Tillerson visits Chad and gets an earful about US travel ban

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at N'Djamena International Airport in N'Djamena, Chad, Friday, March 12, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP)

Tillerson is visiting Chad to seek to strengthen a key counterterrorism partnership with a country that still can't figure out why the U.S. seems adamant about keeping its citizens out

N'DJAMENA, Chad — On an unlikely visit to dusty and desolate Chad, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday told the African nation's citizens they're welcome in the United States. It wasn't enough to overcome a Trump administration travel ban that Chad's top diplomat declared an injustice.

Tillerson's message of growing U.S. cooperation with Chad, a key counterterrorism partner, was overshadowed by palpable hurt and resentment over Chad's position on an inglorious list that includes North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. Tillerson, who became the most senior U.S. official to set foot in Chad, expressed hope the restrictions will be lifted.

"The placement of Chad in this list was an injustice done to Chad," Foreign Minister Mahamat Zene Cherif said. He said Chadian President Idriss Deby had "expressed his incomprehension" to Tillerson about the restrictions.

In Trump's most recent set of travel restrictions issued in September, Chad landed on the visa ban list thanks to an office supply glitch that prevented the country from supplying Homeland Security officials with recent samples of its passports, The Associated Press has reported. There were other technicalities, too, including Chad's inability to adequately share public safety and terrorism-related information with U.S. officials who screen foreigners seeking visas to enter the U.S.

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.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the legality of Trump's travel bans in the coming months. In December, the high court said the latest version of ban could be fully enforced while appeals make their way through the courts.

Questioned repeatedly by the local Chadian media about why it remains on the list, Tillerson said the visa restrictions were necessary "because of all the conflict that exists on Chad's borders," even as he gave the country credit for "many, many important positive steps" to comply. He said the United States later this month would prepare a report on Chad's progress that Trump would review in April.

"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 like North Korea. 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 landed on the 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.


Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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