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U.S. Troops Kicked Out of Africa? Here’s What Washington Should Do.

The forced withdrawal, announced last month, of more than 1,000 U.S. Special Operations troops and drone operators in Niger and Chad should raise the alarm for Washington. In Africa, our policy of strengthening security partnerships rather than supporting democracy has not worked. The United States needs a new approach.

The troops had been dispatched there as a key part of America’s effort to confront terrorism, and the pullout follows the governments’ demands for new rules and regulations on U.S. military operations.

Russia, and increasingly Iran and other countries, are already stepping in to exploit a growing power vacuum in the region. That should be yet another reason for America to change course. Africa is less secure and less democratic today than when the United States sent those forces a decade ago. Given the rising influence of these other nations, that current is certain to speed up.

With Washington now forced from the front line of fighting terrorism in the region, it has the opportunity of taking a different approach: directly helping African countries deal with their economic and social problems by pushing for inclusive governance and stronger institutions. A commitment to promoting democracy, once pejoratively called nation-building, is often the first thing to go when the United States becomes ensnared in responding to local crises, as it had with terror threats in the Sahel, a semiarid area south of the Sahara.

U.S. officials would do well to remember that Africans are choosing their partners to advance their own interests, not America’s. If African governments are deciding to align themselves with Moscow over Washington, we should try to understand why rather than castigating them.

For many Sahelian leaders, choosing a strong ally is a simple matter of trying to stay in power. Moscow’s military support, offered under the guise of counterterrorism, helps. Here, Washington cannot and should not compete.

But other leaders are motivated more by a desire to diversify partnerships and to get the best deal when building infrastructure, improving education and agriculture, and extracting ores and minerals.

The roots of Washington’s worry about security concerns in the wider Sahel region emerged in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Weak governance and crushing poverty were seen as accelerants for a potential jihadist problem. But it was only in 2012, when extremist groups that were linked to Al Qaeda began seizing control of cities across northern Mali, that U.S. troops arrived in the region.

Since then, however, these jihadists have not displayed nearly the threat to U.S. interests that our level of military involvement would suggest. Instead, they preyed on fragile governments across the Sahel. Civilian leaders were unable to roll back the threat and failed to bring services to, or provide government control of, their countries’ increasingly populous and poor hinterlands.

The result is a region very different from the one the United States met when it first began sending security trainers and sharing sensitive intelligence in 2012. Six military governments and a host of new Russian military outposts now dot the region.

Along with the news last month of the U.S. forced departures from Niger and Chad, two countries the United Nations has said are on the front lines of the “global epicenter of terrorism,” the junta-run states of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have expelled France, the former colonial power.

To be sure, losing a military foothold in Niger and Chad makes it harder for the United States to monitor jihadists across a dozen African countries and to track human smuggling, drug trafficking and the illicit flow of arms, all of which are destabilizing the continent. U.S. military officials are already fanning out across West Africa, looking for new hosts for its drones.

But beyond the tactical losses, the withdrawal represents a genuine strategic loss for Washington.

Countries including Russia and Iran have seen an opportunity in Africa to make gains in great, and not-so-great, power competition. Every country from which France, and now the United States, have departed has welcomed Russian military advisers, mostly in the form of Moscow’s successor to the Wagner Group, Africa Corps. Russian forces can now move freely across friendly African states from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

One day soon, Moscow hopes to add warm-water ports on the Red Sea and even the Atlantic coast of Africa. These can be used to supply its growing military presence across the continent and export Africa’s prized mineral resources. Iran has similarly spied an opening to break its diplomatic isolation and turn a profit, eyeing purchase agreements with Niger’s state-linked uranium company and selling advanced weapons to Sudan’s army, helping to fuel that country’s yearlong civil war.

U.S. officials routinely frame this struggle for influence as a new Cold War. That view makes Washington no friends in African countries, where officials believe that America isn’t really interested in them beyond not wanting to lose ground to rivals. The message that Gen. Michael Langley, the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, delivered to Congress in March is a case in point. “A number of countries are at the tipping point of actually being captured by the Russian Federation,” he said, “as they are spreading some of their false narratives.” His message suggests a view in Washington of African nations being unwittingly duped.

Rather than escalating this competition any further, Washington should reassess the actual jihadist threat to U.S. interests and weigh the ultimate cost of security partnerships with countries lacking in democratic institutions. It should now reflect on whether the tools it has favored for so long — intelligence sharing, military training and weapons supplying — really make sense in weak and desperately poor states.

Washington has long struggled to strike a balance between protecting its position and advancing democratic values in Africa. For it to succeed, it must recognize that in this era of geopolitical choice, it can no longer dictate the terms of its partnerships with African states. If it does, it will find itself increasingly alone and unable to advance either its interests or its values on this increasingly strategic continent.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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