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Trump’s Militaristic Africa Policy Will Backfire
Instead, the United States should pursue a holistic, long-term strategy.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser faced some tough questions about U.S. military activities in Africa when he testified to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
Members of Congress asked him why so many U.S. troops are deployed to the region, and how four U.S. soldiers could have been ambushed and killed in Niger last year. These questions regarding specific missions and the safety of U.S. troops are important. But a broader question has gone unasked: Why is the United States militarizing its Africa policy, to the detriment of regional stability and the safety of Americans?
For decades, the U.S. military has played an important role in promoting security in African countries. Its presence in the region has steadily grown, with as many as 6,500 U.S. troops operating across the continent, conducting counterterrorism operations and regional trainings, supporting peacekeeping, and helping to build the capacity of national security forces. This approach reflects important U.S. national security interests in Africa, such as helping regional partners combat terrorist groups — including those aligned with the Islamic State and al Qaeda. Traditionally, these military activities have taken place within a larger framework of cooperation with African countries, alongside deep U.S. investments in health, democracy, trade, and economic growth.
However, the Trump administration is divorcing military action from diplomatic and development efforts in a way that sharply breaks from the past and, more importantly, will be ineffective in the long run.
To begin with, the United States is stepping up military actions. Drone strikes in Somalia have doubled — even as rules to avoid civilian casualties have been relaxed — while troop deployments to countries such as Niger have surged. At the same time, the Trump administration is intent on cutting diplomatic tools and assistance.
The proposed fiscal 2019 budget would reduce funds for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development by 29 percent while boosting defense spending by 13 percent. A belated trip to Africa by outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was heavy on security discussions but light on substance — and his rhetoric on the U.S. commitment to Africa rang hollow in light of the administration’s proposed cuts to development and investment tools.
Although the president’s budget proposal will not survive Congress, the administration has already inflicted widespread damage by undercutting diplomacy and weakening relationships. Forty-one U.S. embassies and missions lack leaders, including 11 embassies in Africa, while the State Department still does not have a permanent assistant secretary for African affairs. Worse still, U.S. President Donald Trump is openly disparaging: His recent derogatory comments about Africa play to the most racist stereotypes and justifiably earned a strong backlash from regional leaders.
In short, Trump is focusing on military tools divorced from a holistic or long-term strategy. While the State Department and USAID are hobbled, devoid of clear policy and sufficient personnel (and possibly resources), the Department of Defense is receiving ever-more funding and visibility. As the most senior U.S. official to regularly travel the continent, Waldhauser has by default become the face of U.S. policy in Africa.
Diplomacy is not a role that the U.S. military is designed to play — and military leaders are the first to cite the need to support civilian agencies. In his recent testimony on Capitol Hill, Waldhauser again emphasized that “none of Africa’s challenges can be resolved through the use of military force as the primary agent of change.” And for the second year in a row, over 100 retired military leaders have written to Congress to emphasize that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense is critical to keeping America safe.”
To the detriment of U.S. national security, the Trump administration’s militaristic approach to Africa will backfire for three reasons. First, it does not address the root causes of violent extremism in Africa, which stem from a complex combination of factors that include joblessness and weak governance. As Waldhauser has noted, the United States “could knock off all the [Islamic State] and Boko Haram this afternoon, [but] by the end of the week, so to speak, those ranks would be filled.” Second, a narrow focus on deploying advisors and selling weapons will not bring about the structural changes needed to make African militaries more effective, so that they are willing and able to confront threats on the continent. Third, by putting the United States into diplomatic retreat mode, Trump is ceding leadership to U.S. rivals. China and others are offering African countries not just security cooperation, but also business deals, scholarships, cultural exchanges, and more — all of which increase their ability to advance their own global security agendas.
Simply put, this focus on military tools — severed from a broader strategy supporting democratic and economic growth — will yield victories that are small and fleeting at best. The Trump administration will hopefully realize that the nation’s foreign policy demands more than a military lens. Regretfully, these lessons are bound to arrive too late.