It’s not a good day for a combatant commander when a front-page headline in a major newspaper says one of your most important programs has failed. That’s true even if the commander is not to blame—in this case, the failure is the result of an all-of-government effort that is decades in the making.

The officer is General Michael Langley, commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) since August 2022. The headline on the June 6 story on the front page of the New York Times reads, “U.S. Confronts Failures as Terrorism Spreads in West Africa.” It describes how, after the United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to several African armies, terrorism has only gotten worse.

Not only have the armies that have benefited from US largesse failed to eliminate the terrorists, but they have also been good at overthrowing existing governments, as demonstrated by the recent coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger. On top of this, some governments in the region have given up on help from the United States, as well as France, another longstanding security assistance provider, and have signed up Russian mercenaries instead.

The AFRICOM reaction to this bleak panorama was outlined in an Associated Press article, which noted that “rather than soul-searching or a broad rethink of strategy,” the United States planned to, as General Langley described, “double down and re-engage with these countries.” He also added that “what the U.S. wants is what countries are asking for. We’re not prescribing anything.”

Unlike the Associated Press story, the New York Times article gave some hope for a course correction in the face of failure. It cited unnamed US officials as saying they are “retooling their approach to combat an insurgency that is rooted in local, not global, concerns. Competition for land, exclusion from politics and other local grievances have swelled the ranks of the militants, more than any particular commitment to extremist ideology.” This realization has supposedly prompted a new strategy that will “focus more on well-financed initiatives that include security, governance and development.”

That sounds enlightened but it may not be enough. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, in this present crisis, a military government is not the solution to our problem; a military government is the problem. As a recent OECD study concluded, the coups of 2020–23 in the Sahel have not only failed to reverse the mounting insecurity in the region. They have accelerated it.

American policy in Africa has long supposedly consisted of three parts—security, governance, and development. While all three have had a role, the creation of AFRICOM and the post-9/11 fear of terrorism has led to the militarization of our relations with African countries and resulted in a disproportionate emphasis on security. When a four-star general is given the job of flying around a continent full of very poor countries and dispensing military aid to anyone interested, it cannot help but overwhelm and undermine the efforts at improving governance and promoting development.

It is important to point out just how poor these countries are to understand why. According to World Bank data, the per capita gross domestic product of the United State is ninety-two times greater than that of Mali and 130 times that of Niger. With such poverty, the armed forces are weak, but they are also the strongest institution in the country. The rest of government and civil society have almost no capacity to limit the power of the military. Security assistance makes this imbalance worse as the more dominant the military is the less likely governance and development programs will succeed.

A recently published book on the impact of security assistance in the Middle East and North Africa by experts on the region reached three conclusions that also apply to the rest of Africa and explain the problem. First, providing security assistance without taking the local politics into account can turn people against their government and the United States as well. In Africa, politics is always heavily influenced by tribal identities, ethnic tensions, and competition for scarce resources, as acknowledged by the officials who claim a retooling is underway.

Second, security assistance has encouraged militarization that has facilitated corruption and retarded economic development by encouraging the intrusion of the military into the private sector. That provides personal profit for the generals and allows the regime in power to buy their loyalty.

Third, there is no case where security assistance in the Middle East and North Africa had a positive impact on democracy either by reducing the clout of militaries or by increasing that of civilians. That is especially true when a government has come to power through a coup as many in Africa have. In those cases, the main task of the army is not to protect the country from threats to national security, but to protect a government with no legitimacy from its own people.

The retooling that was mentioned in the New York Times article will only be cosmetic without profound changes in approach. For that to happen it would be necessary to recognize that the threat to the United States of terrorism in the Sahel is insignificant and that attempts to counter it militarily have only enhanced it.

Promoting better governance should take priority over all other concerns. The competition for influence between the United States, Russia, and China should not become a Kirkpatrick Doctrine 2.0, whereby any autocrat can gain American support by uttering the magic words—Islamist terrorists.

The challenge is that democracy can be supported, but it cannot be created by outsiders. Civil society can play a crucial role in reducing corruption and encouraging development, but it needs the strong support of the international community.

Saying America will provide and never prescribe is a strategy for repeating failure. AFRICOM and the US government more broadly should learn from what is not working and not simply double down on their mistakes.

Dennis Jett is a professor in the School of International Affairs at Penn State University. A former career diplomat, he served as ambassador in Peru and Mozambique, on the National Security Council, and in Argentina, Israel, Malawi, and Liberia. He is the author of four books on peacekeeping and American foreign policy as well as numerous other publications.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spc. Zayid Ballesteros, US Army