How effectively does the UK co-operate with the United States on regional security issues in Sub-Saharan Africa?
The US security footprint in Africa is designed to be light (by US standards) and precisely focused on two missions: direct action against Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs) and building the capacity of ‘willing and capable’ African partners to join the counter-VEO mission and to contribute to humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. The US maintains a network of around 13 enduring and 16 non-enduring small bases in or adjacent to Africa, but the force level that is committed is only some 6000 troops across the entire Continent. The US does not contribute troops to UN peacekeeping operations, though it does train some African contingents for this role. The US focus is on VEOs in East Africa (Somalia (500 troops), Kenya) and West Africa (Mali and Niger – the main hub in W Africa). The US Headquarters for Africa is in Stuttgart, which is not an indicator of a poor sense of geography but of how hard it would be for the US to have such a powerful presence in any one African country. It also indicates how careful the US has been to avoid any prospect of being drawn into intervention at scale or on an enduring basis. This reflects US political and military (especially Special Operations Command) thinking post Iraq/Afghanistan. the US ‘concept of operations’ seems to be to maintain just enough of a light footprint to be able to understand what is going on and to be able respond quickly and effectively with principally special operations forces to attack groups such as Al Shabab, ISIS and Boko Harem.
Africom has to argue its case hard for limited resources such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, satellite cover, and Special Operations Forces, and generally has a weaker hand against the bids of fellow US Combatant Commanders leading in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and NATO. This is the same challenge that the UK faces: despite the enormous economic potential of Africa, the risks of endemic mass migration, the humanitarian fragility, and the rise of VEOs, Africa always comes after concerns elsewhere in the world in the allocation of attention and resources. This also means that the US capacity to provide a framework of support to a Coalition effort in Africa is very limited, and in many cases the US is operating in a way and a manner that European nations including UK are not party to.
If the only metric of success for this approach is by how much VEO violence has been reduced then the result would be disappointing: the volume of violence from the roughly 12 VEO groups known to be operating has increased – perhaps by 250% in West Africa since 2018. There is a lively debate in the US about the relative utility and cost of using even this sort of precisely targeted force as the principal way of reducing VEO violence. This reflects the same experience of UK and France: terrorism is usually a symptom of poverty, disaffection and weak – even rapacious – Government that provides fertile ground for VEOs to radicalise and to impose their own order, which is often welcomed as better than all the available alternatives even if it has some unpleasant aspects. Killing VEO leaders and fighters may contain the level of violence (which is far from proven), but if that is the extent of the strategy it is just not tackling the underlying drivers of the situation.
Against this context the grounds for US/UK cooperation is quite limited and may be more about an implicit or explicit burden sharing. The UK has leaned back into UN peacekeeping and aims to do more shortly, the UK supports French-led efforts in Mali and AU/UN work in Somalia with small packages of staff officers, trainers and some capability such as the helicopters in Mali. Where there is a short-term need to collaborate over discreet operations such as Hostage Rescues, no doubt this can be done. But the actual places where combined action occurs is very limited. The US capacity to help is far thinner than is the case in places like Iraq, and the UK does not offer the type or scale of independent help that the US might wish to partner with.
Taken together, the sum of US, UK, European, UN, and AU efforts is not irrelevant, but it is generally not proving decisively successful in the round. At the heart of this is the question of how to help sub-Sahara Africa become more stable, better governed and increasingly prosperous in order to reduce the seeds of extremism. This is not a problem that is amenable to resolution by bullets alone. But the scale of the challenge in terms of costs, manpower, risks and time, and the competing claims from elsewhere in the world, mean that doing much more or much better quickly seems unlikely. Some of the void is clearly being filled by a large-scale influx of Chinese resources and influence, and in the activities of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group in around 20 countries. So the relatively limited nature of Western intervention is not without consequences for how others now win or impose their own influence. The competition for influence in Africa is alive and well.
In terms of what the UK might contribute from its armed forces to do better, there is the issue of how to build and partner with more effective proxies from amongst receptive, potentially more capable African partners. The work that UK forces do to train local partners and build better capacity is often limited to training, advising and assisting and not endowed with the permissions to accompany the partnered force on its operations. This inhibition reduces the effectiveness of these forces and can diminish trust. To exert the degree of support necessary to really improve the prospects of success it would be better to allow appropriately trained and equipped British forces to train, advise, assist and accompany their partners more often. This is usually the work of so-called Tier 2 Special Forces, such as the US Rangers, but it is well within the compass of UK forces (16 Air Assault Brigade, 3 Commando Brigade, all regular infantry battalions in the Army) given the right support (engineers, logisticians), equipment (such as enhanced communications and aviation support including medical), air cover, and Rules of Engagement. It is an important way of making small commitments far more effective, though not without some higher costs and more, manageable risk.
General Sir Richard Barrons
25 March 2020
Received 25 March 2020