By Anitha Quintin
The U.S War on Terror in the Sahara-Sahel
The Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) was created in 2005 as a successor to the Pan-Sahel Initiative (Kieh and Kalu 2013, 89). The TSCTP seeks to continue the mission of its predecessor and defeat terrorist organizations through a combination of military and diplomatic support for countries in a region with a delicate and frequently unstable peace. Despite the obstacles faced by long standing ethnic tensions within Sahelian countries, the TSCTP has found relative success in its initiatives. The U.S military has been able to develop successful Malian military groups to help advance the TSCTP mission; “US-led Joint Combined Exercises and Trainings have built the capacity of Malian mobile units called Echelons Tactiques Inter-armes, and the 33rd Paratrooper Regiment to conduct effective patrols and interrupt the activities of AQIM” (Solomon 2013, 437).
However, in recent years, the U.S’s position regarding its commitment to such initiatives has shifted and become unclear. The 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary raised questions as to whether or not the U.S would continue its involvement in the region, with the summary stating that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S national security” (Mattis 2018, 1) Consequently, American allies such as France are beginning to express their concerns. At the 2020 G5 Summit held in Pau, French President Emmanuel Macron said “if the Americans decided to pull out of Africa, it would be very bad news for us, absolutely. I hope that I can convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism, a fight that he is fully committed to, is at stake out in this region” (Campbell 2020).
The Problem the United States Faces
Given the historic commitment the U.S has made to combatting terrorism and the Sahel’s importance to both American ally France and the global War on Terror, the United States must strongly consider whether it will continue its involvement in the region, and specifically in Mali—a country which has received constant attention from American allies. If the United States decides to maintain its involvement in the region, it must address another issue: despite the seemingly sound established counter-terrorism framework and the relative success of initiatives in Mali in the past, the spread of extremist ideologies in the region have been steadily rising since 2002 (Andre 2015, 28). Given these impediments to state-centric counter-terrorism initiatives, the TSCTP must change its approach in order to successfully combat terrorism in the region.
Recommendations Moving Forward
Working directly with the Bamako government to create a military response has not proven optimal, but as a state existing in an international community, the United States likewise cannot directly support organizations which are actively working to undermine Bamako’s legitimacy. Due to previous instances of the Malian army attacking civilians and colluding with militias and illicit actors, the Malian state is weak and holds little to no legitimacy with northern populations such as the Tuareg. By strengthening local security forces, the TSCTP initiatives can in fact deepen the conflict between the Bamako government and Northern Malians, as the resources are being funneled into security services which could in turn use them to “quell domestic opposition” (Boudali 2017, 6).
Furthermore, deterrence solely in the form of threats and application of force can work against the U.S’s goals, as it can drive different dissenting groups together (Trager and Zagorcheva 2005, 121). Ultimately, “Terrorist activity will be unappealing only when the cost of participation outweighs the benefits”, (Boudali 2017, 8) and the current reliance on policies revolving around a government already perceived as oppressive by the people will not shift the balance in favor of U.S goals.
A possible solution would be to divert support to local groups—which hold more legitimacy with the people, and are thus more likely to effectively subvert attempts at converting communities to terrorist causes—rather than continuing state-centric policies. However, as aforementioned, this would mean supporting groups which are also actively working to undermine the authority of the Bamako government. Publicly supporting groups which challenge the authority of the legitimate government can cause turmoil on the international stage and can cause the U.S to come across as meddling with domestic politics.
The U.S may find more success tackling the issue from an alternate angle. Rather than changing the governance structures which it chooses to support, focusing on development policies—administered through the Bamako government—can help alter the image of the Malian state in the people’s eyes. Over the past decades, AQIM has been able to successfully integrate itself into the heart of many northern Malian communities. Through local marriages and selective funding of village chiefs, who had their historical power and traditional forms of governance usurped by the post-colonial Bamako government, AQIM was able to represent itself as a charity rather than a terrorist organization. The money, medicine, and access to communication which AQIM brought with them satisfied a need which northern Mali feels Bamako is not properly addressing (Bøås 2014). Furthermore, the rise to power of important Tuareg figures such as Iyad Ag Ghaly with his group Ansar Dine serves as the recognition and representation which northern Malians have sought and failed to receive through past peace agreements (Pezard and Shurkin 2015).
Past peace accords between the Bamako government and northern Malian rebels see many of the same demands repeated. However, lack of implementation or incomplete implementation has resulted in increasingly growing resentment among northern populations—and, for previously mentioned reasons, makes an allegiance to AQIM or Ansar Dine far more appealing. In order for the U.S to have Mali’s complete support in combatting terrorism, northern and southern Mali must reconcile. Aiding the Malian government to increase representation of northern populations in both peace negotiations and within the Bamako government itself, as well as to distribute more equitable access to essential resources will help to develop a deterrence strategy that is not solely reliant on aggressive actions.
Fortunately, there is recognition of this fact within the American government itself: “the 2011 U.S National Strategy for Counter-Terrorism, for instance, forcefully argues that, U.S counter-terrorism efforts require a multi-dimensional and multinational effort that goes beyond traditional intelligence, military, and law enforcement functions” (Solomon 2013, 440). Steps have been taken to disincentivize membership in terrorist organizations: the U.S is the leading provider of humanitarian aid to Mali, allocating just over $119 million to help resolve the regional food security crisis (Arieff 2020, 4). If the U.S were to provide more of this sort of aid through the Malian state, the feeling among disenfranchised populations of being forsaken by their government may slowly change to one of trust. Through development and outreach programs, and higher representation at the government level, the Malian state can work to improve its image with all of its citizens; only then can state-centric initiatives such as the TSCTP truly succeed.
The U.S Global War on Terror has been costly and drawn out, and the 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary indicates a shift in priority away from it. However, other American allies are reluctant to end their involvement in the matter, and the Sahel region more broadly. Consequently, the U.S must strongly consider whether it will shift its military priorities away from the combat against terrorism.
If the U.S decides to continue its combat against terrorism in the region, in order to avoid inefficient use of resources, it would be advisable to place a greater emphasis on development projects and aid. Mending the relationships between the Bamako government and dissenting populations so that they may work together to combat terrorism in Mali is imperative to developing the TSCTP into the most effective program possible and achieving American goals in the Sahara-Sahel.
Andre, David. 2015. “United States Counterterrorism Strategy in the Trans-Sahara and the Rise of Salafi-Jihadism in the Sahel.” Naval Postgraduate School.
Arieff, Alexis. 2020 “Crisis in Mali.” United States Congress Congressional Research Service. Bøås, Morten. 2014. “Guns, Money and Prayers: AQIM’s Blueprint for Securing Control of Northern Mali” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel. 7(4): 1-6.
Boudali, Lianne Kennedy. 2017. “The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.” Combating Terrorism Center. West Point, N.Y.
Campbell, John. 2020. “France and G5 Sahel Recommit Themselves as U.S. Mulls Drawdown.” Council on Foreign Relations.
Kieh, George Klay and Kelechi Kalu. 2013. West Africa and the U.S War on Terror
Mattis, Jim. 2018. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy”, United States Department of Defense.
Pezard, Stephanie and Michael Shurkin. 2015. “Achieving Peace in Northern Mali: Past Agreements, Local Conflicts, and the Prospects for a Durable Settlement.” Rand Corporation.
Solomon, H. 2013. “The African state and the failure of US counter-terrorism initiatives in Africa: The cases of Nigeria and Mali.” South African Journal of International Affairs. 20(3): 427–445.
Trager, R. F. and D. P. Zagorcheva. 2005. “Deterring Terrorism: It Can Be Done.” International Security 30: 87–123.