How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love PMCs

Can America’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy in West Africa be Salvaged?

It seems like everything has gone wrong for America in West Africa. In March of this year, Niger’s military government formally ordered the expulsion of US troops stationed in an airbase in Agadaz, making it the third Sahelian country to force out its Western military presence since 2023. This turn of events has made Pentagon officials nervous, as it means that Washington has no meaningful influence in a region that has become overwhelmed by terrorism.

It’s shocking how quickly things have fallen apart. As recently as 2020 the countries of the Sahel were attempting to contain the small, isolated West African branches of Al Qaeda and ISIS. They were doing so alongside Western military forces, and their governments were preparing for future elections. Fast forward to 2024, and the previously small terrorist branches have turned into massively successful jihadi forces that have turned large swaths of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger into defacto caliphates. All three democratically elected Presidents of the Sahelian nations have been ousted in military coups. The new military leaders promptly replaced much-disliked Western forces with Russian fighters. As violence continues to escalate in the Sahel, the terrorists are expanding their jihad into nearby coastal nations like Togo and Benin. And now, we are on the cusp of losing Airbase 101 in Niger, the Pentagon’s last stronghold in the region.

How did we arrive at this point?

For nine years the Malian armed forces fought a losing battle against Islamist militias, and it eventually became obvious to observers that Bamako couldn’t win. The government simply lacked the combat manpower and logistics to sustain a successful counter-insurgency. However, whenever the Malians tried to negotiate a peace settlement with the jihadists, France would scuttle the talks. This was best summarized by Emmanuel Macron in 2020 when, in an interview, he said: “We don’t discuss things with terrorists. We fight them.”

The narrative on the ground among Sahelians began to take a conspiratorial tone. Why was France unable to defeat the terrorists? Many concluded, with the encouragement of Russian troll farms, that it was because the French were secretly helping the terrorists as part of a sinister neocolonial plot. This theory explained things such as France preventing Malian forces from marching into the terrorist’s strongholds in the north, Paris’s sabotage of negotiations, and French cooperation with Taureg groups to the north. Frustrated with deteriorating security conditions, from 2020 to 2023, military officers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger overthrew their ineffective civilian governments and seized control backed by widespread public support. These coups placed the US in an awkward position. According to section 7008 of the Foreign Assistance Act, Washington is unable to provide military aid to a country if it has undergone a coup d’état. These restrictions proved to be incredibly frustrating to the largely pro-American Sahelian officers, many of whom had worked with and received training from our Special Forces. 

When it became clear that Washington was intransigent in their stance and wouldn’t provide the military aid they so desperately needed, the juntas did the only logical thing: they turned to Russia. Through the Wagner group, Russia was able to provide combat manpower, equipment, and logistical support. Wagner fought alongside the Malians and allowed them to retake resource-rich territory from the insurgents. Sure, the overall violence increased, but at least Bamako had some wins they could rally behind. Burkina Faso took notice and began growing friendlier with Russia. Soon Niger followed.

All the signs that the US would soon face a situation where they wouldn’t be able to operate in the Sahel due to section 7008 were there, but instead of trying to find creative ways to fix this problem, the US mostly spent its time lecturing these besieged nations to hold elections. This campaign of strategic nagging reached its climax in March, when senior US officials met with Niger’s military government and complained about Niger’s new allies. The Nigeriens found our delegation to be “condescending” and “threatening,” and proceeded to declare that our military presence in Niger was now “illegal.” Today, all three Sahelian nations no longer work with Washington, and the terrorism problem continues to leak southwards into the coastal countries of West Africa.

Niger soldiers train with their American counterparts in Diffa, Niger, March 4, 2014.

As of 2022, the Pentagon’s official stance is that the terrorists in this region don’t pose an immediate threat to the American homeland. So why should Americans worry if some impoverished desert regions of Africa have a terrorist problem? The answer is simple: migration. 

While illegal immigration from West Africa is small compared to regions like Latin America, it has the potential to snowball into a massive problem in the coming decades. According to Pew Reserch Center, the population of illegal immigrants entering the United States from sub-Saharan Africa grew by 30% from 2017 to 2021. The numbers now are almost certainly much higher. Between March and June alone, 8,500 Mauritanians illegally entered our country and thousands of illegal West African immigrants have begun to show up in New York this year.

The population of West Africa is projected to explode from its current 460 million to 770 million by 2050. With the average Nigerian woman having seven kids, in a country with a literacy rate of only 37 percent, mass illegal migration from countries like Niger to America would bring a large number of people who would almost certainly be a burden to the US economy. Migrants are more likely to be attracted to countries that already have an established ethnic enclave of their group, much like what we’ve seen with the growing Somali population in Minnesota. The more migrants that arrive from West Africa over the next decade will directly influence whether migrants in the subsequent decades decide to come to the US.

But we have the opportunity to stop this. If we stabilize West Africa, only a fraction of this potential migrant flood will seek life in a foreign country. Instability doesn’t just cause migrants to leave their country to flee violence; it also prevents development organizations and businesses from going to these regions, improving the local economy, and giving people a reason to stay at home. Most people don’t want to uproot from the lands of their ancestors, so stabilizing these countries will help ensure they aren’t forced to look elsewhere. How do we stabilize these countries? By bringing an end to the fighting in the Sahel. How do we get the fighting to stop? By having the local governments and terrorists negotiate a peace settlement. How do we bring the terrorists to the table? The traditional way: by killing so many of them peace becomes more attractive than fighting.

Typically, Western militaries have two ways of empowering West African militaries to become victorious. The first is through capacity building. The favored method by Western governments, capacity building is when we provide training and equipment to African countries so that they can independently handle their security issues. This sounds great on paper, but in practice, it almost always fails. Why? People claim corruption is the problem, but the reality is far more insidious. Counter-intuitively, many African leaders don’t want a strong military. Most of these leaders came to power through less-than-legitimate means, including by using their own military to overthrow the previous government. To them, the greatest threat to their rule doesn’t come from rural insurgents, but from their national security apparatus. We may want our military aid to result in a strong national military for our partners, but they rather keep their militaries weak, with the exception of some elite units staffed with loyalists. The other option is Western military intervention. This also works in theory, but as we all know the results when applied tend to fail or even end in catastrophe.

So with both capacity building and military intervention proving to be ineffective, what is to be done? Luckily, there is a third option.

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Private Military Companies (PMCs) are the best option for these kinds of conflicts. Staffed with elite troops, PMCs can usually crush insurgents and give host countries the breathing room they need to negotiate the end of conflicts on their terms. In 1995, when Sierra Leone was on the verge of being overrun by RUF rebels, the South African PMC Executive Outcomes was able to quickly defeat the RUF and directly led to the Abidjan Peace Accord in 1996. In 2015, following the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan hired the PMC STTEP to combat Boko Haram. The contractors embedded themselves within the Nigerian forces and utilizing a strategy of “relentless pursuit” they were able to return 17 of the 20 territories lost to Boko Haram back into government control in only 3 months.

The international community generally frowns on PMCs. Western governments are wary of them because they threaten their monopoly on violence. The press likes to falsely accuse them of neocolonialism. But this is because PMCs are effective while capacity-building missions and interventions are not. West African countries turning to Russian PMCs like the Wagner Group didn’t come out of nowhere. They came because the Wagner Group proved themselves to be, as painful as it is to say, a stabilizing force, based on their involvement in the Central African Republic’s civil war.

Since 2012 the CAR found itself embroiled in a brutal civil war that displaced nearly a million people. Despite 15,000 UN peacekeepers being deployed, the government hardly controlled much territory beyond the capital region, with the rest of the country being occupied by multiple rebel groups. In December 2020, six rebel groups who controlled two-thirds of the country allied and marched on the capital. Russian PMCs along with Rwandan troops rushed into CAR, defended the capital, and launched a counter-offensive which caused the rebels to retreat for the first time in years. From 2021, these Russian PMCs continued to relentlessly attack the rebels, and by the end of 2022, the four main rebel groups announced their dissolution. Finally, a decade-long civil war had been brought under control, all due to the use of PMCs.

African leaders took notice of this. Perhaps Russian PMCs could bring the stability that the international community had failed to provide in over a decade? This seemed like a fair question to Mali’s new military President Assimi Goita, who in 2021, despite Western protests, invited the Wagner Group to Mali. Soon other African countries began flirting with the idea of inviting Russian PMCs into their countries. To say that these developments have demoralized the American foreign policy establishment is an understatement. A defeatist mentality has taken hold where many are willing to throw in the towel as they don’t see how the US can maintain influence in West Africa in light of military governments and Russian PMCs. But we are looking at these developments all wrong. 

Wagner Group employees standing guard in 2019 during a parade in Bangui, Central African Republic.

The Sahelian receptiveness to PMCs should be viewed as an opportunity for America to compete with Russia for regional influence. Our PMCs have a great track record. American PMCs helped crush the Somali pirate problem in the mid-2000s. Today, the Ukrainian military is entirely dependent on the US private company SpaceX for their military communications. In the Iraq war, Erik Prince’s PMC Blackwater was able to perform high-profile missions at a fraction of the cost of what the military would spend. With over a hundred thousand American special operations veterans in our country, an American PMC would have the best talent pool in the world to call upon.

This is what we are good at. America is the epicenter of capitalism, and when Americans unleash the free market upon a problem, there’s nothing in the world we know how to be the best at. We should instead encourage the growth of American PMCs, help them get contracts with West African countries, and allow them to relentlessly pursue and destroy the terrorists. West African governments are desperate for combat manpower and advanced military logistics, and American PMCs could easily address these key deficiencies.

This would help us on multiple fronts. 1) They would push back the terrorists and eventually force them to the negotiating table. 2) It would undermine the false Russian-inspired narrative that the West wants the terrorists to prevail in West Africa. 3) Our successes would put pressure on Russia, which would find itself in a lose-lose situation. Either they will try to block the deployment of our PMCs, which would be viewed as unhelpful (and possibly neo-colonial) by the Sahelian governments, or they will deploy additional forces to the Sahel so they can maintain their position as the primary foreign actor.

In a post-Ukraine environment, Russia’s adventure into Africa is only good for us. If Russia increases its presence in Africa, every warfighter, pallet of ammunition, and piece of equipment placed in an impoverished desert in the middle of nowhere means less pressure on both Ukraine and our NATO allies. If Moscow defeats the terrorists in the Sahel, the region will be stabilized and we can avoid a migration crisis. If they are unable to defeat the terrorists, our PMCs can come in, fix the problem, and restore US influence to the region. If they team up with American PMCs in this mission, cooperation between Americans and Russians can improve our relations at a time when people have never been more afraid of nuclear conflict. No matter how this plays out, we win. 

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So how do we play our hand and turn West Africa from a geopolitical catastrophe into a win? Here’s what I propose:

  • Advocate for Western PMCs: Let the Erik Princes and Eeben Barlows of the world wage unrelenting war against the jihadists. Consider subsidizing them. If Sahel countries won’t accept Western PMCs, use them in litoral West African countries like Togo or Benin to show their effectiveness.
  • Thaw relations with the Alliance of Sahel States: Grant 5-year waivers to section 7008 restrictions to Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, due to the extraordinary terrorism threat these nations face. This will improve our relationship with these leaders and untie our hands by allowing us to offer defense aid in the future in case we ever need to negotiate with them.
  • Soften attitude towards Russia’s West African intervention: We should stop threatening certain African countries who are considering hiring Russian PMCs. Tell them instead that that it’s a grand idea, and encourage them to demand lots and lots of Russian men and equipment. If Russia is fighting terrorists, provide them with targeting intelligence if we are confident that it will lead to them fighting even more terrorists. Moscow and Washington both share a common enemy in this region, so cooperating here will lead to better relations between the two big nuclear superpowers.
  • Negotiate with Terrorists: The only way the wars in the Sahel come to an end is if peace is negotiated between the Sahelian governments and the Islamists. We should not sabotage such negotiations if they truly will bring an end to the violence. Peace will bring back business and foreign aid, which will make everyone better off.
  • Change the Narrative: We must make every effort to not be perceived as the Sahelians view the French: that is, overbearing, condescending, and ineffective. We need to restore the image we’ve held for decades: helpful, cooperative, and lethal. Let’s sympathize with the Sahelians and help them restore security. We can push for democracy to be restored, but only when this crisis ends.

With Americans departing Niger, things may seem bleak from an American geopolitical perspective. But this is only because ideological orthodoxies in Washington have caused decision-makers to turn a blind eye to solutions that could completely reverse this situation. While we all wish that Sahelian countries would turn into Jeffersonian democracies while defeating terrorism and rejecting desperately-needed aid from our geopolitical rivals, this scenario simply isn’t possible.

The junta leaders in the Sahel aren’t democratically elected, sure. But at least they seek results that are actually in their countries best interests. They don’t want empty platitudes or condescending lectures, they want results on the ground. Mali’s President Goita and Burkina Faso’s President Traore are young popular leaders who were willing to risk their lives at the chance to fix their country’s security problem. And the most promising development that these young leaders adopted was to welcome PMCs. Unlike the older generations did, they didn’t view PMCs as some form of neocolonialism. They saw them as a tool to secure national sovereignty. 

Many of our policymakers in Washington have turned ‘perfect’ into the enemy of good. But even our own Founding Fathers recognized that in times of war, certain freedoms need to temporarily be set aside for national security. It only seems fair that we grant these countries a degree of leniency we would give ourselves. 

By embracing a few unconventional, yet historically effective policies, Washington has the potential to stabilize West Africa, reverse jihadist gains, restore US influence in the region, challenge Russia, and prevent a future migration crisis from emerging. It’s time to leave the lectures at home and get serious.

Brendan McNamara served as a West Africa analyst at US Africa Command from 2020-2023 and was in charge of the Department of Defense’s Sahel Warning Problem. He can be followed @brendanmac87. The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Read also: Too Big To Win, by Erik Prince


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