America Shouldn’t Abandon Its Allies in the Sahel
Emmanuel Macron follows the United States National Security Council’s Twitter account. At least, that is one of the takeaways from the Pau Sahel Summit, where he read a tweet posted moments earlier as a possible sign of continued American support to counterterrorist efforts in the Sahel.
On Jan. 13, leaders from the G5 Sahel (i.e., Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania) as well as France, the European Union, and the United Nations, gathered in southwestern France to tackle the worsening crisis in the Sahel. Reports that Washington was considering a major reduction of U.S. troops in Africa, as well as potential cuts to the United Nations mission in Mali, was in the back of everyone’s mind.
The Pentagon’s main rationale seems to be a shift towards strategic great-power competition. If troops are deployed to Africa fighting terrorists, so the thinking goes, they are not in the Western Pacific deterring China or in Eastern Europe facing off against Russia. Focusing on strategic rivalry is neither a surprise nor a bad idea. Paying greater consideration to the political context of military deployments abroad is, if anything, a sensible idea and shows a commendable sensitivity to the current domestic political climate. This is especially important given the American public’s skepticism of its country’s “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, withdrawing U.S. forces, mostly non-combatant, from the Sahel would be short-sighted. It would undercut counterterrorism efforts at a crucial time and demonstrate disregard for the security concerns of its European allies. Ironically, such a move would make it harder for Washington to stand up to China and Russia, as its transatlantic partners would be focused on counterterrorism and instability on their doorstep rather than great-power competition. For the people in the Sahel, a U.S. retreat would leave them even more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks. Simply put, an American withdrawal would be penny-wise, but pound-foolish.
A Worsening but Not Hopeless Situation
The security situation is getting worse in the Sahel. Over the past year, local forces have suffered devastating attacks. Between October and December 2019, Mali lost 193 soldiers. That amounts to roughly two percent of its army. The threat is also evolving, moving south towards central Mali, northeastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger — and possibly further on to Benin or Ghana. This comes against of background of heightened ethnic tensions, notably between Fulani pastoralists and Dogon agriculturalists in central Mali.
G5 Sahel countries have not been idle. For instance, Burkina Faso demonstrated its willingness to tackle the issue by changing most of its defense leadership last year and embarking on large scale operation Otapuanu. Barkhane, France’s now 4,700-strong operation, has also stepped up, notably succeeding in killing several top terrorist leaders.
At the meeting in Pau, heads of state agreed to set up a Sahel Coalition and a new joint command between the G5 Sahel Joint Force and Barkhane. They also sharpened their focus by prioritizing countering the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in the tri-border region between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. This comes after the launch of Takuba, a European special forces coalition set to accompany Malian troops. The European Union is also considering further decentralizing its training mission by allowing trainers to leave the Koulikoro training camp and visit Malian forces in their deployment area.
Those developments hint at a willingness to make necessary adjustments. Empowering local forces through closer mentoring in the field is a welcome step. It would help by ensuring that theoretical lessons — such as bolstering the camp protection that recent attacks have proved to be inadequate — are practically applied. It could also be politically useful. Highlighting the success of local forces against terrorist groups, rather than the success of French and European troops, could bolster the aura of local governments and underpin the return of their authority.
Military efforts will not be enough to end the Sahel crisis. The only viable solution is a political one — hence initiatives such as the Alliance Sahel, coordinated by France, Germany, and the European Union. Yet military operations are a critical first step. Development projects and the restoration of government authority cannot happen without basic security.
Transatlantic Burden-Sharing in Action
The fight against terrorism in the Sahel is a prime example of burden-sharing. The United States provides limited but critical, and largely non-combatant, support such as drone surveillance, air refueling, and transport. Given the expanse of the theater, these are essential capabilities. The United States is leveraging its investment. Its measured contribution increases many times over the abilities of the French, European, and African forces fighting on the ground and shouldering most of the burden.
Withdrawing that support, as the crisis worsens and as the other stakeholders are increasing their efforts, will send a damaging message — the United States doesn’t care about its allies’ security concerns. Burden-sharing will start looking like burden-shifting. It might even vindicate those advocating for autonomous European capabilities, backed by an independent industrial base.
Gathering Allies for Great-Power Competition
Without its European allies, the United States will have a tough time competing with China or Russia. Democracies sharing common values would do well to work together to face authoritarian “systemic rivals.” There continues to be significant scope for transatlantic convergence on topics ranging from defending a global order that favors democracies to technology — the EU and France are taking tough stances on 5G — and even trade. After all, phase II of the United States-China deal will address issues, like subsidies to state-owned enterprises, that are also longstanding concerns of the European Union, with its $18 trillion economy and 500 million consumers.
Yet Europeans are unlikely to be committed allies in facing China or Russia if their attention is drawn to a terrorist haven on their doorstep. Nor are they likely to be a solid partner if they are wrestling with mass migration and a populist backlash at home. Sahel-based terrorist groups have not been able to project attacks in the way ISIL did thanks to its foothold in Syria and Iraq. That may change should they succeed in controlling vast swathes of territory, as they were on the verge of doing in 2013 when militant groups marched on Bamako, Mali’s capital. At the very least, entrenched fighting and tenuous state control could generate mass migration and bolster criminal trafficking that have the potential for politically destabilizing Europe.
Thus, a limited but critical American investment — airlift and surveillance assets — would go a long way towards ensuring that Europe remains both a willing and able ally in the great-power game.
That investment needs not be endless. Europeans are stepping up. France purchased C-130J transport aircraft and Reaper drones to fill capability gaps. Denmark and the United Kingdom have sent lift helicopters. European forces, from Estonia to Germany, the Czech Republic to Spain, Finland to Portugal, are deploying in the Sahel to an unprecedented extent, either in Barkhane, the EU’s training mission, or the UN stabilization mission.
Europeans — and Sahel countries — need a little bit more time. Pulling the rug under those efforts before they have reached fruition would be counterproductive and carries risks for the United States.
Olivier-Rémy Bel is a Visiting Fellow at the Atlantic Council where he focuses on Europe and transatlantic security issues. He most recently served as a Europe and Africa staffer to the French Minister of Defense, Florence Parly. He previously worked on European defense and French-American cooperation for the ministry of defense. Views expressed in this article are strictly personal.