G5 Sahel counterterrorism force explained

Analysts say creation of five-nation counterterrorism force in the Sahel region is likely to cause more harm than good.

Mali Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron observed operations in northern Mali in May [Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA]

The US government has pledged $60m to a United Nations-backed counterterrorism force geared to tackle rebel groups in the troubled Sahel region.

The initiative, known as the G5 Sahel Force, involving Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania, will see a 5,000-strong battalion of troops operate in the region, which has been hit hard by instability and illicit activity, including human trafficking, arms sales and drug smuggling.

The Sahel, traversing Central and West Africa, is considered a hotbed of lawlessness, insecurity and impoverishment, with many living in a permanent state of neglect. 

The situation in the region has been compounded by the crisis in Mali, which began in 2013, and by increasing drought. A hollow state presence has left millions at the mercy of the climate and non-state armed groups.

Despite the presence of peacekeepers and French troops, rebel groups have taken advantage of porous borders and ungoverned areas to spread into other parts of the Sahel.

Since 2016, there have been attacks in western Niger and Burkina Faso, raising concerns of a larger regional conflict.

Al Jazeera looks at the recent developments in the Sahel and asks if a military-first solution is the way forward towards addressing the needs of a complex region.

What is the G5 Sahel and when did this cooperation begin?

The G5 Sahel, made up of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger, was launched in 2014 in a bid to improve cooperation on development policies and security matters in West Africa.

From its inception, the group has positioned itself as a key regional interlocutor on security issues for the Sahel.

In February 2017, leaders of the G5, together with French President Emmanuel Macron, announced the formation of a force known as the G5 Sahel Force, or the FC-G5S, that is meant to fight armed groups and transnational crime.

“The idea of having a combined force arose quite early in its life, partly due to the reality of cross-border incursions in key zones that are now identified as priority areas for the force (like the Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger border zone),” Philippe Frowd, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of York, told Al Jazeera.

The AU Peace and Security Council endorsed it in April, and the UN Security Council unanimously welcomed the resolution, supporting its formation in June. The Force was officially launched in July 2017. 

Where will G5 Force be based and who are they fighting?

According to Institute for Security Studies, based in Pretoria, South Africa, the G5 Sahel Force’s official mandate is to combat “terrorism” and drug trafficking, contribute to the restoration of state authority and the return of displaced persons, facilitate humanitarian operation and deliver aid, and contribute to implementing development. 

There will be three main operations.

The first alone along the Mali-Mauritania border; the second on the cross-border region between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger known as Liptako Gourma, and lastly on the Niger-Chad border.

High on the agenda will be tackling groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), Jamaat al-Nasr al-Islam, Ansar al-Dine, as well as Katiba Masine (an affiliate of Ansar al-Dine), among other groups.

Analysts, including Frowd, say that talk about fighting drug trafficking is likely to remain rhetoric.

While others, such as Bruno Charbonneau, a professor of political science at Laurentian University, Canada, as well as director of the Centre Franco Paix and the Raoul-Dandurand Chair, says the French, like the EU, are concerned with how instability would result in migrants and illicit goods flowing to Europe.

“As for the US, it’s all about their global war on terror, ensuring stability (here, with the French, they share and assessment that Chad must not fall, nor should Niger),” he told Al Jazeera.

What will the G5 Sahel Force cost and who is paying?

It is estimated that annual costs will be close to $500m. The United Nations Security Council said responsibility for funding lies with the G5, though it has encouraged support from the international community.

The five African countries have collectively pledged $57m between them, while the European Union offered to match that amount. In October, the US pledged an additional $60m.

In December 2017, a donor conference will be held in Brussels to try and make up the shortfall.

Is it an African-led initiative or a French one?

Though the initiative will be African-led, it is a matter of some contention whose agenda the force will be serving, especially if the majority of funds will come from outside the continent.

The French have had troops in the region since January 2013, known as the Serval operation, aimed at confronting al-Qaeda-linked Tuareg separatists in northern Mali.

The operation expanded to the region as Operation Barkhane in 2014, as the French looked to root out “terror threats” to their allies as well as on home soil.

“The French see the G5 force has their exit strategy to get out of the Sahel, but everyone more or less knows that the G5 Sahel Force will not be able to function without French (and likely US and EU) support,” Charbonneau said.

“The G5 is claimed to be an ‘African solution’, which is only partly true. In reality, it is first a Franco-African affair, but one that involves and enjoys the support of the African Union, the EU and the US to various extent and involvement,” he added.

But Frowd said, although the G5 Sahel Force has a huge amount of French backing, both diplomatic and financial, he would not describe it as a Western proxy.

“In fact, it is fairer to say that the G5 Sahel is a proxy for regional leaders such as Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou and Chad’s Idriss Deby, who have been adept at courting Western partners on counterterrorism and irregular migration,” he said.

Others, such as William Assanvo, an Abidjan-based senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said it would be amiss to describe the intervention as “only a French-led initiative”.

“It is definitely supported by the countries in the region, and they [African countries] are the main actors in the field,” he told Al Jazeera.

Likewise, Nicolas Desgrais, a PhD Candidate at the University of Kent, working on the military cooperation and regional security mechanisms in the Sahel, told Al Jazeera that the key difference was that this was an African counterterror operation supported by international partners (France, US, European Union and United Nations) and “not an external counterterror operation”.

Who will be in charge of the Force?

The force will be headed by General Didier Dacko, the former chief of staff of the Malian Armed Forces, but it is still not clear what type of role would be handed to the US or the French.

“To ensure good cooperation between all the military forces in the region, the French Operation Barkhane and the UN Mission in Mali sent liaison officers to the headquarters of the Joint Force, which is located in Sevare,” Desgrais said, adding that, “cooperation during planning is totally different from the control of the force”.

It is still unclear what role the US will play, but the move to support the G5 force fits part of the growing US footprint on the continent, which has quietly expanded since 2008 with the launch of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM).

There are already large drone bases in Djibouti and Niger underlining a shadow war in the Sahel.

“What is clear is that the force will not be able to function without French support, for logistics, intelligence, and likely air support,” Charbonneau said.

What are the risks of implementing a military-first solution?

Some analysts have criticised the move to propose a military solution for a region hit hard by poverty and unemployment.

Estimates vary, but that there are reportedly 500 fighters in Mali and around 1,000 others across the Sahel.

Charbonneau says the G5 Force is an ill-conceived escalation: “You have about 12,000 UN troops, 4,000 French, at least 800 American, and now maybe 5,000 G5. And what for? Maybe 500-1,000 terrorists who plant road bombs here and there?

“Their attacks are hence limited to asymmetric attacks. But what happens if you send in 5,000 troops to do counterterrorism, potentially harass people and impact their livelihood from trafficking? Don’t you create incentives for more violence and recruitment? Don’t you create an environment where asymmetric attacks are no longer enough? 

“Perhaps, then, the terrorist recruits start believing the ideology, the ranks grow, and thus the nature of combat and the threat change,” Charbonneau added.

Likewise, Frowd said that a military-first solution is a dangerous approach, especially by a force with such obvious external backing.

“We should be wary of any further militarisation of responses to these phenomena which, after all, have huge knock-on effects on delicate social structures in the Sahel.” 

Assanvo concurred that while there is a need to tackle rising “extremism” in the region, he agrees that a military solution is not going to be a remedy.

“They will need to be well-versed with the particulars of the region they are working in … this is an asymmetrical conflict, and many fighters do not wear a uniform, and live within the population,” Assanvo said.

“Also, in these areas, the criminal economy is part of the informal economy, which means that the force will have to be very careful in what they decide to tackle, else the population will turn against them.”

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa

Source: Al Jazeera