French-sponsored G5 force may not offer stability on Maghreb’s border
Tunis - French President Emmanuel Macron is sending signals that Paris is looking for a way out of its costly military campaign in Mali after failing to stem the spread of violent jihadism south of the Maghreb.
Jihadists came to the fore in Mali with the flow of armed fighters from Libya after the 2011 fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the resurgence of the militant group Boko Haram south in Nigeria.
Macron has visited Mali twice since his election in May and talked on the phone at least three times with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Macron warned countries in the region against any laxity towards radical Islamists. The French government sees such terrorist activity as possibly threatening France’s interests in the sub-Saharan region, including uranium mines for nuclear power plants — a key source of electricity in France.
Algeria, however, has been wary of France’s military campaign in the region, arguing that it could worsen the situation.
Algeria fears that militarily squeezed jihadists could move north at a time when seasoned jihadists from the region are expected to return from war zones in the Middle East.
Nigeria has not linked up with the French military strategy in the Sahel, although it has been fighting Boko Haram extremists at home.
Macron’s fallback option seems to rely on a loose military grouping of five poor West African countries to form a multinational force to help uproot “terrorists, thugs and assassins” in the vast region.
“We cannot hide behind words and must take actions,” Macron told a gathering of the leaders of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad that form the G5 group on July 2. The G5 was created in late 2014 but remained a nominal military force as it lacked financing, equipment and trained officers to turn it into a combat-ready corps.
France has pledged 70 tactical vehicles as well as communications gear, operations and protective equipment to the 5,000-strong G5 force, which is to be deployed in September when its funding comes through.
The multi-African national force will conduct military operations along with a 12,000-person UN peacekeeping mission and France’s 5,000-troop Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, its largest military operation abroad.
Analysts interpreted the French move as a possible exit strategy that could allow it to withdraw its troops from one of the deadliest conflict areas in the world. Macron has insisted that France has no plans to leave Mali.
The operational handicaps faced by the African military force could push France to intensify its operations against extremist Islamists in the region so as not to be eventually forced to beat a hasty retreat from Mali that could be branded a failure.
“Concerned about France’s economic and political recovery to regain its stature in Europe and the world, Macron is seeking a solution to the stalemate of the Barkhane force in the Sahel,” said former UN Special Representative of the Secretary General Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a Mauritanian diplomat.
“He has embraced the best approach: Fight to win,” he said. “Withdrawing in the middle of a failure is not an option for Macron.”
Macron, however, may not be able to count the G5 force among his decisive weapons in the near future.
There is no strong mandate from the United Nations for the African force and Washington has balked at providing support to Paris while the strongest armies of the G5 bloc — Chad and Niger — have other issues to deal with.
Chad is deploying forces in Mali while it struggles to control its own long border with Libya and fight Boko Haram. Niger faces the threat of jihadists from Libya and the presence of al-Qaeda at home.
Military experts said it could take up to three years for the G5 to be transformed into a viable force able to replace Barkhane.
The European Union has promised nearly $57 million but experts said the force needs ten times that amount.
Algeria and its Maghreb neighbours stand to feel the effects of France’s military strategy with the additional contribution of the G5 military wing.
“Put under more military pressures by the 5,000 soldiers of the G5 whose number will rise to 10,000 men, the terrorists will redeploy north, which means Algerian borders,” said Brussels-based Algerian Sahel security specialist M’hammed Bouzina.
“Without strong involvement of Algeria and Nigeria, the main military powers in the region, there is no sustainable solution to terrorism in the Sahel,” said Algerian security specialist Yassine Ramdane.
Algeria sees the creation of the G5 as indirectly aimed at sidelining its role in the Sahel and preventing it from competing with France, a traditional rival in terms of regional influence. Algeria advocates a more comprehensive approach to tackling terrorism and instability in the Sahel, including economic development and inclusive political dialogue.
“More than 5,000 Africans from several nationalities are operating with terrorist groups in the continent and other zones of conflicts,” Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune told an African Union summit on July 3.
“The African continent faces more challenges because of the threat of these individuals when they return home or to other African countries.”