Yet the enemy they were training to fight remained elusive. “In 2013, there were no recorded terrorist incidents in Burkina Faso, which is not a source for violent extremist organization recruitment efforts or home to radical religious extremists,” noted a U.S. State Department report obtained by The New York Times. The document, issued in 2014, explained that “maintaining Burkina Faso as a peaceful state is all the more important in light of terrorist threats in neighboring Mali and Niger.”
That was about to change, however, as the Sahel got caught up in a spiraling crisis that owed its beginnings to another U.S. intervention. “We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joked after a U.S.-led NATO air campaign helped overthrow Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the longtime Libyan dictator, in 2011. President Obama hailed the intervention as a success, but Libya soon slipped into the near-failed state status from which it has never emerged. Obama would later admit that “failing to plan for the day after” the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.
Militant Islamists would gain a foothold in Libya and eventually threaten the entire region. “Ever since the West assassinated Qaddafi, and I’m conscious of using that particular word, Libya has been completely destabilized,” Chérif Sy, Burkina Faso’s defense minister, complained in a 2019 interview. “While at the same time it was the country with the most guns. It has become an arms cache for the region.” Almost nowhere did this have more immediate implications than in Mali.
As the U.S.-backed uprisings in Libya toppled Qaddafi, Tuareg fighters in his service looted the regime’s extensive weapons caches, headed back to their native Mali and began to take over the northern part of that country. Anger within the country’s armed forces over the government’s ineffective response resulted in a 2012 military coup led by Amadou Sanogo, an officer who — thanks to America’s International Military Education and Training Program — learned English in Texas, received instruction from U.S. Marines in Virginia, took his intelligence training in Arizona and underwent Army infantry-officer basic training in Georgia. “America is a great country with a fantastic army,” he said after the coup. “I tried to put all the things I learned there into practice here.”
Having overthrown Mali’s democratic government, Sanogo and his junta proved hapless in fighting terrorists. With the country in turmoil, the Tuareg fighters declared an independent state but were soon muscled aside by heavily armed Islamist rebels who instituted a harsh brand of Shariah law, causing widespread suffering and a humanitarian crisis. (In August, Mali’s restored democratic government was again overthrown. The leader of the military junta, Col. Assimi Goïta, received extensive U.S. training and worked for years alongside U.S. Special Operations forces.)
In January 2013, France began a military intervention, Operation Serval, to halt the Islamists’ advance. Around 4,500 French troops were soon joined by a U.N.-mandated international force known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, made up mostly of West African soldiers. With a little-known operation called Juniper Micron, the United States provided support, airlifting French soldiers and materiel into Mali, flying refueling missions and providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance through drone operations run out of neighboring Niger.
The joint French-American-African mission prevented the complete collapse of Mali, but it pushed the members of the remaining Al Qaeda groups to areas near the border with Burkina Faso. Eight years after Operation Serval began, France’s revamped counterterrorism mission — now called Barkhane — grinds on with no end in sight, with continuing American support.
Since 2013, American troops have fought in at least 13 African countries, including Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. There have, however, been few discernible counterterrorism achievements, much less victories, despite the sizable French and U.S. security investments. Regardless, U.S. and French policy remain fundamentally unchanged. “It is important for the U.S. to continue to support the international effort taking place in Burkina Faso while containing the spread of terrorism,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, the United States Africa Command chief, said in September 2019.
But as Pauline Le Roux, writing for the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, noted, “the Sahel has experienced the most rapid increase in militant Islamist group activity of any region in Africa in recent years.” The number of reported attacks linked to militant Islamist activity in the region has nearly doubled every year since 2016, when there were 90, to 194 in 2017, 465 in 2018 and around 800 in 2019. Recently Burkina Faso has experienced the worst of it: In the 12 months from June 2019 to June 2020, the Pentagon counted 516 attacks in Burkina Faso compared with 361 in Mali and 118 in Niger.
Despite American commitments, the containment strategy in Burkina Faso described by Townsend last year has been a dismal failure. And as the security situation deteriorated, Green Berets from the Army National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group were transferred there from northern Niger, where they were helping that country’s troops intercept terrorists moving back and forth across the Libyan border. “These forces are now repositioning to counter the growing threat in the triborder region of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger,” an Africa Command official, who asked for anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations, told The New York Times.
Africa Command won’t provide details about the low-profile missions of its commandos, but the American response to mushrooming violence appears to be little more than a retread of earlier efforts. In the latter 2010s, teams of Green Berets deployed to the same region to advise and assist their local counterparts, even taking part in combat, according to retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who was chief of Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017. The Americans, he explained, lived on Burkinabe bases and went out into the field on patrols embedded with local forces.
The major problem then, according to Bolduc, was a failure of Africa Command leadership to understand the needs of Burkinabe, Malian and Nigerien forces and use bottom-up approaches instead of pouring funds into unproven solutions. “Africa Command staff has no idea how to solve problems in Africa,” Bolduc said. “Throwing money at these problems is never going to work.” Bolduc, who also served as Africa Command’s deputy director from 2013 to 2015 after 10 tours in Afghanistan, said that U.S. programs are often left on “autopilot,” with little attention to determining whether they are actually successful. He is also skeptical of the command’s new approach.
“Five years later, it’s going to require more time and more resources, and I’m not convinced that the current leadership at Africa Command has any idea what to do,” Bolduc said. “What have they done up to this point, except make the problem worse?” he asked. “Do they have a plan to defeat a bigger problem: a stronger, more experienced enemy? Or are you just going through the motions of sending teams?”
After wresting huge swaths of territory from government control in Burkina Faso’s north, those motorbike-riding jihadis have spread south toward Ouagadougou. In August, the main political parties voted to change the electoral code, allowing presidential and legislative elections in November to proceed, even if large numbers of Burkinabe are unable to vote because of violence and the pandemic.
With jihadists operating in an area only three hours by car from Ouagadougou, many Burkinabe remain hopeful that, at the very least, the capital won’t fall to the militants. “I don’t think they can push us from here” said Mayor Abdoulaye Pafadnam of Barsalogho, referring to Ouagadougou. “The international community will never accept it.”
What the international community has largely accepted, however, are atrocities by Burkina Faso’s security forces, who have proved more capable of killing civilians than protecting them from jihadists. Almost a dozen witnesses from areas in the north described a similar sequence of events: Security forces arrived and arrested family members, friends or neighbors; some were never seen again, and others were found with their hands tied, shot through the head.
There are more than 60 distinct ethnic groups in Burkina Faso, but about half the population belong to the Mossi people, who are traditionally farmers. The much smaller Fulani ethnic group are predominantly Muslim cattle herders, many of them seminomadic, and they have long expressed discontent with government neglect of their communities and their poor representation among the political elite and in public-sector jobs. The Fulani, concentrated in the northern part of the country, where the terrorists operate, may be the most stigmatized and disaffected minority and accordingly have been the prime focus for recruitment by Islamist militants, even as Fulani civilians frequently become victims of jihadist attacks. At the same time, there’s no question that Fulani are the prime target of attacks by government troops. “On one side, they have a problem with the terrorists,” said Souaibou Diallo, a Burkinabe religious scholar and peace activist. “On the other side, they have a problem with the armed forces. They are caught between two fires.”
The present government came to power in a democratic election following the fall of Blaise Compoaré, an army officer who seized power in a coup in 1987 and held onto the presidency for 27 years. Compoaré was toppled by popular protests in 2014, and the country suffered a year of turmoil, as civilian and military powers struggled for control. Roch Kaboré, who once served as prime minister under Compaoré but later formed an opposition party, was elected president in late 2015, in an election widely considered to have been fair and valid. His military, troubled by internal strife and troops who refuse to serve in dangerous areas, has frequently failed to locate and engage jihadists and has increasingly lashed out against civilians.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department issued a report implicating Kaboré’s government in a litany of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions and “crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national, racial and ethnic minorities.” Human Rights Watch documented more than 60 killings of civilians by armed Islamists between late 2017 and February 2019, but it uncovered more than double that number — 130 extrajudicial killings — by the Burkinabe security forces over that same period. Those executions and other abuses by government troops occurred in at least 19 separate incidents. This summer, Human Rights Watch reported that residents of the northern town Djibo frequently discovered corpses, around 180 in all, dumped along roadways, under bridges and in vacant lots, between November 2019 and June 2020. Locals said a majority were Fulani and that many were found bound, blindfolded and shot. There were no witnesses to the killings, but the locals who found the victims — sometimes relatives or acquaintances — overwhelmingly blamed government forces. “I have absolutely no doubt that atrocities, including extrajudicial executions by the dozens, have been perpetrated by members of the Burkinabe defense and security forces,” Human Rights Watch’s West Africa director, Corinne Dufka, said.
Burkina Faso’s government has failed to acknowledge most of the reported atrocities, and its defense minister, Chérif Sy, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview to discuss the security situation in his country. Simon Compaoré, who previously oversaw key components of the Burkinabe security forces as interior minister and is now president of the People’s Movement for Progress, the ruling political party, was more forthcoming. “Some of those incidents are true, but some are exaggerations,” he said of Human Rights Watch’s reports. Compaoré said acting swiftly against suspected terrorists is important for boosting the spirits of security forces in the wake of losses to jihadists. “We have to do everything to make sure we keep the morale up,” he said of the targeted killings. “We’re doing this, but we’re not shouting it from the rooftops.” He also acknowledged abuses beyond the bounds of official sanction. “Soldiers are human beings above anything else. When they see deaths, the chopping off of hands, and they see it again and again, there comes a point when they just crack,” he explained. “There are errors. There are errors in any army.”
These supposed errors continue to add up. Burkinabe security forces reportedly killed at least 421 civilians in 2019, a majority of them from the Fulani community — 170 more than the number of militants they reportedly killed during the same span, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Experts say that Burkina Faso’s atrocity-ridden counterterrorism campaign serves to bolster the ranks of Islamist militant groups. “About 80 percent of those who join terrorist groups told us that it isn’t because they support jihadism,” said Diallo, the Muslim scholar and peace activist. “It’s only because the armed forces are not acting smart. They come into villages and are extremely harsh.”
When asked in March if the United States had withdrawn assistance to certain military units in Burkina Faso because of human rights abuses, Scott Busby, an acting principal deputy assistant secretary of state, brushed off the question. “I don’t know, but that is not information that we can share publicly at this time,” he said. Days earlier, however, a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The New York Times that the U.S. government had, indeed, withheld assistance to certain Burkinabe security units because of concerns of “gross violations of human rights” and had “informed the Burkinabe government on these occasions.”
Whatever fraction of aid was suspended, U.S. support for Burkina Faso’s military has nonetheless continued — much as it has for decades with other allies, from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, whose security forces have been implicated in atrocities, abuses and war crimes. In fact, less than three weeks after Human Rights Watch reported that Burkinabe security forces executed 31 detainees in the town of Djibo on April 9, the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou issued a fact sheet touting “expanded engagement in Burkina Faso,” including providing training and equipment to 3,000 soldiers and gendarmes each year. Not long after, a different State Department report noted that “abusive counterterrorism tactics by Burkina Faso’s armed forces further exacerbated tensions between civilians and the state, and fueled recruitment of civilians into terrorist groups.”
The fact that Burkina Faso’s military has failed to protect its people while simultaneously committing atrocities against them is not America’s failure alone. Other international supporters, like France and the European Union, bear a responsibility — not to mention the Burkinabe government itself. But a history of spectacular collapses by U.S.-trained militaries, from South Vietnam in 1975 to Iraq in 2014, and rampant atrocities by allies, such as torture, rape and murder committed by Afghan forces and the yearslong killing of Yemeni civilians, with U.S. weaponry, by Saudi Arabia, demands a frank reappraisal of U.S. military assistance abroad. Ordinary people in Burkina Faso are paying a grave price for failed foreign-policy decisions and autopilot assistance that favors throwing military aid at complex social problems.
One scorching January afternoon in Kaya, I visited K.H., a tall, broad-shouldered 26-year-old man who only wanted to give his initials because he is living in fear of the armed militants who roared into his village in January, shooting wildly and killing randomly.
By all rights, K.H. should be dead. After fleeing that attack on his village, he and his family were destitute, so he took his donkey cart and headed back into the conflict zone to collect firewood to sell in Kaya. Along the way, the jihadists found him. The armed men commanded K.H. to lay on the ground. One of them put the barrel of a rifle against his chest and pulled the trigger. The last thing they told him, as he lay bleeding, was to recite the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith — “there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
The bullet could have pierced K.H.’s heart, could have left him as one of the growing number of barely counted dead of this barely acknowledged war. But some combination of luck, fate, carelessness and the vagaries of ballistic trajectories caused the bullet to pass through his chest and out his armpit, completely missing his vital organs. Still, it was a little shy of a miracle that K.H. survived the walk to his brother’s home before he was whisked by motorbike to Kaya’s central hospital.
In a rundown ward of that rundown hospital, K.H. narrated his story with the empty eyes and flat tone of a man who couldn’t quite believe he was still alive. He brushed aside the pain of his gunshot wound. “It’s getting better,” he said, but he appeared psychologically broken, unable to come to grips with the violence that nearly took his life.
When I returned to Kaya four days later, K.H. was gone. He had returned home, but he agreed to travel back by motorbike to speak with me again. When he arrived, K.H. was still traumatized. He brought his X-ray from the hospital and showed me the progress of his healing, but he seemed unable to say much.
I asked him to explain the calculus that led him to take a chance on returning to a place where he narrowly survived execution a week earlier, but he just blinked and stared at his feet. I tried asking in a different way, but he just grimaced and wrung his hands. The queries didn’t seem to make sense to K.H., and why would they? Such questions make sense only to those who believe they have options. K.H., like so many of his fellow Burkinabe war victims, did not. “We need help. We need support. We need security,” was all he could say as one of his hands wrestled the other. “We want peace.”
This article was reported in partnership with Brown University’s Costs of War Project.