Supporting African solutions to African problems

By Daniel DePetris

The phrase “African solutions to African problems” is meant to demonstrate to the international community that the governments of the continent are both capable, serious, and cooperative enough with one another to tackle threats that transcend national borders.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council reaffirmed its endorsement of the “African solutions to African problems” concept by passing a resolution that would approve the creation of a five-nation, collective counterterrorism force for the Sahel region. After weeks of backroom negotiations between U.S. and French diplomats at U.N. headquarters, the Security Council came to a consensus. The 5,000-strong African counterterrorism unit will be authorized to combat the swath of terrorist groups, smugglers, and drug dealers that have made the semi-arid territory stretching east from the Mauritanian coast to the Chadian plains a permissible region to raise funds and engage in illicit activity. The resolution, the French U.N. Ambassador commented, is a “landmark” expression of support for a group of African states typically off the international community’s radar.

As is frequently the case in these kinds of missions, the final disposition of forces, the financial sources required to keep the joint counterterrorism force afloat, and whether western intelligence agencies will partner with African troops on the ground haven’t been fully resolved. There will likely be a dispute about whether governments in the Sahel region have the funding capacity to maintain the force on an annual basis. African members of the joint force will also need to arrive at an agreement on which state will take command and the extent to which military operations will need to be approved by the political leaderships of all five-member states.

But regardless of those differences, a combined counterterrorism task force manned, led, and commanded by African governments themselves is good news for the United States.

For one, encouraging regional governments to cooperate with one another and integrate their militaries in pursuit of a common, regional threat has always been a priority for the United States. Countries should clean up their own back yards.

Even before President Donald Trump took over the White House, there was a lingering feeling in Washington that the United States was being asked to do too much, too often, and in too many places around the world. For example, after Russia annexed Crimea and intervened in Eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration responded by authorizing a European Reassurance Initiative fund that devoted billions of dollars to provide for the security of our wealthy European allies in the event of a conflict. When the Colombian government struck a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia in 2016 after decades of internal conflict, the United States pledged a $450 million package of economic and diplomatic incentives and post-conflict reconstruction that would provide support the deal’s implementation on the ground.   In other words, the United States is paying a large freight to secure other countries, money that could otherwise rebuild our armed forces.

The establishment of an African counterterrorism force in the Sahel, however, is a great example of the pendulum slowly starting to shift.

Much of this shift may be specific to Africa, where governments are almost inherently suspicious of western projects and programs on the continent.  But whatever the motives behind the joint counterterrorism unit, the development should be welcomed by the United States and its Western European partners and elevated as a shining example of what can happen when regional states conclude that it’s more politically expedient and strategically sustainable to collaborate on regional problems than hoping that a foreign power will come to the rescue.

American global leadership is important. But American alone shouldn’t—and can’t in a multipolar world—fight every battle and deploy its military might to right every wrong. Our wealthy friends and allies should share that burden.

If the Sahel force is a success, the Trump administration may be able to exploit it as a model of what can happen when local governments increasingly rely on their own abilities instead of picking up the phone and calling Washington for immediate assistance. But there’s a flip-side to that coin: if the force fails to limit terrorism, is unable to cut down on transnational smuggling, devolves into nationalist bickering, or cannot sustain itself financially or logistically, the regional-solutions-for-regional-problems framework will be dealt a significant blow. While it will ultimately be up to these African states to prove that they can indeed do the job and do it well, the United States can assist the counterterrorism force with advice on best practices.  The State Department can also monitor the joint force from afar in order to determine where the deficiencies are and what measures African governments can take to mitigate them.  The U.S., in other words, can help African governments help themselves at very little cost or investment to the U.S. taxpayer— all the while promoting a self-sustainable, crisis response model to other regions of the world.

Encouraging more countries to become more self-reliant is an easy political and policy win for all policymakers

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear World on June 30, 2017. Read more HERE.