West Africa: As U.S. Eyes Drawdown, Violence Rattles Sahel Region

Photo: ISS
The G5 Sahel countries.

Last year was the deadliest in recent history for extremist violence in the Sahel region of Africa. The trend appears to be continuing in 2020 and experts warn more must be done to avoid a crisis in the region.

Last week, suspected Islamic extremists carried out attacks on two villages in Burkina Faso, killing at least 32 civilians.

In neighboring Niger, terror attacks claimed by extremist fighters killed 89 people this month and 71 soldiers in December.

In both countries and elsewhere in the Sahel region, insurgent and Islamist groups with links to al-Qaida and the Islamic State (IS) terror groups in recent months have increased their attacks against civilian and military targets.

Rise in casualties

U.N. officials say the number of casualties in the region has increased five times since 2016 with more than 4,000 victims in 2019."

The region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets," Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the U.N. Special Representative and Head of the U.N. Office for West Africa and the Sahel, told the U.N. Security Council earlier this month.

"Most significantly, the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening West African coastal states," he added.

The Sahel is a semi-arid region that stretches from Sudan in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. It includes countries such as Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. These nations are known as the G5 Sahel countries.

Economic grievances

Experts say porous borders, poor governance and unstable economies in these countries have allowed Islamist militants to thrive in the impoverished region."

It is generally presumed that militant groups in the Sahel region benefit from the black market and trafficking economies that rely on illicit trade transiting the Sahara," said Alice Hunt Friend, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

"But given the weakness of regional states and their security services, militant coffers are not as important to the balance of power as their boldness and organization," she told VOA.

Increased cooperation with France

The surge of violence carried out by terror groups in the Sahel region has forced West African nations to reconsider their strategy and build new security partnerships.

Last week, leaders of the G5 Sahel countries convened in France, where they agreed to put aside their differences with France in order to combat terrorism more effectively in the region.

France, a former colonial power in the Sahel region, has agreed to deploy an additional 220 troops to the Sahel in an attempt to prevent the rise in terrorist violence in the region.

France already has about 4,500 troops stationed in Sahel, who have been instrumental in fighting an Islamist insurgency in Mali since 2013.

But with recent terror threats throughout the region, France says its forces would extend military assistance to other countries in the region."

French troops are in the Sahel to enable West African leaders to fully assume their sovereignty," French President Emmanuel Macron told G5 Sahel leaders during last week's summit.

"The priority is Islamic State in the Greater Sahara," Macron added.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, an IS affiliate, is active in the Sahel region. Other extremist groups including Ansar al-Islam in Burkina Faso and the Macina Liberation Front in Mali and other IS and al-Qaida-linked groups also have carried out terrorist attacks in the region in recent years.

Niagale Bagayoko, African Security Sector Network Chair, said although the focus may be on one group, the range of threats in the region is extremely complex.

"It is becoming evident that the issue at stake is much more complicated. Because you have a very complex mix of different actors. You have rebel groups that mainly want to have autonomy or if not independence. You have also criminal groups. You have also local self-defense militias. And also, of course, you have jihadist groups. But even all those jihadist groups are very different," she told VOA.

US involvement

Last month, The New York Times reported that the United States was considering a reduction or even a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from West Africa.

The U.S. has between 6,000 and 7,000 troops in Africa, mainly stationed in West Africa.

The possible reduction of U.S. troops in Africa is reportedly part of a worldwide review by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is looking for ways to tighten the focus on China and Russia.

While some experts fear that any such withdrawal would end U.S. support for French military efforts in African countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in their war against jihadist fighters, others believe ongoing efforts have not been enough to tackle the issue of extremism in the Sahel.

"The U.S. presence likely limits terrorist activity in the Sahel but has not eliminated it, and neither France nor other Europeans nor governments in the region will standstill in the face of U.S. withdrawal," analyst Friend of CSIS said.

"The question of whether the French can sustain operations without U.S. support is an open one, although France likely could choose to do so but that would require more resources and domestic political capital," she added.

On Monday, French Defense Minister Florence Parly visited the Pentagon and met with her U.S. counterpart Defense Secretary Mark Esper. She urged the U.S. to continue supporting the security efforts in the region.

But U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the deteriorating situation in the Sahel region.

"I think [the Sahel] is the most difficult and challenging situation we have now in the continent," Tibor Nagy, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, said in November  during a press briefing.

"The threat of terrorism and violent extremism is expanding. It's not anymore in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert," he said.

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