AGADIR, Morocco — The head of the U.S. military in Africa vigorously defended the country’s counterterrorism strategy on the continent and vowed to press forward with it despite a wave of criticism and a drift among African nations toward seeking security help from Russia instead.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday at Africa Lion, a war games exercise in Morocco, Gen. Michael Langley blamed a tide of Russian disinformation for anti-U.S. sentiment in volatile regions. He said the military needed to reassert how its longstanding strategy can foster stability throughout the Sahel, the semiarid region south of the Sahara Desert.

The 6,000 members of the U.S. military stationed in Africa are confronting new setbacks as governments in Chad and Niger — two key regional allies — embrace Russian forces and paramilitaries and push for them leave posts previously identified as critical to monitoring security challenges.

“There was negative sentiment across the last couple of years against one of our most valued allies — France — as you looked at all social media and looked all across media writ large,” Langley said. “A lot of that negative sentiment was fueled by the misinformation and disinformation of the Russian Federation.”

“We need to get our narrative out there,” he added.

More than 11,000 deaths last year in the Sahel were linked to militant Islamist violence, continuing a trajectory that has seen them gradually increase since 2021, according to an Africa Center for Strategic Studies analysis of reports collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Since 2020, military officers disillusioned with their government’s record of stemming violence have overthrown democratically elected governments throughout the region. In the aftermath, countries including Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger began to distance themselves from western powers and deepen partnerships with Russia.

In northern Mali last November, soldiers accompanied by mercenaries from Russian military contractor Wagner retook territory that rebels had controlled for the past decade. The military junta governing Burkina Faso ousted French forces last year and turned to Russia and Wagner for security support. And similarly in Niger, Russian military trainers arrived weeks after the junta that took power last year ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from the country.

Rather than soul-searching or a broad rethink of strategy, Langley said the United States planned to “double down and re-engage with these countries,” referencing its noncombat work addressing climate change and crop failure and managing tribal conflict and displacement.

Langley said that the United States would stick with its whole-of-government approach stressing good governance and institution-building beyond military might. He insisted that the military supports African countries in ways they see fit rather than impose its ideas. But he argued that military juntas wouldn’t counter terrorism or ensure stability long term.

“I don’t want to call out any of these countries, but these are military regimes,” Langley said.

That fine line has differentiated the United States from other great powers deepening their involvement in Africa. Russia attaches few stipulations to countries it offers security assistance regardless of whether they’re ruled by military juntas or democratically elected leaders. China similarly stresses noninterference in making investments or loans to fund mines, ports, highways and rails.

Of the U.S. personnel stationed throughout Africa, roughly 1,000 assigned to Niger and 100 to Chad are in the process of departing. Both countries have been integral to the military’s efforts to counter violent extremist organizations across the region, particularly Niger, which houses the continent’s largest surveillance drone base.

Langley said that the U.S. forces were in the midst of a safe and orderly withdrawal from Niger and planned to determine future security partnerships later. He said the status of U.S. forces in Chad would be discussed once the country finishes establishing a new government based on elections earlier this month.

Langley would not say whether the United States plans to relocate bases elsewhere in Africa but said its strategy would largely depend on guidance from west African countries about their security threats. In countries along the Atlantic coastline, Langley said officials have grown increasingly worried about violent extremism and want to ensure they can surveil developments in dangerous border regions.

“What the U.S. wants is what countries are asking for,” he said. “We’re not prescribing anything.”

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