The so-called G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S) came one step closer to commencing its counter-terrorism mandate following a visit by French President, Emmanuel Macron to the Malian capital, Bamako, on 2 July. During the meeting, France’s recently-inaugurated head of state met with the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger who have together pledged to create a transnational military force to counter the burgeoning threat of Islamist extremism which is permeating across the expanse of the Sahel.
According to its preliminary concept of operations (CONOPS), the African states will initially pledge 750 troops to the FC-G5S which will principally operate along a tri-border area separating Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. This geographical zone has become a hotbed for activity for al-Qaeda-linked groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front - who have since coalesced into the Jama'at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen" (loosely translated as the ‘Defence Group of Islam and Muslims’) – as well as a Burkina Faso-centric Islamist extremist organisation known as Ansarul Islam. In addition to expanding enclaves within the aforementioned countries, militants are increasing their attacks on state, security, and even foreign interests in the region.
For its part, the French government has pledged an estimated eight million euros, 70 tactical vehicles and – via its existing Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism initiative – ongoing operational and logistical support to the FC-G5S. A further 50 million euros in funding has also been pledged by the European Union, with the amount expected to be matched by the participating Sahelian countries. The stated contributions, however, fell well short of the estimated 600 million eurospurportedly required to fund the security initiative.
As such, who will foot the bill for the funding shortfall remains one of the issues constraining both the proposed August 2017 launch and subsequent efficacy of the FC-G5S. While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed a resolution supporting the multinational force, its endorsement came without any pledge of financial support – a posture unlikely to change in the immediate future given its already costly financing of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
A similar stance was also adopted by the United States which limited its backing of the FC-G5S to solely logistical support, conforming to the Trump administration's explicit promise to cut its funding for United Nations peacekeeping missions. Any additional investment by Washington into counter-terrorism operations on the African continent will likely be directed to the country's expanding drone network which it is being used for the purposes of both reconnaissance and offensive mission against jihadi networks. Other major European donors such as Germany already appear to have directed much of their available resources to the MINUSMA mission and may find themselves constrained in convincing their legislatures in freeing up more resources for yet another Sahel-based counter-terrorism undertaking.
Financing issues are already threatening to derail the G5 initiative.
Questions regarding the financing of the FC-G5S are already threatening to derail it. Days prior to the Bamako summit, Chadian President, Idriss Deby, threatened to pull Chadian support from the FC-G5S over funding concerns, noting that his military and government was already overstretched due to its commitments in various peacekeeping initiatives across the region.
Funding dilemmas aside, the exact mandate of the FC-G5S also remains a point of contention. While principally expected to operate as a counter-terrorism force, the FC-G5S is also authorised to target other non-state armed actors, particularly those involved in drug- and contraband-trafficking. A major concern is how such a broad-based mandate could compromise a tentative Algerian-brokered peace accord forged between the Malian government and a number of non-jihadi groups who are alleged beneficiaries of northern Mali’s illicit economy. Should the FC-G5S’ operations de-incentivise these actors’ conformance to the peace accord, the initiative could paradoxically multiply the security problems embattling the Sahel region.
The mixed composition of the FC-G5S also raises questions on how the initiative could influence the ethno-political dynamics of the Sahel’s security landscape. The FC-G5S CONOPS would evidently allow militaries of disparate ethnic and tribal affiliation access to communities of differing if not rival creeds, both limiting the intrinsic local support that the FC-G5S should ideally receive and exposing its operations to perceptions of ethnic, religious and/or tribal profiling. The creation of non-state groups such as Ansar Dine, and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) – who claim to represent the interests of their respective Tuareg and Fula communities – underlines how perceptions of a discriminate marginalisation of an ethno-religious or political identity could promote militancy and associated insecurity.
Finally, there is also a lack of clarity as to how the FC-G5S will coordinate with the existing number of security initiatives currently operational in the Sahel. In this regard, the FC-G5S is anticipated to assimilate with the MINUSMA, France’s Operation Barkhane, the European Union’s training missions, and the existing defence undertakings of the militaries of member states, with no clear indication on how this collaboration will be operationally and logistically coordinated.
With a mere eight weeks before its anticipated launch, it appears that the FC-G5S may be beleaguered by as many problems as it aims to remedy in the Sahel. The concern at this stage is that a premature launch of the initiative could not only see it fail in its primary mandate, but potentially precipitate developments in the Sahel which could leave the region more fractured and insecure than what it currently is.