N’DJAMENA, Chad — The United States came to central African nation of Chad on Monday seeking to strengthen a key counterterrorism partnership with a country that still can’t figure out why the Trump administration seems adamant about keeping its citizens out of the U.S.
Chadian President Idriss Deby had hoped the visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would present an opportunity to put the bitter episode between the two countries behind them.
“The placement of Chad in this list was an injustice done to Chad,” Foreign Minister Mahamat Zene Cherif said. He said Deby had “expressed his incomprehension” to Tillerson about the restrictions.
In President Donald Trump’s most recent set of travel restrictions issued in September, an office supply glitch that prevented Chad from supplying Homeland Security Officials with recent samples of its passports and Chad’s inability to “adequately share public safety and terrorism-related information” with U.S. officials who screen potential visitors seeking visas to enter the U.S. were among the technicalities that landed it on the travel ban list.
At the time, Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Chad could be off the list “maybe in a couple of months.” In December, a U.S. team traveled to Chad to work with local officials on outstanding problems. And in the months since, the U.S. has repeatedly praised Chad’s efforts to improve its compliance with U.S. requirements, raising the question of why it’s still on the list.
But despite the visit by Tillerson — the most senior U.S. official to set foot in Chad — the country will stay on the list, at least for now.
During his brief visit to N’Djamena, Tillerson said he wanted Chadians to know “they are welcome in the United States.” He said the visa restrictions were necessary “because of all the conflict that exists on Chad’s borders.”
Tillerson told Chad’s leaders that the United States later this month would prepare a report on Chad’s progress in meeting U.S. security requirements, and that Trump would review the report in April. He gave Chad credit for “many, many important positive steps” to comply.
“These steps I think are going to allow us to begin to normalize the travel relationship with Chad,” Tillerson said. But, he added, “We have to wait for the final report.”
Still, that’s no reason why the two countries can’t continue working closely together to fight growing threats to Africa’s Sahel region posed by al-Qaida affiliates like Boko Haram and the newly designated West Africa wing of the Islamic State group, Tillerson and Chad’s foreign minister said.
As the U.S. and its partners near a defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria, concern is mounting about the extremist group’s spread to other parts of the world, including Africa and Southeast Asia. Chad, with its long border with Libya and proximity to Nigeria and Mali, is particularly affected by the threat of instability and extremism in the region.
In October, shortly after the U.S. slapped the visa restrictions in Chad, Tillerson’s State Department announced a $60 million pledge to a newly formed “G5 Sahel” regional security force that aims to counter IS and other extremist groups. The United States has also sought to assist another regional campaign, the Multinational Joint Task Force, that includes Chad, Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon and Niger.
The U.S. has been vocal in its praise for Chad’s efforts on counterterrorism. The country is known to have one of the strongest and most effective militaries in Africa and has been a driving force behind the new G5 Sahel unit.
So Chad’s leaders felt blindsided when Trump added their citizens to the travel restrictions list, lumping Chad together with U.S. enemies North Korea, Syria and Iran. Especially bruising was that Trump’s reasoning relied on a strict and literal interpretation of new Homeland Security requirements that seemed to elevate form over the substance of the U.S.-Chad relationship.
A key reason Chad made it on the inglorious list: It ran out of passport paper, and couldn’t provide the U.S. Homeland Security Department with a recent sample of its passports. Although Chad offered pre-existing samples of its passports, it wasn’t good enough for the U.S., Trump administration officials said at the time.
The Chad issue has emerged as a sore point between the State Department and Homeland Security, exposing fault lines within Trump’s administration. Emphasizing the strategic U.S. interest in maintaining close ties, the State Department and the Pentagon didn’t want Chad on the list in the first place and have argued for its removal. Homeland Security has insisted nothing can be done until the review of Chad’s progress is complete.
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