US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who has just completed a whistle-stop tour of three African countries hardly made any passing mention of the fight against terrorism.By Ngagne Diouf
While Operation Flintlock 2020 is still being waged in Mauritania under the command of the Planning and Operations Centre of the General Staff of the National Armed Forces, the American commitment to the fight against terrorism in Africa is nevertheless debatable.
The operation, which is taking place from February 17 to 28 this year in several locations in Mauritania (Atar, Kaédi and Nouakchott) and Senegal (Thiès), aims to boost African armies, especially those in the Sahel in training and intelligence.
It was in this context that Pompeo toured Africa from February 15 to 19.
However, security was not at the heart of his talks in Senegal, Angola or Ethiopia.
In Dakar, the American diplomat even notified the Senegalese authorities of Washington’s desire to reduce its military presence.
“We will do what is necessary collectively, I am convinced,” Pompeo reassured his hosts during a press conference in the Senegalese capital last Sunday.
For the Senegalese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Amadou Ba, this statement “does not mean the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.”
The head of Senegalese diplomacy believes that “Africa needs the United States, which is a strategic ally for a definitive return to peace and stability” since it is “more than ever confronted with major challenges related to insecurity and terrorism.”
“The United States plays an important role in the security arrangements in the Sahel,” acknowledged Gilles Yabi, Director of the West African think tank, Wathi.
Although the reduction announced is significant, it will “weaken the fight against terrorism in the Sahel and in particular the French forces which depend on American support,” Yabi warned.
He believed that “the ability to identify terrorist threats will not be strong, but it will depend on the size of the US military draw-down.”
It is for this reason that France is investing a great deal in dissuading the Pentagon from reducing its military presence in the Sahel.
The French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, recently indicated during a visit to Washington that “American support is crucial for our Barkhane operation.”
The future of logistical support in the Sahel in particular remains unclear, despite the assurances of US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that “whatever the size of the reduction, it should not limit our effectiveness against terrorism.”
Since 2013, the Pentagon has been providing vital support to the French soldiers of Operation Barkhane in terms of supplies, logistics and surveillance.
And within the framework of Flintlock 2020, which brings together 34 African countries, the exchange of military expertise and strengthening the capabilities of the armies of the Sahel countries should facilitate the development of military interoperability for “better harmonised collaboration in the fight against terrorism.”
“The United States can reduce its military strength while maintaining intelligence and surveillance support through UAVs,” Wathi suggested.
The issue of such a reduction is not new.
In November 2015, the Pentagon announced plans for a 10 percent reduction of its 7200 troops deployed as part of the US Africa Command, which coordinates all its military and security activities on the continent.
Given its economic, but above all military power, the United States is an undeniable and important force for West Africa and in particular for the Sahel region.
However, the priorities seem to lie elsewhere.
“The United States wants to be part of a more pragmatic dynamic. If it reduces its troops in Africa, it is undoubtedly to strengthen its presence in the Middle East, which is a very important region,” said Lassina Diarra, an expert on terrorism issues in West Africa.
The author of “ECOWAS and Transnational Terrorism” also maintained that the US president does not want to carry the issue of the fight against terrorism in the Sahel “like a pebble in his shoe.”
According to Diarra, Trump’s mistrust can be explained by the November 2020 presidential election during which his opponents would not hesitate to use “any failure” against him.
At the beginning of his term, all indications were that the U.S. president was not making counterterrorism in Africa a priority.
However, with the resurgence of attacks and the difficulties of countries, especially in the Sahel region, in curbing the threat, “the terrorist issue is now part of the foreign policy of the Trump administration,” according to Diarra.
If, on the other hand, Trump leaves this gap in its commitment to Africa, the expert believes that it will play into the hands of rival foreign powers such as China and Russia.
“The Trump administration will therefore re-evaluate the political and security context of West Africa in order to better reposition itself,” Diarra observed.