The leaders of five African nations were supposed to meet with President Emmanuel Macron of France on 16 December at the invitation of the French president, but the summit was postponed after a terrorist attack against an army base in Niger — one of the five countries in the G5 group that includes Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania — that left three soldiers and 14 terrorists dead last week.
This was not the first deadly attack on military targets in the G5. In fact, terrorist groups operating in this vast stretch of land have increased their attacks which have grown in sophistication from a military point of view, whether we are speaking of the types of weapons used or tactics.
The French president called for the summit with the G5 leaders after the French army lost 13 soldiers when two of its gunships collided 26 November when they were providing support for French soldiers on the ground fighting terrorists in northern Mali. It was the worst military setback for France since the attacks against the French military in Lebanon in the mid-1980s. Two weeks later, a French soldier was badly hurt 7 December in a mine explosion in a region known as Liptako, which straddles Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. He had to be evacuated to France.
France has been fighting terrorist groups in the Sahel for the last five years. Military operations initially began with Operation Serval during the presidency of Francois Hollande. Serval was followed by Operation Barkhane with 4,500 French soldiers deployed in a war theatre whose surface is so vast that it approximates that of Europe.
President Macron said after the collision of the two French gunships in November that he needs to confer with the leaders of the five Sahel countries to hear clarifications. In a press conference held 4 December in London, where he was participating in the NATO summit on the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the French president declared that he neither can nor wants to deploy French soldiers in the Sahel region when there is “persistent ambiguity [on the part of G5 governments] as to the [growing ] anti-French feelings”. He was referring to the change in popular sentiment with regards to the presence of French troops.
He added that the G5 leaders should reiterate before their respective public opinion that they want French military help, and take political responsibility for that. He reiterated that he needs clarifications in this regard, in order for France to keep its troops in the Sahel region. He made it clear that these clarifications are a “necessary condition” to maintain the French deployment.
At the outset, public opinion in the Sahel received French troops as liberators, but this sentiment gradually gave way to a certain hostility that has been fuelled against the background of inter-ethnic rivalry in the region, on the one hand, and the stoking of religious feelings by terrorist groups against the French, on the other. Add to that the lack of economic and social development, in addition to poor governance, if not the complete absence of state authority, and the result is an unpredictable and dangerous mix.
France has lost 4,100 soldiers since 2013. French public opinion needs to see progress in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel to justify the continuation of Operation Barkhan. However, the situation on the ground is not promising. After six years, terrorist groups have intensified their attacks against both French and other military targets. For instance, they are still operating in the northern parts of Mali in the same time that they have started operating in the heart of the country. Also, their attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger have increased in both frequency and lethality
The overall situation has become all the more critical after the defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. An unspecified number of its fighters have joined terrorist ranks in the Sahel region with their hardened experience in fighting and planning and carrying out terrorist attacks against regular army units.
France has called for more help in terms beefing up the national armies of G5 countries. This will need time and money and both are in short supply until further notice.
Needless to say, if the status quo remains the same, the chances of defeating terrorism in the Sahel in the foreseeable future are not bright. Terrorist groups have greater mobility and have the element of surprise on their side. The fact that poverty is rampant does not make the fight against these groups easier.
The greater threat is that fragile states in the Sahel, like Mali for instance, could face serious problems regarding national unity if terrorist groups succeed in exercising complete control over some parts in the north.
The battle against terrorism in the Sahel should be seen by European countries and by NATO as an extension of the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. France, alone, will not be able to win this battle in the Sahel without concerted military assistance from its Western partners, including NATO allies. Moreover, G5 governments should receive outside help, military, economic and financial, to enable them to face the pressures from terrorist groups that are following a strategy of slow attrition on state authority in the Sahel with the ultimate aim of supplanting them, even if this will take decades.
Political instability in North Africa, particularly in Libya, gives them space to operate and time to recruit and train new recruits. The political stabilisation of Libya, according to the United Nations initiative adopted by the Security Council summit of September 2017, will be a great step forward towards creating the necessary conditions for defeating these terrorist groups in the Sahel.
Neither Arab, African nor European countries can afford losing the battle against terrorism in the Sahel. It should be seen as an extended battle, geographically and strategically, in the fight against international terrorism.
The present selective approach of dealing with terrorist groups according to political considerations and geographic locations is not the surest way of defeating Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.