Biden halts drone attacks, offers a new strategy for Africa

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In the skies above Somalia, the armed drones have gone quiet.

Since Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, not a single U.S. air strike has been recorded in Somalia, a respite for a country where such attacks had become routine.

Somalia endured more than 200 missile strikes from U.S. drones and military aircraft during Donald Trump’s four years as president. The frequency of the attacks increased near the end of his term, with seven in his last 19 days in office. While they targeted Islamist militants, they also killed at least 21 civilians, according to Amnesty International investigations.

Now the attacks have halted. Under a Biden administration order, U.S. commanders have lost the right to authorize missile strikes in Somalia on their own. Instead, they require White House approval for each operation, while the administration drafts a new policy for its air strikes worldwide.

Joe Biden has had the best start of any presidency in almost a century

Mr. Biden has begun shifting U.S. priorities in Africa, introducing a greater emphasis on human rights and paying more respectful attention to a continent that was largely neglected under his predecessor. But while analysts have praised the new strategy, there are also indications the changes are relatively modest and sometimes inconsistent.

In some countries, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, the Biden administration has taken a strong stand on human rights and democracy, speaking out against repression or mass atrocities. But in other African countries, especially those with a lower profile, U.S. policy seems to be business as usual.

“Overall it’s been positive,” said Judd Devermont, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

“We’re seeing a slow-motion reset of the U.S.-Africa relationship after four years of a very neglectful, mean-spirited, China-obsessed policy under President Trump,” he said in an interview.

While it is too early to know whether Mr. Biden will permanently abandon air strikes in Somalia or eventually revive them under a more carefully regulated protocol, many of his other policy changes in Africa are already clear.

The Trump administration’s travel bans, which halted immigration from several African countries, have been ended. Its opposition to a Nigerian politician taking the top job at the World Trade Organization has been reversed. Its withdrawal from the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord – two crucial issues for most African countries – has been countermanded. And its refusal to join the COVAX vaccine program, another key issue in Africa, has been rescinded.

There is also a change of tone. Under the Trump administration, Africa policy was “put into a slower gear” and usually relegated to embassy or mid-level avenues, Mr. Devermont said. “Very little was done at the most senior levels, and now that has changed under Biden.”

Mr. Biden offered a symbolic renewal of U.S. commitment to the continent during the African Union summit in early February. “We believe in the nations of Africa,” he said in a video address to the summit. “The United States stands ready to be your partner, in solidarity, support and mutual respect.”

On issues of democracy and human rights, Mr. Biden has often taken a more vocal and assertive stand. In one of the clearest examples of this, Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed U.S. visa restrictions on the politicians and officials who rigged the January elections in Uganda.

“Opposition candidates were routinely harassed, arrested and held illegally without charge,” Mr. Blinken said in his strongly worded announcement of the visa restrictions. He described how Ugandan security forces had killed or injured dozens of opposition supporters and journalists, and he said the elections were neither free nor fair.

In the past, Washington often turned a blind eye to repressive regimes if they were deemed useful to U.S. security interests. But the Biden administration was undeterred by Uganda’s value as a strategic source of geopolitical stability and military forces in East Africa.

“The April 16 statement was more robust and detailed than any similar statement that I could recall during the Trump era,” said Jeffrey Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa, a pro-democracy advocacy group.

“That the Biden administration moved so quickly on the visa restrictions, I think, bodes well for future actions.”

The swift move on Uganda seemed to be part of a larger shift, Mr. Smith said. “During the Trump years, many of us who work on issues related to democracy and human rights, in Africa particularly, were often left out in the cold,” he said.

“Today, there is a sense that, while we may disagree on policy strategy, there is a fundamental agreement, across the board, that democracy and human rights are important – not just morally and ethically, but also for U.S. national security and for our standing in the world.”

Still, U.S. policy remains inconsistent. During recent elections in increasingly autocratic countries such as Benin and Djibouti, and after the military takeover in Chad upon the death of its president, the Biden administration has been relatively quiet about the need for democracy.

But on the disastrous Tigray war in Ethiopia, which began in the final months of the Trump administration, Mr. Biden’s administration has taken a much tougher stand, condemning the presence of Eritrean forces, putting pressure on the Ethiopian government to halt its human-rights abuses, keeping the issue near the top of the U.S. priority list and forcing it onto the formal agenda of the United Nations Security Council.

“This administration has been much better on Ethiopia,” Mr. Devermont said.

“The challenges are immense and urgent, but the Trump administration was really ineffective and actually counterproductive on Ethiopia. The Biden team has been very forceful. This has been a crisis, from day one, that they’ve been focused on. It’s clear that Ethiopia is top of mind for this administration.”

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