At a summit on January 13 with leaders of the G5 Sahel, French President Emmanuel Macron doubled down on France’s support of five French-speaking African nations experiencing a surge in Islamic terrorism. Euronews reports that the summit, which took place in the city of Pau, resulted in Macron promising 220 additional French troops to an existing contingent of 4,500 stationed in West Africa. In attendance were UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, European Council President Charles Michel, and African Union Commission President Moussa Faki. The African leaders, which included heads of state from Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, released a statement praising the ongoing American and French military efforts to combat terrorism in the region, saying that they wished for continued engagement and cooperation.
Since the re-emergence of instability in West Africa, beginning in the early 2010s in Mali, the United Nations formed the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in 2013 which brought UN Peacekeepers to the country to try re-imposing stability. This mission has had only limited success in combatting terrorists who were able to operate with impunity in the deserts, which are largely unpopulated and ungoverned, making them perfect to base attacks out of. From Mali, Islamic militant groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS began to spread into other impoverished nations like Niger and Burkina Faso, leaving behind thousands of military and civilian casualties and nearly one million civilians internally displaced.
Regional and international efforts like the G5 Sahel have aimed to curb the spread of violence in the Sahel region to mixed results. The G5 Sahel, which is made up of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger, is an African Union-sponsored partnership that meant to create a joint force to combat rising terrorism in the Sahel region. According to the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, the project draws support from France, Germany, other European countries, and international organizations like the UN and the World Bank.
However, nearly six years from its start in February 2014, the initiative has made little progress on reigning in Islamic militant groups that plague the region. In fact, the number of terrorism-related deaths has risen sharply since the inception of the group, especially in Niger and Burkina Faso. BBC News says that the number of internally displaced people rose from 40,000 to more than 500,000 within the past year in Burkina Faso alone. Meanwhile, armed groups are finding success in fending off security forces – 89 Nigerien soldiers were killed in a single attack earlier this year.
Increased militant activity in the Sahel comes at a particularly bad time as the U.S. prepares to scale back its involvement in Africa. Foreign Policy says that U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is considering a drawdown of U.S. troops in Africa and South America to address larger perceived threats like China. Secretary Esper said that European nations could step in, should the U.S. withdraw, but France urges America to stay. In a joint press conference, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said, “I will mention again that U.S. support is critical to our operations, and its reduction would severely limit our effectiveness in our operations against terrorists.”
The U.S. has an estimated 6,000 troops and a newly constructed drone base in Niger, and numerous Pentagon officials and Republican lawmakers are questioning the wisdom of any troop drawdown in an area where China’s influence is surging, reports Military.com. Still, while America considers its options in Africa, France will continue its support of its former colonies in their fight against Islamic terrorism.