The White House said its new envoy J. Peter Pham will "maximize US diplomatic efforts in support of security and stability" in the Sahel. The new envoy comes at a moment when the US army is retreating from the continent.
The US State Department announced its envoy to Africa's Sahel on Sunday. J. Peter Pham, who was previously an envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region, was chosen for the newly created diplomatic post.
Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pleased to appoint Pham "to maximize US diplomatic efforts in support of security and stability in the Sahel," in a tweet about the new envoy.
Pham thanked Pompeo and President Donald Trump, saying he was "grateful" for the "honor" of his appointment, adding that he looked forward to working with "regional & international partners on the security and humanitarian challenges" in the Sahel.
Sandwiched between the Sahara Desert and sub-Saharan and West Africa, the Sahel region stretches east to west across the continent, encompassing large parts of Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Senegal.
Islamic extremism emerged in northern Mali in 2012 and has since spread to neighboring nations, leaving thousands of civilians and hundreds of soldiers dead and more than one million people displaced.
Militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have gained control over large areas across the region, weakening governing institutions and stoking ethnic violence.
US military withdrawal
Pham's appointment comes as the US has reduced its military forces in Africa, in an effort to reorient its foreign policy and military capabilities towards China. France and Germany have committed troops in the Sahel, with the German army involved in missions for both the UN and EU.
The French, who led an intervention force in Mali in 2013 to drive back militants, have expressed concern about a US retreat, as they heavily rely on US intelligence and logistics for its Sahel mission.
In a recent State Department counterterrorism report published late last year, attacks by militant groups in the region were said to be on the rise.
"In the Sahel, terrorist groups — including affiliates and adherents of al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as non-aligned groups — have expanded their operations in north and central Mali and the Tri-Border Region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger," the report warned.