A senior State Department official reported on Tuesday 3 March, that the U.S. is to appoint a Special Envoy to the Sahel region, according to Agence France-Presse. Meanwhile, arguments in Congress, concerning the country’s ongoing military presence in the region and the potential withdrawal of troops, continue to simmer. This is in line with a policy turn towards competing with Russia and China in the Pacific regions.
Speaking at a conference, at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Tibor Nagy, head of the State Department’s Africa Section, said that the Sahel is “one area where the situation is getting much worse by the day.”
“We are definitely looking at having a special envoy for the Sahel. […] There are certain situations that are so complicated and require so much coordination that a Special Envoy makes sense,” Nagy added. He did not indicate an expected timeframe for the appointment, or any potential candidates.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress has taken the Pentagon to task over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Africa. The Trump administration has reportedly been floating the idea of cutting troops in West Africa, and leaving a base in Niger. Resources could then be redirected towards countering Russian and Chinese influence elsewhere, according to Foreign Policy.
However, any such move would likely lead to an increase in Russian and Chinese influence in Africa, as well as a surge in violent extremism in the volatile Sahel region. While a continuation of the U.S. presence is definitely not a long-term peaceful solution, it may ease the bubbling tensions for now. Terrorist groups in the Greater Sahara, such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, have been gaining traction recently. Countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso struggle to contend with large-scale violence.
France, which currently has over 4,000 troops deployed in the region, has expressed concern over its peacekeeping abilities if the U.S. were to withdraw its support. “U.S. support is critical to our operations and […] its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness against terrorists,” said French Armed Services Minister, Florence Parly in Washington last month.
In response to the possibility of a decreased U.S. presence, General Oumar Dao, Chief of Staff to the Malian president, said: “We can’t afford to lose any help. This is a matter of basic survival.” The Malian army only has about 12,000 soldiers to defend themselves against the well-organised terrorist coalitions; the UN alone has 13,000 peacekeepers in Mali.
A region plagued by climatic and political instability, the Sahel stretches from Senegal in the West, through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Chad and through to Eritrea and Sudan on the shores of the Red Sea. Since 2018, living conditions in the Sahel have plummeted. According to The Telegraph, civilian deaths caused by the violence of armed groups has more than doubled, and over 2,500 people have been killed in armed clashes.
While the announcement of the U.S. Special Envoy to the Sahel seems to indicate an increase in concern from the international community about human rights conditions in the region, it remains to be seen how the crisis will play out over the coming months and years. If the U.S. continues to play politics and insists on withdrawing support for local governments, we may see the collapse of a number of states, and the creation of a new, African caliphate.