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

DABOYA, Ghana, March 15 (Reuters) – US commanders leading an annual counter-terrorism exercise in West Africa have urged littoral countries to look to each other, rather than non-Western powers, to stop the spreading Islamist insurgency. Depend, because Mali hired Russian last year. mercenary soldiers.

Relations between Russia and the US have grown more hostile since Moscow invaded Ukraine a year ago, and Washington and its allies resent Russian influence in West Africa.

During exercises in northern Ghana this month, trainers urged soldiers operating along poorly marked borders with foreign counterparts, often a few miles apart, to share phone numbers. Elsewhere, soldiers have also learned to use motorbikes for their speed and mobility, as do insurgents.

Dominated by Islamist groups and amid a dispute with former colonial power France, Mali’s military government last year hired private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, whose fighters have been playing a key role in countering militants in Ukraine. Are. This has alarmed Western governments and the United Nations, who say the move has led to an increase in violence.

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

“You have so many problems that they tend to extend to other malicious actors who maybe over-exploit the resources in those countries,” Colonel Robert Zayla of the US Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) told Reuters at the exercise in Ghana.

“The opposite is what we are trying to bring about, which is a partnership between neighbors and other democratic countries.”

In this month-long exercise, soldiers patrolled barren bushland dotted with thin bushes. Central to the strategy is engaging border communities and ensuring that armies work together in an area where borders stretch hundreds of miles across sparsely populated desert.

“No country can solve this on its own,” Zayla said. “Going forward it will be about teaching countries in the region how to reach out and talk across borders.”

Failure to stop the rebellion

For a decade, aggressive efforts have failed to contain an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions. Security experts say it could get worse after thousands of French troops were forced out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military junta this year.

Experts said the main challenge is the paucity of resources and the massive international commitment to defense in one of the poorest parts of the world.

Ghana has reinforced troops in its northern regions. But it does not have any reconnaissance drones to monitor border areas, said Colonel Richard Kanye Mensah, chief operations officer of Ghana’s Special Operations Brigade.

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

It is not clear how much more resources the US and Europe are prepared to commit. The US has been reluctant to get involved since four soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017. Britain, Germany and other countries are pulling troops from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali as security worsens.

Earlier this month, General Michael Langley, commander of US Africa Command, spoke to reporters focusing on “stabilization and security” in Africa without providing details.

Some believe that not enough is being done.

“We have a lot of hesitation to deploy more than we need,” said Anneliese Bernard, director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a US-based risk advisory group. “Ironically, this means we’re basically putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb.”

Timing is crucial, security experts and military officials said. Islamist violence in Mali that began in 2012 has spread. Armed groups are entrenched in coastal countries including Benin and Togo, and the economic leaders of Ivory Coast and Ghana are at risk.

Reporting by Cooper Inven in Daboya and Edward McAllister in Dakar; Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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