An October report from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies noted a rise in violent activity in the Sahel, up from similar data from January and April. Still, recent U.S. strategy toward the region has been somewhat wayward. This is most glaring in the Trump administration’s ever-shifting priorities. For those concerned, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether and to what extent Washington will or won’t act.

What’s worse, the current state of affairs represents a troubling step backward. Just months before the Niger ambush, the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA strategy) — effective from 2012 to 2017 — lapsed with nothing to replace it. This lapse left gaps in the overall national strategy.

While the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (2017 NSS) addresses some of the challenges facing Africa, it does little to fill the gaps that the lapse of the SSA strategy left behind. The strategy laid out in the NSS toward Africa speaks of working with African nations to promote good governance and promote the rule of law but does not offer actionable ways of doing so. This failure allows undue risk.

Those concerned will remember the failures of rule of law measures after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and what has happened since. In April 2003, in the wake of the battle of Nasiriyah, Iraqi representatives gathered in the city (a former Fedayeen stronghold) to discuss and approve principles for a new Iraqi government. One of the 13 agreed-upon principles was that “The rule of law must be paramount.”

Within a month of President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, given on May 1, 2003, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1483, which recognized the United States and Britain as occupying powers in Iraq. The U.N. resolution also acknowledged the meeting in Nasiriyah and echoed the importance of the rule of law. The resolution lent legitimacy to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

But, after the last U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, the U.S.-led coalition was left with little to show for what turned out to be an eight-year-long occupation. And, of course, U.S. forces are now back in Iraq, returning in 2014 to degrade and destroy the so-called Islamic State. The return of U.S. troops was due in no small part to the fact that the OIF coalition failed to set the conditions for rule of law. No wonder: Post-war policy in Iraq had no grand strategy to guide it.

Lessons learned from interventions in Iraq and elsewhere have impressed upon those concerned that approaches to rule of law must be guided by an ends-based, coherent, overarching strategy. With none, efforts are destined to be ineffective.

The SSA strategy was laudable for having outlined four “pillars” of U.S. strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa as “interdependent, mutually reinforcing objectives,” the first among them being to “strengthen democratic institutions,” which in turn comprised ways to bring about rule of law: five “actions” to be pursued. It was set to lapse of its own accord in 2017.

The Trump administration has offered no replacement, and U.S. strategy toward Africa articulated in the 2017 NSS strategy is a poor substitute. In general, and with respect to Africa specifically, the 2017 NSS defers to ends and means and leaves the ways unclear.

Africa, especially the Sahel region, has become increasingly relevant to U.S. national security interests. In 2013, Rudy Atallah — a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council — presented a prepared statement to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on “The Growing Crisis in Africa’s Sahel Region.” The crisis, as he saw it: Regional instability invited non-state armed groups, who were hell-bent on imposing strict Islamic law and staging attacks throughout the region and in Europe, to take root. Atallah asserted that “Left unaddressed, these patterns and nefarious actors will increasingly threaten the interests of the United States and her allies.”

The 2015 NSS, drafted by the National Security Council (NSC) under the Obama administration, emphasized that “violent extremists fighting governments in Somalia, Nigeria, and across the Sahel all pose threats to innocent civilians, regional stability, and our national security.” Make no mistake: Africa has mattered and continues to matter to U.S. national security, but a close look shows that national strategy toward the region has been increasingly wayward.

The Trump administration’s staffing decisions may be revealing. For example, in April 2017, the administration named none other than Atallah as the senior director for Africa on the NSC. This promised to bode well for rule of law strategy in the Sahel, not least in light of Atallah’s previous policy recommendations for stability and democracy in Mali and the region.

But the White House quickly changed course, rescinding the job offer, reportedly due to “some sort of administrative hiccup” having to do with Atallah’s security clearance. Curious, especially for a former career military officer. Cyril Sartor, the CIA’s former deputy assistant director for Africa, the administration’s third pick for the post, started in the job months later.

Consider also the case of Chad. After the United States announced last September that it would ban immigrants from certain countries, including Chad, the country withdrew its 2,000 troops from the Sahel’s counterterror coalition. This may have weakened the coalition’s capability to counter Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other violent extremist organizations in the region. In fact, attacks by Boko Haram increased almost immediately.

No doubt the fallout from the travel ban has made matters worse in the eyes of U.S. allies and coalition partners. Still, and even after the Niger ambush, not even U.S. diplomats charged with implementing the Trump administration’s plans understood U.S. strategy for the region. Fast-forward to this month, where one week there are reports that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is designating new military operations in the Sahel, while the following week, we learn that a withdrawal of hundreds of troops from the region signifies “the latest sign of shifting priorities.”

A coherent strategy for the Sahel region would help guide the hands of those charged with carrying out the plans. It would signal commitment to solving the challenges faced there and reaffirm partnering for regional security as a serious priority. To the national security staff: Give U.S. Africa Command (and Special Operations Command) a clearer strategy for rule of law in the Sahel.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense or any other governmental entity.

Image:  A U.S Marine supervises a battalion of Nigerien soldiers as they fire on a target during a training exercise in September 2004 in Niger. Photo by Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images