The Sahel: After the Afghanistan withdrawal

The end of Western military involvement in Afghanistan has meant a renewed focus on Islamic militancy in Africa, including that in the Central Sahel. This creates a false impression of a new frontline for the wars between the West and Islamic militancy. Such a perspective is wrong on many counts and will fail to address the multiple challenges the region faces.  

The withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan has meant that there is an increased focus on other Western military deployments. The most sizeable is in the Central Sahel and there are ramifications for the region in terms of it becoming a new focus in the battle between the West and jihadist groups. Seeing the Central Sahel through such a lens would mean a complete misreading of the challenges in the region. This blog is a continuation of the Sahel series but in the context of the crisis in the Central Sahel being perceived as a new front in the terror wars.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resulting humanitarian consequences have proved to be a catastrophe for the people of Afghanistan and have severely compromised the liberal interventionist conceptualisation of foreign intervention. The reputation of the US as a reliable partner has been left in tatters and jihadist movements have been emboldened by the Taliban’s success in persistently waiting out the US and its allies. This coincides with a geopolitical shift in emphasis for the US and other Western states towards Russia, China, and Iran, and which directly affects the commitment of the US, EU, France, and the UK to the crisis in the Central Sahel. None of this is new. NATO and the EU have rubbed up uncomfortably against Russia for some time, President Obama began the US pivot to the ‘East’ and China, and the outright hostility between the US/Israel and Iran is decades old.  

The conflation of Afghanistan with the Central Sahel crisis is one that comes easily if nuance is abandoned. It is now the location of the largest Western military commitment against Islamist militants of a jihadist stripe, and the UN peacekeeping mission to Mali (MINUSMA) is one of its largest deployments and is currently the most lethal to peacekeepers.  There is a realisation that any success will be over the long term, the state is largely absent in the conflict zones, and there is a chronic need for state-building in countries hovering near the bottom of the developmental scale. There has been an increase in violence, with over 10,000 people being killed in the past two years, and government forces and their associated militias have proved as lethal to civilians as the jihadists.

However, seeing the crisis in the Central Sahel in purely military terms and as a new frontline between the West and jihadist groups risks making the region a battleground between the two at the expense of the people that live there. While the problem should not be underestimated, there is a significant difference between the state-building approach in Afghanistan and the crisis management of the Sahel. The Taliban insurgency is also very different from the hotchpotch of separatism, jihadist groups, ‘self-defence’ groups, criminal gangs, and tensions between pastoralists and farmers in the Central Sahel. Nor are there any clear divisions between, say, jihadists, self-defence groups, and criminal gangs. The three governments are also very different, with unique challenges in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. There is little doubt that the peoples of the three countries have a good idea of what representative government is, or that as a whole they favour it, but making this become a reality on the ground is a problem as old as independence. Positioning Western intervention solely as counterterrorism belies the complexity of the challenge.

As this blog has noted previously, the European involvement in the Central Sahel is not purely military and the wider challenges in the region are recognised and have been addressed by the Sahel Alliance and the Coalition for the Sahel. The People’s Coalition for the Sahel, drawing on Sahelian, regional, and international expertise, also noted deeper and wider problems. The jihadist groups, only one type of the many Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs), draw a lot of attention but are only one part of a complex picture of root causes of which jihadism is a symptom. As is the case in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province and the Lake Chad basin, there are many contributing factors, but prominent amongst them is a lack of governance in the affected areas. This is usually due to elites having more interest in retaining power and its benefits than effectively governing their countries. Control often fails to reach beyond the capital and major cities. A focus on countering al Qaeda and ISIS affiliated groups fails to address why they are successfully holding and administering territory and why the governments are unable to provide security there. It is notable that when the UN mission in Mali is present there is a degree of security, but they cannot be everywhere at once, are not a counterterrorism mission, and once they leave an area it is no longer secure. Another problem is that the military in each country has proved to be as dangerous to civilians as the jihadists themselves. This brings into question their legitimacy and the EU training mission that supports them. An approach that prioritises security aspects and focuses on counterterrorism fails to address the complexities of the situation and leaves Western forces associated with the elites and security forces, of which locals are openly critical. We should note that the security forces of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, are suffering serious casualties themselves.

The Western military mission to the Central Sahel is also vulnerable to a change in commitment. The primary actor is France, with the EU increasingly involved as the French seek to hand over responsibility. France became the leading Western actor in 2011-12 due to a request by the government of Mali for support against a Tuareg-led insurgency in its north. Even given France’s expeditionary capability, the security demands of the Central Sahel are too much, and the EU contribution is not enough to offset this. The intervention is unpopular at home, President Macron has made the limits of France’s commitment very clear, and viable excuses for exiting the crisis have presented themselves through Mali’s recent political upheaval and its employment of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor (PMC). Protests in all three states against French involvement have also taken place. Without France or a replacement, the Western intervention becomes a training mission only.

Had the 2011-12 insurgency not been so successful there would not have been an interest in the region as a major security concern. To be clear, despite the stated commitment to human rights and the well-being of the people living in the region, the EU’s concerns dovetail with that of the US on the spread of jihadist NSAGs with the added question of increased migration from the region to the EU. The latter is a significant concern specific to the EU, whose member states have been divided in their response to refugee crises. The three countries of the Central Sahel face chronic problems from climate change, food insecurity, and a high rate of population growth. Violence by jihadist actors is only one part of a wider picture, but it does undermine any attempt at adapting to pressures such as climate change.

As also noted previously, the NSAGs (jihadist and non-jihadist) are stationary bandits, accountable only to themselves and without formal recognition. They are financed by a mix of outside funding, extortion, and outright robbery, while the provision of food may be achieved by allowing aid to be distributed. The legitimacy of a NSAG is derived from identity, whether it be religious or ethnic in nature, and is often enforced with methods deemed illegitimate for any actor. Their claim to legitimacy is usually identarian in nature and whilst they provide informal governance where the state has failed their actions also make recognised governance more difficult. Treating the Central Sahel as another front, seen through the overblown militarized lens of the terror wars, and where the battle between the West and jihadist groups in faraway lands is an existential one, is unlikely to produce any recognisable improvement. Prior to the Tuareg uprising that led to the French deployment, the US had already registered a threat in the region, linking this to militancy across North Africa and the Sahel and onwards to Somalia. Counterterrorism does have its place, but only as part of a wider approach, one which balances coercion, conciliation, and reform. It should also be led by the affected states and regional African organisations, but with African Union and UN backing. Western assistance has its place, but the military aspect of this should be temporary and an emergency measure, not a permanent fixture.  

There may be a sea change occurring from a doctrine of liberal interventionism, which had an overarching narrative that democracies can be imposed through direct military and political intervention, regardless of the conditions on the ground. This has been dominant amongst the leaders of the West for at least twenty years and has had its day. Its proponents envisaged a safer and more prosperous world but despite a massive investment achieved the opposite. This does not mean that there will be a retreat into isolationism as the contemporary world is far too interconnected to allow this, but it will mean fewer military interventions unless national interests are at stake.  Western publics are casualty averse, with a low threshold for the death and injury of their service personnel, more so than the armed forces themselves, and they also have an aversion to civilian casualties. They can also vote governments out. This does not tie in well when the foreign commitment required for the Central Sahel is effectively a contemporary Marshall Plan and there is a security crisis undermining attempts at improving the situation.

The Central Sahel Crisis should not be seen through the lens of the narrative of the terror wars on two counts. The first is that its application to the situation is a complete misreading of the root causes of the violence, the actors involved, and the challenges the three countries face. The second is that Western military deployments in faraway lands should be limited affairs dealing with emergency situations or a pressing national interest. The French mission came about through a Malian request for assistance but has become a long-term intervention with increasing EU involvement. There is plenty that the West, particularly the EU and the UK, can do to help, but this needs to be a comprehensive and coordinated approach with the countries involved and regional organisations.  

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using the research for earlier blogs. Sources are cited at end of the blogs, which can be accessed at:

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