Chad’s Inclusion in Travel Ban Could Jeopardize American Interests, Officials Say

An American Special Forces operative spoke with a Chadian soldier during a counterterrorism training exercise in N’Djamena in March. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

President Trump’s decision to impose his updated travel ban on Chad came over the objections of Pentagon and State Department officials, who argued that alienating the nation, one of America’s more reliable counterterrorism allies in Africa, risked harming long-term national security interests, administration officials said on Tuesday.

Mr. Trump accepted the recommendation of Elaine C. Duke, his acting secretary of Homeland Security, to include Chad in the travel ban after she wrote in a classified report that the country had done too little to crack down on Islamic extremists.

The president announced the travel restrictions after the White House’s Domestic Policy Council distributed Ms. Duke’s report to relevant agencies to seek input, according to officials at the State Department and the Pentagon. Officials at both departments were opposed to banning travelers from Chad, concerned about American interests, as were diplomats at the American embassy in the capital of N’Djamena, administration officials said.

But Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser, urged adoption of the entire list as recommended by Ms. Duke, officials said. They would not be named discussing internal deliberations.

The addition of Chad to the list of countries from which most travel is banned both befuddled and frustrated a host of administration officials who deal with Africa. Embassy officials said they were still trying to figure out why Chad was on the list.

At the Pentagon, several Defense officials expressed anger that years of close work could be jeopardized by what one characterized as a “casual” process that failed to take into account America’s long-term interests in the region.

Current and former officials at the United States Africa Command, which works closely with the Chadian military to fight Islamic extremists in north and central Africa, said they could not explain the inclusion and referred inquiries to the White House. Carter Ham, a retired general who formerly headed the Africa Command, called the decision to put Chad on the list “puzzling.”

The president’s proclamation said Chad “does not adequately share public safety and terrorism-related information and fails to satisfy at least one key risk criterion.” Administration officials declined to provide details, but the White House and the Homeland Security Department defended the move.

“This was not a subjective exercise,” said Dave Lapan, a Homeland Security spokesman. “We laid out a very clear baseline of the information we needed from all countries, and all countries were measured equally to determine whether they met that baseline.”

The president’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, acknowledged the disagreement within the administration over banning travel from Chad and raised the possibility that the decision could be reversed. “That list is not fixed,” he told an audience at a Washington conference on Monday. “On Chad, there was a real debate.”

He said that Chad was included because of concerns over sharing of data with American officials, but added that “maybe in a couple of months they can get there” on meeting American requirements.

The development of the travel ban was an intense process that included the departments of State and Homeland Security, the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and the White House, federal officials said. After officials from across the government developed a baseline that established what each country must do to allow travel to the United States, American diplomats worked with other nations to meet the standards.

On a phone call set up by the White House to brief reporters about the ban, a State Department official asserted that the agency was fully engaged in the development of the list. But other officials at both the State Department and the Pentagon disputed that characterization.

“To me, what they did makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, none, zero,” said John Campbell, former United States ambassador to Nigeria who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He called the White House assertion that Chad has not done enough on data sharing “really, really weak.”

Even if the restrictions on travel from Chad are eased, the ban will have a lasting effect, Africa experts predicted.

“This confusion over the treatment of a key U.S. ally on combating terrorism sends the message that the United States cannot be trusted as a reliable partner,” said Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Chad’s strongman leader, Idriss Déby, was surprised by the decision, officials there said, and the government in N’Djamena issued a statement on Monday expressing “astonishment” and “incomprehension in the face of the official reasons for this decision, which contrasts with Chad’s constant efforts and commitments in the fight against terrorism at regional and global levels.” Defense officials said the designation could prompt Chad to curb its cooperation on counterterrorism.

Chad, with a mixed population of Muslims and Christians, borders countries that have struggled to harness militant activity — Libya, Sudan, Nigeria, Niger and the Central African Republic. It has battled Islamic terrorists in the region, including offshoots of Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chad’s foreign minister who worked to fight terrorism in central Africa, was named to head the African Union Commission this year.

Chad’s military has worked closely with Americans, playing host to exercises conducted by the United States. It is a major partner in an effort involving several countries in the Lake Chad basin to fight Boko Haram and has deployed 700 troops along border areas to prevent infiltration by the Islamist group.

American officials have mostly ignored complaints that Mr. Déby has overseen an authoritarian regime, Africa experts said, in large part because of his staunch support for counterterrorism. A State Department report from last year focused in large part on the country’s counterterrorism work, though it noted a financial crisis has kept the government from consistently paying the police and the military.

J. Peter Pham, an Atlantic Council Africa specialist who has been considered by the Trump administration for the job of assistant secretary of state for African affairs, suggested in a telephone interview on Tuesday that one reason for Chad’s inclusion on the list was that the country has “played a somewhat duplicitous role against Boko Haram,” and only cracked down on the group after its trade routes became endangered.

Mr. Pham acknowledged that Chad is “geographically, a country one doesn’t want to alienate.” But, he said, that on some issues, “they’ve been a necessary partner but not a wholehearted one.”

Chad’s military has crossed the border to help its neighbor, Nigeria, retake territory from Boko Haram.

Source: nytimes