Searching for a Strategy: Germany in the Sahel

23 March 2020   ·   Anna Schmauder

The German answer to French requests for military support to the anti-terror operations in the Sahel should not be a simple “Yes” or “No”. Berlin needs to put forward a more comprehensive political strategy. This should include coordinated pressure on the Malian government to implement the peace agreement and a stronger focus on rebuilding local governance.

With her push to increase the deployment of German troops to Mali in December 2019, German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has restarted the debate on German engagement in the Sahel. This renewed German attention seven years after the first deployment is good news. The rapid deterioration of the security situation in the Sahel urgently needs more political attention.  As the Bundestag will decide on an extension of both the UN mission MINUSMA and the EU training mission EUTM within the coming months, policymakers in Berlin should lay out a comprehensive Sahel strategy. 

The Security Situation in Mali Is Deteriorating Despite a Proliferation of Military Operations

Since the 2012 rebellion and the subsequent coup, a multitude of foreign actors have deployed troops to the Sahel: The UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA operates alongside two EU capacity building missions, the French counter-terrorism operation “Barkhane” and the joint operation of the G5 states. Despite all these efforts, however, the influence of extremist groups keeps growing.

The extremist groups have extended their area of operation from northern Mali to the center of the country and into the border area between Mali and Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso. This territorial gain is also reflected in a spike of casualties, which consequently increased by a factor of five. While so far no European troop contributing country has lost soldiers fighting in a MINUSMA operation, the states are nonetheless confronted with the increasing use of IEDs by extremist groups in Mali. In addition, the extremist groups have increased their capacity to strike strategically  as demonstrated by last year’s attack on the EUTM base in Koulikouru. With the spread of insecurity, Germany’s presence has become broader. It now extends to neighboring Niger, where an airbase has been opened in 2018 and where German special forces participate in a training mission in the region of Tahoua, bordering northern Mali.

Confronted with the expansion of areas of operation of both Al-Qaeda and IS affiliated groups and pushed by France, the international community has increasingly focused on countering the threat of violent extremist groups through a focus on counter-terrorism. In recent months, in particular after a helicopter crash that killed 13 French soldiers, France has come under pressure at home and in Mali. In response, Paris has been increasing its calls for its European partners to support the counter-terrorism operation Barkhane through an EU mission called “Takuba”.

Germans Are Right to Be Skeptical of the French-Led Counter-Terrorism Approach

German policymakers are right to be skeptical of a participation in Takuba and the French counter-terrorism approach in general. As highlighted by the General of the French Armed Forces in an interview in January, military means alone are unlikely to change the current dynamic by the end of this year. Military deployment by international actors to counter extremist violence has become a repetitive reflex, rather than a well-thought-out strategy. It follows the assumption that increased military presence will allow to push back against the rising tide of extremist violence in the Sahel. So far, however, the insurgency has not only been pushed into new regions, France is also facing an increasing opposition in the Sahel as local populations have grown frustrated with its failure to contain extremist groups.

There is a risk that the debate in Berlin on Germany’s involvement in the Sahel will be reduced to the question of whether to increase or decrease military presence in the region. But it is important not to fall for a plain dichotomy: The mere fact that French counter-terrorism efforts have not led to any lasting results does not mean that military efforts to constrain extremist expansion are dispensable. By now, extremist groups have spread far beyond the state boundaries of Mali, reaching into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. The reflexive resistance to increased German military contribution in Mali does not do justice to neither the complexity of the situation nor the declared goal of supporting Mali in its implementation of the peace agreement.

The spreading insecurity hampers the implementation of the peace agreement. As neither state forces nor international missions are currently able to protect civilians – especially in central Mali –  ethnicity-based self-defence groups, who have followed a well-documented retribution strategy, keep committing  atrocities that amount to crimes against humanity. In the face of a decreasing security situation any other (non-military) efforts to stabilize the nation – such as through MINUSMA and EUTM – can only provide limited results.

Military Responses Need to Be Part of an International Engagement on Governance

The debate in Berlin should therefore not focus on the quantity of troops deployed, but on how to embed both military and civilian means into a sound political strategy.

It is possible to recognize the necessity for increased military deployment to the region while being skeptical of a deployment that simply follows a French lead into a counter-terrorism operation. As highlighted in a recent piece by Bruno Charbonneau, military operations cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. They take place in the political arena and hence they also have political consequences. This can best be observed in the reliance of French counter-terrorism operations on parts of the signatory armed groups, GATIA and MSA – a strategy that has emboldened these actors in the process, effectively enabling them to strengthen their coercive power to govern large parts of the Malian territory. Not only does this run contrary to the aim of restoring the authority of the Malian state, but it has also increased inter-ethnic competition and local conflict.

In this sense, the central theme in the Sahel is governance: both through the detrimental impact of counter-terrorism on state and non-state governance, and through the key role that weak governance and governance grievances play at the heart of the spiralling insecurity characterizing Mali and the central Sahel.

Policymakers will therefore need to live with this ambiguity: Military containment is necessary but not sufficient. The international engagement needs those European partners that are willing to take risks. At the same time, all actors need to work on overcoming the strategy of military containment alone: The chronological order of military neutralization followed by governance efforts did not serve the goal of stabilizing Mali in recent years – both need to happen at the same time. Engaging with the multi-layered governance challenges cannot be postponed to military defeat of the armed groups that is unlikely to fully materialize in any case. Instead, a coordinated approach that integrates military operations into broader responses to governance challenges at the root of the insecurity is called for.

The Malian government’s decision to officially start negotiating with extremist groups can, in this regard, be considered as a recognition that the military approach alone will not suffice and should be received positively by Mali’s international partners.  

Shifting Priorities for a Sustainable Sahel Strategy

In the coming weeks, German policymakers should distinguish between more immediate changes in support of stabilization and those that require a mid- to long-term shifting of priorities.

In the case of the former, a decision could include the extension of training missions to more countries in the region as discussed in Brussels with a view to Burkina Faso. It should further include a discussion on allocating high-end air assets to MINUSMA in order to address the capacity gap for the protection of civilians in the central region of Mopti.

However, Berlin would be wise to go beyond these more immediate decisions to provide building blocks for a comprehensive Sahel strategy. These should include the following three points.  

(1) Willingness to Put More Pressure on the Malian Government 

Both EUTM and MINUSMA have come under criticism, underlining the fact that the German contribution is constrained by the limitations of the overall international approach. As highlighted in a recent report, the implementation of the Malian peace agreement has continued to stall in 2019 while key stakeholders within the Malian government continue to profit from the status quo. Similarly, the process of capacity building in the context of EUTM has been met with serious limitations, many of them rooted in the characteristics of the Malian state itself.

In this sense, better use should be made of diplomatic pressure: It will be crucial to insist on the implementation of the peace agreement as well as to follow a more rigorous commitment to conditionality, an attempt that has already started within EUTM. 

These efforts would acknowledge that any German engagement in the Sahel cannot escape these bigger and well-documented governance constraints. Unless German policy makers address them conjointly with their international partners, the impact of any contribution that Berlin decides to make (no matter if militarily or civilian) will ultimately remain limited. While the influence of Berlin should not be overstated, Germany can build on a better reputation than France, an aspect that German diplomats should use to their advantage.

(2) Stronger Efforts on Rebuilding Local Governance

At the root of the recent spike in attacks lies weak governance, a characteristic the Malian government shares with neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso. It would, nevertheless, be wrong to speak of an absent government. Rather, the historical reliance on both traditional elites and non-state armed actors for the governance of remote areas is an intrinsic feature of central state governments.

Thus, any attempts at lasting stabilization in Mali specifically and the central Sahel more generally, must focus on addressing the grievances resulting from these governance arrangements and put a more prominent focus on strengthening local governance authorities, including traditional actors. As highlighted by Gilles Yabi, radical armed groups anticipate this vulnerability of governance - including that of the security and defense apparatus - making it a major determining factor of their modality of attacks.

(3) Use the Opportunity of the Current Debate to Change Course

In the long-term however, to allow for a closer political follow-up on its engagement in the Sahel and in order to be a credible advocate for stabilization in Mali and beyond, German policy makers will need to start building increased expertise within the German government and the research community. This would allow Berlin to engage with its international partners in the region – most importantly France – on a similar level of authority. This authority, in turn, would be a requirement should Berlin recognize that it does not suffice to discuss changes within the German mandates in Mali while simultaneously leaving unaddressed the known limitations of the international interventions. As long as the predominant focus on a French-led counter-terrorism and limited engagement with national-level governance restraints remains unaddressed in a coordinated approach, expectations to achieve lasting impact in the realm of stabilizing Mali should be limited. German policymakers should use the opportunity of the current dynamic and urge France and their European allies towards a more integrated political approach.