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U.S. Losing Foothold in Northwestern Africa
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U.S. Losing Foothold in Northwestern Africa

‘What’s happening in the Sahel is really an overlap of counterterrorism and Great Power competition.’

Happy Tuesday! This is a public service announcement reminding you to check your Amazon returns box to make sure that your cat didn’t climb in there with that pair of boots that didn’t fit quite right. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced on Monday the deaths of two reservist soldiers in central Gaza over the weekend, bringing the number of Israeli troops killed since the ground offensive’s start to 263. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Hamas on Monday to accept a U.S.-proposed deal that would exchange Israeli hostages held in Gaza for a six-week ceasefire, calling the arrangement “very generous.” This comes as Axios reported Monday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked President Joe Biden on Sunday to help prevent the International Criminal Court (ICC) from issuing arrest warrants for him and other senior Israeli officials—including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi—in the coming days. “As we have publicly said many times,” a spokesperson for the White House National Council said, “the ICC has no jurisdiction in this situation and we do not support its investigation.”
  • At least 71 people were killed by flash floods and a landslide in southern Kenya around 3 a.m. local time Monday morning amid an onslaught of rainfall across East Africa in recent weeks. With 130,000 Kenyans displaced by the floods—and further rainfall expected—the country’s Education Ministry has delayed reopening schools until May 6. 
  • Humza Yousaf, the first minister of Scotland, stepped down on Monday amid an imminent vote of no confidence he was likely to lose. Yousaf, whose resignation comes after only 13 months in the position, ended a political alliance on Thursday between his party—the pro-independence Scottish National Party embroiled in a financial scandal—and the Scottish Green Party due to disagreements over gender-transition treatment for minors in the wake of the Cass Review, among other issues.
  • Columbia University administrators announced Monday they had begun to suspend pro-Palestinian student protesters after they ignored an ultimatum ordering them to disperse by 2 p.m. The suspensions would bar the students from university property and prevent them from attending class or graduating, according to a notice from the administration. Also on Monday, Texas state troopers in riot gear dispersed pro-Palestinian student protesters attempting to occupy parts of the University of Texas at Austin’s campus, arresting dozens more demonstrators after state troopers had arrested more than 50 last week. Virginia state police and Richmond city police on Monday evening also arrested pro-Palestinian protesters outside a library at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. 
  • Texas’ Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration on Monday over changes the Department of Education made earlier this month expanding federal Title IX protections to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In the filing, Paxton alleged the Biden administration violated federal rulemaking requirements and that the changes compel states to “ignore biological sex or face enforcement actions and the loss of federal education funding.” Meanwhile, a federal appeals court in Virginia ruled on Monday that state healthcare plans must provide coverage for gender-transition treatment. The court said that North Carolina and West Virginia’s laws removing gender transition treatment from their states’ plans “discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”
  • Politico reported over the weekend that James Biden, President Biden’s brother, partnered with companies backed by Qatari government officials to fund his healthcare ventures, according to testimony from a former business partner of James Biden’s during bankruptcy proceedings in Kentucky. If accurate, the alleged ties between James Biden and the Qatari officials would be the closest known financial connection between Joe Biden and a foreign government.
  • Former naval aviator Aaron Dimmock filed last week to run against GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida in the Republican primary for the seat just hours before the Friday deadline. Gaetz had previously been without a challenger in the August 20 primary.

U.S. Decline in the Sahel

Young boys display flags of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Russia during a demonstration in Niamey, Niger, on April 13, 2024, advocating for the immediate departure of United States military deployed in northern Niger. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
Young boys display flags of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Russia during a demonstration in Niamey, Niger, on April 13, 2024, advocating for the immediate departure of United States military deployed in northern Niger. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, a U.S. delegation visited Niger’s capital city of Niamey to meet with representatives of the ruling junta that had ousted Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, in July. The day after the meeting, the junta announced—in direct contradiction to the U.S. officials’ desires—the suspension of military cooperation with the U.S., ordering American troops to leave the country. This week, Defense Department officials will hold meetings in Niamey to coordinate plans for a full exit.

The withdrawal comes as the U.S. is also removing some troops from the neighboring country of Chad, marking another potential blow to U.S. security partnerships in a coup-stricken region that remains a hotbed for terrorism while Russia readies to take advantage. 

(Map via Joe Schueller)
(Map via Joe Schueller)

The Sahel—a strip of semi-arid land that runs the width of Africa below the Sahara Desert—has been plagued by extremist violence and instability in recent years, resulting in eight military takeovers since 2020. Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), described the Sahel as “likely the most dangerous and unstable stretch of territory in the world today.” As we wrote last summer following the coup in Niger: 

The West is running out of partners in the region. “Niger has increasingly been seen as one of the last bastions in the Sahel [and] West Africa that was crucial for counterterrorism but also seemed to be showing more optimistic signs about governance and democracy,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, the co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Africa Security Initiative, [told] TMD. The country’s neighbors to the West along the Sahel … have struggled with insurgent violence and political instability. Mali and Burkina Faso have experienced two coups each since 2020. France ended a nine-year military mission in Mali last year due largely to the coup, and the junta in Burkina Faso pushed out French forces earlier this year. Niger itself has seen five coups since gaining independence from France in 1960—before last week, the most recent military coup occurred in 2010.

Countries in this volatile strip, like Niger, had relied on Western security partnerships—namely with France and the U.S.—to help combat extremists and, in turn, bolster citizens’ faith in elected leaders’ ability to deliver better governance for their people. The French military deployed with the Nigerien military to tackle terror groups like the Islamic State in the Sahel and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. The U.S. has 1,100 military personnel in the country and maintains two air bases: one in the capital and another larger drone facility, Air Base 201, in northern Niger that provided intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) for the French and Nigerien missions.

But the junta ejected the more than 1,500 French troops in the country following last summer’s coup. The U.S. tried to avoid the same fate, dragging its feet in response to Niger’s exit order and allegedly, according to a U.S. Air Force whistleblower, “intentionally suppressing intelligence” about deteriorating relations with the junta. But following the junta’s announcement and ongoing protests against the U.S. presence, an American withdrawal now seems almost inevitable.

The U.S. stands to lose Air Base 201, an installation in which the U.S. military has invested more than $100 million. The drone base has provided the U.S. “with intelligence over not just Niger but a dozen different African countries all across the region,” Hudson, the CSIS fellow, said Monday. “Washington [now] becomes blind to the movement of jihadist forces, arms flow, weapons trafficking, drug trafficking all across the region.” 

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that U.S. defense officials are trying to find a replacement base located in coastal West Africa. But relocating the drones won’t be without costs to ISR capabilities. “The U.S. favored the Nigerien base because it was centrally located to so much of the turmoil in the region,” Colin Clarke, the director of research at the Soufan Group—a global intelligence and security firm—told TMD. “Now, you’re being pushed out to the West African littoral, you’re a little bit more out of the mix. The drones have to travel further distances.” 

In a press briefing on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder alluded to the loss of capability while maintaining that the Defense Department will still be able to function in the region. “When you look at the size of Africa and you when you look at the threats, the preference would be to have the ability to operate out of places like Niger,” he said. “Of course, we have other means and methods that we can do that.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project found that moving the drones west could put a large swath of North Africa out of the 1,150-mile operational range of the MQ9 Reaper drones used at the air base in Niger. 

(Map via Joe Schueller/Liam Karr of the AEI Critical Threats Project)
(Map via Joe Schueller/Liam Karr of the AEI Critical Threats Project)

Clarke also expressed concern about the lag time in transferring ISR capabilities. “What happens in the interregnum, in that period between [when] that base shuts down and the new one becomes operational?” he said. “Do we lose track of some valuable signals intelligence? Do we lose track of other kinds of situational awareness to the United States’ detriment?” 

“Afghanistan is a case in point,” he added. “Since the U.S. withdrawal, we have far less of an understanding of how the dynamics are unfolding there and evolving with respect to terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, but mostly Islamic State Khorasan.”

Drone surveillance can help the U.S. and its allies not only combat terrorist groups but also track and intercept threats from smuggling and human trafficking routes through the region. “The worst case would be terrorism assets trying to make their way to Europe,” Chris Faulkner—a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College—told TMD, speaking in his personal capacity.

U.S. defense officials reportedly hoped to bolster the small contingent of less than 100 Army Special Forces personnel operating in Chad, but those plans hit a roadblock this month when the head of the Chadian air force told U.S. troops to stop operations at an air base close to Chad’s capital city of N’Djamena. The U.S. military is pulling most of the American troops out of the country, although the Pentagon has emphasized that the move is temporary and that a review of the U.S. security cooperation with Chad will resume after the country’s elections are held next week. Unlike Niger, Chad has not revoked the status of forces agreement permitting the U.S. presence.

But the pause in operations—even if temporary—combined with the withdrawal from Niger doesn’t bode well for American standing in the region. “Losing partnerships, particularly in Niger, is consequential for the U.S. because it opens up space for strategic rivals to backfill the U.S. security presence,” Faulkner told TMD. As if on cue, military advisers from Russia’s African Corps—the reconstituted Wagner mercenary group—landed in Niger earlier this month. The troops reportedly brought an anti-aircraft system to install in order to, as Nigerien state TV put it, “ensure complete control of our airspace”—a likely dig at U.S. drone operations. 

The move follows a now familiar pattern in Sahel countries: Putschists take control of the government, oust Western security partners, and invite in Russian mercenary forces to take their place. In Mali, Russian forces took over the installations left behind by the French—a move that could potentially be reprised in Niger once U.S. forces vacate the bases. The turnover in partners has coincided with a resurgence in terrorist attacks throughout the region. “What’s happening in the Sahel is really an overlap of counterterrorism and Great Power competition,” Clarke said. 

The U.S. strategy appears poised to pivot from the Sahel to coastal West Africa. Before, American forces were helping countries like Niger work to defeat Islamist insurgencies. Now, the U.S. seems more focused on a narrower objective of protecting coastal West African nations from violence and extremism spilling over from the Sahel. “A serious consequence is we’re more or less kicking the can down the road when it comes to the terrorism threat, not necessarily because of our own volition, but because of being forced out,” Faulkner said.

The more unstable the region becomes, the more opportunity terrorist groups have to grow and take additional territory. The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, for example, reached its peak during the Syrian civil war and in the aftermath of the Iraq War. “We’re now looking at large swaths of the Sahel and North and West Africa that are controlled by jihadists, including large tracts of contiguous territory,” Clarke cautioned. “If they’re able to continue pushing westward toward the coast and gobbling up territory in places like Chad and elsewhere, at some point, do these guys get confident enough to declare a caliphate?” 

Worth Your Time

  • National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke has a question for the pro-Palestinian student protesters continuing their encampment on Columbia University’s campus: “Why, exactly, are these protests happening at all?” he asked. “By this, I don’t mean, ‘What is it that the protesters are saying?’ I know that. By this, I mean, ‘Why is it that they are saying it where they are saying it?’ The faculty at Columbia is not in charge of Israel or the Israeli military; it does not set American foreign policy; and it did not contrive any of the historical or geopolitical questions that underpin the broader fight. I daresay that there are students at Columbia who, for whatever reason, are vexed by the state of the world, but to take this out on their fellow students and the staff at their school makes no more sense than to take it out on the staff at Pedro’s Deli. The two things do not, in any meaningful way, even come close to intersecting. … Sometimes, silence really is golden—even if you’re a discontented college student who has just discovered that life isn’t fair.” 
  • U.S. military leadership isn’t paying enough attention to logistics or the Army’s role in managing them in the event of a conflict in the Indo-Pacific, Carmelia Scott-Skillern and Peter Singer argued in War on the Rocks. “As Gen. Omar Bradley is credited as saying, ‘Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics,’” they wrote. “​​The Army was central to the last two decades of operations in Central Command, but many assume it will play a more limited role in the Indo-Pacific, aptly described as ‘a theater named for two oceans.’ And yet, war remains a human endeavor, meaning that same watery theater is also defined by the 36 nations therein. … As such, the Army’s role in the theater is best viewed as ‘the backbone of U.S. Joint Operations.’” But these logistics are in need of reinforcement: “If the United States hopes to maintain its deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific, it should address three key obstacles: the region’s unique demands of geography; new, extended dangers to its supply lines; and a force that has changed but not changed enough in its equipment and sustainment practices.”

Presented Without Comment

Wall Street Journal: House Republicans’ Bench Thins—Yet Daredevils Can’t Quit Skydiving 

The first text message Rep. Rudy Yakym (R., Ind.) sent after skydiving in January was to House Majority Whip Tom Emmer to tell him that he was OK—and that Republicans’ ranks hadn’t been further diminished.

“Don’t worry, Tom. Your whip count is still safe,” he wrote. 

It was half jest, half reassurance. Yakym is among a group of adrenaline junkies in the Republican conference embracing extreme sports in their free time—which might make for fun office chatter if the GOP didn’t have a razor-thin 217-212 majority in the House.

Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: [Former GOP Rep.] George Santos Hawking Cameo Videos With His Drag Queen Alter Ego: ‘I’ve Decided to Bring Kitara Out of the Closet’ 

In the Zeitgeist 

We have to admit that we missed this trailer when it dropped a few weeks ago. The movie looks like a hoot, but we have a feeling it’s going to give Alex some fact-checking fodder. 

Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! The team will discuss the news of the week and, of course, take plenty of viewer questions! Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to tune in.
  • In the newsletters: Kevin revels in (🔒) the stupidity of House Republicans, the Dispatch Politics crew covered Maryland’s heavily contested Democratic Senate primary, and Nick encroached on (🔒) Jonah’s territory by weighing in on South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s dog debacle.
  • On the podcasts: David’s back after a bout of food poisoning to discuss the Trump immunity ban with Sarah on Advisory Opinions
  • On the site: Chris argues partisan media doesn’t do its own side any favors and Kevin looks back on lessons to be learned from Rocky

Let Us Know

Should the U.S. have boots on the ground in the Sahel?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Peter Gattuso is a reporter for The Morning Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2024, he interned at The Dispatch, National Review, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Peter is not helping write TMD, he is probably watching baseball, listening to music on vinyl records, or discussing the Jones Act.