US increases military presence in mineral-rich Sahel region

24th Nov 2017

Ahmed Rajab

French President, Emmanuel Macron, will use a speech at the University of Ouagadougou, when he visits Burkina Faso on November 26, to unveil his country’s new and robust Africa policy. It will specifically outline French strategy in fighting jihadist insurgents in the Sahel and other hot spots on the continent.

France is flexing its muscles in Africa at a time when the US is deepening its engagement in the Sahara and Sahel regions, long regarded as French preserves by policy wonks at Quai d’Orsay, where the French foreign ministry is located.

Several armed terrorist groups are operating in the vast expanses of the Sahel and the Sahara. Some of the groups had pledged allegiance to Daesh (Islamic State) when the so-called “caliphate” was at the zenith of its power; others are believed to be al-Qa’ida affiliates.

Since August 2014 France had relied on its Operation Barkhane for its counter-insurgency campaigns in the Sahel region. The French congratulated themselves when Barkhane prevented the terrorists from overrunning Bamako, Mali’s capital, but now they find that the armed terrorists are all over Mali and beyond.

But Barkhane was handicapped by lack of sufficient drones which is one of the reasons why the terrorists were able to proliferate in the desert. Use of Mirage fighter jets and helicopters for surveillance purposes had proved costly to the French army. France, therefore, had no option but to come to an understanding with the US to use the latter’s large drone base near Niamey, in Niger. Germany has also been using the same US facilities for its operations in the region.

The US’s latest overseas military adventure is a carefully choreographed excursion into West Africa whose ultimate objective, some argue, appears to be to wrest control of the continent’s vast mineral wealth.

The level of US military operations in the sub-region was underscored when at least four Special Forces soldiers were ambushed and killed on October 4 in the village of Tongo, in south-western Niger.  They were the first US casualties in the country. Two others were wounded.

Their assailants are believed to belong to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), one of the myriad terror groups operating in the region. Others include Boko Haram and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Apparently, the soldiers were on a mission to capture or kill “one of the most dangerous terrorist leaders” in the area, known locally by the single name of Dandou.  US military presence in Niger, a major recipient of US counterterrorism assistance in Africa, has deliberately been kept out of the US public domain to the chagrin of US lawmakers and those opposed to the deployment of American troops in foreign battles.

The first that the Americans knew about the engagement of their troops in the Sahelian country was when the October 4 incident was reported in the media. The US public was befuddled. Although it was no secret that there was US military presence in West Africa for years, Americans were largely uninformed of the extent of their troops’ engagement on the continent.

When the October 4 killings came to light, Americans started asking questions on why their troops were fighting in Africa.

The incident also prompted calls by the Congress for more transparency of US activities in the West Africa region. US military operations there have increased exponentially since 2007 when the US set up its Africa Command (AFRICOM). US troops in Niger are forbidden to engage in fighting. Strict Pentagon rules restrict them to train-and-assist reconnaissance missions.

AFRICOM initially concentrated its operations in eastern Africa targeting al-Shabaab terrorists in Kenya, Somalia and the Horn of Africa.  Of late, however, its preferred theatre of operations has been the Sahara desert with its mountainous terrain, sand dunes and salt marshes where can be found largely unexploited mineral resources, including uranium and some rare minerals, mostly located in few remote areas of the world.

The US has used its drone base in surveillance operations tracking the movements of terrorist groups which operate in Chad, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

Washington’s plan, which has so far cost billions of dollars, is being executed by AFRICOM, from its Stuttgart headquarters, under the convenient guise of the “war on terror”.

Fanciful acronyms such as SOCOM (Special Operations Command), ACOTA (Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance) and ASOC (Army Special Command) as well as esoterically-named military exercises such as Silent Quest 15-1 and Juniper Micron, belie the intensity of US military engagement in Africa. The US is intent on keeping its troops on the continent until at least 2044, according to the so-called “implementing” agreement reached in May 2014 by the US with the Djibouti Government.

Djibouti hosts Camp Lemonnier, AFRICOM’s main base in Africa which has been used to launch airstrikes and special operations raids into Yemen and Somalia. The base, which hosts no fewer than 2,500 US soldiers and allied troops, is also in a prized location from where it monitors the Bab el-Mandeb waterway that leads into the Red Sea.

It is unlikely that Algeria and, to a certain extent, even Morocco, would agree to a massive deployment of foreign troops in their Sahel neighbourhood.

Almost all the Sahelian countries are cash-strapped and would need budgetary support to fund their anti-insurgency operations. So far the terrorists have proved capable of confronting local government forces in all Sahel and Sahara regions. They also appear adept at taking on foreign troops and have thus proved capable of wreaking havoc on the tourism industry in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, three of the most affected countries.

Niger, in particular, is in a very precarious situation being a victim of both terrorism and geography. It is fighting foreign fighters from Libya and Algeria in the north, Boko Haram terrorists in the south-east and in the south-west it is battling ISGS as well as a motley of groups affiliated to al-Qa’ida.

US officials say that it is for this reason that in addition to its long-maintained drone base in Niamey, the Pentagon is opening another drone base, estimated to cost $100 million, near Agadez in the centre of Niger. The US also boasts about 1,000 troops on the ground in the country, arguably the largest number of US soldiers in Africa said to be no fewer than 6,000.

Ahmed Rajab

Board Member, Gusau Institute

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