By John Ramming Chappell, Spring 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow
American foreign policy in the Sahel has not worked. Counterterrorism has predominated the U.S. approach to the region since 2001, resulting in a policy focused on security assistance and military cooperation. However, the influence of Salafi-jihadist groups in the region has markedly increased, civilian fatalities have skyrocketed, and a militarized approach to the region has undermined security sector governance. U.S. strategy has not adequately addressed the root causes of conflict—political marginalization, poverty, and environmental pressures—that have contributed to a vicious cycle of conflict and fragility. The challenges facing the Sahel call for a new approach.
To effect lasting change in the Sahel, the United States needs to replace the status quo with an affirmative strategy of diplomatic engagement. The United States should reduce military engagement in the Sahel, which is disproportionate to relatively limited interests. However, withdrawal alone would be insufficient to shift regional dynamics because other stakeholders would continue counterterrorism campaigns based on the American model.
Therefore, the Biden administration should implement the Global Fragility Strategy in the Sahel and phase out the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership to right the balance between diplomatic and military tools. The United States should work with regional stakeholders to coordinate a broader shift in Sahel policy.