France seeks support for African anti-terror force despite US veto threat

Pascal Guyot, AFP | French soldiers from Operation Barkhane, near Timbuktu, Nigeria on March 9, 2013.

Will the UN Security Council succeed in passing a resolution to create a joint counter-terrorism force by five countries in Africa’s Sahel region? The project, in large part conceived and supported by France, faces steep resistance from Washington.


Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, urged the Security Council on Friday to adopt a French-backed resolution to create an anti-terrorism force composed of 5,000 soldiers from five countries (Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Mali, known collectively as the G5 Sahel) located in the swath of dry plain that lies south of the Sahara desert.

The region has been home to two intervention forces, France’s “Operation Barkhane” and the UN MINUSMA mission, since 2013, when France intervened to dislodge jihadist groups from Mali after their advance threatened to reach the nation’s capital, Bamako. However, groups linked to al Qaeda and Boko Haram remain active in the geographically expansive area.

While saying that Mali had made progress towards peace and stability, Diop criticised MINUSMA for a “defensive posture which has given freedom of movement to terrorist and extremist groups".

Indeed, whole sections of the Sahel remain outside the control of French, Malian and MINUSMA forces, all of which are regular targets of sometimes deadly attacks. Nearly half a decade into its emergency intervention in the region, France is seeking to shift more responsibility for fighting terror groups to African militaries.

“We think that we should call on (the G5 states) in this mission, because security for Africans will ultimately only come from Africans themselves,” underlined the French Foreign Affairs Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on Thursday while in Nouakchott, in Mauritania.

In February, the leaders of the G5 Sahel announced the creation of a combined force under a French draft resolution, it would target drug dealers and human traffickers who finance terror groups, as well as jihadist organisations.

“This joint force is an indispensable initiative, it’s a very effective way to operate. Without it, I don’t see how France can draw down Operation Barkhane. It’s important that African forces take greater responsibility, because Mali’s forces are very capable,” Serge Michailof, a Sahel specialist and author of “Africanistan” told FRANCE 24.

Resistance from the US

The European Union has committed 50 million euros to fund the initiative, which comes with an estimated price tag of 400 million euros. Financing the multinational force has become one of the sticking points between Paris and Washington, which has provided logistical and intelligence support for French and African anti-terrorist action in the region.

“Barkhane was only supposed to last for a few months, and now it’s been ongoing for five years,” noted André Bourgeot, director of the CNRS, a French public thinktank and research institute. “Regional instability and terrorism are international problems and it’s understandable that France would want to share some of the costs,” he added. 

However, the proposal to fund the multinational force through the UN comes at the same time as the US is seeking to cut $1 billion from its contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget. Diplomats say the Trump administration, which has urged its NATO allies to increase military spending and do more to combat terrorism, doesn’t want to add a new mission that would increase costs.

“There is strong resistance from the US because they are afraid of the future budget implications if the resolution is adopted. The American portion of the UN’s peacekeeping budget is already more than 28%, they don’t have any desire to dig into their wallets,” a UN diplomat said on condition of anonymity when contacted by FRANCE 24.

American officials say their concerns are about more than just costs, and that they have doubts about the ability of African forces to be an effective bulwark against terror groups. Some have disputed the necessity of UN authorisation, because the force already has the approval of the countries in whose territory it would operate.

Washington’s threat to veto the resolution comes in a context of increasingly isolationist positions and pullback from global initiatives by the Trump Administration in particular its decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change.

Nevertheless, France is betting that ultimately the US won’t veto a counter-terrorism proposal when it comes to a vote. Bourgeot pointed to the relative isolation of the United States on the resolution, which “is supported by the European Union, the African Union, and even the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres himself".

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