Could American assistance in Sahel repair AUKUS damage?

Could American assistance in Sahel repair AUKUS damage?

At the recent G20 summit, US President Joe Biden recently met his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron for the first time since the AUKUS deal left Paris in the lurch. Biden was clearly eager to repair ties, conceding that the submarine deal with Australia had been executed in a ‘clumsy’ manner and throwing Macron a bone by pledging closer cooperation in one of France’s priority areas, the Sahel region of Africa. Just days later, Biden’s Vice President, Kamala Harris, embarked on a five-day tour of France in which she met with Macron and stressed that the US and France have a “mutual concern” relating to the ongoing challenges in the Sahel.

Indeed, should Washington follow through on committing additional assets to support the largely French counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel, it would represent a major relief and a diplomatic victory for Macron. The French President has been attempting to turn a Paris-led fight into a more multilateral effort of late, given that African allies need assistance to address the sizeable security challenges in the region. American support could also stem the flow of Russian interference in Africa, with the notorious Wagner Group expanding their influence on the continent in recent months.

African allies willing but wanting

France first became deeply involved in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel in 2013, when then-President François Hollande sent troops to Mali in a mission nicknamed Operation Serval. Rebel groups had conquered two-thirds of the country’s territory and were approaching Bamako, but with France’s help, the insurgents were repelled and Mali’s government maintained.

However, the situation has not improved in the intervening years. Terrorism has spilled over Malian borders into the surrounding area, prompting greater involvement from the G5 Sahel. This military collaboration between Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger is intended to keep the peace in the region, but many Sahelian security forces lack the equipment and training that they need. As a result, France has stayed far longer in the Sahel than it would have preferred, with its initial Operation Serval later replaced by the longer-term Operation Barkhane.

Some of France’s closest allies in the Sahel have paid a heavy price for their commitment to stamping out terrorist factions. The late Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno was in fact so committed to the anti-terrorism cause that it cost him his life when rebels assassinated him on the front lines this April. Déby’s untimely death sparked concerns that Chad, a pillar of the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, might fall into instability. The fallen leader’s son Mahamat Idriss Déby, however, stepped in to lead a transitional government which is currently overseeing a national dialogue aiming to return the country to civilian rule.

A four-star general, Déby the younger had already led multiple military operations against extremist groups prior to his father’s death. Since heading the transitional government, he has visited Macron in Paris to discuss France’s imminent withdrawal from the region and how Chad’s military can best manoeuvre thereafter to keep up the pressure on terrorist groups, as well as signalling his intention to almost double the size of his army to 60,000 soldiers by the end of next year in preparation.

France in retreat, Russia ready to pounce

That ambitious plan may well be imperative in the wake of French withdrawal, though in truth France was already encountering difficulties in supporting its Sahelian partners on its own. For one thing, France’s status as the former colonial power in much of the region has precipitated a layer of dormant distrust of Paris.

This anti-French sentiment has taken particular hold in Mali, threatening to throw a wrench in the works of the counterterrorism battle. Indeed, recent weeks have even seen (unfounded) accusations from the Malian government that France has been covertly training terrorists to foment ethnic tensions in the country. Against an increasingly hostile backdrop, Macron has finally decided to wind down operations and began the process of withdrawing troops last month. It’s expected that the 5,100-strong Barkhane squad will be reduced to just 3,000 by the end of the year, while the Takuba taskforce touted to replace it has elicited limited support from non-traditional partners like Czech Republic, Estonia and Sweden to date.

This, coupled with the White House’s decision to suspend US support for Mali in the wake of the August 2020 coup, has meant that Bamako has few options open to it in terms of international assistance. Step forward the infamous Wagner Group, widely believed to be operating under the Kremlin’s stewardship. Many Malian citizens have taken to the streets to protest at French military involvement and appeal to the Russians to replace them.

The Wagner Group has already been highly active in neighbouring countries, such as the Central African Republic. With a reported 2,000 boots on the ground in the country in the CAR, the Russian mercenaries have indeed driven back rebels and terrorists – but they also stand accused of gross human rights violations and stirring up greater unrest. As a result, both France and the USA have warned Bamako against accepting Wagner’s questionable assistance.

Potent transatlantic partnership

The Sahel needs another option for support, a truly international force to reinforce African counterterrorism efforts led by leading regional military powers like Chad. It’s for that reason that Biden must follow through on his act of contrition at the G20 summit by pledging planes, drones and troops to the Takuba taskforce. Fortunately, all the signs are positive that the Biden administration is indeed serious about picking up the shortfall that his predecessor left behind and repairing the damage to Euro-American relations that the AUKUS submarine deal inflicted.

France initially responded to that slap in the face by recalling its ambassador from US soil for the first time in over 250 years. While the insult to France’s honour will surely still smart, it’s not too late to make amends. However, failure to do so will not just result in the offending of French sensibilities, but will also have far greater repercussions in the shape of an opportunistic Moscow further flexing its muscles in Africa and the instigation of potentially years more of conflict, bloodshed and political chaos as a consequence.


Image credit: French military in Operation Barkhane, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License 3.0

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