On December 24, 2019, The New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is weighing proposals for a major reduction — or even a complete pullout — of US forces from West Africa. This is the first phase of reviewing deployments that could reshuffle thousands of troops worldwide in an effort to prioritize confronting global powers like Russia and China, as chartered by the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Esper has given Africa Command until later this month to draft a withdrawal plan, as well as a plan for redeploying troops.
In December 2018, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s Africa policy, built on three pillars: advancing American and African prosperity through increased US commercial ties in Africa, enhancing security through counterterrorism efforts, and promoting American interests and African “self-reliance” through a more targeted and selective use of US foreign aid. The strategy called out the threat of Chinese and Russian economic and political influence expanding across the continent, and acknowledged that both countries are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.
The strategy’s acknowledgment of Chinese and Russian tactics is crucial, but it lacks one key component: explaining the relationship between the three pillars and US military presence.
While the intent is for West Africa to be the starting point of a worldwide review of troop deployments, pulling US troops out of West Africa would set off a chain reaction, relinquishing hard-fought relationships and influence across the continent. A US pullout would leave a vacuum in West Africa, opening the door for Russia, at a time when the G5 Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — are already asking for additional counterterrorism support to help stem the rapid expansion of ethnic and jihadist militancy in the region. Russia holds existing military cooperation agreements with all of the G5 Sahel countries except Mauritania.
As we enter a new decade, a number of country specific threats will complicate the chessboard for governments and US businesses alike. Global leadership is in retreat, as heads of state from North America to Asia are mired in domestic crises. The number of stalled revolutions around the world is on the rise. China grows bolder in its quest to solidify its position as an international superpower through any means necessary, while Russia is busy expanding its influence through the familiar model of arms first, business concessions later. All of this, taken together, is driving a massive shift in the global order, and making it more important than ever for the United States to preserve its influence in places where it has already established roots.
In October 2017, when four American soldiers were killed in Niger, criticism from both the public and Congress was swift, raising questions about the relevance of the mission and shining a light on the Washington establishment’s inability to justify it beyond the predictable argument of fighting global terror. In fact, analysts have long struggled to clearly articulate Africa’s strategic importance and the reasons why what takes place on the continent could become a threat to US national security.
With global competition for African partners escalating, however, this lack of a clear argument is not the same as a lack of threats, which are as insidious as they are nuanced. A drawdown of US troops from West Africa may not pose a short-term threat to the ideals of democracy or national security, but most certainly poses a long-term threat to the sovereignty and economic prosperity of African nations. That reality ultimately degrades American influence and market access.
Terrorism is a Small Fish
The standard argument for maintaining a US military presence in Africa is primarily one of counterterrorism, reasoning that factors ranging from water stress and food insecurity to displacement and internal conflict will foster conditions ideal for the rise of terrorist groups, which will in turn create security concerns for the United States. This line of reasoning further elaborates that, while one of these factors alone may not lead directly to conflict, such risk factors exacerbate existing tensions that can create conflict and instability.
While this explanation is both rational and valid on a local or regional level, it never quite manages to convincingly connect all of the dots to reach the threshold of a US national security threat. A thorough study of the African terror groups often cited as concerns — Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, Islamic State (IS) in the greater Sahara, among others — reveals that they possess neither a demonstrated ability nor a stated desire to attack the United States on its own soil, which has long been the standard for such assessment. Despite loose associations with global terrorist brands like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the struggles of these groups inherently remain local.
There are many compelling reasons why it would be a disastrous miscalculation to withdraw US troops from West Africa. In 2020, a strong military presence is just one of a number of factors that contribute to a country’s global level of influence, but its importance is out-sized.In the game of geopolitical chess, perception is often 90% of reality.The presence of US troops around the world signifies the strength of American hegemony, which has an enormous impact on everything from regional stability to economic prosperity.
Having US troops placed strategically the world over acts as a deterrent against future conflict, as well as a balancing force. It is a reminder that the United States takes a measure of interest in the well-being of the host country, is there to help and support during times of tension and has a toehold established in the event that a much larger military force is needed in a time of crisis. In many of the locations where the United States has a military footprint, that footprint is physically small, but psychologically large.
But perhaps most importantly, a US troop presence, and all that it implies, helps form the backbone of stable relationships that foster trade and economic growth. In the 21st century, Africa is poised to become a battleground for both established and emerging economies, whether it’s the explosion of newly accessible consumers or the race to lock down oil and mineral rights. Nowhere is this more evident right now than in Djibouti, where global competition is heating up alongside intra-Gulf competition for control of the Red Sea.
On the other side of the continent, withdrawing US troops from West Africa would be the first domino to fall on a path toward shutting out US influence on the continent, bringing about severe market implications for generations to come. US businesses would essentially begin to be blocked from competing in Africa, while Russia and China continue to lock down meaningful partnerships that span the gamut from economic to military. These relationships are often more appealing, in many ways, than a partnership with the United States or other Western nations because they come with few or no moral strings attached.
Economic Strategy and Warfare
China, despite its best efforts externally to present its ambitions as modest and peaceful, is quite transparent internally about its desire for global dominance. One need only look at Beijing’s recent track record on human rights — including the treatment of the Uighurs and phenomena like forced organ transplants, the exponential growth of the surveillance state, and implementation of the social credit system, among other issues — to understand that it’s focused on bringing its vision of a China-centered future to fruition at any cost.
By 2050, China intends to have the strongest military force in the world, to be the center of global technology, and to be the anchor of a global trade and infrastructure network — all to the deliberate detriment of the existing Western-focused system.
Africa as a continent is an important stepping stone on Beijing’s journey to world domination, and while the United States has been busy fighting terrorism there, China has been cashing in and buying influence across the continent, securing the production of minerals vital to modern electronics, among other things. In fact, Sino-African economic engagement has grown exponentially since the first Forum on Chinese-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000.
China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. Just 18 years later, 53 out of 54 African countries attended the annual FOCAC summit in Beijing. In 2018, China-Africa trade topped $204 billion. Forty African states have signed memoranda of understanding with Beijing to finance and build modern infrastructure like highways, airports and railways since the introduction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s growing influence in Africa is not confined to the realm of commerce, however. China is also increasing its engagement with African nations through military support, arms deals, foreign direct investment, media, education and travel. In August 2017, China opened its first foreign military base in Djibouti. It sits on prime real estate next to one of Djibouti’s main ports, and is just six miles from Camp Lemonnier, the US military’s only permanent base on the continent.
China is the second largest financial donor to United Nations peacekeeping missions, and the 11th largest contributor of troops. Beijing has roughly 2000 soldiers serving as peacekeepers across Africa. China is also a regular supplier of arms to African nations and, of particular note, has provided (or offered) arms to Zimbabwe’s former dictator Robert Mugabe, to Libya’s former strongman Muammar Qaddafi and to the recently removed leader of Sudan, war criminal Omar al-Bashir, during the genocide in Darfur.
More than 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are currently operating across the African continent, and the value of Chinese business there since 2005 amounts to more than $2 trillion, with potential for $300 billion in investments. Estimates suggest that these Chinese firms employ several million Africans. In the last decade, China has also significantly expanded its media presence in Africa, urging African media to “tell China’s story well,” while also influencing telecommunications, data and information industries and standards across the continent.
Direct airline flights between Africa and China have increased by more than 600% in the past decade. These flights are undertaken not only by workers and traders, but also by tourists and students. Beijing is cultivating the next generation of African leaders through education, often sponsoring the graduate and post-graduate studies of African students. As of 2017, more Anglophone African students studied in China than in the United States or the United Kingdom — their previous destinations of choice.
The Russian Threat
In recent years, the global community has finally begun to express concern over China’s multi-pronged incursion into the African continent. This suits former KGB-era intelligence officer and current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, just fine, offering something of a smokescreen for Russia’s quieter, stealthier invasion. Unlike China, which uses commercial projects like the BRI to pave the way for realizing hegemonic ambitions, Russia is relying on its standard model of providing arms and military support to pave the way for its commercial ambitions. This is as much a result of Russia’s lesser buying power as it is a deliberate tactic to gain access to strategic economic sectors like energy and mining.
In late October 2019, Putin hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa economic summit in Sochi, culminating in over 92 commercial agreements valued at roughly $12 billion, though few have yet to materialize just over two months later. Around four dozen African leaders and high-level government officials attended the summit. On offer from Russia was everything from nuclear power plants to fighter jets and missile defense systems, designed to win influence across the continent.
Specific deals to come out of the summit include a signed a memorandum giving Russian oil company Lukoil drilling rights in Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria; a range of signed memoranda and agreements for Rosatom to develop nuclear energy in at least 18 African countries, including Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda and Ethiopia; and a contract for Russia to deliver 12 Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters to Nigeria. A number of other countries like Central African Republic, Namibia, Madagascar and Uganda asked for more tanks, planes, helicopters, missiles, rifles and military advisers.
Mercenaries in the Desert: The Kremlin’s Libya Game
According to Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms export agency, Russia has defense orders for more than $14 billion from African countries, now accounting for around a third of Moscow’s military exports. Just as it has recently done in Syria, Moscow’s aim is to use military and trade ties to reassert itself as a geopolitical powerbroker on the African continent. Although Moscow’s actual presence on the ground is still relatively marginal in comparison to France or the United States, Russia holds “military technical cooperation agreements” with more than 30 African states.
Russia doesn’t bother to masquerade as a benevolent actor, though its tactics tend to be far more subtle and under the radar when compared to those of China. Much of Moscow’s African diplomacy is being conducted by the Wagner Group, a self-described private military company. Wagner is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur and businessman with close ties to Putin. Something of a public-private partnership between financiers like Prigozhin exists with Russia’s military intelligence. In this way, using the Wagner Group as a proxy gives Putin an asymmetrical capability with broad reach that allows him to enjoy strategic gains while also maintaining plausible deniability if things do not go well.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner receives compensation for training the presidential guard, but also receives a percentage of profits from the gold and diamond mines it guards. Wagner is believed to be operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Libya, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Russia’s soft power approach in Africa includes boosting media cooperation and sponsoring educational opportunities, just like China. But another recognizable Russian tactic features just as prominently: social media influence campaigns. If Prigozhin’s name is familiar, it is likely because he also funds and directs the Internet Research Agency, known in the Western media as the “troll farm.” Prigozhin has been sanctioned multiple times by the US Treasury Department, including for aiding Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine in 2016 and, more recently, for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
That Prigozhin commands both real-world and online private armies on behalf of Moscow makes him an invaluable tool to the Kremlin. His reach epitomizes Russia’s approach to currying influence. At the end of October 2019, Facebook announced that it had removed three networks of fake accounts targeting eight African countries — unlikely a coincidence, but nearly the same list of countries where Wagner is currently operating — with messages intended to boost support for Russia’s political and commercial efforts. Facebook linked the coordinated influence operations to Prigozhin.
Pragmatic Steps Forward
It is not clear that American and other Western leaders fully appreciate the scope of economic and defensive changes that are necessary to prevent the further deterioration of or to potentially reestablish preeminent influence and market access on the African continent.
Though China and Russia are using very different strategies in their approach to African engagement, the end goal is the same: They are investing throughout the continent to secure political influence. Russia has a rich history of engagement in Africa, one that is not tainted by colonialism. China has deep pockets, and a willingness to spend. With autocratic governments of their own, neither country attaches moral conditions to friendship. For the United States, with its historically values-based approach, that makes competition tough. But history has demonstrated that when the United States leaves and creates a vacuum, it almost always invites further autocracy to develop. Egypt after the Arab Spring is a prime example.
Western governments and businesses must be prepared to meet African nations where they’re at, especially with regard to competition from China and Russia. African leaders, for their part, are unlikely to choose a side in the way that Western nations will want them to. Many have been waiting for years for their countries to be considered of high strategic value, and many African heads of state welcome the competition, viewing it as an opportunity to increase both resources and influence.
One key to accomplishing the requisite shift in strategy is not scaling back troops in West Africa or beyond — it is changing the lens through which troop deployments are viewed. The United States must make a greater effort to understand why the so-called Great Powers have been successful and accept that, within any legal constraints, it may need to use similar tactics to compete, particularly in BRI nations.
The realities of soft power in the 21st century demand a cohesive strategy to combat the asymmetric hybrid warfare methods — the future combination of modern warfare and business strategy the world over — used by Beijing and Moscow. The strong military partnerships we have already formed and nurtured are key foundational building blocks for all other forms of engagement to take place. The answer in this next decade is not less engagement, but more.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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