If there is anything to be gained from President Donald Trumpâ€™s disgraceful attack on the credibility of the widow of a U.S. Special Forces soldier killed in Niger, itâ€™s that Americans are finally becoming aware of the expanding U.S. mission against extremist violence now spreading across the Sahel region of Africa.
As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford explained Monday, the role of the U.S. military over the last decade has been critical: helping local nations defeat a variety of armed threats. These include affiliates of al-Qaida and Islamic State, local extremist groups such as Boko Haram, traffickers in migrants and arms, criminal syndicates, and tribal rebels. These groups have different aims but often work together. Their impact extends beyond Africa, to the wars of the Middle East and the immigration politics of Europe. And with the Islamic State nearly wiped out in Iraq and Syria, it will likely shift much of its focus to Africa.
The good news is that, aside from this monthâ€™s tragic ambush, in which five Nigerien troops were also killed, the strategy has shown promising results. The U.S. mission, involving several hundred special forces, has been successfully training troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and other states. The key has been a bottom-up approach, working with local rather than central governments. Moreover, most of the heavy lifting is being done by the French, who have 4,000 troops in the region, and an alliance of African countries known as the G5 Sahel Force.
Inexplicably, Washington is balking at fully funding the G5 through the United Nations. This would be a mistake, not only because the current approach is working but also because it saves the Pentagon money - tens of millions a year on support for the special operations forces in the Sahel.
The U.S.â€™s short-sightedness is also evident in its tendency to view Africa through the lens of individual states. The borders on the map are irrelevant on the ground in the Sahel and elsewhere, which means solutions have to be regional. And itâ€™s not just a military problem: Lasting progress depends on Western nations and global nongovernmental groups helping these impoverished countries improve governance and development.
The National Security Council should rethink its Africa policy more along transnational lines. The State Department needs to improve coordination and information-sharing among its embassies in the Sahel. The military, meanwhile, needs more funding to support effective security and public services along in sparsely populated areas of Mali and Chad.
But sending a lot more troops and advanced equipment that the local forces are unable to operate would be a mistake - a slippery slope toward the U.S. owning a mission that the locals must fight themselves.
Last, Congress can do its part by passing a new war authorization to avoid mission creep and give a strong legal basis for counterterrorism operations far away from the original battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Eventually the facts on the ill-fated Niger mission will come out, just as Trump will eventually lose interest in his feud with Sgt. La David Johnsonâ€™s widow. Ideally, both the Pentagon and the president will incorporate what theyâ€™ve learned into better strategies. But thereâ€™s no need to wait to address the danger of increasing extremism in Africa.