A new security-structure for the Sahel

08/07/2017 08:30 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2017

A new security-structure for the Sahel?

In early July, shortly after having won the second round of the French presidential election, Emanuel Macron went to Mali in North Africa. This was his second trip to the country (the first was to Northern Mali in May to visit French troops) since his inauguration and his choice of destination was no accident.

The meeting in Bamako, capital of Mali, was set up to pledge French support for a new military force to combat the on-going and raising threat of Islamist violence in the Sahel. Alongside France were Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, the so called G5 Sahel.

France pledged combat support for the new force and all of the participating African countries promised to contribute 750 soldiers each to the new force. The main area of operation will be the borderlands between Mail, Niger and Burkina Faso.

France, of course, already has a military presence in the area. At least 5000 troops in Operation Barkhane based primarily in Chad (who has the best trained, battle-hardened and equipped force among the five) and Mali. The US Africa Command (Africom) is also involved with technical support, training and transportation.

From a strategic point of view, the new force (who can also rely on a UN Security Council Resolution from June that approved establishing it) could be a significant tool to bolster security in the area. However, to be fully effective and to really make a difference, it needs to be able to cooperate more efficiently with some key-countries in North Africa, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Of these, Algeria and Morocco are key-players, being on the front-lines of both countering violent Islamism and trying to put the lid on the increasing smuggling of people and goods across the region and into Europe.

The involvement of Algeria and Morocco are necessary for any transnational effort to succeed and in addition, Morocco is considered to have one of the best counter-terrorist capabilities in the region (including Sahel and Maghreb) and can, if the right conditions are implemented, be an additional asset to the G5 Sahel force. One such condition is a Moroccan long-running initiative to counter the Islamists also from a religious angle. Time will tell whether these efforts will have a long-term effect in denting the lure of Islamist ideology, but it is nevertheless an effort worth considering, as a tool among many.

As of now, various militant groups (such as the Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen) are moving over a large area including southern and eastern Algeria (the border with Tunisia). In addition the political and security melt-down in Libya has added to the list of flash-points. The fact that both Al Qaeda-affiliates and other militant Islamist groups for years have recruited fighters from the Polisario-camps in Tindouf is also an issue that no individual country can solve on its own.

The real challenge here will be to rise above some of the bi-national conflicts bedeviling the region (such as the conflict between Morocco and Algeria concerning Polisario) and get beyond those to concentrate on the more long-term threat that the Islamists presents.

The French force active in the area is an important key-component and can work as a kind of force-multiplier to the other, smaller, contingents to be set up. But to be really efficient, the countries affected the most, must take the lead in combating a threat that at its core is emanating from the region itself. This much was underlined by the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in an interview with Le Monde in connection with the meeting in Bamako.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that since the threat from militant Islamism is regional and transnational, so the efforts to combat that threat must be equally transnational. This will take some serious diplomatic foot-work to be effective and so it is to be hoped that the meeting in Bamako in June will be the first of many more, and that next time, more countries will be present.

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