafficking, and organized crime, what happens in one country does not necessarily stay there. Future African security and health challenges will not only implicate the continent but also affect the United States and the international community.

A Smarter Approach to Counterterrorism for the U.S. Military

As terrorism continues to afflict communities across Africa, the need to counter threats has not abated. However, when it comes to counterterrorism, instead of doubling down on existing efforts, the proposed drawdown should be a time to reconsider the military’s role beyond operations. To date, the biggest investments in countering terrorism—underscrutinized security assistance and targeted strikes—have not proved effective at stemming the growth of terror networks across Africa.

Instead, investing in prevention should be the long game for strategic gains measured by reductions in violence and sustainable partnerships with security sectors and citizens alike. As military personnel who have served in Africa know well, important stabilization activities make the hard work of governing possible, and the dividends of this approach accrue based on years of engagement.

In places like Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, U.S. forces and partner militaries can support longer-term efforts to prevent violent extremism from taking hold in the first place. The United States can help partners set up joint operations centers where, in real time, the U.S. military can showcase how intelligence-driven operations reduce accidents, lower civilian casualties, and foster information sharing (including with gendarmes and police) that saves lives. And it can do more to promote open dialogues with communities on threats and prevention strategies.

If the United States wants to reduce the threat of terrorism in Africa, partnerships need to mean much more than just limited counterterrorism objectives. In too many African contexts, terrorists easily step in to establish themselves as a viable alternative to the government when those in power are corrupt, venal, and direct security forces to kill and abuse civilians for political gain. In those cases, the U.S. military’s most effective intervention is assisting partner nations to improve their behavior and rebuild trust. Because when U.S. forces support efforts to repair the broken bonds of governance and positively impact the behavior of African security forces, it reinforces the idea that the state’s job is to protect people, instead of going after them. And that might end up being the most potent type of counterterrorism the United States can ever help with.

U.S. officials, Congress, and the public need to understand that there is more benefit to the U.S. military engagement in Africa than just combating terrorism. The proposed cuts to the U.S. military presence, even if well intentioned, will undercut the missions that are doing well—security partnerships and responses to health and humanitarian crises—and constrain innovative policy responses to address twenty-first-century security challenges. If the United States learns anything from the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic, let it be that American priorities have been misaligned and off-kilter for some time. Let’s not throw away gains for shortsighted reasons nor waste this opportunity to renew and deepen U.S. investments in Africa. If the United States wants to advance its objectives in the region, the government needs to focus on the most impactful missions, fix its counterterrorism programming, and favor early interventions and enduring partnerships with African counterparts.

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Leanne Erdberg Steadman is the director of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Leanne Erdberg Steadman

Director, Countering Violent Extremism, U.S. Institute of Peace