Why “Military First” is the wrong approach in the G5 Sahel

Why “Military First” is the wrong approach in the G5 Sahel

In the past week the United States, France and Russia pledged to increase their financial and military support to the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which consists of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Mauritania, to fight terrorism and organized crime in the region. However, military efforts without a wider development strategy could just aggravate the security risks. 

On 30 October, the United States pledged $60 million to the Force, while the G5 Sahel countries and the EU also committed to contribute $57 million each. Similarly, France, the main supporter of this initiative, announced its intention to provide the taskforce with further financial, military and intelligence resources; with a view to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, restore state authority and implement development. Given the ongoing threat of terrorism in France, the country’s major involvement in the initiative is unsurprising. However, the plan suffers from significant obstacles and overall short-sightedness that will likely result in a slow, long-lasting rise of security risks in the region and abroad.

It remains unclear whether an enhanced G5 Sahel taskforce will be able to address the issues that the United Nations, US and France have not managed to solve in spite of their substantial financial contributions to the region. Indeed, France has had a military presence in Mali since 2013 through Operation Barkhane, and in the same year the UN launched its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilizations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) with seemingly limited results in decreasing terrorism.

The structural challenges of fighting terrorism and crime 

The central issue that the G5 Sahel will face is that it will likely carry out asymmetric attacks on drug traffickers and armed fighters with very little consideration for the wider, socio-economic implications of terrorism and organized crime on the local population. Its plans to address structural issues such as unemployment, poverty, porous borders and political instability in the Sahel region are also extremely limited.

Targeting groups engaged in criminal activities without proper planning is likely to aggravate the security crisis rather than offering solutions. Indeed, a more suitable approach would consider the delicate balance between illicit activity and its contribution to the informal economy, which provides livelihood for several local communities. Simply targeting such networks without providing viable alternatives will likely push the affected groups towards other illicit activities and armed organizations.

The ongoing security crisis in Mali could offer a glimpse into the risks involved in adopting a “military first” approach to regional issues. Not only does it highlight the link between criminal activity and impoverished communities, but it also demonstrates that some armed groups have been involved in funding the peace process. It would be very difficult, therefore, for the parties involved to address organized crime without involuntarily causing more violence and political instability. Moreover, while creators of the G5 Sahel recognize the need to implement an integral development strategy, security concerns firmly remain at the forefront, resulting in a problematic lack of development projects.

A Joint Force plagued by divisions 

The group also seems to be suffering from serious logistical flaws which, if unaddressed, may drastically undermine its effectiveness. Firstly, there are severe internal divisions. For instance, the group’s composition remains as unclear as its exact targets. Part of the issue is that the G5 Sahel is a relatively novel military initiative, in which foreign strategic and financial aid directly backs existing African armed forces. As such, the exact role of the United States and France is still undefined, potentially causing leadership disputes.

Secondly, the G5 Sahel suffers from reduced capacity, especially in comparison to similar regional initiatives, as well as from limited staffing and funding. Once again, the problem seems to lie in the group’s inception: right now, it is merely a tool of military regional cooperation, designed to complement existing regional efforts such as MINUMSMA and Operation Barkhane rather than a more comprehensive regional solution.

Lastly, the current lack of cooperation with other regional actors will significantly complicate the group’s mandate. Such actors include Algeria and Morocco, whose intelligence forces have deep knowledge on regional armed groups and could be included in long-term stabilization and development efforts in the Sahel. This kind of local assistance would be especially significant as G5 Sahel’s foreign troops operate in unfamiliar areas and with limited knowledge of the complex regional dynamics.

About Author

Benedetta Di Matteo

Benedetta obtained a LLM degree in International Laws from Maastricht University, specializing in Public International Law and International Relations. Benedetta worked as an open source analyst for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based political risk firm, focusing on political and security trends in Latin America. She also completed a traineeship at the Council of Europe's Economic Crime and Cooperation Division. Benedetta focuses on international security issues, including transnational crimes.