OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso—As West African leaders and France were discussing their progress on countering armed Islamists’ advance across the Sahel during February’s G5 Sahel summit in N’Djamena, Chad, a fresh face beamed into the meeting. Just days into office and eager to show his commitment, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken came with a message of hope: The United States was back.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief: Uncertainty around the United States’ interest in the region, birthed during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s years, looked to be wiping away from the sands of the Sahel, a semi-arid region that stretches across North Africa. Washington was falling back into line behind an old ally, France. The only problem: The United States was back with the same old playbook, one that has yet to significantly help the struggling countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, and Niger as they try to combat the world’s fastest growing Islamist insurgency.
“As ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates seek to expand their reach across Africa, the United States will continue to work closely with our African partners,” Blinken told the summit, before adding: “We will build on existing efforts in West Africa and share lessons in the global fight against violent extremism.”
A Tuareg-led rebellion in northern Mali in 2012 made the area fertile ground for Islamist militants to gain a foothold in the region. Today, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are the two dominant organizations, both part of an umbrella coalition of al Qaeda-aligned groups. Together, they have pushed into Burkina Faso and over to west Niger, killing thousands of people and displacing millions.
Washington’s interest in the region has waxed and waned over the years, but the end goal of preventing armed Islamists from planning an attack on U.S. soil has remained the same. So has the counterterrorism lens through which the United States and its allies see the conflict.
Since 2013, Paris has led the international effort and currently has 5,100 military personnel deployed as part of Operation Barkhane. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, a peacekeeping force, engages more than 15,000 uniformed personnel from 60 countries. Almost 5,000 troops make up the G5 Sahel Joint Force. In June, the European military task force Takuba was formed and is building its capacity. The United States provides logistical support and training, and U.S. special forces carry out operations across the region. The International Crisis Group, a think tank, has referred to this military buildup as a “‘traffic jam’ of security operations.”
“Over the years, the focus has been to target the militant groups and kill as many combatants as possible, but when you look at these groups, they are increasingly localized in nature,” said Héni Nsaibia, a researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project. “The root cause is the various disparities at the social, political, and economic level.”
In Burkina Faso, a nation of approximately 20 million people and more than 60 different ethnic groups, militant violence has pushed the government out of large parts of the north and east. The “Land of the Upright Men,” as the country is also known, has gone from being one of the most secure countries in West Africa to one of the most dangerous. And it’s not just the advance of armed groups from over Mali’s border that has led to this decline. Intercommunal violence has also played a role in bringing the country to its knees.
Both state security forces and the newly established self-defense militia have repeatedly targeted ethnic minority groups they accuse of terrorist activity. The Peul, or Fulani, who are semi-nomadic herders, have taken the brunt of this abuse. Long sidelined by Burkina Faso’s society, their pastoralist traditions have often led to resource disputes with farmers. The resulting grievances have isolated many Peul, who have become prime targets for terrorist groups looking for new recruits. Before February’s summit in Chad, Human Rights Watch reported more than 600 unlawful killings by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger security forces in counterterrorism operations since late 2019.
The fraught relationship between the central government and local authorities has also contributed to Burkina Faso’s decline. Years of incompetence and corruption has meant President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, despite being reelected in November 2020, holds little sway over many rural zones. This lack of governance has meant some communities have found better support and access to justice under the rule of armed groups.
The complexity of the crisis in Burkina Faso and the wider Sahel hasn’t suited Washington’s cookie-cutter approach to diplomacy, defense, and development. Given intercommunal violence and ineffective governance, many rural dwellers see central governments as being complicit in the unraveling of their lives. In Burkina Faso, many local leaders bristle at the dominance of the Mossi, who are the largest ethnic group in the country, so they shun the center, which makes it harder for top-down development approaches to work—especially if they are delivered through the lens of counterterrorism.
“What you want to do is stop people from joining those groups or having an incentive to help those groups. The best way to do that is to create a governing structure that provides people with the things they need, protection, economic opportunity, a political voice,” said Margaret Ariotti, a professor at the University of Georgia specializing in governance in Burkina Faso and the broader region. She spoke to Foreign Policy in a personal capacity while on a fellowship at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. “USAID has focused on governance, but their work doesn’t always translate to the different departments in Washington,” she added.
U.S. assistance has paid some dividends, benefiting some local communities and improving training and equipment of some local troops. But Washington continues to grapple with ongoing alleged abuses by state security forces, despite issuing a stark warning in July 2020 that aid could be threatened unless far tougher reforms were made.
“We prioritize the human rights issue and have raised it with senior Burkinabè political and military leadership,” a State Department official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The United States urges our Burkinabè partners to hold thorough investigations into any allegations of human rights violations and to hold accountable those found responsible.” To date, no member of Burkina Faso’s security services has been put on trial for human rights abuses.
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, deaths from political violence this year have come down compared to the same period last year, with only 87 deaths to date. But a big part of the reason for that improvement are negotiations between armed Islamists, the central government, and local self-defense militias, analysts and locals said. In the northern town of Djibo close to the border with Mali, locals said talks are the reason a semblance of security has returned to their community.
That creates a quandary for the United States, whose official policy is not to negotiate with terrorists. But simply playing whack-a-mole with militant leaders threatens to undermine the fragile advances that have been made so far and risks seeing the Sahel crisis spread further to the north of the Gulf of Guinea—which would further destabilize West Africa, potentially trigger an even bigger humanitarian crisis, and disperse the militants, making them harder to defeat.
“Sometimes the [counterterror] approach can have unintended consequences,” said Hannah Armstrong, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Putting a bounty on militant leaders’ heads, these types of policy moves, make negotiations and outreach quite a bit harder. They also put mediators at risk.”
But recasting the U.S. strategy now to put a focus on better governance might require more bandwidth than the new administration, still struggling to fully staff its national security posts, has for the region.
In March 2020, the Trump administration named J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert, as special envoy for the Sahel region. He is gone but is yet to be replaced with a new envoy by the Biden administration. U.S. President Joe Biden hasn’t made any other major policy moves on West Africa since taking over—let alone anything that portends a stark shift from the Trump era. Washington remains alarmed by the rise of terrorism in West Africa and is continuing counterterrorism efforts inherited from the previous administration.
“The new administration in general is focused on reestablishing relationships with our European allies and in this region,” Ariotti said. “For a long time, the U.S. has been happy to be in a supporting role to France. But I think D.C. should have incentives to realize that the French counterterrorism strategy isn’t necessarily the best approach.”
Meanwhile, in what has been described as the “world’s fastest growing humanitarian crisis,” more than a million people in Burkina Faso are reduced to living in poorly run camps outside the capital city of Ouagadougou. Ahmado Bikienga, a 46-year-old farmer from Pensa, Burkina Faso, has spent more than a year alongside close to 1,000 other people in an informal camp for internally displaced people in the northern town of Kaya. He left home in a hurry after armed men stormed into his village and started shooting at random.
“My life was peaceful before; it’s so hard now,” he said wearily. “I don’t mind how it happens, but I just want to go home.”