Author: Brian Finucane
Site of publication: Just Security
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: April 7th, 2022
In the first year of the Biden administration, the United States has wound down elements of its military operations against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and certain affiliates – commonly referred to as the “war on terror” – notably completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and significantly reducing airstrikes in Somalia. At the same time, the administration continues to conduct occasional strikes, including in Syria and Somalia, and has left in place much of the legal, institutional, and physical infrastructure that underpin this decades-long conflict. A future president – or this one – therefore would have the necessary tools to once again unilaterally ramp up hostilities, just as prior administrations of both parties dramatically expanded the conflict by stretching the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001 AUMF) to apply to a broad array of actors and locales. One region where this could happen is the Sahel, where limited U.S. operations continue, generally in support of partner forces, although it is unclear whether there is any direct threat of external attacks against the United States by the groups U.S. partners are fighting. Despite the lack of clarity regarding core U.S. national security interests, the pieces remain in place for an expansion of the war on terror in the Sahel should this or a future administration so decide.
The War on Terror in the Sahel
The Sahel looms especially large in the future of the war on terror, due to the prominence of a number of jihadi groups, the presence of U.S. troops supporting partner forces (particularly France), a history of occasional combat, and perhaps most significantly, an existing infrastructure for U.S. operations.
The United States has supported French counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel since 2013, including by providing airlift of French troops into Mali, providing aerial refueling, and the sharing of intelligence. It was to support intelligence collection and sharing with France that combat-equipped U.S. armed forces deployed to Niger in 2013.
In addition to such non-kinetic support for counterterrorism operations by partners, U.S. armed forces have sometimes engaged in combat in the Sahel. The 2017 attack at Tongo Tongo, Niger by ISIS Greater Sahara, which killed four U.S. soldiers, may have been the most prominent such incident, but it was by no means the only one. U.S. forces, sometimes deployed on so-called “advise, assist, and accompany” missions with foreign partners, have engaged in combat elsewhere in Niger, as well as in Mali and Cameroon against both ISIS and al-Qaeda- linked jihadists. As recently as January 2022, a U.S. service member co-located with French troops in Gao, Mali was injured in a mortar attack that killed one French soldier. The Pentagon has not publicly identified the group responsible for that latest attack.
The United States has supported French counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel since 2013, including by providing airlift of French troops into Mali, providing aerial refueling, and the sharing of intelligence. It was to support intelligence collection and sharing with France that combat-equipped U.S. armed forces deployed to Niger in 2013
While acknowledging that they are not direct threats to the United States, General Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee characterized “the metastasis of Al-Qaida and ISIS in West Africa…[as] a clear danger to U.S. persons and interests in West Africa as well as our African and international partners there.” In an interview with Voice of America he identified three jihadi groups as being of particular concern to the United States: Townsend described JNIM as “the Sahel arm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” and “part of corporate al-Qaida.” Townsend also cited two ISIS affiliates, ISIS Greater Sahara and ISIS West Africa Province, as regional threats. As the full list of entities covered by the 2001 AUMF is classified, it is unclear which of these groups the executive branch deems covered by the war authorization though, as described below, U.S. forces previously have used force against some of them, including ISIS Greater Sahara and ISIS West Africa Province. Townsend’s characterization of JNIM’s connection to AQIM may also be significant given that the Trump administration previously deemed AQIM to be covered by the AUMF.
Over 800 U.S. troops are deployed in Niger (roughly comparable to the number in Syria) and an unspecified number of additional troops are deployed to the broader Sahel region. Townsend and other officials continue to couch U.S. military operations in the region primarily in terms of supporting partners, including through training, equipping, logistics (such as aerial refueling), and intelligence sharing. (The U.S. is reported to have provided some intelligence used to help track Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, the leader of ISIS-Greater Sahara, prior to France’s lethal strike on him in 2021).
The Biden administration has not expressed any interest in using military force in the Sahel. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be watchful of U.S. operations in the region. Hundreds of U.S. troops are located in an area of ongoing conflict, with a history of sporadic U.S. combat. These forces now have greater strike capabilities in the form of armed drones. And of course, the executive branch can as a practical matter decide for itself against whom to wage war, unchecked by Congress. Taken together, these factors raise the specter of future U.S. hostilities in the Sahel.
In one scenario, U.S. operations in the Sahel could follow the model of the war on terror’s expansion in Somalia, where ostensibly non-combat operations transitioned into U.S. direct action under the guise of collective self-defense of partners. Consistent with past practice, the executive branch may unilaterally expand the 2001 AUMF further to cover additional jihadi groups in the Sahel, rather than seeking specific congressional authorization for war in the region.
A unilateral expansion of the war on terror in the Sahel is, however, the wrong approach. Shoehorning jihadi groups operating in the Sahel into a war authorization intended for the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks risks obscuring the local roots of these armed groups and inaccurately imputing international ambitions to these actors. Moreover, greater reliance on military tools is unlikely to deliver sustainable stability to the region.
The Biden administration has not expressed any interest in using military force in the Sahel. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be watchful of U.S. operations in the region. Hundreds of U.S. troops are located in an area of ongoing conflict, with a history of sporadic U.S. combat. These forces now have greater strike capabilities in the form of armed drones
The Biden administration’s focus understandably is devoted to other, more pressing foreign policy crises, first and foremost Russia’s war on Ukraine. As a matter of policy, the White House has placed the global war on terror on the backburner and dialed operations down to a low simmer (the White House has yet to finalize and publicly release its policy framework for counterterrorism direct action). Yet, the testimony of executive branch witnesses at a recent hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee suggests that the administration is not yet prepared to seriously engage with Congress on durably curtailing the war by revising and carefully tailoring the expansive and outdated text of the 2001 AUMF.
That is a mistake. To forestall another twenty years of the war on terror, the administration should be more transparent about how it currently interprets the 2001 AUMF and more earnestly devote itself to working with Congress on concrete measures to rein in this antiquated war authorization. For its part, Congress should reclaim its war powers so that it, rather than the executive branch, determines against whom and where the United States is at war and imposes a sunset on any future use of force authorization.
Without such legislative reform, the White House will bequeath to another administration the loaded weapon of the 2001 AUMF. If the history of the war on terror is any guide, the Sahel may be its next battlefield.
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