The U.S. is considering pulling forces out of the Sahel in Africa, where they are fighting Islamic extremists. Would a withdrawal make Americans safer?
U.S. President Donald Trump came to power promising to end “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan and to pull U.S. troops out of expensive engagements with allies he deemed ungrateful.
He promised to put up a wall to keep U.S. citizens safe and introduced travel bans against countries he said harboured Islamic terrorists.
Trump’s view was that America would no longer need to be the world’s policeman or spend vast sums of money in wars that he said bore no relation to U.S. interests.
Has Trump’s policy of restraint and withdrawal furthered U.S. interests and made its citizens safer? Or have precipitous decisions to withdraw troops from conflicts around the world undermined U.S. interests and security?
Islamist extremist groups are expanding rapidly in the Sahel.
Last October, Trump ordered U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria, where the American soldiers had been backing Kurdish fighters, long-time allies in a fight against Islamic militants.
The pull-out formed part of a deal that allowed Turkish troops to invade the region and to throw Kurdish forces on the defensive. Critics of the U.S. withdrawal said it provided Islamic State and other armed groups with the space to recuperate — posing a long-term danger to U.S. security.
Russia, which has sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the conflict, would benefit from the U.S. withdrawal, the critics said.
More recently, the Pentagon has begun discussing the withdrawal of U.S. support from Africa. If carried out, the draw-down could see 6,000 U.S. military personnel leave the continent.
A retreat from Africa would come as Islamist extremist groups are expanding rapidly in the Sahel and West Africa. Since November, there have been attacks nearly every month on military bases in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, by groups such as Islamic State’s West African faction.
According to the United Nations, at least 4,000 people died in terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in 2019, a five-fold increase since 2016.
Is withdrawing American troops a gift to extremists?
This is problematic, not only for residents of these countries.
Although the West Africa faction of Islamic State has never launched attacks outside the region, the groups operating in the Sahel share an extremist ideology with counterparts in the Middle East.
Targeting the “infidel” is their raison d’être, and the stronger they become in the Sahel, the more likely they will eventually seek to target Western citizens outside of West Africa.
Militarisation of the Sahel may not be the answer. But in the short term, most experts agree that military force appears necessary to halt advances by Islamist extremist groups. They wonder whether withdrawing some of the best-equipped and best-trained soldiers would be a gift to Islamic militants.
France has expressed concern that a draw-down would undermine its efforts to stabilise the situation because Paris relies on U.S. intelligence and logistics for its own 4,500-strong mission in the Sahel. France has expressed its hope that “good sense will prevail” in U.S. foreign policy.
That may not end up being the case, as Trump has repeatedly reversed course in foreign affairs, sometimes abruptly. The decision to withdraw troops from Syria was followed by a rapid volte-face when Trump ordered some troops back into the country to “secure the oil”.
Amid rising tensions with Iran, the U.S. administration deployed 1,800 soldiers to Saudi Arabia — hardly an effort to wind down American involvement in the region.
Are Americans safer?
Washington has also sent conflicting signals in Africa. In 2018, Washington began flying armed drones out of a remote base in Niger while building new facilities at an existing Nigerien base in Agadez for nearly $100 million to accommodate those flights.
Now, Washington is debating whether to withdraw forces from the continent. U.S. allies may be more accustomed to a swinging foreign policy pendulum in Washington now that Trump has been three years in power, but many are scratching their heads over the strategic rationale.
One could reason that taking troops out of harm’s way makes Americans safer and cuts costs, strengthening the U.S. economy.
The opposing argument is that when it comes to protecting Americans, it is strategically less costly to deploy U.S. troops on counter-insurgency missions in tactically important areas than to allow the proliferation of extremists who in the longer term could threaten U.S. citizens, at home or abroad.
Critics of the proposal to pull U.S. forces out of the Sahel say it would provide dangerous breathing space to Islamic extremists. Neutralizing such groups was once a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy, as evidenced in America’s initial involvement in Syria.
Trump’s impulses now seem to have supplanted such strategic thinking. A key question lingers: Are Americans safer?
Jessica Moody is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the War Studies department at Kings College London. She is researching post-conflict peacebuilding in Cote d’Ivoire and will be living there from October 2017- December 2018. Jessica also works as a freelance political risk analyst focusing on west and central Africa. She has written reports for IHS, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The FT’s “This is Africa” publication and African Arguments.