2018/06/28 – Senegal’s president Macky Sall believes ‘you won’t settle the problems in the Sahel with flowers.’ He wants reinforcements for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma), ‘one of the deadliest in the history of UN peacekeeping’ (102 Blue Helmets killed to date). He is concerned that Minusma may have to face returnee jihadists who have been fighting in Iraq and Syria. The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations admits that it can’t impose peace, because its mandates only allow it to protect the civilian population.
These challenges could be resolved by more offensive African interventions. The G5 Sahel framework involves the five Sahel countries at greatest risk from jihadist organisations: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The G5 Sahel Joint Force, now being set up, will have a defined target (initially limited to the ‘three borders area’ where Chad, Mali and Niger meet); a clear war objective (to control the area); a predetermined final goal (stabilisation); reasonable strength (5,000 men, or around two battalions from each country); and common rules of engagement, all under the symbolic authority of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, with the support of the UN Security Council.
In 2013 Niger and Mali formed a partnership to secure their shared border, and conducted joint military operations. That same year the chiefs of general staff of the Sahel countries began cross-border cooperation, inspired by a mixed force formed by Chad and Sudan in 2010. In the short term, the G5 Sahel Joint Force will rely on French support, because of a lack of standardisation of military materials between the five armies, and because of their limited transport, supply and intelligence capabilities. But military historian Laurent Touchard emphasises that G5 Sahel is ‘entirely the fruit of African efforts’: France facilitated the initiative but is not its architect.
From 2015 it became clear that, besides French military cooperation, the G5 Sahel project needed substantial international support. Its initial €423m budget was met from undertakings given at meetings in Paris and Brussels in 2017-18, with major contributions from the EU, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the US; each of the G5 Sahel states contributed €5m. The joint force is due to become operational within months, and at least €75m will have to be found every year if is to be permanent.
The jihadists are being contained mainly by the troops of France’s Operation Barkhane, which is unlikely to end soon. Barkhane has 4,000 troops, 200 logistics vehicles, 200 armoured vehicles, eight fighter aircraft, 10 transport aircraft, 20 helicopters and five drones, and is headquartered at N’Djamena in Chad, where it has an inter-army theatre command, as well as air, land and logistics forces. Niamey in Niger hosts an air base with fighter and transport aircraft, and an intelligence unit. Most of Barkhane’s air and land forces are stationed at Gao in Mali. Smaller forces are at Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Atar in Mauritania, and at forward bases such as Tessalit and Kidal in northern Mali, Madama in northern Niger and Faya-Largeau in northern Chad. These forces face what Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta calls ‘pseudo-religious highway terrorism’, involving hit-and-run attacks, assassinations, abductions and roadside bombs. This is a war without a front, with no refuge or sanctuary, a diffuse threat, ‘background harassment,’ says General Jean-François Ferlet, who nevertheless believes that the situation is ‘under control, even if it’s not satisfactory.’
Barkhane has made it possible to reduce the jihadist groups’ nuisance capability. They now avoid combat and hide among the population. The area where security needs to be restored covers 5m sq km, more than the EU. This dilution calls for the reorganisation of a force that already costs over a million euros a day. Mere tactical successes do not make a strategic victory. Is that even attainable for a foreign force, sent by a former colonial power and in danger of becoming bunkerised?
This position looks more difficult to maintain since efforts to reach a political solution are at a standstill, especially in Mali. On 11 April the UN Security Council threatened sanctions against signatories to the Algiers Accord (between the Malian government and armed groups in the north) who obstruct its implementation. A group of African and European researchers has recommended‘a moratorium on targeted strikes when the Sahel states decide to open a dialogue with armed groups, including jihadists’ (1) — an allusion to attempts at negotiation by some governments that have been thwarted by the continuation of military operations on the ground. The group emphasises that ‘a reduction of the French military footprint in some areas could help build trust with Algeria and with some of the local populations, to whom the French presence feels like provocation.’
Le Monde Diplomatique
Sahel-Elite /Picture: In action: a Tigre helicopter of France’s Operation Barkhane in central Mali, part of a joint anti-jihadist force across the Sahel
Daphné Benoit · AFP · Getty