West Africa: What Niger’s Coup Says About U.S. Security Assistance in the Sahel

Washington DC — In what has become an all too familiar phenomenon, U.S.-trained security personnel have been implicated in the July 26th coup that deposed Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.

It is the fifth such putsch in the Sahel since 2020, and just the latest to, once again, upend Washington’s expansive counterterror operations in the region that seems to depend on questionable military partners.

As the Biden administration wrestles with how to respond, it should consider how this latest military takeover reflects on years of U.S. security cooperation in the Sahel and the efficacy of the approach that has defined U.S. engagement with the region.

Overview of U.S. Assistance to Niger and the Sahel

Over the last decade, U.S. security cooperation in the Sahel, and the western Sahel in particular, has grown substantially, reflecting widespread concern about the surge in Islamist militancy in the region.

A mix of armed groups, including those with affiliations with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, have proliferated in the region over the years, carrying out opportunistic attacks, engaging in illicit economic activity, and posing acute challenges to state authority.

The United States has responded to perceived threats in the region by investing heavily in its own counterterror operations and security assistance programs, amounting to more than $3.3 billion in military aid to the Sahel over the last two decades.

Programs like the Trans-Sahara Partnership Initiative, Department of Defense building partner capacity programs, and numerous foreign military training operations have been central pillars of the U.S. approach to the region.

Despite being paired with significant amounts of economic and humanitarian assistance, they have anchored bilateral relations between Washington and its Sahelian partners.

Between FY2001 and FY2021, the United States provided the countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal at least $995 million in direct security assistance, a figure which likely excludes much of the aid provided through large but opaque Department of Defense capacity building programs.

And between FY2001 and FY2020, the United States provided training to at least 86 thousand trainees in these countries, including 17,643 from Niger.

Substantial Aid But Little Progress

Unfortunately, this assistance has not resulted in commensurate improvements in the security landscape or acted as an effective bulwark against civil-military strife. Whatever tactical advances U.S. assistance has contributed to, on the part of Sahelian security forces, the presence, activity, and power of sub-state armed groups has continued to grow.

Terrorism-related activity in the region has increased by more than 2,000 percent over the past decade and a half, while militant organizations have pursued increasingly bold operations and pseudo-state activities.

At the same time, U.S. security assistance activities have provided material support to military officers who have both engaged in grave human rights abuses or who have gone on to support the overthrow of civilian governments.

In just the last three years, the Sahel has seen five coups, two each in Mali and Burkina Faso and now one in Niger, each of which has involved or implicated officers that received U.S. military training.

Unsurprisingly, these military coups have reflected poorly on U.S. security assistance efforts and exposed severe shortcomings in Washington’s approach to the region.

Although it would be difficult to identify a causal relationship between U.S. training and coup propensity on the part of recipients, repeated putsches by U.S.-backed forces show a lack of discretion in how the United States selects its security partners.

Indeed, the behavior of many of these U.S.-trained forces is far from unpredictable, especially in places where military figures have long played outsized political roles.

More robust, in-depth, and multidisciplinary pre-assessments should better inform the selection of U.S. security assistance beneficiaries and partners, and policymakers should have the courage to use that information to decline invitations to engage in security cooperation when the risk is too high.

More broadly, the highly securitized nature of U.S. engagement with the region places significant emphasis on addressing the symptoms of insecurity and distracts from other lines of effort aimed at issues of governance, peacebuilding, and conflict resolution.

Moreover, the rhetorical and political emphasis Washington has placed on counterterrorism, in addition to overshadowing significant humanitarian and development investments, can also risk securitizing local politics and elevating the political saliency of military leaders over their civilian counterparts.

Indeed, in nearly all of the most recent coups, their military leaders have cited militancy and counterterror imperatives as justification for removing civilian leaders. Without a greater emphasis on governance, civil-military reforms, and defense institution building as a prerequisite to combat-oriented assistance, the United States risks perpetuating conflict and political instability.

Finally, when U.S.-backed security forces engage in coups or grave human rights violations, the United States should be unequivocal in its response. Too frequently, the United States has been willing to voice rhetorical condemnation while discreetly sustaining security cooperation activities.

Invoking the need to address terrorism or the infiltration of other competing powers in the region, the familiar turning of the United States’ blind eye in the Sahel has both undermined any meaningful commitment to conditionality in U.S. assistance and sent a troubling signal about the consequences of predatory behavior on the part of U.S. security partners.

The United States should re-orient its strategic calculus and right size how it weighs the risks of shedding abusive security partners against the risks of continuing to partner with forces undermining good governance and human rights.

Elias Yousif is a Research Analyst with the Stimson Center’s Conventional Defense Program. His research focuses on the global arms trade and arms control, issues related to remote warfare and use of force, and international security cooperation and child-soldiers prevention. Prior to joining the Stimson Center, Elias was the Deputy Director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy where he analyzed the impact of U.S. arms transfer and security assistance programs on international security, U.S. foreign policy, and global human rights practices. Source: Stimson Center

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