Does U.S. Military Training Embolden Coup Plotters in Africa?

Matt Kroenig: Hi, Emma. We are heading into the summer beach season. I hope you and our readers will enjoy some time off from work and take an opportunity to recharge.

Emma Ashford: I’m not sure I should. It seems like every time I take time off, they announce a new indictment of former U.S. President Donald Trump. We took last week off from this column, and now look: He’s been indicted again on charges of conspiracy against the United States.

MK: Ha. Maybe you should ask the Democratic Party to sponsor your vacations!

EA: And yet, it doesn’t seem to be helping them very much. Whenever I travel abroad, people seem perplexed. How can a man who’s now on his third indictment for quite serious charges still be the front-runner for a major party presidential nomination? I know domestic law enforcement is not our field of expertise, but these Trump indictments are not a good look for the United States around the world.

MK: You are right, the United States is the most influential country in the world, and friends and enemies watch U.S. domestic politics closely. The uncertainty is already having an international effect, with allies in particular wondering what a Trump II presidency might mean for them.

Trump is still the odds-on favorite for winning the Republican nomination, and, with the Hunter Biden controversies and other challenges facing the Biden administration, Trump’s position in a general election against President Joe Biden may be strengthening.

There is, however, still a lot that can happen between now and November 2024. Eight years ago at this time, I would have predicted that Scott Walker would become the next president of the United States.

EA: Scott Walker. Now that’s a blast from the past. Well, I will keep my fingers crossed for a 2024 matchup between better candidates.

Mind you, being charged with “conspiracy against the rights of citizens”—one of the extremely serious charges leveled against Trump in this indictment—might help the former president relate to other foreign leaders.

After all, our big story this week is yet another coup in West Africa, this one in Niger, where the head of the presidential guard has seized power from the elected president. There’s now a “belt” of military juntas running across Africa from east to west. In each country, the military has seized power from democratically elected leaders in recent years.

MK: It is concerning, and has a number of implications for U.S. interests and global stability. Niger seemed to be a relative success story over the past couple of years and was an anchor of U.S. strategy in the region. This string of coups is obviously bad for democracy and human rights, but there are also negative and concrete security implications.

Russia is seizing on the instability to increase its influence in the region, with the Wagner Group working closely with local governments and militaries. We also know that terrorism flourishes in failed states, and the Sahel has replaced the Middle East as the world’s primary locus of jihadist terrorist groups.

I assume you agree this is a problem? If so, what should the world do about it?

EA: Well, those are certainly two of the big problems. There are currently at least 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger, along with European forces, all engaged in counterterrorism and training work. Some of them were shifted to Niger from Burkina Faso last year after the military coup in that country. The U.S. Embassy is likely to be evacuated in the coming days.

Then there is the prospect of regional instability; a military intervention by Niger’s neighbors in ECOWAS—the African economic and trade union—is also possible.

But I think there’s a third problem we also need to discuss before we can tackle how to respond. The Niger coup marks yet another occasion in which U.S.-trained military personnel—the officers that we are educating and training—have sponsored or directly supported an antidemocratic coup. It’s a long list, including Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Sudan, all since 2008.

These aren’t just low-level troops who’ve been trained in combat techniques. These are often coup leaders, the cream of the crop of foreign militaries, trained here in the United States at our top service academies. Washington hosts tens of thousands of foreign students from around the world each year, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. It doesn’t seem like America is getting its money’s worth, does it?

MK: Do we know that those involved in the coup in Niger were trained by the United States?

EA: At least one of the coup leaders, Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, was trained at Fort Benning, and at the National Defense University. There’s probably more to come. And U.S.-trained personnel have participated in at least seven coups in the region in recent years!

MK: I have lectured to foreign military officers at the National Defense University. Many of these programs are only a few weeks long, where officers visit Washington and participate in seminars with U.S. experts. On balance, I think this type of socialization is beneficial for U.S. interests, and I suspect most participants come away with a stronger affection for the United States and democratic values.

The United States should continue and increase this kind of programming, and perhaps increase focus on democratic principles. Would you recommend the United States cease this kind of programming altogether due to a few bad apples?

EA: I don’t mean to ambush you with data, but unfortunately, on average, U.S.-trained officers are more likely to start coups. Jonathan Caverley and Jesse Dillon Savage, for example, found that on average, countries whose officers haven’t been trained by the United States only have about a 2.7 percent chance of a coup per year; even after controlling for other factors, countries with U.S.-trained officers have a 5.3 percent chance per year!

The data is actually pretty disheartening. It suggests that U.S. institutions tend to be quite successful in training foreign military personnel to be effective in the field, and to have excellent esprit de corps and professional military identity, but not so good at imparting values related to civilian control of the military. The combination means more coups—and more successful coups—are one result of U.S. training.

And while I’m not saying Washington should cease all training efforts for these countries, it really doesn’t seem like we’re actually helping the situation in many cases. The United States has engaged with countries in the Sahel in a military-first way, something that Monica Duffy Toft, a professor at Tufts University, has described as “kinetic diplomacy.”

In short, the United States relies a lot on military-to-military contacts, training and equipping foreign militaries to do antiterrorism or other missions, rather than traditional diplomatic or economic ties with regional governments. That’s the same approach used in the Middle East for the last few decades, and you can see how ineffectual that has been as a strategy. It doesn’t really tamp down terrorism, and it destabilizes governments in the process.

MK: I’m doubtful. I look forward to reading the Savage and Caverley article, but, as you know, selection effects and endogeneity are major problems in this type of study. It may be, for example, that countries or officers that are most susceptible to participating in coups are more likely to be targets of U.S. military training.

Moreover, America’s closest military relationships are with the United Kingdom, and we haven’t had any recent coups there. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was not much of a military man. Even if the left was figuratively up in arms about him proroguing parliament a few years back. The closest he ever came to an unlawful revolt was holding wine-fueled COVID-19 lockdown parties.

EA: Are you sure, Matt? The U.K. did just get a new king, and the only military-trained member of the royal family has fled into exile in America. Still, even if Prince Harry is angry at his family, I doubt he’ll mount a coup! Maybe he could get into mercenary work, since his gig at Netflix doesn’t seem to be working out?

To be honest, I think the U.K. is a pretty ridiculous comparison to make. The United States doesn’t train British forces, at least not in any meaningful sense. They’re peer militaries. The military forces we’re talking about in Africa are not peer militaries; they’re poorly institutionalized and need training in both fighting techniques and how to build a more coherent, effective force. That’s a potent mix, and I do not believe that our current approach is helping to stabilize the situation.

MK: Realistically, U.S. military training is not a meaningful driver of coups. The real problem in Niger and the broader Sahel is weak institutions and economic underdevelopment and the interaction between them.

EA: Maybe Washington is selecting more coup-prone, ambitious leaders for training. But if so, that’s still a bad choice. The Caverley and Savage study also shows that coup leaders trained by the United States are more effective in overthrowing their governments than the ones we don’t train. So this is a serious problem.

MK: I completely disagree. And the U.K. example was meant to be stark. Niger experienced a coup because, unlike the U.K., it is the kind of country prone to a coup. The United States is conducting military training there because it has important interests and Niger is, as you point out, a weakly institutionalized country—again, the kind of country prone to a coup. U.S. training was epiphenomenal, not the cause of the coup.

EA: I think you’re wrong there. Coups have multiple causes. U.S. training may make the odds of coups higher. In the meantime, however, we have to consider the mess left behind. Should the U.S. withdraw its forces from Niger?

MK: It is a tough call. The United States still has important security interests in the region, but it will be challenging, if not impossible, to continue cooperation with the new military dictatorship. The United States has so far refrained from calling the takeover a “coup,” which would require the cessation of cooperation under U.S. law.

The Pentagon has announced the suspension of security cooperation, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has threatened to halt U.S. economic and military assistance if democratic government is not restored. So far, Nigeria has taken a harder line than the United States, shutting off Niger’s electricity supply.

EA: A lot of the controversy has focused on the idea that if the United States (or France, which actually has about three-quarters of the Western troops currently in Niger) withdraws, then it will provide an opening to the Russian Wagner Group and similar forces to step in and build their ties with African states. To be honest, I think it would be a mistake to base U.S. policies purely on whether Russia will be able to expand its mercenary business in the region. Washington should decide the issue on the merits instead.

There’s also a fairly significant risk of intervention and wider war. Other regional states—such as Nigeria—have security interests in the region and are worried about the potential for extremism inside Niger to create risks along their own borders. ECOWAS has imposed sanctions and threatened to use force to reverse the coup if military leaders don’t step down by this weekend.

But the coup leaders have received support from other states with junta-led governments (Mali and Burkina Faso, for example), suggesting that they might also intervene. There’s a lot of public tension, and a lot of anger at French policy in the region more broadly, which inhibits Western efforts to act as a mediator here. The whole situation is a tinderbox just waiting for a spark.

MK: Russian influence should be one factor among many to take into consideration. Looking at the big picture, growing Chinese and Russian influence in the global south is a major challenge to U.S. strategy and the rules-based international system. Deciding the issue on the merits must include this important consideration.

There is no easy solution here. Staying in Niger and abandoning it both carry risks. I think that is why the Biden administration is trying to buy time and hoping that just maybe an unlikely return to a civilian government could help them avoid a difficult dilemma.

EA: Hope as a strategy has never traditionally been particularly effective. I just think we’re looking at this all wrong. The United States has built a relationship with these African states that is heavily focused on counterterrorism and on military-to-military connections. It’s been at best unsuccessful, and at worst has actually made the situation more volatile.

But there are other ways to build stronger ties with these states and bolster their democratic governments, particularly through trade and investment. If Washington is willing to actually engage on these topics—not just the meaningless platitudes that we’ve seen on trade from this administration—I’d bet that the Biden administration could undermine Russian or Chinese influence in the region without having to engage in a tit-for-tat competition of who provides more military aid.

Instead, Congress is threatening to end PEPFAR, the most effective U.S. policy toward Africa in two decades. And as a new article here at Foreign Policy just pointed out, Biden’s signature clean energy bill, the poorly-named Inflation Reduction Act, cuts most African states out of clean energy supply chain incentives, and makes it harder for them to benefit from increased demand for critical minerals here in the States.

MK: Either/or makes for a good debate, but I think the answer here is both/and. To regain influence in the global south, the United States and its allies and partners will need to offer both security cooperation and a better trade and investment strategy.

EA: I suspect a lot of the countries in the region also have a “both/and” policy—they want U.S. military aid and Chinese trade. The only way to counter that is for the United States to be a valuable partner in both areas.

Maybe some of these African states could also provide Americans with useful political advice: What should we do with corrupt septuagenarian leaders who won’t leave public life quietly?

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