French President Emmanuel Macron visits Mali on Sunday to boost support for the creation of a regional counterterror security force. While he may hope to pave the way for an exit strategy for French troops, that still seems far off.
This will be Macron’s second trip to Mali, where France has been militarily engaged since 2013, since he took office barely two months ago: his initial visit, made during the first week of his presidency, was an important symbol as it was his first visit outside of Europe as France’s president.
This weekend, Macron will return to Mali to attend a summit hosted by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta with leaders from neighbouring countries Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – a group known as the G5 Sahel. They will be talking about a joint force that could equal the deployment of about 5,000 regional troops into the vast, arid Sahel region that remains a breeding ground and weapons/drugs/human traffickers.
“This force is first going to secure the borders, particularly in the areas where terrorist groups have developed,” French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian said in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde.
He further stated that accompanying the new G5 military force would be a priority for Operation Barkhane, France’s ongoing anti-jihad mission for the Sahel region, which is based in Chad.
Macron is clearly throwing his weight behind the project—which he may see as part of (very) gradual exit for French troops.
“We think that we should call on (the G5 states) in this mission, because security for Africans will ultimately only come from Africans themselves,” underlined Macron’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, while in Nouakchott, Mauritania last month.
That said, the G5-Sahel force isn’t even operational and there are already questions about its success. So, in short, it doesn’t look like France will be pulling out of Mali anytime soon.
Security forces traffic jam
To understand the context, here’s a quick military history. France’s active military engagement in Mali dates back to the January 2013 military intervention (at the Malian government’s request) to oust a motley mix of jihadist groups who seized control of northern Mali. That same month, the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, also deployed forces as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA, or, in French, MISMA).
In July 2013, the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, was launched, absorbing and replacing AFISMA. Are you still following?
In July 2014, Operation Serval was replaced by Operation Barkhane, a French force based in the Chadian capital to fights Islamist extremists across the entire Sahel region, which includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.
In short, there are a lot of different forces wearing a lot of different hats running around Mali. Now, we also have G5 Sahel to add to the mix.
In an open letter to the UN Security Council, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO of International Crisis Group, raised questions about the co-existence of multiple security missions under multiple commands.
“Already, the juxtaposition of MINUSMA, the French Barkhane counter-terrorism operation, Malian security forces, the various armed groups – the peace agreement’s signatories and others – makes for a busy security picture,” Guéhenno of ICG wrote in his open letter. “The benefits of introducing yet another force, which is envisioned to be formed by the G-5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) and/or the smaller G-3, comprising Burkinabe, Nigerien and Malian forces, are unclear. So too is the role either force would play; as a result, their deployment risks aggravating what amounts to a security traffic jam.”
To make the security situation even messier, there are still multiple armed groups running around Mali, some of them linked to al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. Despite the 10,000 UN peacekeepers and the 4,000-strong French regional Barkhane contingent on the ground, security in Mali remains precarious.
Huge swathes of the area remain beyond the control of Malian, French and US forces and, despite a peace deal signed between Tuareg rebels and the Malian government in Algiers in June 2015, deadly attacks continue.
Indeed, MINUSMA is the UN’s deadliest ongoing peace operation. In the past four years, 118 peacekeepers have been killed as extremists target their convoys with improvised explosive devices and 1,000-pound car bombs.
“Armed groups are more numerous, they clash more frequently with Malian and international forces, and violence has spread to Central Mali,” wrote Guéhenno in his open letter to the UN Security Council.
Worryingly, the new G-5 force may actually undermine the struggling MINUSMA as there is some speculation that Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger may simply re-hat some or all of their 4,100 soldiers now serving in the UN mission to make up the regional force.
In an interview with French media on Sunday, Chadian president Idriss Deby, whose troops are considered the most battle-hardened in the region, seemed to say as much.
“We have reached our limit,” Deby said. “Even if we had financing, Chad would be either in the G5 or MINUSMA. Choices will have to be made.”
Chad isn’t the only country complaining about being short on resources. The United States, the leading financial contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, objected to the original French-drafted Security Council resolution that would create the G-5 force because it was deemed too costly (The total bill for the force is estimated at 400 million euros). The EU has already agreed to give 50 million euros to the new anti-jihad force, though the revised resolution (post-US objections) states that the five countries involved will have the responsibility of finding adequate resources.
Is military the only answer?
But for Hussein Solomon– a senior professor in the department of political studies at the University of the Free State in South Africa and an expert in terrorism across the African continent—the response is flawed for another reason.
“Yes, we need a military response—but dealing with a counter-terrorist threat with only military means is a problem,” Solomon told FRANCE 24. “There are grievances that are driving the conflict that have to be addressed.”
For Solomon, the forces hoping to quell violence in Mali need to recognize that there is a long history of struggle for independence—“the Tuaregs in the north of Mali have been fighting for a homeland for the past 500 years.” Yet he also says that desertification is now playing a prominent role in fueling the grievances that drive people to terrorism.
In his open letter to the UN Security Council, Guéhenno also suggested reorienting to focus more on addressing these deep-rooted, festering issues.
“The UN Security Council should reorient MINUSMA, whose mandate it will renew in June… particularly by strengthening its political and civil affairs components and giving the mission a greater role in local reconciliation,” he wrote. “The ensuing challenge for the state is to foster ‘nomadic public services’ across the immense and sparsely populated territory – a long-term project although one for which the government could start laying foundations.”
In May, Macron pledged to ensure that unfulfilled development promises from both France and the wider international community would materialise. Solomon hopes that he’ll keep his word.
“I would hope to see the G5 working closely with the EU so the development goals of the EU involvement in Mali can be integrated with what the G5 forces are doing,” he said. “Otherwise, the structural grievances behind the rebellion will still exist.”