War in the Sahel: A European Cause

francois-godementThe Mali conflict has caught the EU asleep at the wheel. But with support from across the Union and credible, limited aims, a European intervention in Mali can be successful.

It took almost three years for the European Union to craft a “Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel”, finally enacted in September 2011 after a six month delay due to the conflict in Libya. Among its findings, the strategy concluded that “Improving security and development in Sahel has an obvious and direct impact on protecting European citizens and interests and on the EU internal security situation.” Money was appropriated: more than €600 million for development, €150 million for security, and €35 million for couterterrorism, the latter apparently unspent to this time. A training mission was decided for African forces likely to intervene in the region – to this day it has not been implemented, and at last news was delayed until March 2013. The usual internecine “wars” inside the EU bureaucracy explain the failure to enact the strategy (1), as does the lack of adequate military expertise within EEAS. (2)

As a result, when disaster struck in the first days of 2013 with the prospect of an imminent takeover of Mali’s capital by columns of Sahel outlaws descending from the North, the EU was asleep at the wheel and has reacted with an unbelievable degree of discomfort. Mrs Ashton’s statement that this validated the decision to send an EU training mission for African armies seems oblivious that by the time the mission would have arrived in March 2013, Mali would have become the stronghold of the Sahel outlaws. A statement by the EEAS spokesman emphasising that the EU would only entertain a soft policy approach sounds surreal, given the new reality on the ground.

An anecdote comes back to our memory. Some weeks after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the EU coordinating mechanism for Asia policies held a meeting whose agenda had been planned months in advance. The first item, which had not been struck out, was about resumption of assistance to the Taleban government of Afghanistan. It had to be struck out during the meeting. The establishment of the EEAS and a High Representative (also a vice-president of the Commission) were supposed to solve such problems. Instead, they have only carried them further up the bureaucratic chain.

Time is now of the essence. The French intervention is legitimised by the UN Charter, which allows for collective self-defence if a state is under attack. UN Resolution 2085 called for an African force to deal with the problem. Although this force is not yet in place, even Algeria, which has long been ambiguous about a Sahel conflict it hopes to divert from its own home ground, and which displays “anticolonial” rhetoric, is on board with the intervention (it was immediately hit in reprisal by kidnappings on its own territory).

But France will not succeed alone, beyond the initial success of bombing outlaw columns in the open desert. Come late March summer will arrive, with extreme heat and dust settling in and evening up the fight, especially on the ground. “Destroying” the enemy, as François Hollande said on January 16 in Abu Dhabi, is not an achievable goal in such a short time span. What can be achieved is to degrade the enemy’s capability to project forces – fast columns of armed 4×4 attack groups – across the Sahel. That is already a respectable goal in itself.

Two sorts of solutions must be put in place and ready by the time summer comes to the Sahara: one is the active and coordinated surveillance of national borders, from Mauritania and Algeria to Libya, Chad and Nigeria, as well as an African force in southern Mali that will ensure that a repeat taking over of the country is impossible. The second goal is to resume political contacts with some of the outlaw groups. They are all associated with criminal activities – from the drug trade to illegal immigration networks and ransom traffic – but they also have very divergent identities: Touaregs advocating a non-religious new state; Islamic fundamentalists encouraged by Middle Eastern Wahhabis; and Al Qaeda franchises. These have federated, and should be disaggregated.

European – and French – policy will have to disaggregate emotion from realist analysis. What are the war goals in the Sahel? Certainly not to overwhelm nomadic tribes with sedentary foot soldiers employed by corrupt armies in the South. Certainly not to contain Islamic fundamentalism, which is the law of the land (however unpalatable) in countries which are accepted members of the international community. The motto should be to employ huge means, as quickly as possible, with very limited goals: to lower the number of combatants active in the Sahel without encouraging new recruitments; to control borders; to hit at genuinely terrorist behavior such as hostage taking. But neither will the problem of some lawlessness and implicit local autonomy be solved, nor that of the periphery states having essentially a police and military based presence, rather than a democratic and developmentalist utopia. Each side must respect a balance – and the expulsion of foreign fighters would be a good start of a negotiation with local tribes and groups.

France must be joined by a European security effort and presence that will dig in its heels by the time summer comes. The European Union must realise its development utopia is foolish as of now, and the focus of European action must pass on to military control and surveillance. Political efforts must be launched at all periphery states and at components of the Sahel outlaw enterprise to de-escalate the conflict.


(1) See Bérangère Rouppert, « The EU Strategy for the Sahel : state of play” GRIP, Brussels, December 27, 2012

(2) ECFR’s defense and MENA experts have long advocated the nomination of a high level military officer to advise EU High Representative Catherine Ashton. Last mention was in Susi Dennison’s December 2012 brief on “The EU, Algeria and the Northern Mali question”

This column was first published by the ECFR


  1. Purple Library Guy says

    Gosh, if you’re lucky maybe it will be just as successful as going after Libya . . . oh, wait, that’s why things in Mali are as bad as they are. And why Libya’s in ruins.
    Oh, well, at least the natives aren’t trying to pretend they own the oil under their sand any more, and that’s what matters, right?

  2. Pollytix says

    Wow, no mention of democracy! What the EU ‘stands for’. This article is of astoundingly breath taking arrogance that really beggars belief for this website.

    Try this for analysis: SWP statement on Mali:

    Yet another war – why the West is intervening in Mali.

    Many people in expressed relief when the Irish hostage, Stephen McFaul was escaped from captivity after he was kidnapped at an oil refinery in Algeria. Those who kidnapped him were involved in a brutal war occurring in Mali.

    Few people are aware of the background to this war. But Eamonn Gilmore used the kidnapping to give full support to French intervention. The West must send its troops in, he asserts, because otherwise we will have ‘terrorist base camp’ on the edge of Europe.

    Gilmore has also indicated that Ireland will give full support to a wider EU intervention. So the controversy about EU ‘battle groups’ that was ignited during the Lisbon Treaty debate intervening in Africa is rapidly becoming a reality.

    Almost every colonial power in history has claimed to be on a civilising mission – dealing with supposedly fanatical savages who do not understand the empire’s way. In modern times, they always brand their opponents as terrorists while they are supposedly on a ‘humanitarian’ mission. Behind this fog of propaganda, we need to examine what is really happening in Mali.

    Just before the kidnapping, French warplanes had begun pounding the northern half of the West African state Mali. They were supported by the US who are using drones to gather intelligence.

    More than 100 people were killed as Mali’s former colonial master tried to shore up the weak regime.

    The French government says it has sent more than 500 troops into the country to combat an “Islamic rebellion”. The country, however, is 90 percent Muslim. Just like the Vietnam war in the 1960s, they pretend that many of these soldiers are acting as ‘advisors’
    The Western media have portrayed the Northern rebels in Mali as radicals affiliated with al-Qaeda.

    The roots of the insurgency, however, lie not in ideology but in the political and economic marginalization of the Tuareg minority.

    Suffering from drought and forcible relocation by state–not to mention the creeping influence of commercial agriculture and motorized transport–Tuaregs have largely been driven out of their nomadic, pastoral way of life. Impoverished for decades, Tuaregs now depend on remittances from family members who have become migrant workers throughout North Africa. Some found jobs as mercenaries for Qaddafi, which explains the connections of the rebels to Libya.

    The Tuareg have risen up four times since Mali became an independent country in 1960.

    The Tuaregs rebels began their offensive against Malian troops last spring. Within a few months, though, Tuareg insurgents were joined by international jihadist groups and Taureg former mercenaries, who flowed into Mali from Libya after the fall of Muammar al Qaddafi in November of 2011.

    As the rebels gained the upper hand, an army named Sanogo mounted a coup on March 21 against Mali’s elected President Toure, declaring that Toure was mishandling the civil war.

    The coup aggravated the disarray among Malian soldiers, allowing the rebels to deal them a smashing defeat and take control of the country’s vast Northern desert region. The army is still shattered, and the government in Bamako, a Southern city, is unstable and weak. Sanogo has already replaced the coup government with a new one.

    Despite the military success of the rebels, they are still weak and it is doubtful if they could hold the country’s capital for a long time – still less launch a war against the West.

    The West’s pretension about offering humanitarian support is entirely fraudulent.
    Their intervention could easily double the extent of the refugee crisis. By early December, the conflict had displaced some 200,000 Malians inside the country and another 260,000 had already fled to neighbouring countries.

    A confidential UN that outside military intervention could drive as many as 400,000 more Malians from their homes.
    What’s more, a small, untested ground force with long supply lines is unlikely to be effective against desert fighters who can disperse into small guerrilla bands. As a result, the war would have to copy the tactics used in Afghanistan, including a reliance on Western drones, helicopters and warplanes.

    The results would be the same as in Afghanistan–the slaughter of civilians and the reinforcement of popular will to drive out the Westerners and their local stooges.

    In the past French governments have been happy to prop up dictators across the region, like Félix Houphouët-Boigny in the Ivory Coast.

    It carried out a brutal colonial war to stop Algeria getting independence.

    The French government supported Tunisian dictator Ben Ali until he was toppled by a popular revolution two years ago this week.

    France has frequently used military force in its former colonies. It still maintains military bases, including in Chad, from where its current assault is being launched.

    What we are witnessing here is an old style ‘scramble for Africa’ cloaked in the language of attacking terrorism. Behind this particular intervention is a growing competition between the China and the West to grab the continent’s natural resources.

    Socialist Worker will oppose any Irish aid to this colonial mission and will challenge the pro-war propaganda of the mainstream media.

  3. says

    The Chinese say that the reason they DON’T get involved in these intrantional brawls is because it doesn’t work. The underlying problem festers and returns later.
    They’ve been in business for 2200 years continuously and it might pay to at least listen to their reasoning.