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West Africa faces up to policing its terror triangle

West Africa faces up to policing its terror triangle
A French soldier monitors a rural area during an operation in northern Burkina Faso, along the border with Mali and Niger, November 10, 2019

West Africa faces up to policing its terror triangle

With the withdrawal of troops from Chad and the imminent reduction of French troops in the vast Sahelian region of West Africa – where jihadist groups continue to carry out attack after attack, targeting civilians and soldiers indiscriminately – new Counterterrorism tactics are underway.

Defense ministers of the G5 Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – are planning more joint military operations and greater “heart and mind” commitment.

This will target the peasant and pastoral communities of the “region of the three borders”, where Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali converge and where militant activity is the most intense.

By finalizing the new approach during defense talks this week in the Nigerien capital Niamey, the G5 countries are taking the strategic lead.

France is returning to a supporting role, after President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that his counterterrorism operation Barkhane was drawing to a close, with the number of French troops in the Sahel reduced from 5,100 to 2,500 to 3,000 over the next few years. month.

In the immediate future, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso had to take into account Chad’s brutal decision in August to reduce its troops in the three-border region from 1,200 men to just 600.

The Chadian transitional regime in place since the death of President Idriss Déby in April has decided that it must repatriate half of the contingent to deal with local security threats.

These include:

  • Nigeria-based Boko Haram and its spin-off group Iswap, which continue to raid communities on the shores of Lake Chad
  • The spillover effects of the conflict between the rebels and the government in neighboring Central African Republic.
  • And in the desert north of Chad itself, local insurgents who may still threaten – despite government efforts to strike border security deals with Libya.

But if the choice of priorities of the N’Djamena junta is completely understandable, where is the fight against jihadists in the central Sahel?

motorcycle killings

Human Rights Watch estimates that 420 civilians have been killed this year in western Niger alone.

The recent attacks have been typical.

On August 16, armed men on motorcycles broke into the village of Dareye-Daye, which had already been raided in March, and massacred 37 people.

Two days later, 47 civilians and gendarmes died when a military convoy was attacked between Dori and Arbinda in northern Burkina Faso.

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But in fact the Chadian troops which have just withdrawn were largely equipped with heavy artillery and armored tracked vehicles – an impressive equipment but little adapted to the very mobile conflict in the central Sahel, where the wet season of June-September makes many areas impassable.

The contingent was not sent to the central Sahel until February by the late President Déby.

France has repeatedly urged him to contribute to the G5 Sahel “joint force” – an agreement under which member state forces collaborate and operate across borders in the fight against jihadist groups.

The Chadian deployment was originally scheduled for last year – but was later delayed as Déby focused his fire closer to home, fighting Boko Haram.

Once this offensive was over, he was happy to play the role of valuable emergency ally – a position that bolstered his regional profile and gained goodwill in Paris, sparing him overt French pressures on his authoritarian regime at home. .

Chadian soldiers returning from Mali sit on a chariot during a procession through the capital N'Djamena - 2013
Armored units are less useful when jihadists tend to travel in groups on motorcycles

But by the time Chadian armored units finally reached the tri-border region, the tactical needs of the struggle there were already changing.

Elements of the Malian army, for example, switched to motorcycles to drive out fast moving jihadist gangs.

Thus, the departure of the Chadians may not be too damaging to the new strategic effort of the G5 – and the 600 Chadian soldiers who remain in the area will further contribute to it.

EU strength will play a leading role

The adjustment to the reduction in France’s military role is more crucial.

Mr. Macron has been facing domestic political questions about his long-term strategic goals in the Sahel for months.

When, on the eve of the G7 summit in June, he announced the end of Operation Barkhane, he stressed that France would still maintain a substantial presence in the region.

A village in Tahoua, Niger - generic photo
Remote areas in Niger need development, as well as better security

Details followed on July 9, at a joint press conference with recently elected Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum.

The European Takuba Force, created last year and operating in close partnership with the Malian army, will play a more important role.

A large additional French contingent is being absorbed into Force Takuba – which already includes several hundred French, Estonian, Czech, Swedish and Italian special forces, with their own helicopters.

Romania has pledged troops and it is hoped that other countries will decide to contribute as well.

Based in Niamey, Takuba will focus on the three borders, working in support of the G5 armies.

France will retain a small separate force for specialized counterterrorism missions and will also remain a major contributor to the European Union mission which contributes to the training of Sahelian armies.

In addition, the French bases in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal will be maintained, due to real concern about jihadist attempts to infiltrate the countries of the West African coast.

But the G5 governments and France recognize that the development and provision of basic services, to improve the lives of people in the Sahel, must also be a crucial part of the picture.

Many European donors now prioritize the region in their development spending.

However, the challenge is to translate money and large projects into practical services and projects that benefit local populations.

And the military forces of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, along with their Western allies, need to gradually rebuild the security that can allow daily economic life and development efforts to move forward in more security.

Paul Melly is a consultant for the Africa program at Chatham House in London.

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