France, West African nations discuss fight against jihadists

Some progress but long term victory remains elusive.
Tuesday 30/06/2020
French Army troops patrol the village of Gorom Gorom as part of the Barkhane operation in northern Burkina Faso. (AFP)
French Army troops patrol the village of Gorom Gorom as part of the Barkhane operation in northern Burkina Faso. (AFP)

NOUAKCHOTT - Leaders from five West African countries met Tuesday in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott with French President Emmanuel Macron to examine their strategy against jihadist groups in the Sahel region.

Macron said the summit sought to “consolidate the gains” since the last summit held in January.

Macron had hosted a summit six months ago to help secure a stronger public commitment from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger at a time of deepening concern in France after it lost 13 troops in a helicopter crash.

According to sources in Paris, the French military are trying to ensure continued engagement by US forces in the fight against extremist groups in the Sahara and the Sahel after announcements by the Pentagon of intent to cut American military footprint in Africa.

The French would also like a more active contribution by Algeria’s strong army and military intelligence. Once adopted, a constitutional amendment is expected to allow the Algerian army to fight outside its borders.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) is welcomed by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (2nd R) upon arrival at Nouakchott, on June 30, in Nouakchott. (AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) is welcomed by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (2nd R) upon arrival at Nouakchott, on June 30, in Nouakchott. (AFP)

The insurgency in the Sahel kicked off in northern Mali in 2012 during a rebellion by Tuareg separatists that was later overtaken by the jihadists. The insurgency was sparked by the outflow of Tuareg fighters from Libya after the fall of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi following a NATO-led military campaign.

Despite thousands of UN and French troops, the instability spread to central Mali, neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, stirring feuds between ethnic groups and triggering fears for states farther south.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and the economies of the three countries, already among the poorest in the world, have been grievously damaged.

The summit, which was also attended by representatives from the UN, African Union and European Union, included closed-door talks with the leaders of Germany, Spain and Italy, connected over video link.

The meeting marks the first time that Sahel allies have gathered physically since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

One priority will be to assess affairs in the “three-border region,” a hotspot of jihadism where the frontiers of Burkina, Niger and Mali converge.

France, which added 500 troops to its Sahel mission after the summit in the French town of Pau, is co-leading the campaign in this region, targeting an Islamic State-affiliated group led by Abou Walid al-Sahraoui.

Earlier this month, French forces in northern Mali, helped by a US drone, killed Algerian mastermind Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

And in another development, jihadists respectively linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS  have clashed several times since the start of the year in Mali and Burkina Faso, according to security experts.

Despite this, problems in the Sahel endure.

Local armies are poorly equipped and under-funded, rights groups say troops are to blame for hundreds of killings and other abuses of civilians, and in some areas, the presence of government has evaporated.

Staunch French ally Chad has yet to fulfil a promise to send troops to the three-border region, and a much-trumpeted initiative to create a joint 5,000-man G5 Sahel force is making poor progress.

In Mali, anger at insecurity has fuelled discontent over coronavirus restrictions and the outcome of elections, creating a political crisis for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Macron stressed the need “to do more in terms of the return of the state,” particularly “in Mali, in Burkina, in a context that we know is very complex.”

In response to lobbying from France, a group of European special forces called Takuba, numbering 310 men, is readying to help Malian troops.

Monday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the mandate of the 13,000-troop MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali for another year, to June 30 2021.

The French are expressing optimism about the campaign they are lading with their African allies. “We are seeing a weakening of terrorist forces and reduction of attacks against Sahel forces even if the groups are still carrying out operations,” a French military official told the media, adding that hundreds of militants had been killed this year.”This all remains fragile”.

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A senior officer in the French general staff, asking not to be named, told AFP: “We have reversed the principle of uncertainty. We are the ones who are unpredictable for terrorist groups.”

“Today in the Sahel, victory is possible and this idea is taking hold among our partners,” added an advisor to Macron.

But weaknesses also remain. In a report on June 24, the US State Department said attacks in the region had increased 250% since 2018.

“Partner countries remain strong-willed against terrorism but lack the means to contain or degrade the threat on a sustained basis,” it said.

Jean-Herve Jezequel, an analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG) said it was “undeniable” there had been “tactical” successes but self-congratulation may be premature.

“The French have already talked like this on several occasions,” he said.

A source with a humanitarian group in the area, who asked not to be named, commented: “There have been big tactical successes but the long-term impact is limited or even zero.”