By: Alexandre El Ghaoui
The deaths of four United States Special Operations soldiers in rural Niger on October 4th has drawn Congressional and media attention to American military operations on the African continent. The four Green Berets, part of a 12-man Special Forces group tasked to train and equip the Niger army, were ambushed by approximately 50 Islamic extremists. Due to the little Congressional oversight in military affairs in Africa, the news of American missions in Niger came as a surprise for many, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). While Senators Graham and Schumer may have been caught off guard by the news from Niger, both have known for some time that the United States has had considerable military presence in Africa since the early 2000s. After 9/11, US forces entered the continent en masse to train, advise, and assist local African militaries. Under the Obama administration, the number of troops and military missions conducted grew substantially as part of the global counter-terrorism effort. Today, the United States has a permanent base in Djibouti, the site of armed drone excursions into Yemen and Somalia, as well as multiple forward operating bases in Somalia, Kenya, and Niger.
While American foreign policy in Africa is centered around military training, advising, and funding, China focuses on a combination of economic assistance and large-scale project development. Due to its rising middle class and rapid economic growth, China has looked to Africa for its long-term energy and trading needs. In the last decade, China has become Africa’s largest trading partner. Chinese state banks have loaned out approximately $86 billion to various African countries, financing large-scale economic development projects such a coastal highway in Nigeria and a railroad in Ethiopia. This strategy seems to be working for Beijing as it builds key alliances, increases trade, and gathers support for its “One China” policy. When China replaced Taiwan in the United Nations in 1971, Taiwan was widely recognized in Africa as an official and legitimate Chinese state. After being inundated with Chinese aid, most African countries today support Beijing’s “One China.” According to Aid Data, a research lab at the College of William & Mary, there is a positive correlation between Chinese economic assistance and the voting alignment of African recipient countries in the United Nations. In the last decade, Nigeria, an African regional superpower and consistent American ally, has started relying on Chinese economic and military aid due to decreasing American imports of Nigerian oil. Chinese foreign policy in Africa has become more effective, more beneficial, and more influential than the United States’ policy as African countries have started relying on and trusting Beijing. Washington needs to reexamine its policy in Africa or risk losing its influence on the continent.
The United States should base its African foreign policy off China’s. Current American military policy on the continent will have a destabilizing effect, especially in the Sahel region, where American forces are concentrating their military efforts. Local African terrorist groups, such as the one being pursued by the four Green Berets, pose minimal risk to the United States as they only aim to control small swathes of terrorist in their home states. By involving itself in local, ethnic, and territorial conflicts, the United States faces the possibility of not only losing its influence and respect in the region but endangering personnel and civilians on the ground. As we have seen in Afghanistan and in Iraq, ambiguous objectives can cost thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. Washington risks tarnishing its reputation and alliances in the region. More importantly, by choosing sides in African conflicts, the United States’ military presence can lead to the creation of a power vacuum, furthering instability.
Unfortunately, the recent tragic events in Niger will not have an impact on US policy. In front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stated that the United States will be expanding its counter-terrorism efforts in Africa. These military efforts have never been authorized by Congress. Instead, the Pentagon and the Department of Defense rely on a broad and obscure number of legal authorities such as the Authorization of Use of Military Force. This American military expansion showcases the broad belief of the Pentagon in preventive wars, the process of conducting multiple small ones to prevent a larger one.
Mattis and the rest of the American foreign policy community should be focusing on economic aid and development rather than conducting clandestine military missions in Africa. While America’s transition to a more China-like foreign policy in Africa is far-fetched, one thing is certain: it would mean fewer Americans returning home in flag-draped caskets.