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A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel

The region has never been so militarised. Here’s an overview of the international players in uniform

Fred Marie/Flickr
French soldiers of Operation Barkhane in Mali

In 2011, several African states warned about the likely consequences of an international military intervention in Libya aimed at toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Now, six years after his death, security in the Sahel region has never been worse.

In a domino effect, from 2012, the spillover from the Libyan crisis bolstered the Tuareg rebellion in Mali, which in turn facilitated a jihadist incursion, which, after briefly being halted by France’s Operation Serval, arose from the ashes stronger than ever and spread across neighbouring states.

“Mali’s roots were rotten, it just needed a breeze to make it collapse,” summarised a former Malian minister recently.

In Mali, the state is now hardly present across much of the country. In mid-December, barely a quarter of state agents were in their posts in the six northern and central regions.

According to an opposition party tally, 2017 was Mali’s most deadly year since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power in 2013.

Yet the Sahel region has never been so militarised; it is rife with insurgencies and counter-insurgency forces of various stripes. Relative veterans from France and the United States have recently been joined by troops from Italy and Germany, and by a new regional coalition, as well as by forms of warfare new to the region.

Presented as solutions by their political masters, the military missions detailed below are seen by others as pouring fuel on the fire, and as simplistic responses to complex problems.

United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)

Created in April 2013, this UN mission, now consisting of 13,000 troops, was supposed to stabilise northern regions of Mali after the lightning assault launched against jihadist groups there three months earlier by France’s Operation Serval (see below).

Instead, MINUSMA faced a resurgence of these groups outside major urban centres and found itself exposed to mobile and seasoned guerrillas. They proved to be beyond the mission’s capabilities to control, and, arguably, peripheral to its mandate.

“The UN deployed [here] without a peace accord, which is normally a precursor for a peacekeeping mission,” MINUSMA chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif told IRIN. “On the other hand, the idea that MINUSMA came here to fight terrorists has always been a major misunderstanding between Malians and MINUSMA, and unfortunately one that still exists.”

Annual revisions of the mission’s mandate aimed at making the force more reactive have failed to silence critics. Both within and outside Mali, questions have been raised about the utility of spending more than a billion dollars in a single year when the mission has proved unable to fulfil its core tasks of protecting civilians and defending human rights.

The killing of civilians during demonstrations by peacekeepers and accusations of rape have helped to sour pubic opinion of MINUMSA.

The mission’s relations with the Malian government have frequently been strained, not least over the neutrality MINUSMA has shown towards certain rebel groups, a stance Bamako viewed as impeding the state’s recovery of its sovereignty over the entire country.

The force’s limitations have frequently been highlighted. The latest report on Mali by the UN secretary-general, for example, noted that, “the lack of armoured troop carriers, especially of vehicles protected against landmines, remains a major obstacle to the mission's operations”.

The previous report, issued in September, said MINUSMA’s civilian protection mandate had been compromised by the “absence of adequate air assets”.

Both publically and in private, MINUSMA officials have made no secret of their frustration at being used as a punching ball and cash cow by Malian politicians.

Harandane Dicko/MINUSMA

Another prominent component of the force’s mandate is to oversee the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. MINUSMA itself is paying the price for the breakdown of that accord: 133 blue helmets have died in Mali, making the mission the fourth most deadly for UN peacekeepers in term of deaths caused by hostile acts. In Mali, jihadist groups have made specific targets of the blue helmets.

A recent UN Security Council resolution added another element to MINUSMA’s mandate: providing operational and logistical support within Mali to the joint force recently formed by the G5 states of the Sahel (see below). The council said the creation of the force should allow MINUSMA to “better carry out its stabilisation mandate”.

The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)

This formation was originally set up in Nigeria under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1994 but remained largely dormant until 2012 when its mandate was widened to include combatting the Boko Haram insurgency.

The MNJTF comprises some 7,500 military and non-military personnel from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.

The force suffered a major setback in January 2015 when its headquarters, in the Nigerian town of Baga, was overrun by Boko Haram fighters. Its base has now been moved to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.

Shortly after that incident, the force won official approval from the African Union, with a mandate (renewed this month for a further year) to conduct military operations, achieve coordination at inter-state level, conduct border patrols, find abducted persons, stop the flow of arms, reintegrate insurgents into society, and bring those responsible for crimes to justice.

The force receives intelligence and training support from the United States, Britain, and France and, although theoretically financially self-reliant, money from the EU, which in August 2016 agreed to allocate some 50 million euros to it, paid through the AU.  Serious budgetary shortfalls and delays in procuring equipment, which left MNJTF troops without essential equipment for over a year and strained AU-EU relations, have hindered the force’s effectiveness.

Since it become operational in 2016, the MNJTF has, despite tense relations between some contributor states, recorded significant gains against Boko Haram, killing or arresting many hundreds of the group’s members and releasing many of its hostages.

In December 2017, the AU’s Peace and Security Council said the MNJTF had “significantly weakened the capability of the terrorist group and continued to successfully dislodge it from its strongholds”.

But, it added, “Boko Haram still remains a serious threat for the countries of the region.”

A March 2017 paper published by the African Identities journal argued that the MNJTF’s “sole reliance on a concerted military approach in countering terrorism will not address the root causes and may further incubate violent extremism” in the region.

Force conjointe du G5 Sahel (FC-G5 S)

The most recent arrival among international armed contingents deployed to counter the spread and intensification of jihadist groups’ activity in the Sahel consists of 5,000 troops from the region’s G5 states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

Malian President Boubacar Keita has described the forces as “an innovative approach to collective security, one that puts cooperation and mutual action at the heart of our response”.

The force is set to deploy under a joint command in three geographic sectors. Its primary objective is to “fight terrorism and transnational crime” committed by various groups, some of which have already joined forces in Mali under the banner of Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' (JNIM), which is allied to al-Qaeda.

According to analyst Nicolas Degrais, contrary to media reports, the joint force came into being more as a result of G5 member states’ own initiative and political will than at the instigation of France, which somewhat resents having done so much of the heavy lifting on counter-terrorism over recent years.

Yet, for the time being at least, it owes its very existence to foreign assistance, notably that of the region’s former colonial power, which has been militarily active in the region since 2013. France has been the new force’s most ardent champion, and has backed it to the tune of eight million euros.

Other sources of finance are the EU (50 million euros), G5 member states (50 million euros), Saudi Arabia (100 million euros), and the United Arab Emirates (30 million euros). These last two donors are regular customers of the French arms industry.

It is hoped that further donor conferences will ensure the budget for the FC-G5 S’s first year of operations, some 423 million euros, will be fully funded.

In November 2017, the force conducted a pilot mission, codenamed “Haw Bi” (“Black Cow”), in the Liptako-Gourma region, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso intersect, and which is a centre of insurgent activity. According to at least one analysis, the operation did little to demonstrate the new force was able to operate effectively without French support.

The FC-G5 S, which is expected to reach its full capacity by March 2018, faces numerous challenges. These include coordinating armies of varying quality deployed by countries whose leaders have different security priorities. And some of these armies stand accused of committing abuses against civilians they suspect of collaborating with jihadist groups.

Given how hard it is proving to raise enough money for the first year of operations, securing sufficient long-term financing will be, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a “significant challenge.”


France never fully left Africa when it ceased to be a colonial power, and it keeps making new appearances. 2018 sees it embark on a sixth year of military operations in the Sahel. These began in January 2013 with Operation Serval (in Mali), superseded in August 2014 by the more regional Operation Barkhane, which includes 4,000 troops and is run from N’Djamena.

Barkhane’s successes include the killing of dozens of jihadists, some of them very senior, and the capture or destruction of more than 22 tonnes of weapons. But it has been unable to prevent extremist groups reappearing and carrying out attacks in central Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger.

The days when former French president François “Papa” Hollande was feted from Bamako to Timbuktu are long gone. In Mali’s northern Kidal region, some armed Tuareg groups regard French forces as an army of occupation, while others don’t understand why Barkhane doesn’t come to their aid when they engage with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Timbuktu region. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, some people suspect Paris of having a hidden agenda to support secessionist movements. Eighty percent of respondents to a recent opinion poll in Bamako said they believed France was in Mali "solely for its own interests."

In neighbouring Burkina Faso, where a popular revolt toppled France’s long-time protégé Blaise Compaore in 2015, many people, fed up of repeated promises that Paris is putting an end to la Françafrique (its enduring sphere of influence in Africa), resent the French military presence, which they suspect is more of a magnet for jihadist groups than a deterrent.

Despite these criticisms, Barkhane has had more success against extremist groups than any other military forces.

United States

It took the 4 October death in Niger of four special forces on a “reconnaissance mission” to shine a light on the US “shadow war” in the Sahel, even though there was nothing new about its presence there.

Since 2002, the United States has conducted a succession of counter-terrorism training missions in the region to “support local forces in dealing with the threat”, as General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in October.

Niger, a key partner in this endeavour, currently plays host to 800 US troops, the largest American contingent in Africa. It will soon have two US military bases on its soil, after one dedicated to drones is built near the city of Agadez.

The October attack, near the village of Tongo Tongo, seemed to signal an escalation of US military engagement. In November, Niger gave its approval for US drones to be armed and thus for the introduction to the Sahel of a mode of warfare already in use – with deadly effect and numerous mishaps – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

“This is exactly what we never wanted to see in West Africa: very powerful bombs which, despite their reputed precision, cause dozens of civilian casualties, and provide armed, anti-Western jihadist groups with hundreds of new candidates for recruitment,” warned Gilles Yabi of the Wathi think-tank.

Sébastien Rieussec/EU
EUTM Mali arrives in Bamako

European Union

The EU is taking a greater interest in the Sahel amid concerns over migration and security resulting from the region’s growing destabilisation.

The bloc currently has three outfits deployed there: the EU Training Mission-Mali, launched in 2013 to instruct the country’s armed forces; and a capacity-building mission each in Mali and Niger to support domestic agencies countering extremism and organised crime.

Separately, Germany is shortly to open a military base in Niger to support MINUSMA, while Italy has announced it will sent 470 troops to the country to counter people-smuggling and combat extremism. Meanwhile, Britain is reportedly in talks with France with a view to supplying military helicopters or surveillance aircraft in support of Operation Barkhane.

(TOP PHOTO: French soldiers from Operation Barkhane in Mali. CREDIT: Fred Marie/Flickr)


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