Sahel Coalition: G5 and France agree new joint command, will prioritize fight against Islamic State

The leaders of France and the G5 Sahel group of states have agreed to form a military coalition under joint command and to focus their counter-insurgency efforts against Islamic State.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron hosted the leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania at a summit in the southwestern town of Pau on Monday, January 13, where they discussed security and the presence of France-led forces in Africa’s Sahel region.

The six leaders jointly announced a new “Sahel Coalition” which will see increased coordination between Sahelien forces and the France-led Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission.

In a joint declaration released by the French presidency, the leaders said military efforts would focus on the Burkina Faso-Mali-Niger tri-border area with the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S) and Barkhane operating under joint command and targeting Islamic State as a priority. The FCG5S concept of operation will be revised to allow it greater room to maneuver outside the border zones, according to the declaration.

Macron announced that an additional 220 French military personnel would be deployed to the region, and that European, African and international forces were invited to join the Sahel Coalition.

The leaders also expressed gratitude for “crucial support” provided by the United States.

Operation Barkhane patch

G5 Sahel leaders want French military presence to continue

The French military presence in the Sahel began in 2013 with Operation Serval in Mali, and evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region. Roughly 4,500 French troops are deployed, and they focus activity in insurgent-hit MaliNiger and Burkina Faso, working alongside other international operations, including the FCG5S and the 14,000-strong MINUSMA United Nations stabilization mission in Mali.

In November, Macron said France was “confirming and consolidating its commitment” to the Sahel. The same day, the European Union’s diplomatic chief said the bloc would increase its presence and the level of support it gives to its partners fighting terrorism in the Sahel.

But the French presence has been increasingly questioned by many in the region who are unhappy with the prominent role played by the former colonial power. On Friday, several hundred people gathered in Mali’s capital Bamako to protest Barkhane, carrying posters reading “Down with France, Barkhane must leave” and “France is a brake on our development.”

The criticism has riled French officials, not least after 13 soldiers were killed in a helicopter collision in Mali last month while pursuing insurgents – the deadliest single incident for the French military in nearly four decades.

At a press conference with the G5 leaders on Monday, Macron stressed that France was in the Sahel to fight terrorism, but he also denounced “foreign powers” for stirring up anti-French sentiment, amid reports that Russian paramilitaries from the Wagner group were increasingly active in the region.

“The statements I’ve heard these past weeks are shameful … because they serve other interests, either those of terrorist groups … or foreign powers who want to push out Europeans because they have their own agenda, a mercenary agenda,” he said, without naming any specific group.

In the joint declaration, the G5 Sahel heads of state “expressed the wish for the continuation of France’s military commitment in the Sahel and called for a strengthening of the international presence,” saying that it was aimed at protecting civilians, defending the G5 Sahel states’ sovereignty, preventing an expansion of the terrorist threat, and restoring stability.

They stressed the need for greater coordination in the Sahel and for greater international commitment, and agreed to implement a “new political, strategic and operational framework” that rests on four pillars: the fight against terrorism, capacity building for Sahelien forces, restoring state authority and development assistance.

The framework “will take the form and name of a ‘Sahel Coalition,’ bringing together the G5 Sahel countries, France – through Operation Barkhane and its other forms of engagement, the partners already engaged, as well as all countries and organisations that wish to contribute.”

The heads of state expressed their “firm resolve” to jointly combat all armed terrorist groups, “immediately concentrating their military efforts in the tri-border region under the joint command of the Barkhane Force and the G5 Sahel Joint Force,” and targeting Islamic State in the Greater Sahara “as a priority.”

Islamic State previously attributed attacks by affiliated militants in the Sahel to ISGS, but since May 2019, ISIS has attributed insurgent activities in the tri-border area to ISWAP, its West Africa Province affiliate that split from Boko Haram in 2016. ISWAP’s main area of operations is the Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Macron reiterated that the Sahel Coalition would continue to fight all terrorist armed groups in the region, prioritizing the fight against Islamic State in the tri-border area because it is the most dangerous. Close collaboration and sharing of military intelligence will allow forces to react much faster, he said, noting that agreement had also been reached to enable Barkhane forces to act in other areas of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

G5 Sahel Joint Force commander General Oumarou Namata from Niger
G5 Sahel Joint Force commander General Oumarou Namata from Niger speaks with French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly, November 5, 2019. Image: @florence_parly/Twitter

Expanding FCG5S zones of operation

Spearheaded by France, the G5 Sahel was launched in 2014 to improve cooperation in development and security, and the following year the five nations began work on the G5 Sahel Joint Force. A June 2017 U.N. Security Council resolution called for international support, and the force launched a month later with a mandate to combat terrorism, transnational organized crime and human trafficking.

According to a March 2018 NATO report, at full operational capacity the FCG5S force aims to maintain seven battalions – two from both Mali and Niger and one each from Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Each battalion consists of 550 soldiers plus 100 police or gendarmes, for a total of 4,550.

The FCG5S has three zones of operation: the Mali-Mauritania border; the border region between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger; and the Niger-Chad frontier.

It is currently limited to a strip 50 km (30 miles) wide on both sides of each border zone, but the Pau declaration said the FCG5S “concept of operation will be revised,” allowing it “greater room for maneuver beyond the 50 km zone.”

Estonia troops in Mali
Estonia troops from the Estpla-32 infantry unit deployed to Operation Barkhane in Mali patrol in Gao, September 26, 2019. Image: Kaitsevägi

Task Force Takuba

In parallel, the Sahel Coalition will “gradually welcome all the willing and partner countries, whose military contributions will join Operation Barkhane, such as the future European special forces grouping, called ‘Task Force Takuba.'”

Barkhane already has an international dimension, with European partners contributing troops and equipment. Denmark has deployed two Merlin helicopters and Estonia is to almost double the size of its Barkhane contingent this yearChinook helicopters from the United Kingdom currently support the operation.

French plans for a new international special operations task force for the Sahel were first reported in early October, and on November 5, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that France expected the new force – dubbed “Takuba” – to deploy in Mali by 2020.

The precise role of Task Force Takuba is unclear, but it appears to be modeled on the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams operating in Afghanistan, with the aim of improving on the basic training of local forces, freeing up Barkhane personnel and enabling them to focus on pursuing insurgents and preventing attacks.

“One of the main impacts we’re looking for is to bring fresh energy to accompany local forces,” a French army source told AFP in October.

Macron’s announcement that 220 additional French military personnel would be sent to the region did not specify which Sahel Coalition mission they would take part in, and this new deployment could be to Takuba.

Estonia was the first partner to confirm a special operations forces deployment to Takuba. A defense ministry spokesperson told The Defense Post that special forces will deploy to Mali in the second half of 2020 and that force will “assist, advise and accompany” the Malian Armed Forces. Belgium and the Czech Republic have also signaled that they will participate, but the U.S. and Germany have declined to join the task force.

The Sahel Coalition “will be able to develop the operational capabilities of Sahelian forces … in order to reduce the threat from terrorist groups and ensure better border control,” the joint declaration said.

Limited flight operations begin at Nigerien Air Base 201
A US. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules assigned to the 37th Airlift Squadron takes off from the new 6200-ft runway at Nigerien Air Base 201, Agadez, Niger, August 3, 2019. Image: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer

Macron urges US to support the Sahel Coalition fight

In the joint declaration, the leaders “expressed their gratitude for the crucial support provided by the United States and expressed the wish for its continuity,” apparently a reaction to earlier comments from the most senior U.S. military officer signaling a potential significant reduction in the American presence in Africa, after President Donald Trump’s call last week for NATO to get more involved in the Middle East.

U.S. forces based in Niger provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to their partners in the Sahel, as well as crucial air-to-air refueling.

A French presidency source told AFP the U.S. contributions were “irreplaceable.”

“We would not be able to get these from other partners, especially when it comes to intelligence,” the presidency official said, adding that Paris would be sharing its concerns with the U.S. “at all levels.”

“If the Americans decided to pull out of Africa, it would be very bad news for us, absolutely” Macron said at the press conference. “I hope that I can convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism, a fight that he is fully committed to, is at stake out in this region.”

The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, had earlier said that resources “could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase readiness of the force in the continental U.S. or shifted to” the Pacific region.

As he flew in for talks with NATO counterparts in Brussels, Milley said Defense Secretary Mark Esper had not yet decided what changes to make.

“We’re developing options for the secretary to consider, and we are developing those options in coordination with our allies and partners,” he said.

But Milley’s comments stood in stark contrast to statements made late last year on the U.S. commitment to battle ISIS and al-Qaeda in Africa. Senior U.S. officials said in November that the United States was seeking a meeting of the Coalition against ISIS early in 2020 to focus on the ISIS threat in West Africa and the Sahel.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said then that agreement had been reached “at the working level that West Africa and the Sahel would be a preferred initial area of focus for the Coalition outside of the ISIS core space” in Iraq and Syria.

Ambassador Nathan Sales, who leads the U.S. State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, said that Coalition ministers had discussed “the need to maintain and intensify pressure on ISIS branches and networks outside the core.”

“In this phase of our fight, we need to complement our military capabilities with civilian counterterrorism tools, including law enforcement, border security, information sharing, sanctions, and counter-messaging,” Sales said.

He also pointed to concerns about al-Qaeda-linked groups, saying that “the tools that we are working to develop in that part of Africa are threat agnostic.”

The majority of insurgent attacks in the Sahel are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Call for Sahel pledges to be delivered

Macron and the G5 Sahel leaders called on allies to fulfill their pledges of financial aid to deal with the crisis that has seen thousands of civilians killed and more than a million displaced.

Last year, only $300 million of $400 million pledged by the international community in cash and material support was delivered, according to the French presidency.

Across the region, schools and health clinics have been forced to shut because of the Islamist threat.

The leaders are set to meet again in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in June to evaluate progress.

“Between now and then, these commitments will be followed up by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Ministers of Defence and Armed Forces,” Monday’s communiqué said.

The G5 Sahel leaders have repeatedly called for a mandate under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter – measures which could authorize the use of sanctions or military intervention in situations where peace and security is threatened, and enabling regular funding from the U.N.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres 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.

With reporting from AFP

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