'Great Game' in Sahel: Europe Forms New Task Force, US Eyes Drawdown, Terrorists Team Up

MOSCOW (Sputnik) - As European countries agree to set up another task force to tackle terrorism in the Sahel against the backdrop of the US planned troop drawdown, experts warn that a new mission will not necessarily lead to a reduction in violence, but will help the West to retain its geopolitical clout amid the rise of rival actors on the ground.

On March 27, France and its allies established a new task force, dubbed Takuba, to fight terrorism in Africa's Sahel. It comes as the US reviews its military posture globally, prompting rumors about a complete withdrawal or a significant troop drawdown in West Africa and a potential end to logistical and intelligence support to the forces of France, a major player in the region.

A French soldier prepares for the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron in Africa's Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali, 19 May 2017 - Sputnik International
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In an apparent response to the Pentagon’s call for "other European allies to assist as well in the region" to "offset whatever changes" to the US strategy in Africa, 11 European countries (Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and the UK) thereby joined forces in a Paris-led task force to fight terrorists in the region alongside the armies of Mali and Niger.

The mission is set to be deployed to the region as early as this summer and reach its full operation capacity by early 2021.

It will be under the command of France’s regional counter-insurgency operation Barkhane but will have a high level of autonomy. The task force vows to work closely with a myriad of other missions on the ground, such as G5 Sahel, MINUSMA and EU missions across the region (EUTM Mali, EUCAP Mali and EUCAP Niger).

Number of Missions Multiplies, So Does Violence on the Ground

The international community has maintained a significant presence in the Sahel since the establishment of MINUSMA, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, in 2013. The peacekeeping mission was created to stabilize Mali following the 2012 Tuareg rebellion.

MINUSMA is tasked with ensuring security, stabilization, protecting citizens, supporting national political dialogue, and rebuilding the security sector in the country. It is currently the largest mission in the Sahel, with more than 15,000 troops.

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A year after MINUSMA was established, France found it necessary to launch its own 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane to fight terrorists.

This mission was reinforced by the establishment of the G5 Sahel in 2017. Endorsed by the African Union, the 5,000-strong group brings together Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

Now, fearing Washington’s withdrawal, France announced in February that it would send an additional 600 soldiers to the Sahel, bringing the total number of its troops on the ground to 5,100.

Despite all this foreign presence, terrorism in the Sahel is far from being beaten, with attacks becoming only more frequent, experts say.

"Over the past few years, and especially over the past months, the level of terror attacks in the Sahel grew drastically. The number of attacks both against military and civilian targets increased. In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, the number of attacks has increased five times since 2016. Some 4,000 people became victims of these attacks in 2019," Olga Kulkova, a senior research fellow at the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says.

According to Kulkova, violence is now spreading even to those West African countries that have traditionally been more politically and economically stable, such as Ghana, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire.

Salim Chena, an expert on Africa at Sciences Po Bordeaux, shares the assessment that terrorist organizations are expanding their sphere of activity beyond Mali to the entire Sahel region.

"For a couple of years, terrorist groups have expanded their reach outside Mali, and are direct threats to Niger and Burkina Faso. Since the French and African interventions in Mali, even if some of the leadership and troops of these groups have been limited, they tend now to restructure, unify and coordinate their action," Chena told Sputnik.

According to the expert, French and African interventions in the Sahel have had an adverse effect of unifying rival militant groups against a common enemy.

"The Ag Ghali group, affiliated with Al Qaeda* [terrorist organization banned in Russia], and the Saharan emirate of Islamic State [Daesh*] [terrorist organization banned in Russia] don't have a real interest to fight each other now, as they have a common enemy, share a common goal and are each too weakened to wage war against one another," the researcher said.

National Forces Fail to Demonstrate Self-Sufficiency

Yet, complete withdrawal of foreign missions may create even greater chaos as France, despite the success in stopping the advancement of militant groups in 2014, has failed to put a significant dent in terrorist activities, according to Didier Billion, deputy director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

"The assessment of the French troops' presence in Mali is not very positive ... we also know, unfortunately – and that is a suggestion – that if France left Mali, the terrorist forces would immediately resume their attacks, given the deplorable state of the Malian army, and one could expect the worst," Billion told Sputnik.

The newly-established African missions – such as G5 Sahel – cannot shoulder responsibility for security in the region either, while being poorly equipped and short of expertise, according to Kulkova.

"They [G5 Sahel] only carried out a few operations. In 2017 their headquarters in Mali were attacked and destroyed. The financing declared by the donors is limited not everything that was promised was transferred. And the forces of the national armies that comprise the joint forces are not equipped well enough, and not trained enough. According to the president of Niger, there are areas in the Sahel where the situation is completely out of control. The situation is becoming chaotic and any assistance is welcome," she said.

A recent deadly attack when an ethic militia in Mali killed at least 35 civilians in the village of Ogossagou in February, decapitating some of them, is very telling. It happened several hours after government troops vacated a post maintained there since the March 2019 attack on the village, when roughly 150 people were massacred, and one hour after UN peacekeepers passed through, according to Human Rights Watch.

Presence in Sahel Geopolitically Important for Europe

Maintaining a presence in this troubled region is geopolitically vital to France and the whole of Europe. Therefore, in light of the American troop drawdown plans, the French government, including President Emmanuel Macron himself in a call with US leader Donald Trump, has repeatedly stressed the importance of joint counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel.

"France is a traditionally strong geopolitical actor in the Sahel countries … At the same time France sees the US as an important partner in terms of intelligence data sharing, logistic support in the Sahel, and French diplomatic officials did everything to convince Trump not to decrease this support," Kulkova said.

According to the expert, France will likely do its best to retain its historical presence.

Another factor why Europe is directly interested in stabilizing the region is migration, as eternal violence in the Sahel threatens to push more people to cross the Mediterranean in pursuit of a better life on the neighboring continent, Billion, the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs deputy director, noted.

As part of these stabilization efforts, Europe focuses on training national armies of Sahel countries and seeks to avoid any campaigns like in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The common trend for the European countries involved there, and for the US, is their sensitive attitude to losses of their people. European countries are extremely unwilling to see their soldiers die in Africa. That’s why they showed such warm support to the Sahel G5 initiative," Kulkova said.

The UK, meanwhile, also strives to reestablish its influence in Africa after the Brexit. In January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during a speech at an unprecedented trade conference with African countries in London that Africa’s "partner of choice" should be the UK. In March, the country announced that it would send 250 troops to join a UN mission in Mali.

"The UK has left the EU and it is paying much more attention to Africa now and maybe by this move, it wants to show that ‘we support the peacekeepers on the African continent, we support the UN and our African partners,' so this is a symbolic gesture because I do not think that 250 people will bring an important change in the Sahel. It’s a huge territory and a lot of zones are uncontrolled," Kulkova noted.

US Will Still Remain Deeply Invested in Battle for Africa

According to Chena, Africa and, especially, the Sahel are "a battleground between great powers, regional ones and outside forces, be they private or state-owned," with each of them seeking to gain influence and control over local natural resources and governments to promote own diplomatic and strategic agendas.

Though Washington is now looking to review its military posture across the world, it will remain deeply invested in the Sahel, particularly when it relates to the competition with other powers, the expert believes.

"The US is concerned as the world power balance is shifting since the start of the 21st century, and they are more and more invested in African security policies and economies as it can see the rise of China, the strengthening of Russia following its internal disorders after the Soviet collapse during the 1990s. Also, new powers like Brazil, South Africa, Turkey now are emerging," Chena explained.

The US, for instance, has sought to boost its influence in the English-speaking countries in West Africa, which are now becoming threatened by the spread of violence from the Sahel. In February, State Secretary Mike Pompeo notably embarked on his first visit to the African continent as part of efforts to promote economic cooperation with the US in light of China’s growing regional influence. He made stops in Senegal, Angola, and Ethiopia.

Africa is, however, not a top priority for the US, whose foreign policy interests lie in the Arab peninsula and the Middle East, according to Chena.

"Ultimately, the US seeks to defend its interests there and its view of what should be the world order, but they cannot overreach and overextend as Africa is still secondary to their foreign policy which is concentrated in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Pacific," he remarked.

At this stage, Washington has concentrated its activities on the continent in East Africa, due to its position as a gateway to the Persian Gulf, Chena stated.

Is Russia Coming Too?

The first-ever Russia-Africa summit in October, attended by some 45 African leaders, shows that Moscow is interested in developing ties with the continent too.

In an interview with Sputnik on the sidelines of the summit, the head of the G5 Sahel Permanent Secretariat, Maman Sambo Sidikou, said that the leaders of the five Sahel states would hope to talk with President Vladimir Putin to assess how Russia could help fight terrorism in the region.

Sidikou added that the region would have found it more difficult to tackle the terrorist threat "without a country like Russia," an important UN Security Council member.

In December, Chadian Foreign Minister Mahamat Zene Cherif told Sputnik that Russia has extensive experience in combating terrorism, and this experience would be of great importance to maintain stability in Africa.

The idea of Russia stepping up presence in the Sahel is, however, prompting anxiety in the West.

"Taking the Central African Republic as an example, we see how sensitive the European countries are toward the attempts of Russia to help. At the same time, a petition of several NGOs is being circulated in Mali, calling for Russia to intervene and to help, and it got several millions of signatures. The representatives of the G5 Sahel group also traveled to the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi and expressed their desire for Russia to help fight terrorism," Kulkova explained.

While Russia may be looking to increase its influence in the region, it would be wrong to believe that France, at the same time, would look to reduce its activities in the region, she added.

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The expert suggested that Russia’s full-scale involvement in the region was very unlikely but small groups of Russian military advisers could be sent to certain Sahel countries at the request of their governments.

"It is also important to develop the potential of the African armies. It’s important to share expertise. Russia is training a lot of African military and police officers. And we cannot rule out that upon request, we could enhance the amount of military assistance and send our instructors that could train them on the ground," the expert said.

Salim Chena pointed out that Russia simply tries to restore its historically good ties with the continent after a period of a slowdown in the relations in the 1990s.

"For several years, Russia tried to come back in the ‘African great game.’ During the period of the USSR, it was a significant actor in African international politics. Russia is also threatened by terrorism. As a consequence, it is understandable that it wants to cooperate in security matters, even if its interests in Africa are not as important as European ones, for example, its trade with the continent is nonetheless more and more significant," Chena said.

The expert noted that the numerous international players in the region must work together and missions have to complement each other to be effective.

"To be efficient, Russia's implication must complement the existing ones, not only in Mali or Libya but elsewhere in the Central Sahara. The region is already ‘crowded’ with security missions that compete with one another, rather than being complementary, and as a consequence are not so efficient," he said.

Economy Still at Heart of Africa's Woes

Yet, no foreign security assistance can bring sustainable peace to the Sahel unless economic woes of these countries are addressed.

"There are not only security issues that raise concerns. There is a very severe economic and humanitarian situation. The Sahel countries are some of the poorest countries in the world … So, there is a need to strengthen security and to increase the living standards of the population at the same time. Development and security go hand in hand, it’s even hard to say what one should start with. In Burkina Faso, 4,000 people lose their homes every day and become internally displaced because of the terror attacks. They lose all their sources of income and are forced to flee. And it is a huge humanitarian issue," Kulkova said.

Billion agreed that security missions must be complemented by economic and political solutions.

"I sometimes have the impression that Western leaders … aim for military operations only. They might be successful in the short-term, but in the middle- and long-term, it’s always political and economic issues that would make the eradication of terrorism possible," he said.

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These views were shared by Salim Chena, who criticized the international community’s alleged push for an instant solution to an incredibly complex issue.

"The problem is not just to fight and disarm the current generation of terrorists or terrorist sympathizers and pretenders, but to prevent the rise of the next. By definition, it's a long game, a marathon, not a sprint. And there is more than one solution, as there is more than religious extremism in the picture," he said.

Chena also called for greater cooperation among countries that are operating in the region, and for a unified strategy that focuses on both security and economic development.

"The so-called international community acted in a badly organized fashion, which is understandable as each state seeks its national interests, and actors like the EU does not have sufficient unity in foreign policy to achieve real success … There could be a global, general approach, mixing security and development. States could allow resources to help and assist local populations, prove their goodwill to reshape their political relations with the region," the expert said.

The scale of the challenge facing the Sahel is thus tremendous. The solutions to the ongoing crisis are multifaceted and will require extensive investment, of both human and economic resources. It remains to see whether or not the international community is up to the task.

*Al Qaeda and Daesh, also known as ISIS/IS/Islamic State, are terrorist groups banned in Russia and other countries.

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