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How Our War on Terror Killed COVID Resilience in These Countries

War, political strife, and now add COVID, and you have a tinderbox waiting to blow in the Middle East and Africa.

Responses to the coronavirus and their global economic impact will accelerate and amplify a long list of unaddressed problems in much of the Middle East and Africa. Everything from food insecurity to insurgency of all kinds will be worse in the coming years. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many countries in the Middle East and Africa, especially those countries in the Sahel, faced an onslaught of interlinked self-reinforcing problems. 

Environmental degradation, unchecked urbanization, mass youth unemployment, and ever-increasing wealth inequality are only a few of the problems that the region faces. The economic fallout from the response to the coronavirus will exacerbate all these problems. In the next two years, unrest, regime instability, and even larger movements of migrants—mainly to Europe—are all but assured.

For nearly two decades, the U.S. and its allies have focused much of their foreign-policy efforts and extraordinary amounts of money on fighting “the global war on terror.” Despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on the deployment of soldiers, drones, and all the contractors required to support them at bases strewn across Africa and the Middle East, there is little to show for it. In fact, the U.S.-led war on terror has left a trail of destruction in its wake. Rather than focusing on ways to empower local governments and communities through tailored and culturally-aware development projects, the U.S. and its allies continue to arm and train corrupt and oppressive regimes. The goal of these policies is to ostensibly combat terrorism. Yet the result is the creation of terror which fuels insurgency and radicalism.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Sahel and West Africa. Before the U.S. launched its global war on terror, many of the countries in the Sahel, like Mali, Mauritania, and Niger were safe enough to attract growing numbers of tourists. While all of these countries faced problems, the kind of violence that now grips them was rare. However, since the U.S. and its allies, namely France in the case of the Sahel, expanded their war on terror to Africa, levels of violence have soared. Transnational organizations like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have proliferated across much of West Africa and the Sahel. 

Billions of dollars in expenditures by the U.S. and France on training and military hardware for regional military forces have had little effect on these groups’ ability to operate. The reason for this is that both transnational groups and dozens of local insurgent organizations draw on a deep well of discontent and despair. Environmental degradation paired with soaring populations and inept, corrupt governance mean that more and more young people have fewer and fewer opportunities. 

In many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, insurgent organizations offer two things: a purpose and a regularly paid salary. “Jihad” and other religious motivations fall way down the list of those who fight for these organizations and those who lead them. While many organizations like AQIM operate across national borders, what drives their members are local grievances. 

The economic impact of the response to coronavirus will aggravate these grievances at the same time that it enfeebles governments and their national budgets. The energy sector was one of the first casualties of the coronavirus lockdowns. Prices for oil have plummeted. Countries like Nigeria, the seventh most populous country in the world with 200 million people, rely on revenue from oil exports for as much as 50 percent of their national budgets. Many oil-exporting nations based their budgets on an average oil price of more than $50 a barrel. With oil selling for less than $20 a barrel, the budgets of these countries are about to come under intense pressure. Wealthy and well-managed countries will weather this storm but countries like Nigeria, Algeria, Chad, Iraq, and other major and minor producers will be pummeled by prices that are in some cases below their cost of production.

This is happening at the same time that much of the world faces food inflation and shortages from disrupted supply chains. In response to the coronavirus, many countries are already restricting exports of critical food supplies. Vietnam, a major producer of rice, banned exports. Russia, a primary wheat supplier to the Middle East and North Africa, is limiting exports to ensure its own supplies. These restrictions will drive prices higher in countries where people are already struggling with food inflation.

Egypt, a nation of over a hundred million, is one of these countries that relies on cheap calories to feed its population. Egypt is the second-largest importer of wheat. Many of Egypt’s poor—which now make up over 30 percent of the population—survive on government-supplied bread. Any reduction to these subsidies will further spur unrest which is already bubbling under the surface. Food inflation was one of the driving factors behind the 2011 “Arab Spring.” At the time of the Arab Spring, Egypt, which became an epicenter for unrest, had a poverty rate of 25.2 percent, ten percent less than it is now. 

Egypt, like many other developing nations, is in far worse shape economically, demographically, and environmentally than it was in 2011. Yet the challenges that it and other nations face are more pronounced. Instead of just food inflation, Egypt faces collapsing oil prices and zero tourism, on which it relies. At the same time, discontent with the regime of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is rising as the regime continues to jail and persecute dissidents of all political persuasions.

Even if the responses to the coronavirus pandemic were to begin easing immediately, widespread unrest and rising levels of insurgency are already baked in. The economic impacts of the response to the pandemic will reverberate for years to come. 

One can only hope that the U.S. and its allies will, if their own national budgets allow for it, begin to focus on the root causes of insurgency and terrorism. Rather than continuing to play billion-dollar whack a mole with insurgents and terrorists and backing oppressive regimes, the U.S .should focus its efforts on developing local solutions to local problems. In countries like Niger and Mali, investments in sustainable small-scale agriculture would cost a fraction of what it costs to operate orbits of drones. For the cost of a single hellfire missile—over $100,000—the U.S. could have funded a solar water well and a drip irrigation system that would provide livelihoods for dozens, if not several hundred people.

Unfortunately, such a shift is about as likely as a “V” shaped recovery. Little money is made from solar-powered wells and drip irrigation systems, whereas operating orbits of drones and equipping and training ineffective armies makes billions for the global defense industry. Coronavirus and the unrest it will produce across large swaths of the developing world will be a welcome gift to arms manufactures and security contractors. The well of discontent on which insurgents and terrorists draw on is about to get much deeper.

Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications, including The National Interest, West Point CTC Sentinel, The Economist, and the Christian Science Monitor.