KHALED ABOU ZAHR
February 25, 2021
French soldiers set up camp in Ndaki, Mali, as part of Operation Barkhane. (Reuters)
In a dull and simple way, one could say that the Sahel region is to France what Afghanistan is to the US. There are obviously many differences, but both countries are engaged in a long-term, high-cost military campaign fighting Islamist insurgents in an effort to avoid any terrorist actions destabilizing an entire region: Western Africa for France, Central Asia for the US.
In both cases, and despite the necessity of the task, these interventions have grown unpopular both domestically and regionally on many levels. Also, in both cases, it had seemed until recently that these were undeclared “forever wars,” from which they would never be able to extract themselves while supporting local allies without a risk of serious regional political instability, as well as the risk of terrorism in their own country or their sovereign representations worldwide.
Last week, a summit of the leaders of the G5 Sahel (which includes Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) took place and French President Emmanuel Macron participated via video link. Yet, after more than eight years of military intervention, France — despite declarations of the opposite — would welcome a lighter footprint in the region, counterbalanced by greater engagement from local and international allies.
This comes only a year after France increased its troop level and after many successes on the ground, especially in the sensitive “three borders zone” between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. These include the successful targeting of high-ranking commanders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which represents a direct domestic threat to France. The area is also a fertile ground for Daesh affiliates, which represents the same risks. This is why France would prefer to focus on counterterrorism tasks, while the G5 Sahel countries take on greater responsibilities.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who previously held the post of minister of defense and knows the Sahel file well, is calling for greater diplomatic and political engagement, as well as a more development-focused approach. The main risks for France are the links between insurgents in the Sahel and AQIM or Daesh. With the current lawlessness in Libya and a difficult situation with Algeria, there is a sentiment of vulnerability for French interests in its former colonies, but also in mainland France.
This new approach is, in essence, a move toward the “Sahelization” of the conflict and its solutions. Building on the recent military successes, France wants Sahel countries to enhance their economic, social and political approaches to ending the fertile ground of radicalization that can grow the ranks of the insurgent groups. To achieve this, Sahel countries have to be able to regain full control of their territories and reach political stability. This is a tough ask, as last year’s Malian Armed Forces’ takeover of that country reminded us there is still a lot of political fragility in the Sahel states. They also lack military capabilities and are unable to face the various insurgent groups effectively.
This is also why it is not a surprise that many French analysts are now encouraging direct discussions with the different insurgents, especially as the situation has worsened and there has been a loss of popular support. The French leadership still publicly opposes such a move. This would, however, be quite like the previous US administration’s negotiations with the Taliban, while also trying to give support to countries in Central Asia to avoid any spillover or instability. It is mainly the regional states’ weakness, poor governance and inability to control the country that has led to this outcome.
In Afghanistan, as in the Sahel region (and Mali specifically), it seems little has been done on the political front. Therefore, as the humanitarian and financial costs become too heavy for both countries, there is a growing call for engagement between local political leaderships and the insurgents. This is a difficult task and there should be pre-conditions from the state side, including a return to full control of all territory. By committing last week to keep the same level of troops in the Sahel, Macron sent a signal opposing this approach.
In any case, this negotiated approach will only be successful for France and the US alike if the assessment that these insurgencies are mainly local in their demands and do not have international or expansionist goals is true, and states are able to maintain their full control. This would mean that the risk of terrorist actions would be reduced. However, in the case of total state collapse in the region giving full control to insurgent groups, there would be difficult — if not horrible — consequences for local populations and political forces opposed to them. This could lead to the entire West African region becoming a no man’s land, raising another set of questions regarding international humanitarian responsibility.
Paris would welcome a lighter footprint in the region, counterweighed by greater engagement from local and international allies.
Khaled Abou Zahr
The general view of the French Defense Ministry is the exact opposite: That these groups have the objective of taking control of entire territories in the Sahel region and imposing their laws on local populations, while setting up bases for a larger expansion. This is potentially another danger zone like Raqqa in Syria, which could threaten the entirety of West and North Africa, and Europe too. This is why Macron, despite most analysts’ expectations, did not endorse negotiations with the insurgents or an immediate reduction in troop levels. The conflicts between insurgent groups are another potential opportunity for military forces to exploit.
For France, a short-term success would be to successfully break the links between the insurgents in the Sahel and AQIM or Daesh, which pose a greater threat domestically and can be a conduit for arming and financing terrorists. France is aware that this would avoid potential manipulations, especially as there are still regions of instability in North Africa.
For now, as it looks to bring in more international involvement, one can expect French diplomacy to engage with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an effort to secure a broader UN mandate and support. The Sahel conflict, like Afghanistan, still demands long-term efforts, but an important question is which countries support, if not encourage, the insurgents in their violent actions. Confronting them should be a priority.
Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
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