The ongoing crises in Syria and Egypt have marginalised the conflict in Mali in the western media. But the French-led military intervention in that country is facing a complex and challenging transitional period. The United Nations Special Envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, recently warned the international community to “not forget the Sahel, or you will have more Malis if you do”. That is a prospect that European countries – including France – will certainly not relish, yet they lack the political will or the capacity to ensure a favourable outcome. Transatlantic actors now, more than ever, need to rethink their cooperation in the region and strengthen their alliances with local powers.
The two main challenges facing the transatlantic partners are their ability to assume responsibility for regional security and their securing local support for their efforts. Despite receiving official backing from allies on both sides of the Atlantic, the French military intervention in Mali revealed the reluctance of countries to share the burden for providing security in the Sahel. The problem stems mostly from the divergence of perceptions within Europe on the relevance of the Sahel to its immediate security concerns.
The first step should therefore be to redefine the scope of Europe’s neighbourhood strategy in order to include the Sahel area as a whole. For obvious historical reasons, France will continue to be more involved in the stability of this part of Africa than other countries, but the development of new safe havens for terrorism and transnational crime in the region should be considered a threat to all European national interests, just as instability in the Caucasus should concern western European countries. At this point, France has neither the political will nor the capacity to assert sole leadership in a vast region stretching from Senegal to the Horn of Africa. A United States interpretation of French assertion in the region as a reason for its disengagement would therefore be a miscalculation.
Once a common European vision is built, the path for a genuine transatlantic approach to security in the Sahel and a division of labour can then be charted, with the US possibly assuming responsibility for technical and logistical support and for training. The training of African troops should eventually become the centrepiece of transatlantic operations in the region, keeping in mind the lessons learned from the previous failed experience in Mali pre-2012.
That objective goes hand-in-hand with the second challenge: establishing strong and durable security partnerships with local partners in order to ensure the operability of a transatlantic strategy in the region. The gradual diminishing of power-projection capabilities in Europe and the US has reinforced the necessity of establishing strong regional partnerships in the context of the struggle against terrorism. Although some transatlantic actors have recently strengthened their defence partnerships with countries in the region – for instance, France with Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Gabon, Senegal, the Central African Republic, and Togo, and the United Kingdom with Algeria – this type of cooperation should go beyond the scope of simple military interventions, as the struggle against transnational crime and terrorism in the region will inevitably involve Europe’s long-term engagement.
During US President Barack Obama’s visit to his country, Senegalese President Macky Sall outlined the expectations of leaders in African and Europe for stronger triangular cooperation in support of counterterrorism efforts in clear terms. The cooperation between the French and Chadian military in Mali serves as a model here, having proved to be both effective on the ground and recognised as legitimate by international institutions. But security partnerships between European and African states need to go beyond the establishment of military bases, and should aim to address the main weakness of European militaries today: a lack of effective cooperation in intelligence and surveillance in this sparsely-populated region. The recent US-French negotiations over the purchase of 16 Reaper drones for surveillance have highlighted European shortcomings in this domain.
In this context, developing coordinated operations with African militaries is crucial in ensuring that these new capabilities will be used efficiently. Although unintentional, the US rebalance to Asia has made the issue of transatlantic cooperation in the Sahel resurface to the top of the agenda, as European capitals question the real extent of American ‘strategic retrenchment’, both globally and in the region. In parallel, the evolution of the Sahel should also be used in Europe to highlight the necessity of reassessing its security strategy, and undertake a true assessment of the capabilities that are attached to it.
Martin Michelot is a programme and research officer, and Martin Quencez is a programme and research assistant, both in the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank, which first published this article in its Transatlantic Take series as Why the Sahel is crucial to Europe’s neighbourhood – and its security strategy