As Russia looms, US seeks to influence West Africa’s fight against Islamists

DABOYA, Ghana, March 15 (Reuters) – U.S. commanders who lead annual counter-terrorism drills in West Africa have urged coastal nations to depend on each other to contain a spreading Islamist insurgency, rather than non-Western powers, after Mali hired Russian forces last year. mercenaries.

Relations between Russia and the United States have become more hostile since Moscow invaded Ukraine more than a year ago, and Washington and its allies oppose Russian influence in West Africa .

During drills this month in northern Ghana, trainers urged troops to share phone numbers with foreign counterparts operating across poorly demarcated borders, often only a few kilometers apart. Elsewhere, soldiers have also learned to use motorcycles, as insurgents do, for their speed and maneuverability.

Overrun by Islamist groups and amid a feud with former colonial power France, Mali’s military government last year hired private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, whose fighters play a key role in Ukraine, to fight the militants. This has worried Western governments and the United Nations who say the move has led to an outbreak of violence.

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Mali, whose government took power in a military coup in 2021, has previously said Russian forces were not mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with Russian equipment.

“You have governments with so many problems that they are starting to reach out to other malicious actors who are perhaps further exploiting the resources of these countries,” Colonel Robert Zyla of the United States Special Operations Command told Reuters. for Africa (SOCAF) during exercises in Ghana.

“Compare that with what we’re trying to bring, which are partnerships between neighbors and other democratic nations.”

During exercises this month, soldiers patrolled through arid scrub dotted with thin bushes. Central to the strategy is engaging border communities and ensuring armies work together in a region where borders stretch for hundreds of miles of sparsely populated desert.

“No country can solve this on its own,” Zyla said. “In the future, it will be about teaching countries in the region how to cross borders and talk.”


For a decade, offensive efforts failed to stop an Islamist insurgency that killed thousands and displaced millions. Security experts say it could get worse after thousands of French soldiers were driven out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military juntas this year.

The main challenge is a lack of resources and large-scale international commitment to defense in one of the world’s poorest regions, experts said.

Ghana has reinforced its troops in its northern regions. But it has no reconnaissance drones to monitor border areas, said Col. Richard Kainyi Mensah, chief of operations of the Ghana Special Operations Brigade.

“Logistics and equipment are key,” he said. “Resources are limited.”

It is not known what additional resources the United States and Europe are ready to give. The United States hesitated to commit after the deaths of four soldiers in Niger in 2017. The United Kingdom, Germany and other countries are withdrawing troops from a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Mali as security deteriorates.

Earlier this month, Gen. Michael Langley, commander of US Africa Command, told reporters that “stabilization and security” were his priorities in Africa, without providing details.

Some think we are not doing enough.

“There’s a lot of hesitation to deploy more than we need,” said Aneliese Bernard, director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a US-based risk advisory group. “The irony is that this means we’re basically putting a bandage on a severed limb.”

Timing is crucial, security experts and military officials said. The Islamist violence that began in 2012 in Mali has spread. Armed groups have a foothold in coastal countries including Benin and Togo and are threatening Ivorian and Ghanaian economic leaders.

Reporting by Cooper Inveen in Daboya and Edward McAllister in Dakar; Written by Edward McAllister; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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