The European Union is being urged to become more militarily involved in Africa's Sahel region amid a possible drawdown of U.S. troops and a fast-growing Islamist insurgency.
Fallout from escalating unrest in the arid scrubland edging the Sahara dessert — threatening to push deeper into sub-Saharan Africa and potentially export instability and migration across the Mediterranean Sea — offers a powerful argument for more European action. That is also the message from France, the United States and the EU’s own executive arm.
But it’s not clear whether EU member states have much appetite for more military action. And current EU policy in the region, some analysts say, appears disjointed and scattershot.
“We have more than 20 Sahel strategies from European countries,” said Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute, a Senegal-based research group. “That means there is no coordination — while the terrorist groups are coordinating, are trying to support each other and are multiplying their attacks against the countries.”
Creating a cohesive European Sahel strategy will be tested next month, during a Brussels meeting that will involve the five African nations most affected by the conflict, known as the G5 Sahel, and EU leaders.
Adding to the pressure are chances the United States may cut troops in Africa — along with a newly released government report describing a U.S. strategic shift from reducing to containing the armed threat in the Sahel. Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger make up the G5 Sahel.
The March meeting with G5 leaders “will be the occasion to see how we can have a more effective strategy in the short, medium and long term” in the region, European Council President Charles Michel told Radio France Internationale, or RFI, in an interview this week.
Guns not enough
Experts say guns alone won’t solve a spiraling humanitarian crisis that has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions in need of assistance. Attacks in three of the most affected Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — have doubled each year since 2015, according to the U.S. government-funded Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“We begin to fear the very existence of the Sahel states is threatened,” African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat told Le Monde newspaper, ahead of a recent AU summit that focused on the conflict, among other threats.
For now, former colonial power France is shouldering most of Europe’s military response. Earlier this month, Paris announced it was adding 600 troops to its 4,500-person Operation Barkhane force in the region.
But Barkhane’s presence has fueled public protests in the region — a key subject of a January summit in the French town of Pau between French President Emmanuel Macron and Sahel leaders. Moreover, the deaths of 13 French soldiers in a November helicopter collision has fed criticism at home that France is mired in a conflict it cannot win.
A potential U.S. drawdown in the Sahel would mark another setback. Earlier this month, French Defense Minister Florence Parly headed to Washington to lobby against the possibility.
France’s Operation Barkhane “will not collapse if the United States withdraws their military assets,” defense expert Elie Tenenbaum told Le Monde, but it would see fewer fighter plane dispatches and reduced intelligence operations, among other changes.
“The position of the United States is very clear — they don’t want to be involved in hard strategies, like France,” said analyst Sambe. “They invest in soft power. They empower West African countries to develop strategies against violent extremism.”
Yet for now, at least, hard power is also in demand.
“We need very strong military actions to stop the jihadist groups before they reach the coastal regions and link up with criminal networks, drugs and weapons,” Sambe said, naming countries like Senegal, Ghana and Guinea.
Some African countries are responding. Chad was mulling deploying a battalion to the tri-border region of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali that is considered the epicenter of the violence.
Mali plans to recruit 10,000 new soldiers — even as President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita told RFI his government was in contact with armed groups as a way to explore other “avenues” to end the violence.
At the same time, the AU announced it would not start using a new fund for security operations until 2023, after it received less than half the contributions it hoped for.
In Europe, France is pushing for greater EU involvement in counterterrorism operations in the Sahel, notably through a new special forces task force called Takuba. But so far, not many EU countries have agreed or expressed interest in joining.
And crucially, analysts say, France is not getting enough buy-in from its most important European partner, Germany.
“France believes Germany hasn’t done enough” in the Sahel, Le Monde wrote this week, even as the Germans “reproach France for not working collectively.”
“France now wants better engagement from European countries so it can really be seen as cooperation between Sahelian countries and Europe — not just France alone,” analyst Sambe said, “but I don’t think the European countries are following France in this strategy.”
France is not alone in urging greater European participation.
“The French are calling on Europe to step up and do more” in the Sahel, the head of U.S. Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, said in January, adding, “I absolutely think that is the right thing to do.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell offered a similar message last month, saying Europe “must absolutely do more” in the Sahel, while adding the bloc had agreed to enhance its strategic cooperation.
To be sure, the EU has not been inactive. The so-called Sahel Alliance, grouping France, Germany, the EU and development institutions, has designated billions of dollars for regional development initiatives. Overall, the EU counts among the region’s biggest humanitarian donors, contributing more than $200 million to the crisis last year alone.
Experts also note that having more boots on the ground is only a partial answer to the jihadist insurgency. What is needed, many say, is better governance and more investment in education and development.
“France has a very military approach in the region,” analyst Sambe said. “But I always say you have never seen a Kalashnikov [rifle] killing an ideology.”