War in the Sahel: a European cause

The Mali conflict has caught the EU asleep at the wheel. But with support from across the Union and credible, limited aims, a European intervention in Mali can be successful.  

The Mali conflict has caught the EU asleep at the wheel. But with support from across the Union and credible, limited aims, a European intervention in Mali can be successful.

It took almost three years for the European Union to craft a “Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel”, finally enacted in September 2011 after a six month delay due to the conflict in Libya. Among its findings, the strategy concluded that “Improving security and development in Sahel has an obvious and direct impact on protecting European citizens and interests and on the EU internal security situation.” Money was appropriated: more than €600 million for development, €150 million for security, and €35 million for couterterrorism, the latter apparently unspent to this time. A training mission was decided for African forces likely to intervene in the region – to this day it has not been implemented, and at last news was delayed until March 2013. The usual internecine “wars” inside the EU bureaucracy explain the failure to enact the strategy (1), as does the lack of adequate military expertise within EEAS. (2)

As a result, when disaster struck in the first days of 2013 with the prospect of an imminent takeover of Mali’s capital by columns of Sahel outlaws descending from the North, the EU was asleep at the wheel and has reacted with an unbelievable degree of discomfort. Mrs Ashton’s statement that this validated the decision to send an EU training mission for African armies seems oblivious that by the time the mission would have arrived in March 2013, Mali would have become the stronghold of the Sahel outlaws. A statement by the EEAS spokesman emphasising that the EU would only entertain a soft policy approach sounds surreal, given the new reality on the ground.

An anecdote comes back to our memory. Some weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the EU coordinating mechanism for Asia policies held a meeting whose agenda had been planned months in advance. The first item, which had not been struck out, was about resumption of assistance to the Taleban government of Afghanistan. It had to be struck out during the meeting. The establishment of the EEAS and a High Representative (also a vice-president of the Commission) were supposed to solve such problems. Instead, they have only carried them further up the bureaucratic chain.

Time is now of the essence. The French intervention is legitimised by the UN Charter, which allows for collective self-defence if a state is under attack. UN Resolution 2085 called for an African force to deal with the problem. Although this force is not yet in place, even Algeria, which has long been ambiguous about a Sahel conflict it hopes to divert from its own home ground, and which displays “anticolonial” rhetoric, is on board with the intervention (it was immediately hit in reprisal by kidnappings on its own territory).

But France will not succeed alone, beyond the initial success of bombing outlaw columns in the open desert. Come late March summer will arrive, with extreme heat and dust settling in and evening up the fight, especially on the ground. “Destroying” the enemy, as François Hollande said on January 16 in Abu Dhabi, is not an achievable goal in such a short time span. What can be achieved is to degrade the enemy's capability to project forces – fast columns of armed 4×4 attack groups – across the Sahel. That is already a respectable goal in itself.

Two sorts of solutions must be put in place and ready by the time summer comes to the Sahara: one is the active and coordinated surveillance of national borders, from Mauritania and Algeria to Libya, Chad and Niger, as well as an African force in southern Mali that will ensure that a repeat taking over of the country is impossible. The second goal is to resume political contacts with some of the outlaw groups. They are all associated with criminal activities – from the drug trade to illegal immigration networks and ransom traffic – but they also have very divergent identities: Touaregs advocating a non-religious new state; Islamic fundamentalists encouraged by Middle Eastern Wahhabis; and Al Qaeda franchises. These have federated, and should be disaggregated.

European – and French – policy will have to disaggregate emotion from realist analysis. What are the war goals in the Sahel? Certainly not to overwhelm nomadic tribes with sedentary foot soldiers employed by corrupt armies in the South. Certainly not to contain Islamic fundamentalism, which is the law of the land (however unpalatable) in countries which are accepted members of the international community. The motto should be to employ huge means, as quickly as possible, with very limited goals: to lower the number of combatants active in the Sahel without encouraging new recruitments; to control borders; to hit at genuinely terrorist behavior such as hostage taking. But neither will the problem of some lawlessness and implicit local autonomy be solved, nor that of the periphery states having essentially a police and military based presence, rather than a democratic and developmentalist utopia. Each side must respect a balance – and the expulsion of foreign fighters would be a good start of a negotiation with local tribes and groups.

France must be joined by a European security effort and presence that will dig in its heels by the time summer comes. The European Union must realise its development utopia is foolish as of now, and the focus of European action must pass on to military control and surveillance. Political efforts must be launched at all periphery states and at components of the Sahel outlaw enterprise to de-escalate the conflict.


(1) See Bérangère Rouppert, « The EU Strategy for the Sahel : state of play” GRIP, Brussels, December 27, 2012

(2) ECFR’s defense and MENA experts have long advocated the nomination of a high level military officer to advise EU High Representative Catherine Ashton. Last mention was in Susi Dennison’s December 2012 brief on “The EU, Algeria and the Northern Mali question”

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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