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The American Response in the Sahel

By Tobias Armour

The Sahel region of Africa cannot afford to lose a U.S. military presence.  The argument for U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq has merit. Still, there are very significant and distinct differences on the ground in the Sahel that require the U.S. and its allies to maintain a robust presence in the region.  Throughout much of the Sahel, a deadly combination of factors – poverty, climate change, and violent extremist groups – have the region teetering on the widespread disaster from which it will not be able to recover.  Some think American troops fighting against Jihadist there means just another Afghanistan…it does not.  U.S. forces do not face the same challenges they did in Afghanistan. 

The fight in the Sahel is different, and our forces have a chance to succeed there that they did not have in Afghanistan.  We must maintain our position as a staunch ally of the local security and European forces that bear the conflict’s brunt against many extremist groups undermining the region’s stability.  If American troops leave now, the entire Sahel region could become the worst security problem of the 21st century – a problem impossible to answer in the foreseeable future. U.S. presence can be more effective because of willing local allies who can be empowered to bring an African solution to an African problem, a more robust existing infrastructure than in Afghanistan, the absence of neighboring state-sponsors of terrorism, and the fact that American troops will not have to nation-build the way they had to in Afghanistan. 

Few African countries better demonstrate the territorial scope of the Sahel than Mali, Niger, and Chad. These countries have contributed to an increasingly complex environment that facilitates conflict, with different groups leveraging different strategies and pressure points to pursue their goals. The corrosive and often horrendous effects of these armed conflicts are exacerbated by the region’s other pressing problems – accelerated effects of climate change, widespread food insecurity, a lack of public health infrastructure.  With the fastest growing population in the world, the region will be home to 330 million people by 2050, double its headcount today.  While a young and growing population should be a positive characteristic, it may add another facet to the already difficult issues to solve.  Food production is in decline due to terrorist attacks on agricultural infrastructure and farmers.  The decline of critical infrastructure, which was limited, to begin with, has made moving people and goods more and more difficult. And even when people manage to move goods and food, fewer and fewer markets are available to those looking to sell.  All of these complications occur in front of accelerated climate change.  The region’s average temperature is modeled to rise at 1.5 times the global rate.  The effect of this accelerated change will seriously impact the less-resilient and agriculturally dependent communities of the Sahel.


Mali is over 478,000 square miles large –  twice the size of California.  The country’s immense and barren desert makes it a haven for extremist militias.  Mali’s northern tribesman, the Tuareg, have long harbored distrust toward the central government located in the south.  Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine (led by a former Tuareg general), employing a tactic used in other parts of the world, folded their missions into the larger sentiment of Tuareg independence.  With Gadhafi’s overthrow in Libya, Tuareg tribesmen whom the deposed dictator often employed returned to Mali to fight for their independence.  Al-Qaeda, and other affiliated extremist groups, used this push to install a brutal Sharia law on much of Northern Mali.  The group gained so much traction that Mali, sometimes referred to as “Malistan,” began to resemble the extremist safe-haven created by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Jihadists flocked to the country’s northern desert.  

The influx of foreign fighters, combined with the lack of governmental control and opposition, created a kind of prelude to what would be seen in Syria and Iraq with the Islamic State creating its geographically defined area of control; however, early in 2013 the decisive and extremely important French intervention, Operation Serval, stopped the Jihadists southward advance and eventually beat them back.  It saved the capital of Bamako from the extremist surge and used the momentum of that action to push the extremists out of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, where they had gained a foothold.  However, the problem has not been solved because of the geographic shield that the Sahara provides for extremist groups to recoup. The country’s economic struggles and lack of opportunity provide a constant membership funnel to the violent groups in the country’s north.  

Internal governance issues — a list of which includes a coup in 2012 on the front end of the extremist surge, and a more recent coup on the heels of months of protest in August 2020– create a fragmented leadership structure where staying in power becomes the focus instead of improving the country’s security standing.  Deep-rooted ethnic divisions on top of the flimsy government apparatus have caused the population to mistrust the political elites and have created more difficulties for the government to hurdle.   After the coup in August, new leaders released 200 Jihadist prisoners in an attempt to begin negotiations with the extremists in the north.  The French, and many Malians, whole-heartedly opposed the move.  

Niger & Chad

To the East, Niger and Chad have also seen increased Jihadist militant activity.  Niger sees violent spillover from the Malian extremists in the northwest and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin in its south-east, and waves of refugees from Nigeria moving to its Daffa region. The Nigerien military, local and foreign civilians, and American soldiers have been killed.  Aid workers that have arrived to help with food crises have been kidnapped. France has been lending its Air Force to assist the autocratic regime in Chad in maintaining control against the insurgents.  While Niger and Chad narrowly avoided the same buildup in extremist forces that Mali had in the early 2010s, they suffer from many of the same problems when confronting the threat: enormous areas that are difficult to patrol with the tools at local forces’ disposal; an opportunity-starved population easily alienated to the government’s tactics used against the Jihadists; and under-equipped and under-trained security forces that do not have the tools or the know-how to fight the type of fight they find themselves in.  

Nigeria – Borno State

Only part of Nigeria, which boasts Africa’s largest economy, technically falls within the borders of the Sahel.  Boko Haram, an Islamic group originating in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, is in the midst of one of the continent’s more visible and discussed campaigns of terror in the Lake Chad Basin. The group, begun in 2002, has been violently active for over a decade, killing thousands and displacing even more.  It has used the disconnect between industrialized southern Nigeria and the more rural, underdeveloped north of the country to its advantage.  The Nigerian military, hamstrung by over-zealous retaliatory tactics and a disconnected strategy, is weary, under-resourced, and not sufficiently trained in asymmetric warfare. Boko Haram has a license to use rural communities that cover and shield movements and personnel, all the while expanding their ranks.


Other nations that contribute slivers of their territory to the Sahel cope with their own conflicts. Even though all of these fights aren’t against Jihadists, the destabilizing effects hurt the Sahelian situation.  Ethiopia’s internal struggle between Addis Ababa’s regime and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front in the north threatens to force Eritrean military action. Ethiopia and its northern neighbor officially made peace just two years ago, after an unofficial cease-fire had lasted since open military hostilities ended in 2000.  Also, South Sudan is pulling itself out of civil war and lacks a structured way forward.  Libya’s unpredictable situation to the North provides a safe haven for Jihadists to flee to, and a large stockpile of weapons left over from the Gaddafi regime that can be accessed through complicated smuggling networks  

Libya’s internal conflict has negated its ability to respond to the situation.  West Africa’s coastal states say they feel more and more of the Jihadists’ presence to their North and East.  “You may think you’re safe,” says a 57-year-old resident of Doropo in northern Ivory Coast. “But jihadists are like ants, they can come in without being noticed.”  The situation in Burkina Faso is at the point in that when a Jihadist is captured, it is more likely to be by a rival Jihadist group than the beleaguered security forces.  Still, the landscape is not as inauspicious as Afghanistan.  

The hierarchy of the region will not be turned on its head through enhanced American intervention.  It doesn’t have to be, as was the situation in Afghanistan.  The goal will be a re-enforcement of the existing order and a solidifying of governments instead of a complete reversal of the governance structure.  Instead of flipping a region on its head and then figuring out how to make it work, American military aid will stabilize the region and give it the chance to grow and develop that its population so badly wants.

Lessons from Afghanistan  

Don Parnell, a Lobo Institute Expert, a former CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer, and Marine, authored a piece here for Lobo explaining the clear need for American troops to get out of Afghanistan, the “Graveyard of Empires.”  He points to constant command turnover, the attempted application of strictly Western solutions to a strictly Afghan problem, and the enemy’s advantage of unlimited time to achieve their objective as a few of the compelling reasons America needs to make its significant troop withdrawal official. Yes, the situation in the Sahel needs sustaining and targeted American intervention, but the differences between this regional conflict and the one in Afghanistan make the necessary improvement to the security situation feasible. 

While the governments of the Sahel may not be paragons of stability and democracy, they provide a better framework than anything that Americans found in Afghanistan.  Additionally, an important feature in the Sahel that gives the fight against extremism a chance is its lack of a situation like the one found on the Afghani-Pakistani border.  The 1,600-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is referred to as Pashtunistan.  It is inhabited by the Pashtun, a fiercely independent ethnic people who have stood toe to toe with the world’s greatest superpowers for hundreds of years.  The internal code, Pashtunwali, is the communal foundation.  It is a warrior culture.  This area, and its connection to Pakistan, has been a huge inhibitor to the American mission in Afghanistan.  The one-way function of the Pakistani border in southeastern Afghanistan acts as an escape route for fighters across the mountains.  

“That land is not on any map, but it’s where leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban both hide. It straddles 1,000 miles of the 1,600-mile Afghan-Pakistani border. It is inhabited by the ethnic Pashtuns, a fiercely independent people that number 12 million on the Afghan side and 27 million on the Pakistani side. They have a language (Pashto), an elaborate traditional code of legal and moral conduct (Pashtunwali), a habit of crossing the largely unmarked border at will, and a centuries-long history of foreign interventions that ended badly for the foreigners.”

American troops tell stories of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters taunting them from beyond the Pakistani border.  It has provided an operational, tactical, and strategic hurdle to the American soldier, officer, and government.  The rifleman in the 101st Airborne is prevented from carrying out his objective because he cannot chase a fighter across a certain coordinate, just as the top brass in the Pentagon cannot adopt a regional strategy to move the needle because of the presence of Pakistan.  While the vast Libyan border might be a barrier that Jihadists ignore, it is a far cry from the situation in the Hindu Kush.

Pashtunistan is a snapshot of the problem that has stopped American progress in Afghanistan.  The region is home to warrior people that have been raised on the tales of their forebears resisting outsiders – which they continue to do very well to this day.  It’s very social fabric is antithetical to the western way of life.  Don Parnell said, “Pashtunwali prevails in a vast portion of the country.  Even some non-Pashtuns have adapted this form of government or lifestyle which is fundamentally called the common law of the land or ‘code of life.’  It is entirely based on tribal affiliations.  Any westernized form of government will not work, with any degree of success.” The borders in the Sahel, by contrast, are not used as tactical advantages by insurgents with the blessings of a government.  They can be crossed, but not with the cooperation of a nation-state that will then close them to benefit the Jihadist cause. 

Mali is the Sahelian situation closest to Afghanistan.  However, even there notable differences give intervention efforts a better chance of success.  The French have taken the initiative, and have demonstrated their willingness to employ decisive military action against the enemy.  The French also have a cultural understanding of the area stemming from centuries of colonial presence there.  The importance of this cultural knowledge is often underestimated, but should not be. The dearth of such knowledge hamstrung American troops in Afghanistan.  

The French presence and operational cadence will be augmented by sustained American support, as will the capability for training forces to go on the offensive and root out the extremist camps in the north of the country.  In Niger, extremist groups do not hold ground the way they did in Afghanistan.  Calling the ruling regime a legitimate democracy would be a stretch, but it is a staunch ally of the west.  The implications of these differences are augmented by the lack of a Pakistan in the region.  Pakistan played spoiler to American efforts in Afghanistan in many ways: providing safe haven and supplies to fighters, and playing a recognized speed-bump to America’s international coordination efforts.   

The regional governments and security forces of the Sahel cannot keep the lid on this boiling pot of Jihadist militant activity by themselves.  They lack the intelligence gathering and analysis collection and training to drive high-value target acquisition and the tactical training and experience to carry out raids based on this intelligence to create opportunities for increased Jihadist recruitment. America can augment those capacities without the same responsibility they had to bear in Afghanistan. Instead of being nation-builders, American Special Operations Forces (SOF) can get back to direct action.  Army Special Forces can continue to train local forces to deal with the threat at hand. Their Afghan experience will prove invaluable. Conventional forces will not have to act the same way as they did in Afghanistan, either. They can be soldiers, not a police force with a community-building mandate. The American military presence has the potential to remain just that if we commit to it now. What the local governments and security forces do have, in contrast to Afghanistan, is the foundation of infrastructure. They want to build their nations and use coordinated strategies to confront the threat if they can come up for air. The most notable of these multinational efforts is the G5, a force with troops from Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso. This conglomerate sets the foundation for effective intelligence sharing and force capability that is needed in an asymmetric conflict. While some leadership structures are not completely up to snuff in the region, there are frameworks for growth.  These existing capabilities make the situation different than the one America struggled against in Afghanistan. When the U.S arrived, they had to overthrow the existing regime, and then deal with the fallout of national infrastructure and citizenry that had lived under the old regime’s warped rule for years. In addition, the UN has committed to a large peace-keeping presence in the Sahel, but peace-keeping forces need to have peace to keep.

Early and efficient intervention can prevent the specific type of perpetual destruction caused by conventional versus insurgent conflicts. Asymmetric conflict can hang like a sickness over a region years after the bullets stop flying.  “The Soviets left the Afghan landscape permanently disfigured with the bombed-out husks of tanks, and the earth itself seeded with more mines than anywhere else on the planet. When their client state in Kabul collapsed, what ensued was years of bitter civil war that destroyed many of the cities, and led to the rise to power of the Taliban in 1996.” A committed willingness to act is key when faced with an asymmetric threat, and American troops seizing the initiative would empower African security forces (along with all European allies) to reclaim control and territory that has been lost to Jihadist groups.  American intervention in Uganda, Operation Observant Compass, can be used as a blueprint for logistical support needed to empower African security forces to win the fight.  Colonel Darren Duke, the Special Operation Task Force commander that led Observant Compass, said, “Our mission wasn’t to bring an American solution to the LRA problem, but to actually help the Africans defeat the LRA themselves.”

The level of nation-building required for Afghanistan is not needed for the Sahel.  We will not be overthrowing governments; we will be augmenting the capabilities of security forces that need our help winning the fight, not governing the nation.  One of the main reasons the mission struggled in Afghanistan was America’s whole-hearted attempt to find a Western solution to an Afghan problem.  “The western mindset has been our biggest handicap. We have collectively tried to instill a western mindset in the Afghans.”  That pitfall will not present itself to American forces in the Sahel.  The fight is not yet close to won, but it is winnable with a committed effort, now.  Lobo Institute Co-Founder, Mick Mulroy, had this to say when asked about the American drawdown in East Africa, and his words pertain perfectly to the situation in the Sahel: “We can always adjust the level of forces based on the current threat as assessed by our intelligence services, but withdrawing all of our forces is a mistake. In the future we may have to fight our way back in, just to get to the place we are right now.”

About the author:

Tobias “Toby” Armour is an Intern at Lobo Institute and a graduate from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he received a Masters in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies with a specialization in Financial Crime Management. 

Professionally, he has held multiple positions at the intersection of technology and security.  These include working in threat analysis for the Fifa Women’s World Cup in France as a contractor for the State Department OSAC, tying the profits of digital ad fraud back to criminal networks for Fortune 500 clients for the Cyber Threat Intelligence Network,  and analysis for a seed round financial due diligence product focusing on non-financial risk. 

He currently works as a cybersecurity consultant: creating, optimizing, and implementing holistic risk management strategies for clients looking to improve security across the modern enterprise architecture.  He also advises a pre-seed startup in Canada that is creating a product and process to give wildlife rangers, customs officials, environmental surveyors, and others the ability to quickly and accurately test animal DNA in the field.   

He is interested in the intersection of private sector innovation and security, the constantly changing nature of digital threats and threat actors, and the stabilizing effect intelligently deployed FDI can have on conflict zones.

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute.