West Africa: U.S. Special Envoy Pham Participates in 9th Meeting of the Special Envoys for the Sahel


U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel Region Ambassador J. Peter Pham represented the United States at the 9th Meeting of the Special Envoys for the Sahel hosted virtually by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on November 17, 2020. Ambassador Pham delivered remarks alongside the Secretary General of the Sahel Coalition, the Executive Secretary of the G5 Sahel, and the EU Special Representative for the Sahel. He spoke as part of a plenary panel on widening the international partnership in the greater Sahel region, and in support of the G5 Sahel.Ambassador Pham underscored the U.S. commitment to fight against terrorism in the Sahel by strengthening our African partners' ability to improve their security, governance, and economic institutions. He also emphasized that the U.S. approach to the Sahel is to work through African institutions and West African partners to contain the spread of violence and stabilize the region. The United States believes this is the most sustainable path to building enduring peace.

Remarks by Ambassador J. Peter Pham, Special Envoy for the Sahel Region of Africa

Thank you to my friends and colleagues for their thoughts, and for the opportunity to speak on U.S. views of the political and security situation in the Sahel and how to deepen and widen efforts to support the G5 Sahel as well as the individual countries of the region.

As I said during a briefing last week to NATO with my Special Envoy for the Sahel colleagues, Ambassador Frédéric Bontems of France and Ambassador Gordon Kricke of Germany, insurgencies and armed transnational groups are a perennial reality in the Sahel.

The question that leaders will be asking in ten years is not if there is conflict in the Sahel, but rather: "Are there capable and legitimate governments and institutions in the region to manage these inevitable conflicts?"

For at least three reasons, prioritizing the deepening of partnership with the G5 Sahel and other regional institutions is really the only path to an improved political and security situation: sustainability, coordination, and the crisis of state legitimacy.

First, sustainability. As the United States has learned the hard way in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, the best way to ensure progress in the realm of peace and security is to ensure that efforts are driven by local and regional institutions and that everything we are doing is in support of those efforts.

For that reason, the U.S. approach for the Sahel is to work through African institutions and West African partners to address the drivers of insecurity, contain the spread of violence, and stabilize the region.

Sustainability is also why the United States was so insistent that the mandate of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) include a strategic review which, in turn, will inform the development - in close partnership with the Malian government and regional actors like the G5 - of a benchmark-based roadmap for MINUSMA's gradual transition of responsibilities and eventual exit. (The recent experience of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), where the United Nations and the government of Democratic Republic of the Congo, in coordination with other stakeholders, articulated a joint strategy with benchmarks that would allow for the progressive transfer of tasks is a good example of this approach.)

Should MINUSMA leave Mali tomorrow? No. But we all know that MINUSMA cannot remain in Mali indefinitely and so we must encourage the parties to begin now to prepare for the time when the region will assume full responsibility for the peace and stability of their country.

I fully believe that the best measure of our future success in peace and security in the region is the measure of our current investment in our African partners.

Second, coordination. Following the lead of African organizations and initiatives serves as an effective coordinating mechanism for disparate international efforts. The leadership of ECOWAS following the coup in Mali is a good example. Absent ECOWAS leadership, I am not sure we would have seen all international actors line up behind a single path forward. On the other hand, without the consistent support of the international community, it is questionable whether Mali's neighbors would have been able to maintain their stance.

In most cases, we must measure our success not by how well we are coordinating our own efforts, but by how well we are coordinating our efforts in support of African and regional efforts.

Third, state legitimacy: as many of you have heard me say before, and others have said today, the United States assesses that the fundamental driver of conflict in the Sahel is a crisis of state legitimacy. Thus, the only path to long-term stability is by ensuring that Sahelian states are capable, able, and willing to provide at least basic protections and services for all their citizens.

Not without sacrifice, Operation Barkhane, MINUSMA, and other internationally driven interventions have all played critical roles in protecting Malian civilians and taking fighters off the battlefield. Still, these successes are inevitably short-term: at best, they give us the time and space in which to address the capacity gaps and governance failings of the region by investing in its institutions.

These governance failings will ensure a ready supply of recruits to replenish the losses inflicted on any armed group.

Outside actors certainly have their role, and - as I emphasized last week both to NATO and to West Africa-focused meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, convened by the United States and Nigeria - that role is best as a niche capability: adding expertise that does not exist locally, especially if it is in direct support of improving state legitimacy. And, from the beginning, this support should be planned with a view to transferring capabilities and responsibilities to the affected states and to regional institutions - and, thus, have a plan for phasing out the support as local capacity increases.

Our next measure of success in the Sahel must be whether state and regional actors are able to pick up the mantle of protecting their citizens, even if that inevitably takes a different form than the internationally driven operations of today.

A colleague told me recently that he had been following the conflicts in the Sahel throughout his decades-long diplomatic career and felt that development efforts in the region had to re-start every five years or so, not making any lasting progress. As Deputy Minister Del Re reminded us, we have a historic opportunity. I hope that through our discussions today and our continued engagement, we are able to look back ten years from now and be able to measure significant and sustained progress being carried out by African and regional institutions.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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