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Dec 22, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

In the Sahel, a Counterterrorism Force Fights for More Than Funding

Malian soldiers outside the presidential palace in Bamako service the weapon on a military vehicle.
(HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights

  • Despite additional funding, the G5 Sahel Force will struggle to make the region safer, especially in the area bordered by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
  • France will continue to push its allies to provide more money, political support and resources to the G5 Sahel Force. Allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will use their investments to show their usefulness as partners in counterterrorism.
  • The U.S. military will soon add armed drones to the region. This could eventually provide a major boost to counterterrorism efforts in the vast, isolated spaces of Niger.

The French effort to bring security to the Sahel is getting a financial boost. French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that the cash-strapped Group of Five (G5) Sahel Force will receive $180 million from Saudi Arabia and $35 million from the United Arab Emirates. The financial boost puts the force significantly closer to realizing its budgetary requirements, which are estimated at more than $470 million annually. Although much more funding is needed, Macron has announced an additional donor conference in February, which will likely augment the current amount, and supporters of the force can feel a bit more optimistic that it will reach its goal. But funding is far from the only challenge facing the force.

Beyond the Bank

Thus far, the G5 Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania — have pledged $10 million each, making foreign donations a must. The United States has promised $60 million, the European Union $50 million and France $8 million, combined with significant investments in manpower and resources. These commitments, along with the promised funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, bring the prospective figure to roughly $300 million.

The financial success, though tepid, is crucial. But as pressing as the monetary issue is, the thorniest issues for the force are still manpower and the mission itself. The G5 Sahel Force faces deep challenges, and first and foremost is that the governments behind it are weak. Each of the Sahel states has significant problems, including corruption, demographic bulges, lackluster economies and brain drain. These issues — combined with the vast, isolated and ungoverned lands of the Sahel — have cultivated an attractive vacuum for violent extremist organizations to operate in.

Nevertheless, Macron has remained adamant that the force will have seven battalions fully trained and operational by March 2018. That goal would be ambitious under the best of circumstances, but it is especially so here because of the weakness of the various militaries involved and the structural challenges these countries face. Though France has been quick to furnish some members of the force with war materiel, the various members of the force have woefully uneven capabilities.

Chad, for example, is frequently cited as the most effective and battle-ready of the lot, while Mali has struggled to turn its ragtag military into a cohesive, functional force despite years of EU training missions and international support. Mali's struggles are a critical weak spot, because the country remains at the center of the Sahel's jihadist threat. The G5 Sahel Force's central command node will focus on the tri-border region of Liptako-Gourma, which covers parts of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and which will be the force's biggest security challenge. That will remain true for the foreseeable future because the 2015 peace accord to ostensibly end the conflict in northern Mali is significantly lagging in implementation.

Above the Battlefield

On top of the Saudi and Emirati funding for the G5 Sahel Force, the United States also appears ready to engage more in the region in 2018. In November, Niger's government confirmed that it had finally given the go-ahead for the U.S. military to deploy armed drones in the country, rather than just surveillance drones. The confirmation followed an ambush of Nigerien and U.S. troops that killed four Americans.

This development, combined with the $100 million U.S.-funded drone base in central Niger slated for completion in 2018, is likely to have more than a minimal future impact. As demonstrated in other theaters, the capability of drones to hover for long periods will be extremely useful in the vast and isolated spaces of Niger. The timing may also be crucial if radical militants from the battlefields of Libya leave via trafficking routes into the Sahel. The ability of the U.S. military to make drone strikes against such violent extremists may help disrupt or even destroy militant movement in the area. But this will depend on several factors, including the ability to gather the intelligence to make such strikes as effective as possible.

There is a certain logic to fighting violent extremist organizations far away before they can inflict damage closer to home.

France, meanwhile, will continue to push its allies to support the G5 Sahel Force as part of its strategy to reduce its security burden in the region. It is simply too important for the overstretched French military to reduce its footprint there. The financial gifts from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, align with two of their goals. First, the two countries want to demonstrate their willingness as useful counterterrorism allies; this goal has become increasingly necessary after criticism of their conduct in the war in Yemen. In addition, there is a certain logic to fighting violent extremist organizations far away before they can inflict damage closer to home. This is certainly the thinking that France and the European Union are following.

But this line of thinking has not been followed by many other countries, which have not been quick to provide funding for the force. This is likely due to a combination of factors, including the reality that for over a century France has considered the Sahel to be its exclusive sphere of influence. Other countries are likely comfortable letting France and its allies carry the burden of creating the G5 Sahel Force. Countries may be also looking at the deep challenges inherent in the region and concluding that the force — which is a small step toward stabilizing a difficult region — is destined to stagnate or fail. The force has the potential to make the region somewhat safer, but only if it receives the support it desperately needs.

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