In West Africa, U.S. Military Struggles for Scarce Resources as Terrorism Threat Grows

Tensions with Iran almost scuttled a major international training exercise in the Sahel.

NOUAKCHOTT, MAURITANIAEvery February, hundreds of special operations forces from around the world gather in West Africa for Flintlock, a unique U.S.-led exercise that provides critical training for regional militaries struggling to counter growing terrorist activity in the Sahel.   
This year, the threat is more urgent than ever. Despite the presence of 4,500 French troops and a 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, violent extremist attacks in the region have skyrocketed in the last 18 months. The Sahel saw the most rapid increase of such events of any African region in 2019, with roughly 2,600 fatalities from 800 attacks—a number which has nearly doubled every year since 2015. Burkina Faso bore the brunt of the new violence, primarily from groups linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, as the locus of terrorist activity shifted from Mali across the border.

But even as terrorist activity explodes in the Sahel, the United States is considering withdrawing some or all of its roughly 5,000 troops across the continentincluding approximately 1,000 in West Africain order to move resources toward preparing for a potential future conflict with China or Russia, a concept the Pentagon calls “great power competition.” 
While the U.S. military no longer accompanies West African forces on combat missions—a practice that was largely halted after a fatal ambush in Niger killed four U.S. service members in October 2017—the United States plays a key role in facilitating French and other Western military operations here, providing air refueling, transportation, and drone surveillance. The so-called G5 Sahel Joint Force, a framework of about 5,000 troops from five countries in the region—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—was created in 2017 with French and international backing to address the growing terrorism threat. But French officials say the U.S. military’s support to their operations here is irreplaceable.
At the same time, tensions with Iran have put unforeseen strain on U.S. military resources in the Sahel. Due to the increased demand in the Middle East, only one U.S. Air Force C-130 airlift plane could be spared for Flintlock this year, U.S officials said—and it broke down on the second day of the two-week exercise, leaving reporters as well as U.S. and foreign officers stranded for four days in Senegal.
In fact, if the Moroccans had not offered additional C-130s to support the exercise, Flintlock might not have happened at all, U.S. officials said. 
Critics, including influential lawmakers such as Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, have spoken out against the potential drawdown, warning that such a move would further degrade the security situation in this region of West Africa, where deep religious and ethnic divisions, climate change, poverty, and vast ungoverned spaces provide an ideal breeding ground for extremism. Prompted in part by talk of a potential U.S. withdrawal, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a G5 Sahel summit in January to discuss the fight against armed groups and reiterate French commitment to the mission.
As violent activity increases, U.S. and foreign officials in the region are concerned that the Sahel may become the next major front in the global war on terrorism. As the Islamic State struggles for relevance in the Middle East, particularly after the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr alBaghdadi, in a U.S. raid last year, the group has increasingly leaned on its African affiliates for new recruits, said Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, during an interview here ahead of the exercise.
Due to longstanding ethnic and tribal ties, leaders from al Qaeda and the Islamic State cooperate here in ways they do not anywhere else in the world, enabling more sophisticated attacks.
“When you put all that together, these random acts of terrorism, you start seeing a more complex and nuanced campaign,” said Anderson. “I’m concerned about what al-Qaeda will be able to develop into and that’s something that is troubling.”



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