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Why We Can’t Help France Fight Its Failed Colonial Wars in Africa

U.S. lawmakers are pushing our military to stay in a region that really has no strategic interest for America.

U.S. Army Colonel Kurt Crytzer, commander Special Operations Command Africa's (SOCAFRICA), reviews Malian military forces during the closing ceremony of a military training engagement, February 27, 2010 (Photo by Max R. Blumenfeld, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara).

As the coronavirus swept through American cities in early March, a small group in Congress focused on a different threat. For these lawmakers, despite the clear magnitude of the crisis, distant conflicts in West Africa – not pandemic preparations at home – were the priority. To make their point, the bipartisan band introduced legislation aimed at restricting the Pentagon from removing U.S. troops from the region this year.

The most fervent among them, Senator Lindsey Graham, threatened Secretary of Defense Mark Esper if he follows through with a widely reported AFRICOM drawdown, which Esper and other officials believe is necessary to refocus the Pentagon’s resources on China. “I can make your life hell,” Graham reportedly told Esper

This is the same Lindsey Graham who, in the wake of a 2017 insurgent ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger, admitted to NBC’s Chuck Todd that he had only recently learned that there were 1,000 U.S. troops in that country. Two years later, the Senator has decided that West Africa is a vital American interest.

The truth is the opposite. The Sahel is troubled, violent, and fascinating – but it contains nothing of strategic value to the United States. Its nations, which include Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, have a combined GDP smaller than that of North Dakota. Extremist groups there fuel a regional insurgency that threatens the sovereignty of these states, but even the top American general for Africa could not say last year that the rebels pose a threat to the American homeland. 

Many of the several thousand U.S. troops in the region support an ongoing French military effort to combat insurgent offshoots of al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But after a 2013 intervention in Mali that was forecasted to last mere months, France is bogged down in the Sahel, and the violence has worsened. Several weeks ago, Boko Haram militants killed nearly 100 Chadian soldiers in a pre-dawn ambush, and another insurgent assault in Mali last week took the lives of dozens of government troops in that country’s restive northern region. 

There is strong pressure in Washington to support France ‘s counterinsurgency campaign. Hawks on both sides of the aisle seem anxious to expand the African front of a never-ending war against Islamic militancy. Other members of the D.C. foreign policy establishment see a longer list of boogeymen on the continent. “The U.S. is losing the competition in Africa against China, Russia, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State,” an analyst from the American Enterprise Instituterecently told The New York Times.  

While the Sahel is unimportant to the average American, it does have real value to the U.S. foreign policy community – as a perfect illustration of the futility of nation-building in poor, corrupt, and fractured states. Although those lessons pre-date our own misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, they went ignored in the decade after 9/11. An examination of the French experience in Chad in the 1970s and 1980s would have shown us how counterinsurgency tactics eerily similar to those attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to deliver long-term success in structurally similar states. 

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In 1968, France intervened in Chad for the first time. An uprising in the country’s northern provinces had spread throughout the country and threatened to topple the government. The tribes of the north rebelled against what they saw as a corrupt and hostile state controlled by a political elite that disrespected Islam, overtaxed their villages, and directed economic investment according to ethnic loyalties. 

Over the ensuing three years, the French military executed a textbook counterinsurgency campaign to defeat the rebels and prop up the Chadian government. Hard-nosed Legionnaires and expeditionary troops pushed into the lawless expanse of northern Chad, winning skirmishes and providing medical aid and supplies to a wary civilian population.

In the meantime, French military advisors rebuilt the rag-tag Chadian Army, employing many of the same techniques used by American and French Special Forces troops in the Sahel today. They labored to transform the military from an instrument of tribal power to an organized, representative defense force. Embedded French captains and sergeants worked to stamp out abuses of the civilian populace by the army, which was comprised of recruits from the dominant Sara ethnic group in the south.

French diplomats also worked to rebuild the Chadian state. Civilian advisors directed aid money into development projects and navigated the tricky propensity of powerful Chadian politicians to siphon cash from initiatives meant to improve the economy. 

Despite these challenges, by early 1971 the violence abated. The rebellion splintered and disillusioned fighters sought refuge in neighboring Libya and Sudan. For a relatively small price tag in blood and treasure, France had purchased time and space for the warring sides to find a political solution. 

Peace in Chad proved to be fleeting, however. Like their American counterparts in Iraq some thirty-five years later, French generals had expressed optimism that given the opportunity for reconciliation, the Chadian state could be reborn. That stability proved elusive. The generals watched in horror as Chadian officials committed a series of unforced errors that provided much-needed oxygen to the insurgency. 

The rebels also gained the support of an ascendant Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya. The presence of foreign troops in Chad presented Gaddafi with the wedge he needed, and destabilizing Chad became a goal of Libyan foreign policy. Like the Iranian regime in the years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi saw a weakened Chad as key to his own regional ambitions and sought to turn rebel groups into Libyan proxies. Gaddafi’s involvement increased the insurgents’ lethality, much to the dismay of French soldiers on the other side of this firepower. The insurgency also gained support in the wider Arab world once the militants learned to portray Chadian elites as puppets of Western neo-colonialism. 

In 1978, rebels again swept southward from the rocky outcrops of northern Chad. The national army, trained for years at great cost to the French taxpayer, disintegrated. Reluctant officials in Paris once again committed ground forces in a costly intervention. Though the operation stopped the rebels, a political solution continued to be elusive. In the ensuing power struggle, France, desperate to prevent Libyan control over Chad and frustrated with the Sara-dominated political elite, backed a former rebel commander in a coup. 

France mounted serious operations to protect the Chadian government twice more during the 1980s, each time relying more heavily on airstrikes and less on ground troops. Counterinsurgency fell out of favor as twenty years of investment in Chad yielded little in the way of return. Frustrated French politicians called for a more pragmatic approach, but the military ardently opposed abandoning Chad. This may sound familiar to contemporary U.S. lawmakers, who suffer annual assurances by American generals that the Afghan war effort is turning the corner  while setting new records each year for airstrikes and drone attacks. 

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Twenty years ago, as we prepared to mount our own counterinsurgency campaigns, Washington’s foreign policy establishment ignored France’s painful past failures in the Sahel. As we contemplate deepening our involvement in that region today, failing to study this history would be inexcusable. Yet to survey Washington is to encounter a deeply unserious U.S. foreign policy establishment that still will not do the reading. 

Some of this is unsurprising. The authors of our counterinsurgency strategy in large part examined history to justify fighting the Long War, not to explore whether it was a good idea in the first place. Led by celebrated soldier-scholar General David Petraeus, counterinsurgency proponents assembled a library of “small wars” that supposedly  yielded a recipe for curbing the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq. A bit of the Brits in Malaya, a dash of France in Algeria, a heavy helping of Vietnam as a cautionary tale – and voilà– a doctrine was born in the form of U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency. It mattered little to the authors that these cherry-picked episodes bore little in the way of resemblance to Afghanistan and Iraq or that more relevant stories, like France’s long war in Chad, lay ignored or undiscovered. 

Although the recipe failed to deliver long-term security in either Afghanistan or Iraq, it did create a profitable industry in Washington for its architects. Though General Petraeus pivoted to private equity, many of his adherents remain in the Beltway. The generals who brought us government in a box have launched consulting firms, flooded airport bookshop shelves, and become think tank presidents. Uncowed by their failures, they lurk in the boardrooms of the defense-industrial complex, hawking new wars of choice and the weaponry needed to prosecute them. When we articulate concern for the human and financial costs of it all, they castigate us for our weakness

In the face of a global pandemic and a potentially unprecedented economic freefall, pacifying West Africa should be the last thing on the minds of U.S. policymakers. America spent two decades, thousands of lives, and over $6 trillion in failed nation-building efforts in places once deemed vital to U.S. interests. If France wants to relearn past lessons in a place that is decidedly unimportant to Americans, let us wish her luck. 

Sam Long is a former Marine infantry officer. He served in a variety of overseas roles, including as a combat advisor in Afghanistan. 

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