The Trump administration is currently preparing to form a new special envoy position as well as a task force in order to tackle the growing security threats in the Sahel region of Africa. The move comes amidst the rise of extremist groups and a growing number of attacks from such groups, including ones affiliated with Islamic State. The key countries of concern are Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, which have witnessed an escalation of violence despite years-long operations led by the U.S. and West African governments aimed at uprooting these terrorist groups.
“I think [the Sahel] is the most difficult and challenging situations we have now in the continent”, top U.S. diplomat on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, stated. When asked if current international efforts were effective, Nagy responded “No […] We need to have a much, much more robust engagement.” He continued “The threat of terrorism and violent extremism is expanding. It’s not anymore in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert”. Earlier this year in an interview, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, a senior U.N. envoy for the region, noted “We say we have wiped out the Islamic State in Iraq, in Syria. Do people ask the question, where these people are going? There is a breeze going towards the Sahel”.
The plan comes amidst an escalation of violent attacks by militants in the region, which, in 2019 alone, numbered 700. The escalation in terrorism has taken place despite ongoing operations by coalition of international forces including French troops, U.N. Peacekeepers, regional militaries, as well as a contingent of U.S. troops. What such occurrences clearly indicate is that brute military force is an ineffective response to the terrorist threat. In light of this, it is unlikely that a surge in counter-terrorism activities on the part of the U.S. will make any difference to the situation beyond increasing the death count.
In addressing the issue of insurgency, people are quick to provide nostrums such as improving living standards as the answer to ending such conflict However, this is often simple infeasible where the central government of a country remains weak and incompetent. On the other hand, foreign intervention more often than not exacerbates the conflict, and does not remedy the root problems which are endemic to the region such as corrupt and ineffective government. Consequently, we see that such governments become completely dependent on the aid of foreign—usually Western—governments in order to avoid being completely toppled by insurgents. Recent history has demonstrated that some conflicts simply cannot be solved through military means, thus more creative approaches need to be taken in order to minimise intensifying the situation.
Funnelling troops and weaponry into the region is counter-productive as, as we have seen occur in Syria, many of these weapons often end up in the hands of terrorists anyway, either through government corruption or looting. So foreign powers — once they inevitably involve themselves in overseas conflicts — ought to prosecute the root financiers and supporters of terrorist groups, and further limit the amounts of arms that they import to the corrupt, regional governments. In terms of financing, these can often be foreign governments or individuals, particularly those in the Gulf states. Only once the issues of weaponry and financing of terrorists has been tackled, and a monopoly on force has been established by the central government, can steps be taken towards improving conditions for the citizenry, which will ultimately eradicate the threat of terrorist threat.
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