There is widespread anxiety about the withdrawal of US troops amongst many of the local military commanders in the Sahel. It comes at a time when terrorism — in the form of ambushes, bombings, massacres, kidnappings and attacks on hotels frequented by Westerners — is increasing.
Under President Donald Trump Administration’s military strategy, the Pentagon has pivoted from focusing on counter-terrorism operations to potential threats from China and Russia. Having ordered most American troops to withdraw from Syria and wanting to bring home thousands more from Afghanistan, Trump’s military strategy is leading to the withdrawal of hundreds of US Special Forces from West Africa, despite the onslaught of attacks from an increasingly deadly matrix of Islamist fighters.
Local Sahel military commanders who criticise the move say that the US forces are pulling back before the insurgents have been effectively subdued, and are leaving local or allied forces to fend off Islamic State (IS), Al-Qa’ida, and their offshoots.
The precise number of US troops in and around the Sahel region is unknown and has been kept a closely guarded secret. Until the death of four US Green Berets in Niger in October 2017, many Americans including politicians had little or no idea that the US had operational forces in the region.
US troop reduction comes at a time when insurgents are increasingly attacking Burkina Faso and pushing south along the border with Niger. Worryingly, this is toward areas previously unaffected by extremist violence including Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, and even Ghana where the Pentagon has a logistics hub.
According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies in Burkina Faso alone, Islamic State and Al-Qa’ida affiliates and splinter groups conducted 137 attacks in 2018 compared to only 12 in 2016.
Whether local commanders have good reason to be concerned at the US troop withdrawal is debatable. One aspect of the US strategy that should not be overlooked is the potential for the massive expansion of US drone facilities in the region, notably from the huge AB 201 drone base which is being built in Agades in Niger and nearing operational readiness.