U.S. commanders leading annual counter-terrorism exercises in West Africa urged coastal countries to depend on each other rather than non-Western powers to contain a spreading Islamist insurgency, a year after Mali hired Russian mercenaries to help fight Islamist militias.
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Relations between Russia and the U.S. have become more hostile since Moscow invaded Ukraine over 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 over poorly marked borders, often just a few miles apart. Soldiers patrolled barren scrubland dotted with thin bushes. At the center of the strategy is engaging border communities and making sure armies work together in a region where frontiers span hundreds of miles of sparsely populated desert.
“Going forward it will be about teaching countries in the region how to reach across borders and talk,” Colonel Robert Zyla from U.S. Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) told Reuters during exercises in Ghana.
Overrun by Islamist groups, Mali’s military government hired private Russian military contractor Wagner Group last year to combat the militants. As Wagner is playing a key role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Western governments and the UN cautioned Mali, that their choice to hire the Russian militia has led to a spike in violence.
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.
Lack of resources
For a decade, offensive efforts have failed to stop an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions. Security experts say it could worsen after thousands of French troops were forced out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military juntas this year.
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The main challenge is a lack of resources and large-scale international commitment to defense in one of the poorest parts of the world, experts said.
Ghana has bolstered troops in its northern regions. But it has no reconnaissance drones to monitor border areas, Mensah said.
Timing is crucial
It is not clear what more resources the U.S. and Europe are willing to give. The U.S. has been reluctant to engage after four soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017. The U.K., Germany, and other nations are pulling troops from a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali as security worsens.
Timing is crucial, security experts and military officials said. Islamist violence that began in 2012 in Mali has spread. Armed groups have a foothold in coastal countries including Benin and Togo and threaten economic leaders Ivory Coast and Ghana.