July 1, 2020

Stabilising the Sahel. The Role of International Military Operations

Reuters / Joe Penney / Scanpix
Boys play on the roof of the entance to a football stadium in Gao, February 2013.
Boys play on the roof of the entance to a football stadium in Gao, February 2013.

The key question of this analysis is whether EU and/or NATO allies, including Estonia, would be willing and able to continue to support international efforts in Sahel (including military operations and missions – MINUSMA, EUTM and Barkhane), in particular following the Covid-19 pandemic. It is addressed to civilian and military decision makers and experts, especially in the countries that contribute to international military operations and missions in the Sahel.

Mali and the other G5 Sahel countries (Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania) are politically and economically weak. They suffer from poverty, corruption and unsustainable demographic growth, aggravated by degrading environmental and agricultural conditions. Persistent Islamic terrorism hinders their political stability, threatening widespread chaos and their economic development.

Western military and security aid, and economic, educational and other forms of support are absolutely necessary to stabilise the security situation if the G5 Sahel countries are to be prevented from collapse. European nations, particularly France and its partners, have interests in Sahel related to the fight against terrorism, promoting development and preventing mass migration, as well as making use of rich natural resources. Africa, including Sahel, has become again a theatre of great power competition in which also China and Russia are engaged.

The first chapter of this analysis provides an overview of the general situation in the Sahel, with a focus on Mali, and outlines the main regional challenges and threats. The second and third chapters describe the various multinational operations that are currently being conducted by the EU and the UN, and those led by France, and outline where and how Estonia participates. The fourth chapter briefly assesses the potential impact of the Coivd-19 pandemic. The conclusions chapter considers the prospects for the expansion of international military operations in and around Mali.

Some takeaways:

  • In 2013, Mali was saved by France and African neighbours from total collapse and a likely Afghanistan/Taliban scenario. The ‘Talibanisation’ of the region is not just a theoretical scenario, but nearly inevitable if the West fails to provide sufficient support.
  • International missions and operations do need to be strengthened in order to break the basis of the terrorists’ resilience, especially the support of marginalised communities (e.g. in the tri-border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the Liptako region, where a new very capable task force Takuba will be deployed).
  • In responding militarily to the security situation, Western and local actors are addressing the symptoms, but not the root causes of the region’s problems. The Sahel countries need, first of all, humanitarian aid and support for developing their economies.
  • The Sahel may face, in the long run, the risk of being abandoned because of terrorist resilience and little progress in providing security, international fatigue and other reasons (including the spread of pandemics, such as Covid-19).


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