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The Danger of Adding a Vital Ally to the U.S. Travel Ban List

Photo: SIHASAKPRACHUM / Shutterstock.com

On Sunday evening, the White House issued a revised travel ban, one that stunned observers around the world. After meeting certain criteria, Sudan was removed from the list, and three new countries were added: North Korea, Venezuela, and Chad.

North Korea seems somewhat obvious, given the current tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. Venezuela seems less likely, though the White House argues that Venezuela is not cooperating by sharing information about potential security threats. The White House goes on to specify the names of certain government officials who are banned (along with their families), and it appears this inclusion was politically motivated.

But Chad? The country is a major player in an international partnership to bolster wider development and ensure security in the Sahel region. As such, the United States ought to consider the implications of banning its partner in this way.

Situated in Central Africa, the Francophone African country borders countries in West Africa, Central Africa, and North Africa. And, like most of the countries on the list of banned travel, it is a majority-Muslim country. Africa watchers were shocked to hear of President Donald Trump’s announcement, and across social media, many Africa specialists asked why Chad had been chosen. (When I first read the news, I also was surprised. In fact, I was so surprised that I re-read the list two or three times to make sure that I had read “Chad” correctly among the new countries included in the travel ban.)

The White House comminuqué on Chad’s inclusion begins by stating that “[t]he government of Chad is an important and valuable counterterrorism partner of the United States, and the United States Government looks forward to expanding that cooperation, including in the areas of immigration and border management.” At the same time, the White House argues that Chad “fails to satisfy at least one key risk criterion.” This criterion is not explicitly stated, but the understanding is that the U.S. government did not approve of the Chadian government’s methods for sharing intelligence. It also states that Chad has “elements” of extremist activity within in its borders, including Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), although, crucially, both Boko Haram and AQIM centers are outside of Chad.

Yet, these dubious reasons aside, adding Chad to the list of banned countries was still a surprising move—as well as a dangerous one. For one, Chad has long been an ally of the West, particularly of the United States and France. Chadian troops, for instance, helped the Reagan administration fight the expansion of Libyan forces in the 1980s.

Moreover, there is the fact that many countries, including the United States, depend on Chadian oil. In the 1990s, a major oil deposit was discovered in Southern Chad, and this led to the controversial scramble to extract and distribute oil from the country. Given that Chad is landlocked, oil investors had to find a way to circumvent this geographical wrinkle. Eventually, after much local and international controversy, a pipeline was built that would carry oil from Chad, through Cameroon, and to the Atlantic for maritime distribution. Oil companies from different countries have, in turn, exploited Chadian oil.

For instance, Exxon-Mobil (United States), Petronas (Malaysian), Glencore (Swiss), and CNPC (Chinese) all have major oil holdings in the country. Most of the royalties owed to Chad from the extraction of Chadian oil are held overseas and incrementally disbursed. Periodically, Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, will pressure oil companies to disburse payments in a more timely fashion. Chad relies heavily on the income generated from oil production, and the government coffers for operations have been hemorrhaging for a few years. Between 2014 and 2017, Chad was embroiled in a dispute with Exxon for over $819 million in past-due royalties. This grievance was settled in June 2017.

Could these disputes with major U.S.-based multinational companies have soured relations and contributed to the ban? This might seem like a tempting argument, seeing as how, in 2006, President Déby very publicly disputed with Chevron over late payments, and how, by 2014, Chevron stopped production in Chad. But consider, also, the profits that, say, Exxon-Mobil alone made from extracting oil from Chad: Chad says that the $819 million it is owed is equivalent to a mere 2 percent of the royalties Exxon made. Imagine the billions of dollars Exxon-Mobil gained during the period, to which the Chadian government has claims to only 2 percent.

There is more at stake in the travel ban, though. In recent years, Chad has worked with the French and U.S. governments as a major stakeholder in response to extremist activity in the Sahel. It is a supporting member of the U.S. Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. More critically, Chad is a key member of the G-5 consortium of West and Central African countries that collaborate by sharing troops and intelligence to support counter-terrorist activity. For instance, since 2015, Chad has been actively using its troops to weaken and push back Boko Haram’s expansion from Nigeria into neighboring countries. Boko Haram retaliated by carrying out suicide attacks mostly along the Chadian border of Lake Chad and occasionally in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena.

Members of the White House have limited experience with African affairs—outside of economic investment. In addition, key Africa-related leadership and support posts at the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Defense, and on the National Security Council remain unfilled. It can take years of engagement for those from the West to properly understand African affairs. Africa, a continent with more than 50 countries, contains considerable nuance by region and between countries. It is imperative that key posts in African security, diplomacy, and defense are adequately filled, because filling these positions will help to provide the Trump administration with the expertise it desperately needs to make the most informed decisions possible.

Including Chad, a U.S. ally and key player in African counter-terrorism efforts, in a broad and an indefinite travel ban is risky. This is doubly true in light of a tenuous international political climate: Since Chad naturally has more shared interests with France than it does with the United States, will this lead to additional attrition of the United States’ previous relations with Chad? Will Chad retaliate by drawing even closer to France, especially in the wake of France’s multi-billion dollar pledge for future Chadian investments? Hopefully, the U.S. government will stop short of further straining its relationship with Chad and security in the region, though given the current playing field, banning Chad may only lead to less transparency and data sharing between the two countries. And without Chad’s support, increased regional and cross-regional instability, as well as mounting extremist activity, would become more likely than ever before.

Author:

Donna A. Patterson is a fellow with New America’s International Security program. Patterson is an associate professor of history and director of Africana Studies at Delaware State University.