Following on from the handshake seen around the world and Emmanuel Macron’s call to “Make Our Planet Great Again,” France and the United States are again at loggerheads. This time, it’s over the Sahel.
With Malian, UN, and French forces in the region under almost-daily attacks from an al-Qaeda-linked militant coalition, France is seeking to operationalize existing plans for regional military support. Paris pushed hard last week for UN Security Council authorization for a joint Sahelian military force, part of the EU-supported G5 Sahel comprised of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.
However, the American and British delegations balked at the proposed mandate to use “any means necessary” to fight terrorism, drug, and human trafficking. They also reportedly doubt the necessity of UNSC approval and are concerned that the UN might one day have to foot the bill for the joint force. French modifications to the proposed mandate in order to better define the scope of G5 operations did little to assuage these concerns, and for the moment the resolution authorising the force remains blocked.
However, Macron’s promised presence at the July 2 G5 summit in Bamako, EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini’s pledge last week of €50 million for the group, and my own conversations with French officials in Paris this week, all suggest that France will continue efforts to make the force operational.
French and EU officials hope that a regional military force can more effectively provide security in the region and ease pressure on the thinly stretched French forces operating in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, perhaps even allowing Barkhane to eventually reduce its presence. Yet the proposed force remains poorly defined. Its composition and even total manpower is unclear, and it is uncertain even where it will operate or against whom, exactly.
As the security situation in the region has worsened, European attention has pushed the G5 away from development goals and towards security ones. This is problematic: while security is necessary for governance and development, the reverse is equally true. Moreover, the creation of such a force without greater precision or planning risks damaging or cutting short the progress the G5 has made in border security collaboration and information sharing.
What is the G5?
The G5 members announced the creation of the organisation in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott in February 2014. The initiative emerged in the wake of the ongoing violence in Mali after French troops dislodged jihadist groups who had occupied much of Mali’s north. Nonetheless, the G5 was from the beginning intended to encompass a much wider scope than just security issues. In its initial declaration, peace and security is listed as just one of eight common challenges faced by the G5 nations, with others including good governance, food security, climate change, and needs of human development.
The G5 announced the desire to create a joint military force during a summit in November 2015. Some joint operations between French and regional forces subsequently took place, but the deteriorating security situation in the north and centre of Mali, and along Mali’s borders with Burkina Faso and Niger, gave the idea of a G5 force new urgency before an emergency summit in February 2017.
This is not to say that G5 members forgot all about their development concerns. Just before the February 2017 G5 summit, a senior EU official indicated that, in conversations with G5 partners, their major concerns were with regional economic integration and EU assistance for infrastructure development. However, EU officials remained largely focused on security.
Can the joint force work?
The initial force announced in February comprised 5,000 soldiers, police officers, and other personnel, and the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) approved by the African Union is for that number. More recently, however, officials have wildly varied in their assessments of the numbers and responsibility of the force, ranging from the initial 5,000 to as many as 10,000, according to a statement from Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop. Such a divergence among different parties demonstrates the continued lack of definition of this force and potential disagreements about its composition even among G5 states.
Whatever the final numbers of the force, its composition remains unclear. The most likely scenario is that its efforts will be built around already-existing border security operations encouraged and supported by French forces. Joint security operations between Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali announced in January 2017 under the Liptako-Gourma initiative (named for the tri-border region the three countries share) will reportedly be absorbed into the G5, and similar arrangements may take place along the Mali-Mauritania border, though they have yet to be announced.
These operations have improved co-ordination and interoperability between regional forces, as well as between regional armies and French forces. However, these operations also continue to be dependent in large part on Barkhane’s forces, a state of affairs which will likely continue for some time and which will make it difficult for Barkhane to reduce its presence in the Sahel in the near future.
Mali is the clear focus for the G5’s security initiatives, and the highly-regarded Malian General Didier Dacko will command the new force. Yet Mali has few troops to contribute, with roughly 13,000 regular army soldiers according to specialist Laurent Touchard, most of whom are already allocated to fighting units. Additionally, Nigerien and Burkinabe forces already struggle to keep up with ongoing attacks on the border with Mali. It is possible that Burkinabe and Nigerien forces currently serving under the UN Peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) will be reallocated to the G5 force, though such a move could also disrupt MINUSMA’s operations.
More generally, it is difficult to see how a joint force under a unified structure would be an improvement over decentralised regional coordination. This is especially the case given the potential challenges posed by troops operating in unfamiliar areas without local support. An overly ambitious joint force mounted too quickly can cause more harm than the operations currently underway.
There is also a question of the mandate of the force itself. Based on the Concept of Operations, the joint G5 force will be mandated to “fight terrorism, drug trafficking, and human trafficking” in order to create a more secure regional environment “by eradicating the actions of armed terrorist groups and other groups of organised criminals. For years, Western and regional officials have warned about Sahelian jihadist groups benefitting from drug and other trafficking in the region, even though evidence for this kind of direct financing has never matched governmental rhetoric.
Most local armed groups, however, remain by all accounts deeply involved in trafficking.
While there are sometimes blurry borders between various Malian armed groups and jihadist forces, they are not always the same thing. And targeting drug or migrant trafficking more directly raises a series of thorny problems, some of which I discussed last year. The range of armed groups involved in trafficking (and in some cases with jihadist groups) includes some working with the Malian government and others involved in the country’s ongoing peace process. As such, it would be difficult to diminish trafficking without also threatening these groups’ funding and prompting further violence and instability.
Moreover, targeting some armed groups often involves making deals with other groups, deals that have significant local security, political, and social ramifications. This appears to be happening in regions like Ménaka, which risks manipulating local politics and political economies under the guise of fighting terrorism. Moreover, attempts to interdict drug trafficking may put pressure on other forms of cross-border trade and commerce that is necessary for the survival of local populations.
For France and the EU as a whole, the G5 joint force represents a long-desired Africanisation of international efforts: a local solution that may one day create an exit strategy for Operation Barkhane as well as UN forces in Mali. This is an important goal given the many problems posed by foreign forces in the Sahel, but the limits of such a force must be carefully considered rather than an ambitious force pushed into place without a coherent strategy and realistic goals given the state of regional forces.
Comprehensive security sector reform, training, and regional cooperation must happen deliberately and strategically, and regional initiatives should focus on achievable goals and building on progress that has already been made. More generally, as development and governance goals fade before immediate security concerns, Europe risks exacerbating the very deficiencies and government failings that helped fuel instability in the region in the first place.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.