The growing power struggle emerging between the US, China and Russia, as well as raised tensions within the Middle East, notably with Iran, are placing increasing pressure on US operations in Africa. Could a US slowdown or partial withdraw from African operations cause increased threats to Australia’s security?
Every February since 2005, the US military leads an international training exercise named Flintlock in West Africa in conjunction with special operations forces from around the world. Taking place this year in Mauritania and Senegal, this exercise provides critical training for regional militaries that are struggling to contain growing terrorist activity in northern and West Africa. Flintlock is US Africa Command’s premier and largest annual special operations forces exercise.
“Strategic threats will emanate from Africa that will pose not only regional challenges to US interests but global ones as well. These threats include malign actors with regional and global reach as well as terrorist networks with large aspirations. No single nation can combat these threats alone,” said US Army General Stephen Townsend, Commander, US Africa Command.
"With over 1,600 troops from over 30 nations participating, Flintlock builds capabilities, improves readiness and enables an international approach to dealing with these common challenges.”
Violent extremist attacks have skyrocketed in the last 18 months despite the presence of 4,500 French troops and 13,000 UN peacekeepers in the region. The Sahel has experienced the highest increase in these kinds of attacks, mostly attributed to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and their affiliates, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), an offshoot from the group mostly defeated in Iraq and Syria.
Since late 2017, the US military no longer accompanies West African forces on combat missions after an ambush in Niger killed four US service members. However, the US plays a vital role in facilitating French and other western operation through air refuelling, transportation and drone surveillance. With the French labelling the US support irreplaceable.
Flintlock 2020 off to a slow start
The Flintlock operation has faced increased challenges this year due to increased strain on US military resources caused by increasing tensions with a recalcitrant and agitated Iran, especially after the killing of Qasem Soleimani and subsequent retaliation rocket attacks by Iran.
According to US officials interviewed by Foreign Policy, only one US Air Force C-130 lift plane was available for Flintlock due to increased demand in the Middle East. The plane then broke down on the second day of the two-week exercise. The officials added that the operation may not have taken place at all if the Moroccans had not been able to supply additional lift planes.
As acts of terrorism and extremist violence increase in the Sahel, the Pentagon has been considering withdrawing some or all of its troops across the continent, including approximately 1,000 in the West African region as the first step in a global troop shift.
A shift to “great power competition”
Bruce Jones, director of the international order and strategy project at the Brookings Institution, in his report China and the return of great power strategic competition, claims China’s rise to the world’s second largest economy, the largest energy consumer and the second largest defence spender has caused a shift in global affairs and the beginning of a phase of increased rivalry between major powers. Beijing’s shift to a more assertive strategy towards the west as well as increasingly outward spreading interests around the world by both China and Russia is causing a rethink in the way the US is looking to the future.
The National security Strategy of the United States of America 2017 outlines this shift in focus, stating, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”
The US is now focused on preparing the US Military and diplomatic corps to confront Russia and China in the long term and this may become a distraction or a resource drain to increasingly unpopular wars in the Middle East and even more so to operations such as Flintlock, which focus on assisting West African countries to deal with their internal terrorism problems.
This suggested drawdown of US involvement in Africa has been met with criticism from a number of members of American Congress, including senators Jim Inhofe, Lindsey Graham and Chris Coons. French President Emmanuel Macron also expressed his concerns, convening a G5 Sahel summit to discuss the fight against armed troops.
Possible US downturn in Africa and Australian Security.
Since 2001 and the beginning of the war on terror, Australia has been committed to the global fight against extremism and terrorism in all of its forms. This war has seen a number of mistakes and successes in almost 20 years, including the defeat of Daesh as a territory holding Islamic State and the killing of its caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. However, this war is yet to be one and may never will be.
With the global success against Salafist extremism comes new developments by terrorist organisations and attempts to regain footholds and relevance on a global scale. This is where the threat would lie for Australian security and defence if the US were to shift its policies and actions in regard to its current and future operation on the African continent, especially in the Sahel and Islamic Maghreb.
As the military defeat of ISIS has occurred in Iraq and Syria, there may be a push by its leadership and affiliate organisations to step up operations in other areas of limited law enforcement and internal destabilisation. By doing this, they would attempt to tap into new populations for recruitment and exploit existing power vacuums to create pockets of control and safe havens to plan attacks against the west, including Australia, once more. This will become increasingly difficult to prevent as countries such as Libya, Mali and Nigeria continue to face instability.
Along with a wounded ISIS seeking new pastures to build its caliphate, al-Qaeda has become deeply entrenched in Africa through its affiliate organisation AQIM, which has been able to create deep ties with local communities in ways not seen in other locations through a unique exploitation of tribal groups and power structures of the sparsely populated Saharan desert and fringes. This has allowed them to perpetrate constant acts of extremist violence within the region against local military forces, civilians and international targets. If this was allowed to develop further by a reduction of US involvement, it could grow to include much more spectacular events across the globe.
The ability for a terrorist organisation such as ISIS or al-Qaeda or their affiliates to exploit any decreased pressure in the region could allow a new safe haven to be created in the Sehel. When this was the case in Afghanistan, and Iraq and Syria, the number of terrorist attacks around the globe, as well as their severity, greatly increased through both direct attacks planned by the organisational core as well as through indirect inspiration of lone wolf actors such as those perpetrated in Australia over the years.