In the middle of the two-week long African Lion war games which brought together American, African and European troops, the head of the US Africa Command painted an alarming picture of the security situation in the band stretching from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, dubbing it a “wildfire of terrorism”. While that language might sound somewhat hyperbolic, it’s a fairly accurate reflection of recent events.
In the past few weeks alone, Burkina Faso suffered its deadliest militant attack in years, while car bombs have targeted both UN peacekeepers and France’s Barkhane security force in Mali. French President Emmanuel Macron has indicated he will be winding down his Barkhane operation, calling on his international counterparts to step up and fill the void left by his departing troops. There has been understandable reluctance to comply from governments across the board, but if the people of the Sahel region are to have any chance at safety and security, it will take strategic and collaborative efforts to enhance stability by choosing which regional leaders to rely on—and which to push to do more to help the fight against terror.
The dangerous powder keg of the Sahel
The recent events in Burkina Faso and Mali only underscore the seriousness of the situation in the Sahel region. Earlier this month, Burkina experienced a devastating massacre, as up to 160 civilians were gunned down in the village of Solhan and 3,300 more fled to neighboring areas. Meanwhile, a car bomb in nearby Mali saw debris fly for over 3km.
Mali’s growing crisis is one of the reasons why Macron is keen to bring Operation Barkhane to a close. The deployment of some 5,100 French troops in the region has carried a significant cost—both financially, as the French taxpayer has shelled out some €1 billion per annum for the military operation, as well as in terms of lives lost, with more than 50 French soldiers killed since the operation began eight years ago. What’s more, Mali’s political situation has deteriorated sharply over the past year, raising questions about whether it’s still a reliable partner in the region. Military strongman Colonel Assimi Goïta recently instigated Mali’s second coup in nine months, and concerns over both his murky ties to Russia and his propensity for negotiating with terrorist groups accelerated Macron’s determination to scale down French military intervention in the Sahel.
Paris’s push for a more international solution
At the same time, the French president has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to walk away completely from the crisis brewing in the Sahel. Instead, he wants greater collaboration and commitment from African partners as well as other international allies. As yet, however, the Operation Takuba detail intended to replace Barkhane has just 600 special forces committed. Many of France’s allies have equivocated on whether they will lend troops to the effort, given that countries like the USA are understandably wary of sleepwalking into another ‘forever war’ like Iraq or Afghanistan.
Even so, the Sahel issue can’t be left alone, given the potentially devastating consequences of allowing extremism and instability to take hold of the region—one recent analysis determined that “if the Sahel collapses, there will be a domino effect of insecurity, wholesale violence and a breakdown of borders”. France’s allies would be wise to follow the roadmap Paris has laid out: a pared-down strategic international force combined with helping trusted local militaries take on more responsibility by providing concrete support and training, instead of merely throwing resources at them.
The delicate balancing game of selecting regional partners
Knowing which regional leaders to trust and which to lean on will be paramount to navigating the volatile situation in the Sahel. Macron has always been wise to the value of partnership with Chad, for example, and was the only Western leader to attend the funeral of longtime leader Idriss Déby Itno, who was killed in April while fighting a rebel militia. France has also prioritized stability in the form of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) led by the fallen president’s son, four-star general Mahamat Idriss Déby, and civilian prime minister Albert Pahimi Padacké.
While some of Chad’s leading opposition figures have called for a fully civilian government, others have recognized the TMC—likely aware of the continued threat by Chadian rebels and the need to stabilize the country’s political situation following Idriss Déby’s shocking battlefield death. Indeed, while Macron and other Western powers have urged the transitional government to hold fair and democratic elections as soon as feasible, they are also keenly aware of the risks of a power vacuum in Chad—particularly given that Chad’s troops are by far the most effective out of the African forces involved in the Sahel’s counterterrorism fight.
Other regional partners, meanwhile, have proven less reliable. Goïta’s latest coup in Mali risks a repeat of the insurgent chaos that followed a 2012 putsch, when French forces were forced to urgently intervene to stop jihadist forces from taking control of the country. Burkina Faso, meanwhile, also needs to be taken to task on its own abysmal track record on fighting insurgency. In 2019, the country’s security forces killed 170 more civilians than they did militants—a pattern which is actually feeding extremist violence, as many Burkinabé jihadists were apparently drawn to militant groups after witnessing the armed forces’ excessive brutality.
This reality on the ground—in which steadfast allies like Chad are few, while Burkina Faso verges on a failed state—is admittedly complicated, but the international community cannot allow chaos and conflict to become a permanent feature of the Sahel region. Prudent but decisive action is required from parties both inside and outside the African continent, since failure to get the approach right now could have repercussions that ripple far and wide.
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