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Two things struck me at a fascinating panel discussion on the political crisis in the Sahel, hosted yesterday at the Heritage Foundation:

The U.S. approach to counter-terrorism cooperation desperately needs revisiting.  The Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham noted, in more diplomatic language than I’ll use here, that the total collapse of the Malian security forces (recall that a collection of Tuareg separatists and Jihadist elements took Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu in just three days following the March 22 coup) suggests that something is very wrong about the U.S. approach to counterterrorism cooperation in the Sahel.

Indeed.  The two-pronged military-civilian strategy has been to (a) build security capacity of the Malian and other regional militaries to control territory and fight terrorists and (b) take steps to prevent the spread of violent extremism. The cornerstones of this approach are, since 2005, the State-led Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and the Pentagon’s Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara (sometimes referred to jointly, in elegance only possible in government circles, as TSCTP/OEF-TS).

After seven years (or a full decade if you count DoD’s Pan Sahel Initiative that predates OEF-TS), the USG apparently has made little headway in building the capacity of the Malian security forces. Mali’s army was losing badly to Tuareg rebels prior to the coup and then crumbled nearly overnight, leaving an area larger than Texas literally ungoverned.  Perhaps just as worrying, U.S. efforts and training (including that of the coup leader) also didn’t seem to result in the personal relationships with the Malian officer corps that would have given the U.S. better eyes into the barracks and perhaps levers to deter a military take-over just weeks before an election where the incumbent president was retiring anyway.

This is all a pretty big indictment of our approach so far. (Full disclosure:  I am partially to blame for this failure.  As Deputy Assistant Secretary for West Africa 2007-08, TSCTP was partly under my watch and, in hindsight, deserved much deeper scrutiny from me and my colleagues.) At a minimum, the Mali debacle should invite some serious reflection on what we think we are doing to promote security and contain violent extremism in places like the Sahel and East Africa.

Unfortunately, the early signs aren’t good that the USG really recognizes the scale of the problem. At the Heritage event, the State Dept rep followed her talking points by emphasizing that USG interagency engagement via TSCTP and existing tools will continue. In other words: what we are doing isn’t working, but we are planning on doing more of the same. Sigh.

U.S. policy dysfunction is at least part of the problem.  It’s certainly true that Mali’s problems are highly complex while U.S. policy instruments tend to be very blunt. It’s also possible that Mali would have plunged overnight from a seemingly-model democracy to a failed state regardless of what the U.S. did (I don’t believe this, but it’s not implausible).

But I absolutely know we can do better. Excessive stove-piping and the confused ‘whole of government’ mess that plagues all our overseas efforts don’t help. The inability of the interagency to clarify objectives, deploy tools, and monitor how things are progressing is all hard enough for a single sector in a single country; it’s nearly impossible for a regional multi-sectoral effort like TSCTP/OEF-TS.  Back at Heritage’s panel, Alexis Arieff of the Congressional Research Service provided an excellent example here.  In describing USG efforts in the Sahel, she charged that no one knows for sure what the U.S. has invested since the programming is spread across so many different budget lines and authorities. Put another way, for the signature USG counterterrorism initiative for West Africa, even insiders cannot figure out how much we are spending nor, by implication, what the money is for.  (The Washington Post figured this out this confusion some time ago too.)  No wonder it’s not working.

I’ve tried, in my civilian post-government life and with time to reflect on this, to figure out more about TSCTP, what are the underlying ideas, and how programs map to those assumptions, but have come up largely empty and frustrated. (There are exceptions, like these useful studies from USAID here and here.)  If we really believe that fighting terrorism in Africa is in our national interest, then the disaster still unfolding in Mali begs for an honest and aggressive rethinking of both the what and the how.

 

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.

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