international analysis and commentary

The Sahel crisis and the role of AFRICOM


After the military coup in March against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, Mali has found itself cut in two. The north, an area the size of France and Belgium combined, is under the control of armed Islamist groups and tuareg rebels. After more than 20 years of conflict, in which neighbouring Algeria was the sponsor of peace, the situation is escalating. In the Sahel region in general, and in Mali in particular, a context has been created in which major world powers have become both spectators and actors. The organization that best embodies this paradox is AFRICOM (United States Africa Command), based in Stuttgart, Germany.

Inevitably, what happens in the Sahel will push AFRICOM to determine whether it is a real force among Sahelian actors, or if it is simply a component of the US military apparatus strictly serving American interests. Regardless of what the stakes may be or what trajectory recent events might take, AFRICOM must settle two equations. The first is related to the question of how to position itself with Paris – which is always inclined to intervene in the area as we have seen in the cases of Ivory Coast and Libya. The second is how to achieve a fair partnership with Algeria that would suit both parties. In other words, the role of Algeria should be not be confined to a military one, as some would like, and should instead focus on intelligence cooperation with the West – in light of. the importance of the exchange of information in the struggle against terrorism. Algeria does not see eye to eye with the United States, but fruitful cooperation in indeed possible.

Until this becomes reality, the AFRICOM center in Stuttgart will struggle to have an impartial but active role in the sub-Saharan region, which has been the main dilemma since the Command was created in 2007.

Paradoxically, AFRICOM has no fixed military base in the area, yet it has invested millions of dollars to secure the Sahel region – even in areas extending up to the Gulf of Guinea. Add to this the fact that years after its creation, mistrust haunts AFRICOM as sub-Saharan African leaders generally fear that Washington’s motives have always been to facilitate military interventions in the region.

At the same time, it must be said that the countries in the region have not given AFRICOM a fair chance to fully play its role. One reason is the obvious lack of confidence in US strategic objectives. Also, AFRICOM needs to be aware that the key political obstacle in the region is primarily the vision of French-speaking Africans – who do not want French intervention and do not see why they should pass from the French bosom to that of the US. In the case of the Sahel, the situation has deteriorated so much with the announcement of the independence of northern Mali that it is urgent to set priorities. The first step is to stop the flow of terrorists into the region. This trend constitutes a security threat, not only to neighboring countries, but also to Europe and the US – as an al Qaeda base in the Sahel is a danger to everyone.. In the case of Mali, Washington must now decide to what extent it wishes to align itself with the French approach. Paris is currently pushing for military intervention under the guise of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to which it promised to provide assistance in the form of  special forces to help resume control of northern Mali. Some observers fear that French military involvement might also serve a hidden purpose and encourage a secession of Northen Niger, which in turn could help Paris secure the uranium deposits in the area.

Where is the US in all of this? It seems to be on the same page as Paris, as suggested by American support for Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré  although his performance in fighting terrorism has been catastrophic.

In a cable dated October 25, 2009 and released by WikiLeaks, the former US Ambassador to Algeria, David Pearce, wrote that senior Algerian military leaders complained openly to US officials when the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa at the US Department of Defense, Vicki Huddleston, visited Algiers. “The Minister for Defense Abdelmalek Guenaizia told Huddleston that the government of Amadou Toumani Touré practices double standards in the fight against al Qaeda, there is a problem of confidence with Mali, there is a double standard, leaders’ policies do not share the commitment of military leaders,” the diplomat noted in this classified correspondence. Worse yet, the cable also cites a statement by a senior Algerian military official revealing the existence of a relationship between the Malian officials and terrorist leaders, “The General Staff complained that Malian officials have alerted the insurgents that their cell phone calls were monitored, this caused a leak of sensitive intelligence.” The same Algerian military official accused a Malian bank, whose name was deleted from the cable, of receiving funds from al Qaeda – particularly those derived from drug trafficking and ransom paid to free hostages. This same officer denounces the strategy of Bamako to take action against all Malian people who try to fight against terrorists. Guenaizia had also explained that Algiers saw a dim view of the involvement of “some European countries” in the region.

Current trends in the Sahel and northern Mali paradoxically reflect the worst fears of the US. Despite her public appearances and more cautious official statements, the experts are adamant: Huddleston continues to advocate for the French approach to the Sahel.

Today, more than five years after its creation, AFRICOM’s 1,500 men, a technologically cutting-edge force, may be ready to flex their muscles. In order to intervene in the region and specifically in northern Mali, the US has means other than relying on the strongest country in the region – namely Algeria. But Algeria, in order to intervene with AFRICOM, needs Washington’s guarantee that France will not gain a foothold once again.

From there, the only viable solution for Washington would be a more intelligence-based, rather than a strictly military, approach. A joint rapid reaction force with Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria as part of the Committee of Staff Joint Operations (CRIC) installed in Tamanrasset would guarantee to all partners that AFRICOM supports a 100% African defense strategy.

AFRICOM must now be clear about its objectives, which should first include the elimination of terrorism, although military intervention will not be sufficient in itself. It is therefore vital that the actors in the region (the tuareg of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, under French influence, and the radical Islamists of Ansar Dine) be interlocutors in the dialogue, not targets. The real targets should be the Movement for the Uniqueness and Jihad in West Africa and the Nigerian terrorist group BOKO Haram, while the US should work to stop the financial flow from some Gulf states to Islamist movements in the area.

In the end, Mali is paying a bitter price for its chaotic internal management, and also for the battle between the bigger world powers fighting for control of the sub-region and its riches (gold, uranium and oil). Although the international community as a whole was against the proclamation of the Tuareg State in the north, is the dismemberment of Mali inevitable? If the risk is real, what is the future of the Sahel and the Mediterranean basin? Despairing of being heard, Mali has shifted into the unknown.