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The US is in retreat in the Sahel of West Africa

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For those driving US security interests in Africa, the past few days have brought gloomy news. Late last week, the United States informed coup-plotting leaders of Niger that it would comply with their request to withdraw American troops from the country, which has been fighting terrorism there for more than half a decade. Around the same time, reports emerged that authorities in Chad had sent a letter this month to the US defense attaché there, ordering the United States to cease operations at a base that also hosts French troops.

The possible withdrawal of a detachment of US Special Forces based in Chad would deal another blow to the Western security presence in the Sahel – the vast arid region stretching below the Sahara, which has seen a wave of coups in recent years that have vulnerable central part of the country has been overthrown. and West African governments. Chad will have elections in May, and the orders to the United States could amount to a bit of nationalistic preening by the country’s fragile interim leadership.

But elsewhere the writing is grimmer. Successive regimes that staged coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have ousted weak, civilian-led governments; railed angrily against the presence of the former colonial power, France; and turned to Russia and China for support. Before last year’s coup, Niger was seen by Western diplomats as something of a democratic stronghold in a region where juntas and radical Islamist insurgents were gaining ground. Now the regime has turned the impoverished country firmly away from the West, eliminating French troops before moving into action to end the sizable American footprint in the country’s desert highlands.

“The agreement will end a U.S. troop presence totaling more than 1,000 and call into question the status of a $110 million U.S. air base that is only six years old,” my colleagues reported. “It is the culmination of a military coup last year that ousted the country’s democratically elected government and installed a junta that declared the US military presence there ‘illegal’.”

Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso announced on January 28 that they would leave the Economic Community of West African States due to foreign interference. (Video: Reuters)

The US exit from Niger follows the arrival of a detachment of Russian military trainers in the country this month. Le Monde outlined what preceded this deployment of around a hundred officers from the Afrika Korps, the renamed Russian paramilitary successor to the Wagner mercenary organization, which had a broad, shadowy presence in Africa before being disbanded at the end of last year.

“Their official mission was to train the Niger army, especially in the use of an anti-aircraft system supplied by Russia,” the French newspaper said. “Three months earlier, Niger’s prime minister had flown to Tehran to outline plans for closer cooperation with Iran, without providing any details on the nature of the envisaged contracts. This was a clear cause for concern for Western countries, especially the US.”

The developments are “a blow to Western counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel and Libya,” Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German think tank, told reporters. “Perhaps even worse, a US withdrawal will further open the door to Russian and Iranian expansion in the Sahel.”

A mess of geopolitical intrigue is sweeping the region. “Like Libya, this part of Africa has become a playground for foreign powers, not least Russia, which provides security to coup regimes and orchestrates massive disinformation campaigns leading to the expulsion of Western forces,” said an editorial in Le Monde. “This is an important trend, the costs of which Americans and Europeans have become aware of too late, without knowing how to respond.”

The Wall Street Journal was more blunt in its own editorial: “In the new era of great power competition, Africa is a place where the US is losing.”

China, less conspicuous than the opportunistic Kremlin, has steadily pushed its way into Niger. The country’s junta announced this week that a Chinese state oil company had paid a $400 million advance to purchase crude oil from Niger’s Agadem field. The deal, structured with further interest payments to the Chinese company, would help Niger’s cash-strapped government take into account mounting domestic debt.

Some Nigeriens who spoke with my colleagues in the capital Niamey see the junta exercising a new kind of sovereignty after years of excessive French interest. “Why is it a problem for the Americans and France that the Russians are helping us?” Abdoulaye Oussein, 51, said. “I think we are free to make our own choices.”

New Gallup polls show strong support for Russia and China in many parts of the Sahel. “Last year, China posted the highest approval rating in Africa in more than a decade,” said Julie Ray, editor-in-chief for world news at Gallup. “It won substantial support in countries in West Africa – putting it two percentage points ahead of the US.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it lost significant support across the continent. But, Ray added, “Moscow’s image has since recovered,” especially in the Sahel, where it scored high approval ratings in Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

“Washington was seen in the region as a credible partner without the colonial baggage of France, which is moving into the region,” said Laessing, who lives in Bamako, the capital of Mali. But U.S. messaging to West African governments may not have been particularly effective, and U.S. officials have been accused of perhaps bullying their African counterparts in private.

“Washington has a lack of self-awareness about how it comes across,” Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told my colleagues this month. “They have made Russia the bogeyman in all of this, as the French have done, but that is a way of passing the buck and avoiding any kind of introspection about the policies that the US has pursued.”