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Washington, D.C. – This week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul delivered the following remarks at a Subcommittee on Africa hearing entitled, “The Sahel in Crisis: Examining U.S. Policy Options.” In his remarks, Chairman McCaul underscored the need to elevate Sudan policy within the Biden administration, to create a Special Envoy who would report directly to the President, and to reexamine the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.




– Remarks as Delivered –

Chairman McCaul: “I have been focused on this hearing for a while in my career. The Trans-Saharan Partnership Act. But obviously the Sahel’s getting very dangerous. It’s always been a problem and with the latest events in Sudan. I had called for a special envoy previously that would report to the President. Would that be a helpful office to have?” 

Hon. Molly Phee: “Hello Mr. Chairman, it’s good to see you.”

Chairman McCaul: “You too!” 

Hon. Molly Phee: “Thank you for the advocacy for an envoy. We would agree that having a U.S. government envoy to focus on Sudan, would uplift the already considerable efforts by three ambassadors who focus full-time on Sudan as well as the Africa Bureau, and I want you to know it’s under active and serious consideration by the administration.” 

Chairman McCaul: “Great. We look forward to working with you and my colleagues on the other side of the isle, perhaps on the process forward. It’s been about seven months since we withdrew and abandoned our Embassy in Khartoum. That’s of grave concern. I think this conflict is getting worse, not better. [I am] worried about the atrocities committed by the Wagner Group, and their Rapid Support Forces, formerly known as the Janjaweed. Their horrendous crimes include motived killing in Darfur that echoes the genocide twenty years ago. Further west in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, there have been hundreds of recorded terrorist attacks by ISIS in the Sahel. They appear to be coordination with the Foreign Terrorist Organization known as JNIM, an French acronym that stands for ‘Union for Support of Islam and Muslims.’ As I mentioned, I have championed the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act many years ago. Can you give me an update on how that is working, how that been applied in this situation?” 

Hon. Molly Phee: “Mr. Chairman, when that program was first developed for support from leaders like you, it was an innovative approach to addressing the problems in the Sahel. But, overtime, it became less effective and hard because of the changing conditions on the ground, and in part because of the way the program was structured. We didn’t optimize the inoperability that you see here. We have suggested to Congress that we would like to talk with you about how to update that program. I can tell you that both the benefits and the drawbacks of that program were considered in the design of the Global Fragility Act (GFA), and in the policy that we developed on the basis of the GFA strategy to promote stability and prevent conflict which were refocused and coastal West Africa to prevent the expansion of the problems in the Sahel to our friends and partners in coastal West Africa.”

Chairman McCaul: “Can you tell me about the Wagner group trying to provide stability, sort of like a military police force, and then the radical Islamists in the Sahel, and then you have the French. What does it look like for the French now in that part of the world?” 

Hon. Celeste Wallander: “French forces have been withdrawn from Mali, they’ve been withdrawn from Burkina Faso. They’re in the last weeks of their full withdrawal from Niger at the requirement of the Nigerian junta. So that leaves…” 

Chairman McCaul: “A vacuum?” 

Hon. Celeste Wallander: “Well worse than a vacuum, it leaves Wagner, it leaves Russian influence, and it leaves leaderships, certainly in Mali, that are not respecting civilian security, safety, and in the excuse of fighting, VEO’s often get civilians in their sights.”

Chairman McCaul: “So that vacuum is basically filled by Wagner and the Islamic  extremists?”

Hon. Celeste Wallander: “I think that is clearly solidly the case in Mali. It is still not fully developed in Burkina Faso and in Niger. It is very concerning that we’ve seen Wagner officials speaking to the leadership in Burkina Faso and then we’re seeing Russian Ministry of Defense Officials in Niger.” 

 Chairman McCaul: “You know it’s interesting. Actually, the ‘Merchant of Death’ we traded for the basketball player, the vape pipe, the Russians sent him down to negotiate with the Wagner group in Africa to swear their allegiance to Putin, and after they did that, in a matter of days  Prigozhin was shot down out of the sky. About two months after his unsuccessful coup. I found that interesting. You know, when I chaired the Homeland Security Committee, it was during the rise of the ISIS caliphate. Are you worried about that phenomenon happening in the Sahel right now, and how sophisticated could they be in terms of external operations?” 

Hon. Celeste Wallander: “One of the reasons why we have had a longstanding security cooperation relationship with the Nigerian armed forces was exactly because of the concern that control of territory, freedom to operate, would [could] create an even more complicated situation if the ISIS forces and the JNIM forces in the region believe they then have the ability to operate externally, and it’s the reason we need to continue to work with those partners — that we can work with — to counter that.”

Chairman McCaul: “Have you seen any designs or plans of them to aspire to external attacks, or is it just more focused on the Sahel?” 

Hon. Celeste Wallander: “I think at this point the focus of those groups is assessed to be in the Sahel.” 

Chairman McCaul: “Okay. I just met with a lot of the top Ukraine military leaders, and I have to say, I’m always amazed at their strength and courage, their tenacity. They’re fighters. They envision a time where moving in the future, hopefully when there is more success on the battlefield, they can take the place of the Wagner group, and replace them, and I think that would be a change for the better. I thought I’d throw that out to you as an interesting side note. But anyway, I appreciate the work you do, this area has always been tricky and troublesome, and I worry that our belt and road initiative has not been successful in Africa, and if they don’t have an alternative, they’re going to turn to other groups like Wagner or China who obviously does participate quite a bit in the African continent. This will be the largest continent in the world, population-wise, in the next decade, and I think it’s very important we keep our eye focused on it. Finally, I’ll give you an update Mr. Chairman on our PEPFAR negotiations. We’re very committed to a reauthorization of PEPFAR. It’s a tricky process up here but, I’ve been up here long enough to know how to get things done, and it’s my intention to get this one done too.”