US commanders leading annual counter-terrorism exercises in West Africa have urged coastal countries to depend on each other to contain a spreading Islamist insurgency, rather than non-Western powers, after Mali last year hired Russian mercenaries.
Relations between Russia and the US have become more hostile since Moscow invaded Ukraine over a year ago, and Washington and its allies oppose Russian influence in West Africa.
During drills this month in northern Ghana, trainers urged troops to share phone numbers with foreign counterparts operating over poorly marked borders, often just a few miles apart. Elsewhere, soldiers have also learned to use motorbikes, as the insurgents do, for their speed and maneuverability.
Overrun by Islamist groups, and amid a row with former colonial power France, Mali's military government last year hired private Russian military contractor Wagner Group, whose fighters are playing key roles in Ukraine, to combat the militants. This has worried Western governments and the United Nations who say the move has led to a spike in violence.
Mali, whose government took power in a 2021 military coup, has previously said Russian forces are not mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with equipment from Russia.
"You have governments with so many problems that they begin reaching out to other malign actors who are perhaps more exploitive of the resources in those countries," Colonel Robert Zyla from US Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) told Reuters at exercises in Ghana.
"Contrast that with what we’re trying to bring, which are partnerships between neighbors and other democratic nations."
In this month's exercises, soldiers patrolled barren scrubland dotted with thin bushes. At the center of the strategy is engaging border communities and making sure armies work together in a region where frontiers span hundreds of miles of sparsely populated desert.
"No one country can solve this by themselves," Zyla said. "Going forward it will be about teaching countries in the region how to reach across borders and talk."
Failure to stop insurgency
For a decade, offensive efforts have failed to stop an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions. Security experts say it could get worse after thousands of French troops were forced out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military juntas this year.
The main challenge is a lack of resources and large-scale international commitment to defense in one of the poorest parts of the world, experts said.
Ghana has bolstered troops in its northern regions. But it has no reconnaissance drones to monitor border areas, said Colonel Richard Kainyi Mensah, chief operations officer for Ghana's special operations brigade.
"There’s a lot of hesitancy to deploy more than we need to, the irony is that means we're basically putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb."Aneliese Bernard, director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors
"Logistics and equipment are key," he said. "Resources are limited."
It is not clear what more resources the US and Europe are willing to give. The US has been reluctant to engage after four soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017. The UK, Germany and other nations are pulling troops from a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali as security worsens.
Earlier this month, General Michael Langley, the commander of US Africa Command, told journalists that "stabilization and security" were its focus in Africa, without providing details.
Some believe that not enough is being done.
"There’s a lot of hesitancy to deploy more than we need to," said Aneliese Bernard, director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a US-based risk advisory group. "The irony is that means we're basically putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb."
Timing is crucial, security experts and military officials said. Islamist violence that began in 2012 in Mali has spread. Armed groups have a foothold in coastal countries including Benin and Togo and threaten economic leaders Ivory Coast and Ghana.