The Travel Ban Against Chad Puts American Security At Risk

by Donna A. Patterson

February 25, 2018


In a surprising move, citizens of the African nation of Chad were added to the United States entry ban on Sept. 24. Initial White House reports described Chad as failing to meet a “key risk criterion” and noted extremist activity near Chad’s borders.

This depiction was baffling because extremist activity in Chad is quite limited, existing at a much lower level than in some neighboring countries and other countries whose citizens are not included in the entry ban. Additionally, in the 1980s and again over the past decade, Chad has been a key player in the G5-Sahel initiative and similar counterterrorism activities, and it is a longtime political ally of the United States. Alienating the government of Chad risks promoting insecurity in parts of Central and West Africa as well as threatening the U.S. government’s anti-extremist initiatives and American security.

The U.S.-Chadian alliance dates to the Reagan years, when then-Chadian President Hissène Habré worked with the U.S. diplomatic corps, intelligence forces and the White House to consolidate state power and to fight Libyan troops stationed in Chad. His presidency followed two decades of instability in which Chad, having achieved independence from France in 1960, struggled through a series of rebellions and civil wars.

President Ronald Reagan began supporting Habré’s efforts in 1981, the year before Habré took power, to pursue U.S. security interests in the region. The U.S. government had closely watched Habré’s power grab, ultimately backing him to forestall further Libyan expansion into Chad, and potentially, the creation of a unified Libyan-Chadian state.

Under leader Moammar Gaddafi, Libya had grown hostile to Western interests, nationalizing all local and foreign oil companies operating in the country in 1973, including Texaco, Shell and BP. Libyan hostility culminated in the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy. Libya began occupying Chad’s Aouzou Strip in 1981, and Reagan worried that if Libya eventually controlled all of Chad, it would be a dominant, anti-American regional force.

While relations with Libya worsened, Chad became an even more vital partner in the region. Reagan described Gaddafi, who ruled Libya from 1969 to 2011, as a “terrorist,” and in 1986 ordered a bombing in Tripoli that led to the death of Qaddafi’s adopted daughter.

This tension led the United States — and France — to support Chad’s war with Libya, which overshadowed much of Habré’s presidency from 1982 to 1987. In March 1986, the U.S. government supplied Chad with $10 million worth of military equipment. In addition to military support, food aid and other social support, Reagan spoke about the plight of Chad at international and domestic forums. And in 1987, Habré was invited for a state visit to the White House.

With Libya successfully repelled from Chad in 1987, the country shifted from the center of U.S.-Africa policy to the sidelines as presidents focused instead on new projects and relations with other countries to advance American interests on the continent. Libyan-sponsored terrorist activity remained a concern, but with Libyan incursions repelled, Chad no longer commanded as much American attention. Even as Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush began engaging in massive projects in Africa, Chad fell by the wayside.

During the Obama administration, however, Chad regained a more central role in the United States’ regional security efforts. In 2011, Chad was used as a landing point for Americans who were extracted from a conflict in the neighboring Central African Republic. In 2014, Chad began helping with efforts to recover girls abducted from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Chad’s work with the U.S. government in the past decade underscores that while the U.S.-Chadian alliance remains intact, security concerns have evolved. Libya no longer poses the same threat to regional and global security, and new nonstate threats have emerged.

In response to these growing threats, Chadian President Idriss Déby has mobilized troops to counter extremist activity in the Sahel. Chad has worked as an ally for the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, and Chadian troops have fought Boko Haram in Central and West Africa. Chadian troops also are members of the newly created G5 Sahel force, a consortium that includes troops, equipment and military support from countries in Africa as well as France and the United States.

In recent months, Déby has threatened to pull Chadian troops out of these conflicts. If Chad were to fully disengage, its withdrawal would raise broader security risks in the region.

This is why the entry ban on citizens of Chad is so dangerous. It alienates an ally with considerable strategic security support in West and Central Africa. Final reports suggest that there was an issue with the paper that Chad uses to manufacture its passports. For a few days in December, staff from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security traveled to Chad to help to begin the process of using biometric technology in Chadian passports. Once this happens, the hope is that Chad will be removed from the U.S. entry ban: an action that cannot happen soon enough.

Donna A. Patterson is an associate professor of history and director of Africana Studies at Delaware State University, and an international security fellow at New America. Patterson is the author of "Pharmacy in Senegal: Gender, Healing and Entrepreneurship."