Sahel anti-terror force faces logistical problems in first mission

NIAMEY, Niger (AFP) – The maiden mission of a counterterrorism force that aims to tackle jihadist groups in the troubled Sahel experienced “logistical problems” but they are not “insurmountable,” according to the military’s first appraisal of the operation.

The G5 Sahel force – an initiative comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – last week began its first operation, dubbed Hawbi, with French military support.

“It’s the first mission. We have lots of lessons to learn, but I don’t think it is insurmountable,” said Mahamadou Mounkaila, a Nigerien colonel, from a command post in the Niger capital, Niamey.

Nigerien service members
Nigerien service members react to contact during Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, Mar. 3, 2017. Image: US Army/Spc. Zayid Ballesteros

Construction work is still underway, but the complex is already the strategic and logistical hub of the new multinational force. It has an unprecedented mandate to operate across borders in this vast region.

Inside the freshly-painted walls, senior officers from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso sat together, surrounded by maps of their respective countries, coordinating the movement of troops on the arid edge of the Sahara.

“It’s an area which is becoming a haven for armed terrorist groups and organised criminal gangs,” said Mounkaila.

“This is what is behind the creation of the G5 Sahel force. Its mission is to track down and degrade their capacity to harm.”

Burkina Faso soldier
A Burkina Faso soldier during exercise Flintlock 2017, February 28, 2017. Image: Spc Britany Slessman, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne)

The challenges facing the new force are daunting. The fledgling group is tasked with combatting Islamist terrorism and human trafficking across huge swathes of harsh desert terrain.

Priority number one is to re-establish authority in the frontier region, especially in the “tri-border” area where the frontiers of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge, where Operation Hawbi took place.

Thousands of civilians have died in fighting in the Sahel, many of them in suicide bombings, and tens of thousands of people have fled their homes from the jihadists.

“These armed terrorist groups have connections. They are capable of cooperating their actions with those in whom they find a common interest,” said Colonel Saidou Nya, a Burkinabe who is chief of staff of the new joint force.

Niger Army patrol leader
A Niger Army patrol leader moves during small unit tactics training as part of Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, March 3, 2017. Image: US Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher C. Klutts

In these early stages of the G5, French training, air and armoured support is critical.

France intervened militarily in northern Mali in 2013 to drive out al-Qaeda-linked gunmen, and has maintained a force of some 4,000 troops as part of Operation Barkhane.

About 20 armoured vehicles drawn from Barkhane took part in the G5’s first border convoy over the last few days.

As the first operation drew to a close, Nya said that the force aims to “grow stronger and more effective on the ground to be able to better cover the area.”

The G5 Sahel has ambitious plans to number up to 5,000 military, police and civilian troops by March 2018, placed under the leadership of a Malian general, Didier Dacko.

The troops will comprise two battalions each from Mali and Niger and one each from Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

“We must also perfectly integrate our forces to be able to react effectively,” said Nya.

But much of the future success may also depend on funding.

The cost of the G5 force’s first year of operations is estimated at €423 million ($491 million), although French officials say the budget can be brought down closer to €250 million. So far only €108 million, plus $60 million from the US, have been pledged.

A donor conference will be held in Brussels on December 14 to try to make up the shortfall.

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