If a peace agreement is eventually reached between the Afghan government and the Taliban, there is little doubt that the insurgents will be established as a major power in the country. That is of little interest to Donald Trump, who is far more concerned with his re-election in November, an imperative which requires the US to declare peace and start to withdraw troops.
That is also the reason why he wants to reduce the number of US troops in northern and central Africa. But violent Islamists are strong there too, and likely to become stronger as Trump and his Western allies fail to address the root causes of that violence.
The deal done last week in Doha did not involve the Afghan government and was remarkably vague as to detail, including the nature of the ceasefire, and that has already begun to fray: the Taliban have resumed attacks right across the country, with 76 attacks reported in 24 provinces. One, against a checkpoint in Helmand province elicited a US air strike in response, the first in eleven days. But the more significant Taliban operation was in the northern Kunduz province bordering Tajikistan.
Close to the provincial capital, the city of Kunduz, an Afghan army unit of eighteen soldiers was establishing a new base when it was attacked by an elite Taliban force. Fifteen Afghan army soldiers were killed, one wounded and just two escaped. In spite of this, and with the risk that the war may well flare up in the coming days, Trump is determined to speak of peace. He had talked directly to the Taliban’s deputy leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, only hours before the Kunduz attack.
Whatever happens, one US priority is to prevent the emergence of ISIS power in Afghanistan. To this end we may see a larger CIA presence as the regular troops come home, as well as units in neighbouring countries able to mount attacks across the borders using armed drones and special forces. In northern and central Africa, by contrast, he wants to decrease the US military involvement in the face of growing Islamist power.
Here ISIS is already having a significant impact. Its growing influence is boosting a wider jihadi presence in many countries. Violent Islamist activity now stretches right across the Sahel from the West African Atlantic coast to Sudan and beyond to the ‘Swahili Coast’ of East Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania and even Mozambique.
Because Western states are scarcely involved, there has been little media attention paid to Mozambique, where there has been a surge in paramilitary activity in the north, especially in Cabo Delgado province, where the population is about 30% Muslim. Civilian deaths due to extreme Islamist groups are reported to have surged from less than a dozen in 2017 to over 140 last year. This month’s Jane’s Intelligence Review reports that the government has sought help from Russia in return for gas concessions, but instead of direct military aid Russia has deployed around 200 private military contractors from the Wagner Group, who are using Mi-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships and Mi-17 helicopters.
This is not to discount the much greater levels of activity in the Sahel: in Burkina Faso, for instance, the number of civilians killed by Islamic extremists surged from scarcely any in 2015 to over 500 last year. And it is in the Sahel where most Western military activity against Islamists in Africa is also happening, including a substantial and often dangerous UN peacekeeping endeavour in Mali. The Niger army, in particular, has been on the receiving end of the renewed activity, with an attack on an army base in December leaving 71 troops dead and another in January that killed 89 more.
Overall, Islamist paramilitary actions have doubled across the region in the past five years, with a clear acceleration in actions in the past year, and this has led to calls for the US to keep or even increase its commitments in the region. The argument is that if ISIS and other groups establish areas of direct control, they will become able to plan attacks overseas. An added fear is that if the Western presence weakens the Chinese will quickly move in.
Beyond Trump and the US, the major Western state active in the Sahel is France. The French defence ministry recently announced that it was sending 100 more military vehicles and 600 more troops to the region, bringing the troop total to 5,100. France has already lost 41 soldiers there and there is growing unease in political circles in Paris over the way that the country has at last got sucked into an expanding element of the ‘war on terror’, having largely avoided the war in Afghanistan and limiting its fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria mainly to the use of air power.
At least in France there is some discussion about the reasons why the likes of ISIS and al-Qaida win support in the Sahel: some analysts are pointing to the success of jihadist groups in recruiting from among the hundreds of thousands if not millions of marginalised people, especially young men, right across the region. They argue that military force can do no more than maintain the status quo, and even that may well lead to greater hatred of outside states seen as occupiers. Instead, a much wider strategy of engaging with the underlying issues is essential, a variant of the ‘hearts and minds’ approach of the past.
There is little prospect of that at present. Given its nearly two decades of behaviour in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is little chance of the US going beyond a purely military approach in the Sahel. If a change of approach is to come, it is more likely to be from western Europeans. At least in some countries there is a recognition of the failure of the current military postures across the Sahel and perhaps some chance of building on that.