The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
Under President Donald Trump, the United States withdrew troops and resources from Africa as part of a broader national security shift from counterterrorism to great-power competition. The Trump administration used the euphemism “optimization” to describe the pivot away from Africa that began around 2018, but a more accurate term would be disengagement. It pared back efforts to fight jihadis in Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, downsizing the U.S. military footprint in some of the continent’s most volatile regions. And in the final months of Trump’s presidency, his administration withdrew nearly all U.S. troops from Somalia.
The shift in U.S. strategy toward Africa reflects an assumption—shared by many in Washington—that counterterrorism and other long-standing U.S. priorities in Africa will diminish in importance as competition between the United States, China, and other significant powers intensifies. But that assumption is wrong. In fact, far from being a distraction from great-power competition, Africa promises to become one of its important theaters. And if anything, great-power competition will increase the need for the United States to battle terrorists and safeguard democracy, trade, and free enterprise in Africa—but to do so with particular attention to limiting the malign influence of Russia and China.
President Joe Biden’s administration needs a new strategy that pursues these ends together, sustainably, and at an acceptable cost. For as long as the United States has had an Africa policy, it has run day-to-day operations through its ambassadors, tailoring its approach to each of the continent’s 54 countries individually. But today’s most pressing issues—terrorism, climate change, pandemics, and irregular migration, for instance—would be better served by regional coordinators whose authority transcends national borders. To safeguard its interests on the continent and to limit the influence of its rivals, the United States must start thinking regionally instead of nationally.
Devising such a policy is a matter of some urgency. As current and former military officers, one of whom led the U.S. Special Operations Command for Africa from 2017 to 2019, we believe that the United States must position itself as the partner of choice for African countries in the era of great-power competition. Failure to do so will imperil U.S. interests on the continent—and possibly U.S. security at home.
Like it or not, a twenty-first century “scramble for Africa” is underway. Russia and China in particular are ramping up economic and military activity on the continent at the same time as the United States is scaling back. Both countries see opportunities to build economic relationships, secure access to natural resources and rapidly growing markets, forge political alliances, and promote their own illiberal models of government.
Russia has dramatically expanded its footprint in Africa in recent years, signing military deals with at least 19 countries since 2014 and becoming the top arms supplier to the continent. Just days after the United States announced its plans to withdraw from Somalia in December 2020, Russia said it had reached an agreement to establish a new naval base in Port Sudan. Its mercenary companies, including the Wagner Group, which fought a deadly firefight against U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria in 2018, now operate across the continent, from Libya to the Central African Republic to Mozambique.
China, too, is angling for influence in Africa. It established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and spends vast sums on infrastructure projects to secure access to resources and to buy goodwill and votes in international organizations such as the United Nations. China’s leaders have promoted their country’s authoritarian bureaucratic system as a model for African leaders seeking to expand their economies without allowing democratic reforms. Their attractive lending practices and noninterference policy regarding human rights, market liberalization, and corruption give them additional influence over poor African governments.
Increased Russian and Chinese activity is already transforming Africa into a theater of competition with the United States—just as Soviet and U.S. jockeying made the continent a venue for Cold War rivalry. In the second half of the twentieth century, the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Iran, and North Korea provided military assistance to governments and rebels across Africa. These countries became embroiled in proxy wars, sometimes even sending their own troops into combat. Russia and Cuba, for instance, sent tens of thousands of soldiers to fight in the Ogaden War between Ethiopia and Somalia and in the Angolan civil war.
Like it or not, a twenty-first century “scramble for Africa” is underway.
The United States might prefer to avoid becoming embroiled in African proxy wars during this new era of great-power competition, but it must be prepared for such conflicts nonetheless. Already, Libya has become a theater for proxy warfare between Russia, Turkey, and other countries backing opposite sides in an increasingly bloody civil-turned-proxy war. The United States has played a peripheral role in that conflict, but that did not stop Russia from allegedly shooting down a U.S. drone over Libya in 2019.
The United States cannot simply withdraw from Africa without leaving its interests exposed. Salafi jihadi insurgencies, political instability, and authoritarianism still threaten U.S. businesses and commercial interests as well as the security of U.S. partners. Like the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s, insurgent groups in Africa are mostly motivated by local and regional concerns. These groups draw recruits from the continent’s large and rapidly growing population, which is particularly vulnerable to radicalization due to persistent poverty, environmental degradation, and all too often, poor governance. But many of the groups’ leaders have links to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and are increasingly aligned with transnational Salafi jihadi causes. At the direction of al Qaeda’s senior leadership, al Qaeda franchises in the Sahel have conducted attacks against high-profile Western targets in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in recent years. And the Somali insurgent group al Shabab has attacked Western targets in Kenya and Somalia and even plotted to hijack a commercial airplane and fly it into a building in the United States, as the U.S. Justice Department revealed in a recent indictment. Moreover, Salafi jihadi groups create political instability that in turn degrades governance, depresses economic activity, allows transnational crime to flourish, unleashes refugee flows, and invites health crises such as the 2014–16 Ebola pandemic in West Africa. In an interconnected world, what happens in Africa does not stay in Africa.
Fortunately, the United States and African countries share a common interest in countering Salafi jihadi groups. By offering sustained and effective counterterrorism assistance, the United States can become the partner of choice for African countries, encouraging them to develop their economies and political systems in accordance with Western norms. Successful great-power competition in Africa hinges on the United States’ ability to win over African governments with a holistic counterinsurgency strategy, one that addresses the root causes of terrorism and lays the political, economic, and developmental groundwork for future stability and prosperity.
The standard U.S. approach to Africa relies on ambassadors to be the primary decision-makers. The Department of State’s regional bureaus give ambassadors varying degrees of support and direction, but the individual chiefs of mission coordinate most closely with their host governments. This approach has the advantage of putting career diplomatic professionals in the driver’s seat—a clear benefit when dealing with country-specific issues and crises. Unfortunately, ambassadors have neither the staff nor the incentive to look beyond the borders of their host countries to engage with regional organizations or address transnational problems, such as Salafi jihadi insurgencies.
The al Qaeda– and ISIS-affiliated groups in Africa are not confined to any one state. Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and ISIS-Greater Sahara, two of the most potent jihadi groups in the Sahel, move freely across the region to carry out attacks. Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa do the same across four countries in the Lake Chad region, while al Shabab ranges far outside Somalia’s borders into Kenya and Uganda. Population growth, environmental degradation, and tensions between nomadic and settled populations fuel conflicts that these groups can exploit. As a result, any U.S. strategy to degrade jihadi insurgent groups and address the root causes of the instability that drives them must be transnational in nature.
The United States must also address the interstate coordination issues that allow insurgents to escape military pressure simply by crossing international boundaries. Rather than seeking sanctuary in rough or difficult-to-access geographical terrain, insurgent groups simply exploit interstate coordination problems to roam freely in border regions. Often, they do so along borders between states that have tense diplomatic or military relations. For instance, Boko Haram operates on the border between Cameroon and Nigeria, which have a history of conflict.
The country-by-country approach to Africa not only fails to address coordination issues but can also serve to entrench them. For instance, Congress approves funds for military activities based on its assessment of individual partner countries—not based on the regional dynamics of the threat. As a result, lawmakers may approve a program to train and equip a partner force in one country to address a regional threat but restrict the use of U.S. equipment and the activities of U.S. advisers to within that country’s borders. Such inconsistency not only hampers counterinsurgency efforts but fuels the perception that the U.S. military is an unreliable partner.
Critics of the current country-by-country approach have called for an overarching continental strategy. And indeed, both the Obama and Trump administrations published strategies for continent-level engagement, but neither spelled out specific ends or means. As a result, various levels of government were free to interpret the strategies as they saw fit, and the country-by-country approach endured in practice. The Obama and Trump documents were useful insofar as they offered broad frameworks for engagement, but the truth is that Africa’s needs are too diverse and too complex to be addressed by a single strategy, except at a very superficial level.
What the United States needs is not an overarching continental strategy but one tailored to specific regions. African countries have begun to take such an approach themselves. For instance, in response to al Qaeda– and ISIS-affiliated jihadi activities across the Sahel, five African countries established the G5 Sahel group to coordinate military activities, enable cross-border joint operations, and solicit aid from international backers. Similarly, the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad basin coordinates military activities between Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria to counter Boko Haram. The African Union Mission in Somalia likewise coordinates the efforts of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and other nations to battle al Shabab.
France has taken a similar approach to insecurity in West Africa and the Sahel. In 2014, it established Task Force Barkhane, a roughly 5,000-soldier operation centralizing security policy and administrative functions across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.
The United States cannot simply withdraw from Africa without leaving its interests exposed.
Governance failures in these countries and abuses by their security forces have undercut Barkhane’s effectiveness, as has France’s overreliance on counterterrorism tactics at the expense of population-centric counterinsurgency efforts. But the regional approach has clearly eliminated cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles and helped maintain pressure on the militants.
The United States should articulate similar regional strategies for the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, the Horn of Africa, and southeastern Africa—each with clearly defined goals, however generational the timelines for achieving them might be. The strategies should draw on mostly nonmilitary means and aim to improve governance and security, thereby addressing the root causes of radicalization. For example, the United States should reinvigorate USAID, along with other developmental and governance initiatives, so as to better position itself as the partner of choice to African nations. But it must also make the necessary military investments, in particular in synchronizing its advising, training, and equipping activities as well as its tactical and operational support for partner militaries. Military and nonmilitary support alike must be coordinated regionally and aligned against regional threats. Each regional strategy must also be developed with input from Congress and clearly explained to the American people, so as to ensure popular as well as bipartisan support.
To implement its regional strategies, the United States will need empowered regional officials who are authorized to coordinate activities within their areas of responsibility. Regional coordinators, or envoys, have been used to coordinate responses to transnational issues in the past, but they have typically answered to the secretary of state rather than to the president. As a result, they have lacked the authority to compel cooperation from the U.S. military or from individual U.S. embassies or to adjudicate their divergent priorities. Regardless of their exact title, or whether they are civilian or military, the officials in charge of regional strategies for Africa must have the president’s support in order to effectively coordinate the various instruments of American power at their disposal.
The return of great-power competition does not mean that the United States can turn its attention away from Africa. On the contrary, increased Russian and Chinese activity on the continent will necessitate deeper U.S. engagement. To promote stability, good governance, and economic openness in Africa while countering the illiberal influence of competing powers, the United States will need a regional strategy that is capable of addressing transnational threats. Anything short of that will cede the advantage to the United States’ adversaries on a continent where opportunities and risks are set to grow in the coming decades.