Burkina Faso Made the Pentagon Nervous
The U.S. military began pulling back from the troubled West African state in 2012
The U.S. military is distancing itself from troubled Burkina Faso amid a political crisis that recently toppled the West African country’s longtime president.
But in fact, Washington has been downgrading its relationship with Ouagadougou for a while now, apparently owing to the Americans’ discomfort with Burkina Faso’s increasingly authoritarian leadership.
Now that the Americans have pulled back, whatever happens in Burkina Faso in coming months should have little bearing on U.S. strategy in the region.
When Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaoré—who had ruled since 1987—proposed in late October to alter the constitution to allow him to stand for yet another term, as many as a million people took to the streets in protest.
A number of protesters died in the subsequent rioting. Compaoré resigned, the military briefly took over and on Nov. 17 interim president Michel Kafando assumed office. Army lieutenant colonel Isaac Yacouba Zida is the acting prime minister.
The Pentagon has rules for cooperating with foreign militaries. According to a law known as the Leahy amendment, the U.S. military isn’t supposed to work with forces that are guilty of human rights violations.
Zida temporarily seized power after the protests forced Compaoré out of office. But despite the appearance of a coup, Zida is actually pretty clean by the U.S. military’s standards. The Pentagon had previously vetted Zida for an official exchange program.
In fact, Compaoré—now possibly in self-imposed exile in Morocco—is the one who now stands accused of abusing his power. And the former president’s actions may have motivated Washington to look for more reliable allies … years ago.
Since 2009, Burkina Faso has been a member of Washington’s counterterrorism program for the Sahel region—the semi-arid zone that separates North Africa from the sub-Saharan areas of the continent.
Ouagadougou’s troops have received significant American support and benefited from a close relationship with U.S. advisers. The current political crisis interrupted some of the training events—but earlier adjustments to American strategy had even greater effect.
The Americans began cutting back their activities in the West African country in 2012. More recent reductions have merely sustained that trend.
“In light of the current situation in Burkina Faso, two small military-to-military activities scheduled for early November were postponed,” U.S. Africa Command told War Is Boring.
The delayed training events include courses on vehicle-repair plus lectures on unspecified “legal issues.” We don’t know if AFRICOM will reschedule the classes.
“No other activities have been affected,” officials stressed.
At first glance, the Americans’ military investment in Burkina Faso seems significant.
In 2013, AFRICOM awarded Burkina Faso funds to develop an “Army Counteterrorism Company,” according to AFRICOM. This year, AFRICOM gave more money to help Ouagadougou set up another unit — an “Army Counter-Terrorism Logistics Support Unit.”
In April, the U.S. Army sent soldiers to train Burkinabe paratroopers for the commando company. The soldiers also delivered “support vehicles, individual body armor, uniforms, helmets, radios and sleeping bags,” according to an official news release.
The Pentagon paid for these projects through a program it refers to as “Section 1206,” which the military set up specifically for helping out foreign armies.
The U.S. government also provided training and supplies for eight Burkinabe army battalions and four police units through other budgets, AFRICOM stated.
These forces have all deployed to Darfur, Guinea-Bissau and Mali for peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the African Union and the United Nations.
In addition, elite Burkinabe forces regularly attend the Pentagon’s annual commando exercise in the region, codenamed Flintlock. Burkina Faso even hosted this training event four years ago.
But digging deeper into the American spending accounts reveals that the Pentagon’s budgeteers have earmarked less and less aid for Ouagadougou every year since 2012, according to data from ForeignAssistance.gov.
Washington’s spending on Ouagadougou in the “peace & security” category—which includes money to help fight terrorists—has also dropped over the same time period, even as more U.S. cash flowed in for economic development.
And in August, the Pentagon hired the AAR Airlift Group to fly missions around West Africa—including to Burkina Faso—but from Niger. As a small consolation, the Defense Logistics Agency still plans to buy thousands of gallons of jet fuel for flights in and out of Ouagadougou’s airport.
In the past, Ouagadougou had played host to American commandos and spy planes flown by U.S. contractors. We couldn’t determine whether the country is still an important hub for these activities.
A new task force for the region—called Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa—has replaced the previous commando unit, an AFRICOM officer told us under the condition of anonymity.
The special operators could still work out of Ouagadougou. But it still appears that, on the balance, America’s presence in Burkina Faso is waning—and has been waning since long before the October political crisis.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Niger has given the U.S. military permission to construct two drone bases in the country in order to spy in Mali and Libya. Who needs Burkina Faso when you’ve got such a great friend in Niger?
Washington still hopes that “all parties in Burkina Faso … [will] respect and follow the principles of civilian-led democratic government,” said Jeff Rathke, director of the State Department’s press office.