ArgumentAmerica Shouldn’t Abandon Its Allies in the Sahel

Published 27 January 2020

In mid-January the leaders of France, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania met to discuss how to bolster counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel region, where Islamist terrorist activity has been steadily increasing. The background for the summit meeting were reports that the United States was considering reducing its contribution to an involvement in that campaign against Islamist terrorism. “. For the people in the Sahel, a U.S. retreat would leave them even more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks. Simply put, an American withdrawal would be penny-wise, but pound-foolish,” Olivier Rémy-Bel writes.

Emmanuel Macron follows the United States National Security Council’s Twitter account. At least, that is one of the takeaways from the Pau Sahel Summit, held in the picturesque town of Pau in southern France, where he read a tweet posted moments earlier as a possible sign of continued American support to counterterrorist efforts in the Sahel.

On 13 January. leaders from the G5 Sahel (that is, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania) as well as France, the European Union, and the United Nations, gathered in southwestern France to tackle the worsening crisis in the Sahel. Olivier Rémy-Bel writes in War on the Rocks that reports that Washington was considering a major reduction of U.S. troops in Africa, as well as potential cuts to the United Nations mission in Mali, was in the back of everyone’s mind.

The Pentagon’s main rationale seems to be a shift towards strategic great-power competition. If troops are deployed to Africa fighting terrorists, so the thinking goes, they are not in the Western Pacific deterring China or in Eastern Europe facing off against Russia. Focusing on strategic rivalry is neither a surprise nor a bad idea. Paying greater consideration to the political context of military deployments abroad is, if anything, a sensible idea and shows a commendable sensitivity to the current domestic political climate. This is especially important given the American public’s skepticism of its country’s “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, withdrawing U.S. forces, mostly non-combatant, from the Sahel would be short-sighted. It would undercut counterterrorism efforts at a crucial time and demonstrate disregard for the security concerns of its European allies. Ironically, such a move would make it harder for Washington to stand up to China and Russia, as its transatlantic partners would be focused on counterterrorism and instability on their doorstep rather than great-power competition. For the people in the Sahel, a U.S. retreat would leave them even more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks. Simply put, an American withdrawal would be penny-wise, but pound-foolish.

That U.S. investment in counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel needs not be endless, Rémy-Bel writes. But “Europeans — and Sahel countries — need a little bit more time. Pulling the rug under those efforts before they have reached fruition would be counterproductive and carries risks for the United States.”