What the United States’ financial commitment to a multilateral security force in West Africa means for its relations with Europe
On Oct. 4, 2017, four American service members were killed in an ambush in Niger. Rather than organizing its own counterterrorism effort in the region, the United States was gradually coaxed into committing more funds to a multilateral, regional offensive backed by France. Washington has decided to keep the Sahel at arm’s length for the moment, allowing France and its regional partners, the so-called “G5 Sahel” (Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Chad) to manage joint security efforts. It may eventually become difficult for the US to refrain from increasing its military commitment, but, for now, France has achieved a rare feat in the post-Cold War era: It has taken a leadership role in transatlantic security cooperation. Despite the loss of American troops, France has convinced American policymakers to take a path to addressing shared security concerns that does not involve increased American military intervention.
The US committed $60 million to the G5 Sahel’s new force on Oct. 30. That is 12 percent of the force’s $500 million funding goal, more than the equal contributions from the European Union and the G5 Sahel as a whole ($56 million each) or the $8 million that France has pledged. Even if a donor conference this December in Brussels manages to make up the difference, it is unlikely that any other nation will commit more to the military force than the US.
The US’s financial commitment is only the most recent in a set of responses to lawlessness and terrorism in the Sahel. Violent extremism has been on the rise in recent years, and efforts to curtail the spread of violence have failed. The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which has over 13,000 troops, is ineffective and hamstrung by its inability to wage an offensive campaign against terrorists and outlaws. France and the G5 Sahel (Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Chad) have concluded that a multilateral offensive is required to address the challenges posed by radicals and bandits in the region.
The tip of the spear in a new offensive against terrorists, human and drug traffickers, and arms dealers, is a force of 5,000 soldiers to be fielded by the G5 Sahel. These troops are currently supported by about 4,000 French troops, as well as 800 American service members on a non-offensive training and advisory mission. The US arrived late to the newest solution to the perennial disorder in the region, and has not committed any more “boots on the ground”, offensive or otherwise. Effectively, France continues to run the show in the Sahel, but with increased American financial and political support.
At the end of the administration of French President François Hollande, in May of this year, France seemed incapable of extracting much more than vague promises and logistical help out of Washington. France had been stymied in the Sahel for years, and there was no improvement in sight. In January, Hollande’s visit to Bamako was even viewed by some as the futile attempt of a terminally ill administration to staunch the bleeding. Hollande’s new direction for cooperation with the Sahel, “frapper et transférer,” or “strike [the enemy]and transfer [responsibility to international organizations],” amounted to little more than pleading with the EU and the UN for aid. The UN Security Council – and therefore the US – passed a resolution in June approving the creation of the G5 Sahel force, but refused to include a request for bilateral funding agreements.
An offensive military campaign faces several challenges. First, the current forces in the Sahel are simply not effective. By Sept. 18, 2017, Mali alone had lost 250 soldiers to extremists. The American soldiers’ deaths were made far more likely when their 30 Nigerien comrades fled en masse from the scene, and when it took two hours for French assistance to arrive. In their attempt to turn a series of military debacles into a sustained rollback of armed militants, France and the G5 Sahel will certainly lose more troops. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that these will be the final American deaths.
Second, Paris may have underestimated the likelihood that the American commitment in the region will grow, just as it did in Vietnam and Iraq. The US’s most recent decision to fund the G5 Sahel force was prompted by perhaps the most cataclysmic event in any American news cycle: the death of American soldiers. When more Americans die as their responsibilities reorient to supporting an offensive force, the Trump administration may increase its commitment in the region. If the cycle continues, it is conceivable that the US may end up waging a full-scale ground war in West Africa.
Third, it seems that the problem is not being properly addressed through sheer military force. These fighters stand against 13,000 United Nations peacekeepers, 4,000 French soldiers, and 800 American service members. The addition of 5,000 G5 Sahel troops will not change the fact that these fighters are overmatched. There is a risk that a force with international backing will fuel recruitment in terrorist cells in the Sahel, and end up exacerbating the problem it was meant to solve. Economic activity in communities in these countries is often linked to the very activity to be targeted by this new initiative. Minorities, like the Tuareg, will likely bear the brunt of the conflict and may turn to extreme solutions. Even though French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged €200 million in development assistance to the Sahel over the next five years, these deeper social and economic challenges will not be dispelled easily.
Much rides on the success of the G5 Sahel force, not only for a region marred by poverty and lawlessness, but also for the future of the transatlantic partnership. Were it not for Washington’s trust that France will spearhead efforts to support the G5 Sahel, American deaths in Mali would have been more likely to elicit a military response by the US. Yet that very trust means that France will be held responsible for the ultimate success of the new offensive force, as well as for long-term regional stability. If these efforts succeed, they may pave the way for a new paradigm of European-sponsored, American-supported, and regionally-led security cooperation across the world.
Michael Rover, a junior studying political science, is a member of the European Security Undergraduate Network (ESUN). ESUN publishes a regular column in Stanford Politics called Cardinal Richelieu.