On 16 January, the British government announced it would send military helicopters to join France’s Operation Barkhane to help tackle Islamist extremists in sub-Saharan Africa. The following day, Italy’s parliament approved a bill to beef up the country’s military mission in Niger and North Africa. These announcements came only months after the launch in October 2017 of the G5 Sahel joint force, an antiterror and anticrime mission in the border region of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso known as the Liptako-Gourma zone.
Launching its inaugural mission under the code name of Haw Bi, or ‘Black Cow’, the G5 composite force, which comprises elements from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, has begun to overcome some of the key challenges that were threatening the initiative. Yet hurdles remain if the force is to help rid the region of the destabilising influence of jihadi groups.
One of the most pressing dilemmas for the G5 force has been how it would assimilate itself into the plethora of other security initiatives established in the region, most notably Operation Barkhane and the UN-backed peacekeeping and training missions in northern Mali.
There have been concerns that the G5 force’s concept of operations could be incongruent with existing counter-terrorism undertakings”
There have been concerns that the G5 force’s concept of operations could be incongruent with existing counter-terrorism undertakings, and greater efforts at coordination are needed to improve the efficiency of missions and avoid duplication.
To that end, amid the envisaged expansion of its operational footprint, France and the UN have deployed representatives of their existing training missions to the G5 force headquarters, in the central Malian town of Sévaré, to discuss the coordination of present and future security initiatives. If successful, the G5 force could present both France and the UN with an exit strategy from Mali and the wider Sahel without the concern of their departure precipitating a security vacuum. In the meantime, the recent British contribution to Operation Barkhane is a welcome move and could spur further international contributions to an initiative that is countering Islamist extremism in one of the world’s preeminent terrorism-embattled zones.
Another notable challenge has centred on the funding of the G5 force. Its ambitious mandate required an estimated $527 million per year—a budgetary figure that has since been revised down to $312 million. As of July 2017, a paltry $135 million had been secured by France, the five African member states and the European Union.
Late last year, however, donors that had initially been hesitant to finance another military initiative in the Sahel shifted their stance.”
Late last year, however, donors that had initially been hesitant to finance another military initiative in the Sahel shifted their stance. Following the deaths of four of its soldiers in an area of Niger within the operational locale of the G5 force, the United States pledged up to $60 million. In December 2017, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates promised $100 million and $30 million respectively. Yet questions remain about how these contributions will be coordinated and disbursed.
Perhaps the most urgent challenge for the G5 force is how a composite force of varying national, ethnic and even religious identities can collectively address security challenges—particularly terrorism—that are rooted in these cleavages.
From a military perspective, it is unclear how the force intends to fulfil a security mandate without further inflaming the communal tensions on which the region’s jihadi movements prey. Offensive missions, or even intelligence-gathering operations, will ultimately occur in areas associated with populations that could perceive their ethno-religious identities as being targeted under the pretence of counter-terrorism. This dynamic has seen extremism and insecurity burgeon in the Sahel—trends to which any multilateral operation must respond with sensitivity.
The one saving grace for the G5 mission is that one of its core tenets is to bring about security not only via force but also through reform. This is crucial because a purely military mandate would at worst pour fuel on the fire or at best ignore other complex challenges in the region. The humanitarian component of the force, which will focus on providing relief aid and strengthening democratic governance structures in the region, could serve as its most effective tool in fighting regional insecurity, which appears less rooted in ideology than in the provision (or lack) of basic goods and services.
If successful, a joined-up approach could help put communities in insurgent-embattled swathes of the Sahel in a position where states can offer them a better deal than jihadi groups can. That would contribute to restoring communities’ faith in their national governments and to lessening the appeal of the violent armed groups that oppose them.