According to new reports, Special Operations forces in Africa are facing dramatic cuts as the Pentagon reviews US commando missions on the continent. The review was launched following a disastrous mission in Niger last October, which resulted in the deaths of four American soldiers. It’s part of a broader shift in Defense Department strategy to redeploy military assets in the face of escalating threats from Russia and China.
Although no announcements have yet been made on the scale of the proposed cuts, it’s thought that US forces in Africa could be halved over the next three years – which means that Washington risks losing what little influence it has in the region while opening the door for other rival nations to take the lead.
At a time when the economic and strategic significance of Africa is only set to grow, however – and when Washington’s biggest rivals are deepening ties with key powers on the continent – the US’ strategy could not be more shortsighted.
A One-Track Policy
Establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with Africa in recent years has proved elusive for America, primarily because its approach has been driven by the dictates of an increasingly militarized foreign policy, rather than diplomacy. To cite just one figure, estimates suggest there are seven military staff for every civilian diplomat working on African policy – and this lopsidedness is only evidence of a wider problem.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Washington’s aggressive military presence has done little to promote US-Africa ties – in fact, quite the reverse. Protests against US troops have been held in a range of countries in the region, including Ghana, Liberia, and Cameroon. America’s Africa Command headquarters has been forced to base its operations in Germany, in the absence of a willing host country in Africa. And this sentiment is unlikely to change, as countries simultaneously become less reliant on American aid and more inclined to view US soldiers as forces of occupation rather than of liberation.
It’s clear that the military can no longer form the foundation for a meaningful relationship between the US and a rising Africa. And yet even as other nations and trading blocs – including the EU, India, Brazil, and Japan – are strengthening their links with African powers in order to engage directly with the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, America is only drawing back.
Abandoning Africa Will Open Door To Other Nations
A look at key figures shows that for states willing to engage with Africa, the rewards could be considerable. Since 2000, around half of the countries with the highest annual growth rates have been in Africa and, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), by 2050, business and consumer spending on the continent will total almost $7 trillion.
Meanwhile, as Washington withdraws all but key staff from the continent, Beijing is quietly moving into the power vacuum. At the end of June, China will host an inaugural military summit with African partners to focus on security issues and defense cooperation. It marks a high point in Sino-African relations, giving a major boost to Beijing’s existing efforts to extend its influence through diplomacy, investments in massive infrastructure projects, and increasing participation in UN peacekeeping missions.
Chinese officials have framed these efforts to boost ties with Africa as part of a “win-win” cooperation strategy, but the reality is more complicated. Indeed, while Beijing’s Africa policy may provide cash-strapped governments with the means for much-needed infrastructure projects, like the new Chinese-built Mombasa-Nairobi railway, the money doesn’t come without strings attached; rather, it’s a way for Beijing to acquire valuable financial leverage in return for loans, a process known as “debt book diplomacy.”
Djibouti: A Microcosm Of Washington’s Africa Problem
Perhaps most concerning for Washington is China’s increased activity in the tiny, yet strategically important, state of Djibouti – located at the southern entrance to the Red Sea on the route to the Suez Canal – where both powers have military bases just a few miles apart.
Djibouti recently called time on a contract with Dubai’s DP World to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, amid rumors that the authoritarian government seized control of the port in order to gift it to China. The Pentagon fears that China could use its commercial clout to persuade Djibouti to evict US forces or, at the very least, to place restrictions on the port’s use, which could affect access to supplies and the ability of US navy ships to refuel.
Although this has not yet come to pass, signs of growing tensions – and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness – are already afoot. Last month, the US military complained to China about the use of laser beams to distract its fighter pilots during operations near the two bases. Though Beijing denied any foul play, the fact that the incident has come at a time of deep animosity and burgeoning trade war between the two nations is no coincidence.
Ceding Africa To The Middle Kingdom
At a time when the geostrategic importance of Djibouti and other African nations are only set to grow, and China is deepening engagement accordingly, it’s ironic that Washington is set to reduce its already minimal engagement on the continent. And this, as part of a wider strategy to refocus efforts against Beijing and Moscow. If the US administration were more forward-thinking, it would be redoubling its engagement efforts in Africa – not drawing out. Unfortunately, it now looks as if China will be the next power to take up the challenge, and reap the benefits, of deepening links with Africa.
*David Meijer is a senior security analyst based in Amsterdam specialized in trans-national contraband.