By Gregory Viscusi
Arab countries pledged more money and five West African countries said they’d accelerate efforts to get a joint anti-guerrilla military force up and running as they met Wednesday near Paris at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron.
Saudi Arabia will contribute 100 million euros ($118 million) and the United Arab Emirates 30 million euros to the so-called “G5 Sahel” force, Macron said. The U.S. confirmed its commitment to spend $60 million on the force being put together by Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania to combat Islamic militants across the southern rim of the Sahara.
“We must win this battle against terrorism in the Sahel,” Macron said at a press conference after the meeting, held in the Paris suburb of Celles-Saint-Cloud. “There are attacks every day and states are under threat. We must intensify efforts.”
The talks, which were also attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, as well as by representatives from Belgium, Spain, and the U.S., were described by French officials as a “give-give’ meeting where outside countries would show more support and the Africans would accelerate efforts to have the force operational by mid-2018. The project was originally intended to have 5,000 men, but Niger today committed another two battalions, or roughly 1,600 men.
France intervened in Mali in early 2013 to successfully push back Islamic militants who were marching on the capital Bamako. But the defeated forces spread across the region, where desert borders are often porous, and have continued to carry out deadly attacks.
France has 4,000 special forces in the region as part of its “Barkhane” mission, and six months ago pushed for the creation of the G5 force to lighten its load. While the missions will be kept separate, the French say they will provide support and air cover for the Africans. The Sahel force will also be able to rely on logistical support from the United Nation’s 12,000-strong Minusma peacekeeping operation in Mali.
The force is headquartered in Mali and recently carried out its first joint operation in the area where Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso come together. Macron said the test mission had revealed the need for more equipment and better coordination.
Each African country has pledged 10 million euros, with the European Union promising 50 million euros and France 8 million. The Netherlands pledged 5 million euros today. The force needs 250 million euros to get going, with the cost eventually rising to 400 million, French officials say.
The French military estimates that there are between 500 and 1,000 Islamic guerrillas in the area, down from several thousand at their peak. That’s still enough to carry out deadly attacks such as the one that killed four U.S. soldiers Oct. 4 in Mali and 12 Niger policemen later that month.
Meanwhile, a political process to reconcile the south and north of Mali has stalled, leaving many grievances unsolved, and Libya lacks a stable government, allowing the rebels vast areas to hide and train.
Merkel and Gentiloni in their comments Thursday pushed for a broader approach, with Germany saying it will spend 1 billion euros on non-military aid in the region from 2017 to 2021.
— With assistance by John Follain, and Arne Delfs