Roundup: Recent Assessments of U.S. Government Approaches Toward the Sahel

Here are a few items that I saw recently, all in very different ways assessing and critiquing aspects of how the United States government (or parts of it) has/have interacted with the Sahel:

  •  Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security, “Working Case Study: Congress’s Oversight of the Tongo Tongo, Niger, Ambush.” I learned a lot from this. It reinforces my impression (and this is me speaking, not even paraphrasing Schulman) that U.S. troops are sometimes effectively on combat missions even if those missions go by highly euphemistic names. And there is not much oversight.
  • Nick Turse for the New York Times, “How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem.” This is a major piece of reporting. If you read it seeking a comprehensive explanation of Burkina Faso’s crises, you may walk away disappointed; if you read it as a critique of the United States government’s approach to Burkina Faso, the piece will probably make more sense.
  • State Department Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Monitoring and Coordination of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program.” Some pretty harsh assessments in there – but pretty fair, from what I can tell.

Comment on the NYT Article on Post-Tongo Tongo Reprimands

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a report on the American military’s internal investigation and accountability efforts following the ambush of American soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger in October 2017. Commentators, and the NYT itself, have rightly called attention to the ways the punishments reflect hierarchy and protect senior officers:

To me, though, there is another criticism to make. The reprimands handed down all related to technical issues: training, approvals, oversight, etc. The implication becomes that had these technical issues been handled better, such disasters would not occur.

Maybe that’s true. But it seems to me that the problem is not just technical but political and conceptual. Why should villagers near the Niger-Mali border, under regular pressure from nearby jihadists and other militias and connected through social ties to some of the jihadists themselves, welcome intermittent government and foreign patrols with open arms and share vital intelligence with them? Why should American soldiers assume that conceptual frameworks focused on transnational jihadism will help them understand hyper-local complexities? Do – and here I am guessing a bit, although I would call it an educated guess – hackneyed and simplistic trainings about “local culture” truly prepare soldiers to win over local populations and move safely through their territory? Has the military really prioritized language training – what was the level of French proficiency of the American soldiers on this patrol, let alone their proficiency in Fulfulde or other languages that would have been crucial to their understanding of the environment they were in? How blunt are American military strategies with themselves and with the government of Niger about the fact that these two governments’ interests do not completely align, no matter how much good will there may be between them? How well do American soldiers understand villagers’ feelings toward the Nigerien state? To me, as an outside observer, it seems that the military has not grappled fully with these questions, preferring to use models transplanted from Afghanistan and Iraq (or, one might say, a semi-imagined Afghanistan and a semi-imagined Iraq) to the Sahel and other parts of Africa. All the intelligence, training, and oversight in the world might help prevent bad decisions and thus might have prevented this Tongo Tongo debacle, but technical fixes do not remove political problems. American soldiers operating in environments they do not seriously understand, on missions that blur the line between peace and war to the point where intentions become ambiguous to all involved, are at inherent risk of fatal miscalculation.