France seeks international support for Sahel military coalition

Part of Operation Barkhane, the new special operations joint task force would focus on training local partner forces

France has begun asking its European partners to send special forces to Mali and other nations in Africa’s Sahel region, to shore up local forces who are being increasingly targeted by deadly jihadist attacks across the vast sub-Saharan expanse.

The idea is to improve on the basic training for forces which are often outgunned and inexperienced, and free up personnel deployed to France’s Operation Barkhane, enabling them to focus on pursuing insurgents and preventing attacks.

“Talks are underway with several countries,” a French government source told AFP, asking for anonymity to discuss the potential deployments.

For France, building up the armies of Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad and Niger is the essential first step before any drawdown of its troops.

So far these countries’ armies are far from ready to stand on their own: At least 25 Malian troops were killed on Monday and Tuesday and dozens were missing after raids on two military camps near the Burkina Faso border carried out by militants on heavily armed vehicles.

The insurgents made off with a large quantity of arms, ammunition and equipment before Malian special forces, with support from French warplanes and helicopters, fought back.

Last Saturday three attacks were carried out on villages and an army unit in northern Burkina Faso, killing 17 people including a soldier.

Burkina Faso’s army, which itself has suffered heavy losses, has been unable to stop the attacks that have prompted some 300,000 people to flee south.

The stakes are high, as France seeks to prevent insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State and others from taking root in the sparsely populated areas.

“Europe will have two swords of Damocles over its head: terrorism and kidnappings, but also illegal migrants, since many are traveling through these areas,” Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly warned in June.

French and Malian troops patrol Menaka
Paratroops from the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, part of the French Foreign Legion, patrolling with Malian Armed Forces in Ménaka, Mali. Image: @2REPOfficiel/Twitter

New international CJSOTF to train and accompany Sahelien forces

France is hoping to form a new Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force for the Sahel, whose missions would echo those of the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams operating in Afghanistan.

“These men would be under French command, but as in any coalition, with ‘caveats,'” the limits set by different countries on what types of operations their troops can take part in abroad, a French army source told AFP.

“One of the main impacts we’re looking for is to bring fresh energy to accompany local forces,” he said.

The 4,500-strong Barkhane force has mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel and already includes personnel from Estonia and helicopters from the United Kingdom.

RAF Chinook during Operation Aconit
An RAF Chinook heavy lift helicopter resupplies French and partner troops during the France-led Operation Aconit, which targeted Islamic State militants in Mali and Niger between between June 7 and 19, 2019. Image: État-major des armées

The U.K. announced in July it would extend its Chinook helicopter support by at least six months, and Estonia’s defense ministry is reportedly seeking to nearly double its troop contribution to the mission. Currently, around 50 Estonian personnel are deployed to Gao in a force protection capacity.

Denmark also plans send two helicopters and up to 70 troops to support the Barkhane force.

However, the U.K. announced in July that 250 British military personnel will deploy to the U.N. MINUSMA mission in Mali in 2020 to deliver a long-range reconnaissance capability.

Barkhane focuses activity in insurgent-hit MaliBurkina Faso, and Niger, and troops work alongside other international operations, including MINUSMA, the United Nations stabilization mission in Mali, and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, the long-planned 4,500-strong joint counter-terrorism force comprising troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

France spearheaded the G5 Sahel initiative, but it has been undermined by lack of training, poor equipment and a shortage of funds. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres has long-called for regular U.N. funding for the joint force but the U.S. has pushed back, preferring instead bilateral funding for individual states.

Despite international pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in financial support, funds have been slow to arrive, although in July the E.U. announced €138 million in additional funding for the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The bloc had previously given a total of €115.6 million and said in July 2018 that the E.U. would finance the construction of a new headquarters in Mali.

French soldier fires during Operation Aconit
A French soldier fires a machine gun mounted to a Panhard VBL light armoured vehicle during the France-led Operation Aconit, which targeted Islamic State militants in Mali and Niger between between June 7 and 19, 2019. Image: État-major des armées

The bloc also funds the European Union Training Mission in Mali, which has a mandate until May 2020. Troops from 22 member states and five non-E.U. states work with both the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and the G5 Sahel Joint Force. It has trained around 13,000 FAMa personnel.

But despite the years of training efforts by Barkhane specialists as well as EUTM-Mali, the Sahel armies remain poorly equipped and plagued by high desertion rates.

And even if France succeeds in convincing E.U. states to step up with special forces, they would be dispersed across five countries covering a semi-arid expanse as large as Europe.

The U.K., Italy, the Czech Republic and Scandinavian nations in particular have elite units that could be drawn on for Barkhane.

Islamic State militants in Mali
A still from a June 15, 2019 ISIS propaganda video, purportedly showing Islamic State West Africa Province militants in Mali reaffirming their pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Some ECOWAS members have also called for an international coalition to battle the insurgency in west Africa.

On September 14, ECOWAS leaders at an Extraordinary Summit on Counter-Terrorism decided to mobilize “up to a billion dollars for the fight against terrorism,” Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said. The money would help reinforce the military operations of the nations involved, and those of the joint military operations in the region.

At an African Union summit in July, Issoufou called for the creation of an “international coalition” modeled on the alliance that fought ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Previously in May, Burkina Faso called for an international coalition to tackle terrorism in the Sahel.

The idea of a wider international pitch also appeals to Côte d’Ivoire.

“MINUSMA and the G5 Sahel are not enough. We have to find wider and more effective means of coordination,” Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said in September.

There may also be trans-Atlantic support for a new initiative – officials said in August that the U.S. will seek additional contributions from the Global Coalition Against ISIS to combat the group and its affiliates in Africa.

Inn September, the new Commander of U.S. Africa Command General Stephen Townsend made his first trip as commander to the Sahel, visiting Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Townsend was previously in charge of Coalition troops fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria as Commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.

Burkinabé forces recently partnered with the Washington, D.C. National Guard as part of a comprehensive training program, but Townsend poured cold water on a potential U.S. military deployment.

In the deadliest attack yet on its army, 24 Burkina Faso soldiers were killed in an Islamic State West Africa Province attack on a base in Koutougou, near the Mali border, on August 19.

According to several sources who spoke to AFP, the highest-ranking Burkinabe soldier on site was a chief warrant officer.

His men had warned of an imminent attack after learning that insurgents had gathered at a crossroads near the camp the day before. But no reinforcements arrived before the attack began.

With reporting from AFP

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