by Hannah Rae Armstrong

Counter-terror turned the Sahel into a coup-belt. U.S. policy in the region should move on.

Hannah Rae Armstrong is a policy adviser and writer with over a decade of field-based experience working on peace and security in the Sahel.

On March 16, military authorities in Niger, a key U.S. Africa ally, released a televised broadcast ending the country’s military agreement with the U.S. The dispute lays bare the conundrum the U.S. currently faces in the central Sahel, where a decade of counter-terror-led engagement backfired, worsening insecurity while empowering intransigent military leaders who went on to seize power and ally with Moscow. From 2020 to 2023, ‘transitional’ military-led governments in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso took power and expelled France, the Sahel’s leading foreign partner over the past decade, leaving a vacuum that Russia quickly stepped in to fill. Since the latest July 2023 coup in Niger, a country where the U.S. has 650 troops stationed and three strategic air bases, Washington has been pulled in different directions. The policy debate ranges from arguments for stepping up and assuming more of a leadership role to drawing back and disengaging. The U.S. should not (and cannot) compete with Russia’s security offer; instead, it should forge a new path guided by day-after policies that transition away from counter-terrorism toward more effective, political modes of resolution.

Disengagement would perhaps be optimal. Washington, wishing to help resolve the crisis, inadvertently worsened the Sahel violence, which is now at an all-time high: 12,000 were killed in 2023 – up from 9,000 in 2022 and 6,000 in 2021; most of them civilians – and at least three million are internally displaced. The region barely shows up on the radar of the American public and in terms of strategic importance it ranks well below various other fires to put out. The implicit tensions between counter-terrorism and democracy promotion have become all too explicit. Our ally France, whose expertise and leadership have guided U.S. policy in the Sahel over the past decade, has been roundly ejected. And the usual tools for dealing with rogue leaders are proving ineffective – attempts to isolate Sahelian military regimes are failing as Russia, China, middle powers, and a deepening alliance among the three neighbors open promising alternatives. The easiest move would be for the Biden Administration to draw back. And yet, U.S. engagement is more likely to persist, in part due to the sunk fallacy costs of the air base assets and an indirect nuclear non-proliferation interest.

Mending the U.S.-Niger rupture will require genuine engagement with a new generation of sovereigntist demands. For years, policymakers had viewed the Sahel through the lens of  ‘the trifecta of alien demographic vitality, Islamic fanaticism and pauper migration that is the new spectre haunting the West.’. This can no longer be the case. Given legal restrictions and a Russian security bid that offers more to military regimes, the era of U.S. counter terror-led engagement in the Sahel is over. This is something to embrace, not to mourn.

Trans-Saharan Policy Options

Between 2012 and 2022, American counter-terror engagement in Sahel surged, chiefly within the framework of the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terror Partnership, launched in 2005 to ‘eliminate terrorist safe havens in northwest Africa’ (at that time, there were none). In 2012 groups with links to Al Qaeda and what went on to become the Islamic State seized a relatively contained territory in northern Mali. Following this, the conflict theatre spread into central Mali and the tri-border area, then deeper into western Niger and northern and central Burkina Faso.

In Mali, counter-terrorism meant supporting French-led operations with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). In Burkina Faso, publicly disclosed bilateral security assistance skyrocketed: from roughly $200,000 before 2009 to $1.8 million in 2010 to more than $16 million by 2018; an investigation suggests the total amount of U.S. security aid cooperation with Burkina may have reached $100 million between 2018 and 2019.

Niger was different: the U.S. did much more. U.S. special forces were accompanying Nigerien forces on operations, a fact only revealed in 2017 when four U.S. servicemen were killed in an ambush in Tongo Tongo. The troops were technically deployed for assistance, not fighting, although their deaths reveal the blurred lines between supporting and fighting). Meanwhile, the Pentagon and the CIA were constructing significant strategic assets in Niger. In 2019, after extensive delays, construction was completed on the second-largest U.S. air force base in Africa, Airbase 201 in Agadez, northern Niger. Although technically classified as a non-permanent “cooperative security location”, the base is the largest project in Air Force construction history and was estimated to cost roughly $280 million by 2024.

As the violence levels climbed, it was commonplace to read that radical groups kept growing stronger “despite” counter-terror campaigns, which Western pundits argued were necessary: friendly African states were struggling to defend their institutions, territory, and people from savage attacks waged by violent extremists. In reality, counter-terror tactics were throwing oil onto the fire. The French glibly trotted out nightmare counter-insurgency tactics that had failed and lain dormant for decades, allying with reprisal-driven ethnic militias and forbidding political negotiations with militant groups. Paris kept insisting, as the war gobbled more and more territory, that its methods were simply under-resourced and needed a bit more time to succeed. Militants with mostly secular grievances relating to land and political exclusion were bluntly framed as “terrorist threats”, fueling an ideological forever war whose resolution could only come through more militarization. Western support for unprofessional and often predatory partner state security forces emboldened those forces’ basest instincts while expanding their reach and firepower. It also set the stage for the rash of coups that would wipe out elected governments in all three countries.

Soldiers seized power in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, in Burkina Faso in January 2022 and September 2022, and in Niger in July 2023. These coups put the final nail in the coffin of an extravagant counter-terror-led strategy that, while ‘multidimensional’ and devoted to ‘stabilisation’ on paper, had in reality conditioned a dizzying loss of life and territory for already fragile and impoverished states. Soldiers and citizens united and rose up in protest against the ineffectual political classes that had greenlit such disastrous outcomes, grasping for new approaches that might actually deliver on promises of security and stability. Moscow seized the opportunity and plunged in.

Mali was the first Sahelian country to cast off the Western ‘stabilisation’ apparatus that had delivered so little, and try its hand at partnering with Russian paramilitary forces instead. Between September and November 2023, the FAMA-Wagner offensive on northern Mali delivered Bamako control over rebel-held territory for the first time in more than a decade, a spectacular, fast payoff on investment. It was practically a marketing campaign for Wagner to neighboring states.

Technical Obstacles

As the French-led coalition it supported melted away, U.S. policy struggled to keep up with rapidfire events. Section 7008 restrictions, which prohibit the continuation of assistance to governments toppled by coups, severely curtailed the types and amounts of aid the U.S. could disburse. In Mali, Washington continued providing limited security assistance to law enforcement partners and significant humanitarian aid, while sanctioning certain senior officials under the Russia sanctions program.

In Burkina Faso, the next state to fall, the U.S. waited weeks before calling the January 2022 military seizure in Burkina Faso a coup d’état, triggering Section 7008 restrictions that cut most U.S. aid to the country. When more than a year passed with no progress made towards a return to constitutional order, American diplomats tried to offer restoring nonlethal military assistance as leverage for preventing a partnership with Russian private security. “Burkina Faso is at a tipping point,” a senior DoD official told reporters. “Our position is that if we don’t provide assistance, then someone else will, whether it is Wagner or China or another group.” In an October 2023 visit to Ouagadougou, a senior delegation reportedly offered more assistance within the constraints of 7008 while telling 34-year-old junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traoré that doing business with the Wagner Group would cross a red line. The line was quickly crossed. In January 2024, Russian Africa Corps military personnel arrived in Ouagadougou with a mandate to defend the country’s leader and protect the Burkinabe people from terrorist attacks, according to an Africa Corps Telegram statement.

A similar scenario is unfolding in Niger. American officials waited until October 2023 – three months after the coup – to invoke section 7008. They then took a more hardline stance, severing types of cooperation and military assistance not bound by section 7008, such as DoD advisory support or attending exercises or providing support to non-military security force programs. This would leave room, it was thought, to offer some security cooperation in compliance with 7008 restrictions, if the junta softened its own rigid stance, particularly on two conditions that the West African regional bloc ECOWAS had cited as conditions for lifting sanctions: releasing the captive deposed President Bazoum and publishing a timeline for a return to constitutional order.

But the junta, formally the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country (CNSP), flouted these conditions. In December, CNSP leader General Tchiani welcomed Russian deputy defense minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (who was overseeing the rebranding of Wagner as Africa Corps), and signed a new security agreement with Moscow. On January 28, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso announced they were leaving the regional bloc ECOWAS. One month later, ECOWAS lifted most sanctions against Niger, leaving the U.S. in the awkward position of supporting an ECOWAS policy that no longer existed.

On March 16, CNSP spokesman Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane concluded a visit by a high-level U.S. delegation by announcing on television that Niger was terminating the status of forces agreement it signed in 2012 with the U.S. The decision does not mean an immediate end to the U.S. security cooperation with key Africa ally Niger, which includes the deployment of roughly 650 soldiers and the holding of two “cooperative security location” air bases and a CIA drone base. It is more likely a negotiating tactic reflecting the chill in relations between Washington and Niamey, amid a broader regional pivot away from Western security partners toward Russia. The rupture with Niger can still be mended. However, Abdramane’s televised speech referred to charges of a secret agreement to sell Nigerien uranium to Iran, accidentally outing what may be the most cogent U.S. security interest in the region (and one that tends to be kept quiet): nuclear non-proliferation and having a say in who Niger, the seventh largest uranium exporter, sells it to.

Desert Power Vacuum?

Washington neither can nor should try to compete with Russia to fill the security vacuum left by the French departure. But disengaging is not really an option either. Beyond the sunk-costs fallacy of the Agadez base, in October 2023, the Senate overwhelmingly voted down a bill to withdraw U.S. troops from Niger. What might this mean for the future of U.S. engagement in the Sahel?

The present situation offers an opening for long overdue reorientation of a counter-terror-led engagement that has proven catastrophic, and should be recognized as an opportunity to play a more supportive role in the region. Military engagement is on a descending path, which is a good thing; what matters more now is political strategy. In light of these developments, non-military contributions might help the U.S. serve its interests in the region while being a good partner.

On the security front, the U.S. and Niger will likely work out some kind of arrangement that allows the U.S. to retain access to its bases. By the CNSP’s own statement, paying taxes and sharing intelligence ought to iron out the bulk of the dispute, not unreasonable demands from a country that is hosting a foreign military presence from which it derives little benefit. Uncomfortable as it is, the likely outcome of this arrangement will be some form of coexistence between Russian and American security forces in-country. While not ideal, this is also not without precedent. Washington should resist setting up new bases in the coastal West African states that would expand into new territory counter-terror cooperation that has been roundly discredited by its own failures.

Meanwhile, the best strategy for countering Russian influence may be to draw back and leave Russia with enough rope to hang itself.  The Sahel is a tricky terrain in which it is extremely expensive to operate. The Russian security offer may deliver short-term victories; however, in broader terms, it merely exaggerates the most explosive features of external aid over the past decade, empowering large-scale human rights abuses and civilian massacres while creating a smokescreen that ensures these do not get reported or investigated. These tactics, a continuation of the deeply flawed French-led strategy towards military eradication of problems that have political, economic, and communal roots, are not going to produce effective solutions; instead, they will stifle dissent, further weaken states and institutions, and create conditions of worse insecurity in the near-term future. An over-stretched, overcommitted Russia dealing with terrible infrastructure, enormous distances, extremely aggressive weather and new threats that keep popping up in new arenas will likely fall out of favor at least as quickly as the French did. In the meantime, Washington and Moscow could establish channels of communication and common security objectives around counter-terrorism and non-proliferation, either directly or through the mediation of Algeria, a regional hegemon with experience in transitioning out of counter-terror and a strong direct interest in avoiding conflict escalation.

In political terms, how might the U.S. effectively engage with a new generation of sovereigntist rulers expressing a profound will to achieve more equitable and beneficial forms of engagement with stronger external partners? Sahelian military rulers and peoples are together voicing demands for more meaningful political and economic engagement: a departure from recent decades, when “democracy promotion” and extractive interests propped up Sahelian autocracies whose profound structural flaws led them to lose much or most of their territory to radical extremists. A “values-based” approach that emphasizes timetables and other superficial signposts of democracy is an insufficient response to this demand. As one analyst recently argued, ‘work on the substance and not just the speed of transitions from military to civilian rule’. This could include engaging with transitional authorities to determine areas of mutual interest for strengthening institutions, via for example political party reforms, judicial reforms, and anti-corruption initiatives. Although it is no doubt more challenging to work with unconstitutional regimes against corruption, it’s important to be creative and persistent and recall that anticorruption is in their sovereigntist demand.

In addition, the U.S. can play a useful role with respect to resolving and de-escalating conflict and addressing humanitarian needs. For example, it should remain vigilant on human rights monitoring. Recent policy in Burkina Faso suggests diplomats are committed to doing just that. The last ambassador met regularly with the military authorities, and the U.S. is balancing some limited counter-terror cooperation with non-military forces, and including Burkinabe forces in Operation Flintlock training exercises, with also speaking up against human rights abuses.

Other policies that might help resolve or de-escalate conflict relate to Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), political dialogue, and disinformation. In Niger, a U.S.-backed program to amnesty Islamic State returnees collapsed after the coup, with hundreds of ex-militants simply vanishing (many likely rejoined extremist groups). The program was imperfect, and plagued by doubts and uncertainty; however, insofar as it represents a rare non-military means of removing men from the battlefield, it deserves more investment and more careful implementation.

In an increasingly blacked-out media environment that favors impunity for armed forces and sanctions anyone who dares to question or report on their abuses, the U.S. should prioritize training and work with journalists and civil society, while ensuring these activities do not compromise their safety. For the next generation of leaders, and compared to France and Russia, the U.S. still has a lot of appeal. Continuing to work with youths, civil society and journalists will pay off in the long term by building links with future leaders who care about truth and justice, and seek to build mechanisms for preserving and establishing these.

Finally, in terms of domestic policy, embracing the potential of a post-counter-terror partnership era means placing extravagant military overreach in Africa under civilian mechanisms of control and oversight. At a time when funding is scarce due to more pressing conflicts elsewhere, the State department should have to be more transparent about and justify expenditures in the region. Peacekeeping operations allocations under regional programs like the TSCTP (which include counter-terrorism, military and non-military forces) – unlike the Foreign Military Financing program – do not include breakdowns by country or unit even for congressional reporting, as is standard elsewhere; these should be made routinely available.

A wry response to raising concerns about “U.S. policy in the Sahel” is the question, “is there one?” And yet, despite the carelessness and damage done by French-led counter-terror engagement over the past decade, the U.S. has gotten some things right, like speaking out against violence against civilians, and refusing to back militias, paramilitary groups or Mali’s military campaign against northern rebels. With the French out, whatever happens next is on us. The overarching bipartisan American policy goal in the region right now, which can carry right through the upcoming American elections season, should be ushering in a new era of post-“war on terror” engagement.