Compared to other potential security threats to the United States, like Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, U.S. involvement in Africa does not garner much media attention. Despite this, it is in American interests to continue its efforts to stabilize the continent.
On October 18, 2019, CSPS hosted an event, entitled “Africa’s Security Challenges: Is the Situation Improving?” where Dr. Philip Martin, Assistant Professor of International Security at the Schar School, and Eric Schmitt, a senior writer for The New York Times, discussed the challenges of security on the African continent. According to Dr. Martin, Africa is a much more stable region today than it was in the 1980s and 1990s due to fewer active civil wars.
While intrastate conflict has declined, the threat of serious terrorist activities has rose. Despite the collapse of the Caliphate in late 2017, the Islamic State still has a large presence in Africa, and an estimated six thousand ISIS fighters were spread throughout the continent in 2018, with over half being located in West Africa. Dr. Martin mentioned that many other terrorist groups, such as Al Shabaab in Somalia, have attempted to legitimize their rule in rural areas. The groups have achieved success by providing basic services where the central governments have failed. This poses additional problems for demobilization and reintegration programs for former terrorists when the government retakes these regions is a major problem. Unintegrated former members retain ties to terrorist groups in the region, and this makes the resurgence of violence more likely.
While the threat of terrorism has been on the rise in Africa, the United States is trying to withdraw its military footprint in the region. Without international support, many of these smaller governments lack the resources to counter terrorism, and as Mr. Schmitt and Dr. Martin note, these conflicts can spill over borders into neighboring states. Niger, for example, is seeing spillover effects of terrorism from Libya, Mali, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. States who manage to control internal threats to security may not be quite so capable at addressing threats posed by non-state actors who cross their borders due to violence in neighboring states.
Therefore, a continued American presence is key to avoid repeat violence and assist local governments in creating stability. Mr. Schmitt explained how the United States is valued when it works with local governments in Africa, but he notes that the U.S. should focus on both security and develpment the regions that once held terrorists. Global competitors of the U.S., Russia and China, are already focusing heavily in the region, with Russia assisting in security efforts and China economically developing the continent. Neither China nor Russia are concerned with human rights, meaning that African states have little incentive to change their present policies about human rights. In the future, these states’ policies may be closer ideologically to Russia and China, making work with the U.S. more difficult.
The United States is at risk of continuing to fall behind Russian and Chinese efforts in Africa, while allowing terrorism to grow, causing further destabilization in the continent and enabling terrorist groups to establish safe havens. While these conflicts and terrorist activities in Africa do not receive as much media attention as their counterparts in the Middle East, the region is still vital to the U.S. interests and security. If the United States begins to further withdraw from Africa, it could further destabilize the region and result in some states forming closer bonds with Russia and China. The concern here is that the United States will be isolated from African states as they continue to develop economically and politically. This would put those countries in the Russian or Chinese spheres of influence, which could threaten U.S. policies in Africa and damage U.S. security in the long-term.
Tyler Stone is a graduate student studying International Commerce and Policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He received a Bachelor’s degree in History at Le Moyne College. His primary area of study is economics and how it relates to foreign policy.