It is time for Europe to learn from its mistakes in the Sahel

Foreign engagement and military architecture expansion will not bring security and stability to the restive region.

People celebrate in the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to rally in support of the new military junta
People take to the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Tuesday Jan. 25, 2022 to rally in support of the new military junta that ousted President Roch Kabore and seized control of the country. [Sophie Garcia/AP Photo]

Last month, while Europe’s attention was firmly focused on the imperial brinkmanship unfolding between the United States and Russia at its eastern edge, Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares warned NATO not to neglect “southern security challenges”.

“The Mediterranean, the Maghreb, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa are vital for NATO and for Europe,” Albares said in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper before a NATO summit in Madrid. “We talk about a NATO 360-degree approach but, without content, this will be just a slogan … NATO needs to think about what its role is going to be.”

In addition to diplomatic rifts in North Africa, Albares pointed to “jihadism”, “illicit trafficking of humans, arms and drugs”, and the emergence of new military regimes in the Sahel to explain why he believes NATO should deepen its engagement with the region.

Curiously though, Albares failed to mention that during the past decade, all the main security threats the Sahel is facing today – especially those from armed insurgencies, trafficking networks and emboldened militaries – have been encouraged and exacerbated by the very type of foreign engagement and military architecture expansion that he appears to be advocating for today.

From counterinsurgency failures to military coups

European powers and their partners around the globe have been attempting to resolve the Sahel’s security challenges militarily for almost a decade.

France’s contemporary counterinsurgency campaign in the Sahel began in January 2013 as a geographically and operationally restricted excursion. Dubbed Operation Serval, this initial effort involving more than 4,000 troops was aimed at stopping armed groups from advancing southward in Mali. Since the completion of this task in July 2014, however, the French campaign has morphed into a much more ambitious, unwieldy, and intractable operation. Re-named Operation Barkhane, in its new form the effort gained support from an array of countries, including the United Kingdom and Sweden, and expanded its scope across the Sahel region.

A few months after the beginning of the initial French effort, in April 2013, the United Nations established its own peacekeeping mission in Mali to stabilise the country, and deployed more than 13,000 troops from around the world to Mali.

A year later in February 2014, five Sahel countries, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, came together to form a security cooperation framework to battle armed groups in the region. Dubbed G5 Sahel, the framework appears focused on pursuing regionally relevant military strategies in the fight against armed groups, yet remains heavily reliant on external funding and support. Accordingly, since its inception, it has often ended up furthering not regional but external, and especially European, security interests.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Operation Barkhane will officially come to an end in the first quarter of 2022. Nevertheless, he insisted that this would not translate into a full French withdrawal from the region. Indeed, the European military task force dubbed “Takuba”, which was formed in March 2020 and operates across the Sahel in coordination with G5-Sahel partners, already includes hundreds of French troops and this number is expected to increase in the future.

Despite this extensive and seemingly ever-expanding military presence, however, European and other international powers had very little success in the region. Far from preventing the problems it is tasked with resolving, this military architecture has presided over a proliferation in civilian fatalities, displacement, and violent insurgency activity.

While France’s Operation Serval succeeded in preventing armed groups from taking over Mali’s capital Bamako in 2013, local affiliates of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) remain present in central and northern Mali to this day, and have expanded their operations to northern Burkina Faso and western Niger. Furthermore, this grave lack of security is allowing trafficking networks to operate with impunity across the region.

More worrying still, regional security forces working in cooperation with foreign powers have been as brutal and careless in their conduct as the enemies they have been fighting. Since the beginning of the counterinsurgency efforts, Europe’s strategic partners in Sahel have been accused of unlawfully targeting and killing hundreds of civilians in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.

In the last two years, the failure of international efforts to contain armed groups and keep civilians safe, coupled with the corruption and weakness of civilian governments in the region, led to a wave of military coups in the Sahel.

In Mali, taking advantage of the popular anger about irregularities in the 2018 legislative election and the deteriorating security situation in the north of the country, the military staged two coups, first in August  2020 and then in May 2021. Similarly in Burkina Faso, pointing to his government’s inability to defend the country against armed groups, the military toppled President Roch Kabora in January 2022. And in both countries, the citizens firmly put their support behind the newly established juntas and made it clear that they blame not only their civilian governments but also European powers and international bodies leading counterinsurgency operations in the Sahel for the security and political crises in the region.

Indeed, popular discontent with Europe and especially France has long been growing in the Sahel. In November 2021, for example, protesters in Burkina Faso and Niger hampered a large French military supply convoy travelling from Ivory Coast to Mali. In Burkina Faso’s northern Kaya region, protesters carrying banners that read “French army get out” and “Free the Sahel” blocked the road and prevented the convoy from moving for several days. In western Niger, two people were killed in unclear circumstances when the same convoy attempted to escape anti-France protesters.

Expansion of the existing military architecture cannot end the security crisis in the Sahel

With the aforementioned decade-long failures, coupled with the region’s sordid colonial history, it is unsurprising that local populations lost all faith in Europe-led counterinsurgency campaigns in the Sahel. In fact, citizens of Mali and Burkina Faso have enthusiastically welcomed recent rumours of increased cooperation between Russia and Sahelian states – even including those about a possible deal between the Malian state and infamous Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group. These days Russian flags are a common sight at pro-military junta and anti-France demonstrations both in Mali and Burkina Faso.

In light of growing anti-European and pro-Russian sentiment in the Sahel, coupled with persistent security challenges that also have a direct impact on Europe, it is perhaps understandable for European governments to look at the region solely through the lens of their geopolitical interests, like Jose Manuel Albares did when he called for NATO to deepen its engagement in the Sahel.

But this strategy has been tested – and repeatedly failed. European powers using the Sahel as a laboratory to test their military prowess led to nothing but violence, instability and democratic backsliding in the past decade. If NATO decides to continue with this harmful trend, and enters into a new power competition with Russia in the region, the result can only be more death, devastation and insecurity. It is high time for Europe to learn from its mistakes in the Sahel. If it fails to do so not only the region, but also Europe itself will have to suffer the consequences.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.