If you ask the Pentagon’s top policy official on Africa to list the biggest challenges the U.S. military faces in West Africa, she is quick to name the changing climate.
Michelle Lenihan isn’t talking about the damage that ever-more intense storms, floods, and wildfires are doing to U.S. facilities such as Offutt and Tyndall Air Bases. In Africa, the United States operates only one permanent base, and its troop presence is generally limited to highly mobile special operations forces. Instead, the acting deputy assistant defense secretary of defense for African affairs is talking about the damage to regional stability itself.
“The Lake Chad Basin — it’s barely a lake at this point,” said Lenihan in an interview. “You’ve seen the recession of the lake, you see desertification across the Sahel.”
That creates problems not only with water availability but also with the availability of arable land, fueling increasing conflict between herders and farmers already at odds. “Underlying that is also ethnic tensions, because you have certain ethnic groups that tend to farm versus certain ethnic groups that tend to herd,” she said.
Explosive population growth is exacerbating that stew of scarcity-driven conflict. Africa is home to over a billion people now, and that number is expected to double by 2050 — with 60 percent of the population under 25.
Senior Defense Department officials who work in the region have long warned that climate change is driving security challenges in the Sahel, the semi-arid band of countries nestled under North Africa. In January, a short Pentagon report required by Congress averred that "the effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans and installations.” While the bulk of the report concentrated on the threat to roughly two-thirds of the military’s installations, it warned that in Africa, “rainy season flooding and drought/desertification are very important factors in mission execution on the continent.” There are about 7,500 troops carrying out a primarily counterterror mission in hotspots across the continent — a presence that has drawn increased scrutiny from lawmakers after a failed mission in Niger left four U.S. service members dead in 2017.
But when asked what the Defense Department is doing to address the risks of operating in a region left unstable by a changing climate, Lenihan defers to other U.S. agencies, whose responsibility it is to address the “root causes,” she says.
“That's more in an area that's not DOD-specific,” she said. “From a DOD standpoint, we have to build our own resiliency, we have to look at how we look at facilities and operate and so forth — so that hasn't necessarily been a focus of what we're doing from a DOD standpoint because we're not doing military construction projects [in Africa]. That's not the focus of our approach.”
This is a familiar dynamic in places where the main U.S. response to instability has been to send in troops, even when many analysts believe the solution is non-military.
But in the broader Trump administration, it’s not clear that those root causes will get attention. Trump himself has repeatedly denied scientific consensus about climate change. The top senator in charge of Congressional oversight of the Pentagon, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., brandished a February snowball as proof that the Earth is not warming. And the official most directly responsible for addressing the “root causes” cited by Lenihan — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — recently told Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” that he wouldn’t count climate change “in the top five” of national security threats faced by the United States “because I can count to five that gets you to things that present more risks to the people I used to represent in Kansas and citizens all across America.” In his Senate confirmation hearing to become CIA director in 2017, Pompeo told lawmakers that categorizing climate change as a top national security threat was “ignorant, dangerous and absolutely unbelievable.”
In the meantime, U.S. Africa Command is doing what it can. The Pentagon’s January report noted that AFRICOM has funded “water security engagements” with partner militaries in the Chad Basin, which spans parts of Niger and Chad, and Tanzania, in east Africa.
And Lenihan is asking her West African counterparts about their own plans to address the threat. One foreign minister, whom she declined to identify, cited “family planning.”
“You need to reduce the number of children born per woman,” she said he told her. “And then also focusing on girls and educating them, because educating girls leads to less births per woman — usually delayed marriages and then also greater contributions to the economy.”
Particularly in West Africa, the military simply has no permanent “base” — or at least nothing that DOD classifies as a base. Everything can be packed up and moved on short notice. According to Brig. Gen. Leonard Kosinski, the head of logistics on the continent, AFRICOM relies mainly on so-called cooperative security locations, which is “just some kind of warehouse or just maybe even some square footage on the ground that we have a local agreement” to be able to use if needed. “Most of the time, it just stays in a warm status,” Kosinski said in a previous interview. “There may be a contractor there that makes sure that it’s ‘lights-on’, we may have some contracted security that kind of watches to make sure none of the tents get taken. But it there's not a whole lot there.”
“We’re more agile; we’re not hunkering down on bases and so forth,” Lenihan said. “So our focus is really building our partner capacity and that's where our efforts really are drawn.”