Territorial gains by Islamist militant groups in Mali triggered a French intervention. A bloody attack on a gas facility in Algeria contributed to the decision of the US to deploy surveillance drones to the region.
Western governments look set to increase their military support for Sahelian and Saharan countries. But they do this based on incorrect assumptions, misguided objectives and questionable methods. At best, this trend will cost a lot of money and lives, and achieve little. At worst, it will lead to a worsening spiral of violence, producing the very outcomes Western powers fear.
Western military intervention in the region is nothing new. The French military possesses a formidable string of bases in countries like the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad and Gabon, with elite troops, prepositioned equipment and considerable air-strike capabilities. A result of post-colonial political ties, France has used these assets frequently since the 1960s to save or dethrone regimes, run anti-terror operations and support politico-economic interests.
US interest is more recent and has to be seen largely in the context of the post-9/11 War on Terror. With its large, sparsely inhabited and only loosely governed spaces, the Sahara was always seen as a potential terrorist haven by military planners in the Pentagon. This impression only hardened with a string of kidnappings by groups, some claiming ties to al-Qaeda, starting in 2005. This resulted in at least $500 million being spent by the US on training and supplying regional military forces, as well as the deployment of spy planes and – to a limited extent – Special Forces operations.
The European Union and its member-states also cooperate with local military forces and law enforcement, with a specific focus on human trafficking and illegal immigration to the EU, as well as the expanding drug trade.
These patterns, in place before the recent Malian crisis, have largely determined the varying approaches of external actors in the Sahara since. Unfortunately, neither Western nor local governments and elites have fully considered the shortcomings of these policies, resulting in a deeply flawed, if not dangerous, approach to the current crisis.
After Islamist groups took over the Tuareg-led rebellion in last year and began introducing their harsh version of justice in Mali’s north, the regional organisation ECOWAS and France almost immediately advocated for a military solution, namely an African-led intervention to retake lost territory. Internationally, the main opponent of this approach was actually the US government, which pushed for a political settlement prior to any intervention, with southern Mali in disarray after a coup by disgruntled junior officers.
The Malian junta in Bamako resented the notion of a foreign military presence, which its leader Captain Amadou Sanogo perceived as a threat to his own political influence. Sanogo claimed Malian forces would be able to retake the north themselves, if given the necessary amount of financial, material and logistical support.
The possibility of a negotiated settlement of the Malian crisis was never really considered by any of the important domestic and international actors and this process was left to Blaise Compaoré, president of neighbouring Burkina Faso.
The negotiations failed. Citing the preparations for war by France, ECOWAS and Malian military leaders, the northern militants pulled out of a truce in early January and attacked the central Malian towns of Konna and Diabaly, after more than half a year of limited conflict. This move, probably designed to take control of the military base and airfield in nearby Sévaré and thereby make any foreign intervention drastically harder, was the final straw that France needed to justify direct involvement.
Having prepared for this scenario for quite some time, France used all its regional assets to great effect: airstrikes stymied the rebels’ advance, and expeditionary forces quickly retook first Konna and Diabaly, and then the remaining large northern towns.
The Islamist rebels meanwhile avoided any open confrontation and largely melted away in face of the French advance. Another target was chosen by seemingly connected militants: a natural gas production facility in neighbouring Algeria. The facility was raided in a large-scale attack by “Those who sign in Blood”, one of the groups associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Algerian military, equally trying to make a point, refused any form of negotiation and led a frontal assault on the compound. The result: the death of most of the attackers, at least 37 Western hostages and an unknown number of Algerian civilians and soldiers.
The French and Algerian reactions to recent developments illustrate how major actors are falling back on their longstanding approaches to the region. These are only ‘solutions’ in the sense that they allow the respective government to remain in its specific political and military comfort zone (both materially and ideologically), but contribute little to solving the crisis.
The US, for its part, has made it known that it will dispatch drones – unarmed and strictly for surveillance purposes – most likely from an as-yet undefined location in Niger. The US military will also likely step up its efforts in training and supplying its regional partners, including Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.
France has publicly declared victory and President François Hollande has promised to withdraw troops as quickly as they were deployed. At the same time, France has deployed special forces to guard uranium mines, run by the French nuclear behemoth AREVA, in neighbouring Niger. It is likely that French special forces will remain actively involved in the fight against AQIM and associated groups.
ECOWAS, along with other African troops, is expected to take over from France in Mali and head the UN-backed AFISMA intervention mission. Now planned to be at least 8,000 men strong, this force will likely consist of a hard core of Chadian and Nigerian fighters (both accused of gross human rights violations in other military actions), with several other countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso dispatching troops to guard pacified areas. The EU and other countries will support AFISMA financially, logistically and with a dedicated training mission.
Amidst all this, there rests a complex network of unresolved internal Malian problems: armed groups with considerable resources and varying priorities; the Malian army with its own political agenda; Tuareg rebels hoping for another chance; and various ethnic and criminal groups intent on staking their claim.
None of the actions taken by Western governments are necessarily wrong. But a lack of appreciation of the underlying reasons for violence and state fragility in the Sahara region makes them dangerous nonetheless.
To make this clear, one does not have to look further than the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who declared to the House of Commons that AQIM and affiliates are an “existential threat” – presumably to the UK. Exactly how a group of around 2,000 fighters, several thousand kilometres away, and with deep internal divisions could tangibly threaten Britain, Cameron did not say.
This rhetoric employed by Cameron and others is of course inaccurate and misleading. AQIM is, and has been since its inception, focused on its local political agenda, targeting Westerners only where profit could be made or if it would harm the Algerian government. Like the Nigerian Boko Haram, also declared an international terrorist organisation by the US, it should primarily be viewed in its specific and domestic context.
Western approaches to addressing the dreaded ‘ungoverned spaces’ and ‘criminal networks’ are equally misguided. Most locals would probably identify the corrupt and autocratic elites running the states as the main source of their weakness. Western governments nonetheless chose those very elites as partners in their bid to strengthen states and governments, as is evident from Western cooperation with the likes of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré or Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz.
Drug and human trafficking are the main concerns of the EU when it comes to the Sahara, with considerable support doled out, for example, to the Malian government, which it has been alleged has been involved in these very activities. No real effort is made by the EU though to reassess the harmful drug and immigration policies, which give those criminal activities their raison d’être.
The decision by EU countries and the US to become even more actively involved militarily will likely only worsen the situation. More military aid to countries in the region means even more weapons and resources to go around. More foreign military personnel means more potential targets, maybe providing the incentive for thus-far local terrorist groups to adopt a more global agenda, as with al-Shabaab in Somalia. And increased terrorist activity will sooner or later lead to calls for drones to be armed and the Sahara to become the latest theatre in the ‘shadow drone war’. All these dynamics will introduce new layers of violence.
It is not clear what Western politicians and strategists are hoping to achieve by going down this road. No exit strategy and only vague objectives have been formulated. It appears that in their quest to find military solutions to fundamentally non-military problems, Western governments will get themselves lost in the sands of the Sahara, and so far they do not even seem to realise it.
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