US/UK Increasing Presence in West Africa

By William Tucker

The U.S. has been active in North Africa for quite some time – much of it related to the war on terror and the ensuing chaos in Libya – but the superpower has not yet managed to establish a significant, permanent presence. Currently, many U.S. operations are run from Djibouti and assorted forward operating bases scattered across the continent. With the current French led military operations in Mali, however, Washington is looking for a central, more permanent solution that meets the challenges endemic to the region. As such, the U.S. has reportedly struck a deal with Niger allowing for the creation of an airbase that would accommodate unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance work. This would compliment U.S. and allied operations in the region and allow for the rapid deployment of an increasingly vital Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform. Furthermore, the French have a long established presence in North Africa that the U.S. would find complimentary to its interests.

Not to be left out, the UK is deploying ground troops to the region as well, but in a noncombat role. These soldiers will only number about 330 and will have missions primarily focused on training indigenous forces or supporting the logistical needs of the French mission in Mali. Though the mission seems to be narrowly defined, the use of a small number of troops in this capacity can open the door towards future cooperation via diplomacy or perhaps even further intelligence collection. London’s interests in the region may not be direct, either. With the French long involved and the U.S. commitment stretching back a decade, the UK is looking to support the initiatives of its allies – under the NATO, or even the EU, banners – all while looking to keep its military sharp through joint operations and training. This is vital in a time of shrinking military budgets.

The situation in nations such as Mali and Libya has created a void through which regional militants, many of whom have existed for quite some time, have tried to exploit to better their individual fortunes. With events turning against the Islamists in Mali, we can readily assume that they will simply flee to another, more accommodating area as they have done in the past. Naturally, the extra-regional states involved in West and North Africa have a vested interest in preventing these militant groups from destabilizing existing regimes, or finding a safe haven from which they can regroup. The long history of militancy in the region seems to dictate that the U.S., France, and other interested parties engage in the region on a permanent basis until the local governments can better handle these issues independently.

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