Can the Takuba Force Turn Around the Sahel Conflict?

Asked whether counter-insurgency efforts were winning, Pham added, “It depends on what time horizon you use and what definition you use for winning.”

While Droukdel’s death might be considered a “specific” success, he noted insecurity was expanding in Burkina Faso and central Mali, which “certainly cannot be counted a success.”

Spreading Threat
Extremist groups are also spreading southward, deeper into sub-Saharan Africa — profiting from north-south ethnic and religious divides within countries, and more recently, analysts say, the coronavirus pandemic.

Against this backdrop, there is no unified international military response, says Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute in Dakar.

“Today, there are 19 different international strategies in the Sahel and no coordination,” Sambe said. “At a time when terrorist groups are beginning to coordinate, international partners are diverging.”

The Takuba task force is intended to facilitate regional coordination, as well as to provide equipment and training to Malian and other G-5 Sahel forces, which also hail from Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad.

Some observers see it as a test case for Macron’s broader goal of a more unified European Union defense, which a number of other EU member states are lukewarm about.

It’s also unclear how many European countries will ultimately commit to the Sahel initiative. Some, including Norway and Germany, have already bowed out for a mix of reasons. Britain, which formally exited the EU last year, plans instead to dispatch 250 forces to beef up the U.N.’s MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.

RUSI’s Tchie, who describes Britain as joining an “unwinnable fight in the Sahel” with its U.N. commitment, has similar reservations about the Takuba troops.

“In essence, all you’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s deal with counterterrorism, and at some point, we’ll deal with the other stuff,’” he said, summarizing what he considers the European thinking.

Yet such thinking, he added, fails to address interlinking problems, including climate change, corruption, poverty and underdevelopment that are fueling the conflict.

Parallels with Somalia
Adding to the challenges is the current political turmoil in Mali, where West African leaders are trying to find an exit plan to a crisis in which protesters are calling for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to quit.

Some regional forces have been accused of civilian abuses. For their part, extremist groups have capitalized on the coronavirus pandemic to further their interests, including staging attacks and recruiting new members, analysts say.

France faces its own set of challenges. Its Barkhane force has lost 43 men in its Sahel operations since 2013. It also faces a negative image in some countries, where memories of its colonial presence linger.

Takuba is partly intended to send the message that “France is not alone in the Sahel,” the country’s newspaper Le Monde wrote.

The Timbuktu Institute’s Sambe sees it another way.

“I think that wanting to realize Takuba is in itself an admittance that Barkhane and other foreign interventions have been a failure,” he said. “It’s been years that a purely security and military approach hasn’t functioned to eradicate terrorism.”

In London, RUSI’s Tchie draws parallels between the Islamist groups in the Sahel and Somalia, where the al-Shabab terrorist group has grown and spread despite years of U.S. and other military efforts. In both regions, he says, extremist groups have scored points in local communities, he says, in ways national and foreign intervention has not.

“It delivers justice, it delivers humanitarian relief to communities, and people feel more secure,” he said of al-Shabab. “It’s not that people want to go to al-Shabab. But when they need security, justice and things to work for them, al-Shabab delivers.”  

Lisa Bryant reports for VOA from Paris.This article is published courtesy of the Voice of America (VOA).