Trying to Coordinate Force in the Sahel: The G5 Sahel
by Lawrence E. Cline
The Sahel region in Africa continues to be one of the most unstable regions in the world, with a variety of jihadist groups continuing to launch attacks. Although originally focused in Mali, it has metastasized into a major threat to bordering countries. Two major forces have deployed into the region, primarily in Mali. The first is a significant French expedition under the rubric of Operation Barkhane (originally launched in 2013 as Operation Serval). This operation includes not only French troops, but also small elements of other EU militaries. The other large external military force is the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
Clearly, however, the most critical security requirements continue to fall on the local military and police forces. Both before and after the external military and peace enforcement missions, local forces have had significant issues with maintaining security. This particularly became the case after jihadist groups began straddling regional borders, using borders both as refuge areas and expanding attacks in other countries. It became clear that a better coordinating mechanism was required for security response to the increased regional threat. This led to the creation of the G5 Sahel. The initial steps were diplomatic and political, but have since been followed by a military component. This paper is intended to survey these efforts and to identify some significant issues with making them actually work.
The G5 Sahel
The G5 Sahel was created February 16, 2014 by five countries of the Sahel-Saharan region: Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, with the agreement formally signed on December 19, 2014. It is intended predominantly as a coordination mechanism rather than a command and control structure. The G5 Sahel is intended to be much more than a purely military organization. Much of its ambit and many of its goals might better be subsumed in the broader term of “human security.” It has announced a number of broader economic initiatives to improve the economic conditions of the region and to tie together the regional countries in a closer economic community. Its official mission statement stresses development issues and in fact mentions ‘security’ only in passing. One interesting aspect of the G5 Sahel is that it has incorporated a specific “Women’s Platform” with its own specific strategic plan. The group also notes that it is intended to improve governance among all the member states; in practical terms, how much influence the G5 has over the individual countries’ internal governance is subject to very significant question. As discussed below, the recent coup in Mali provides a good example of the issues actually faced in improving governance.
Although the political and strategic underpinnings of the G5 Sahel are similar to those of Operation Barkhane, according to one relatively early study, its strategic concept is broader than the other missions in the area:
The mandate of FC-G5S exceeds Operation Barkhane’s mandate in that it addresses both terrorism and transnational organised crime and includes the facilitation of humanitarian operations, development activities, and the restoration of state authority, whereas Operation Barkhane's mandate authorises it to engage only designated terrorist groups. The mandate of MINUSMA is limited to Mali and focuses on supporting the implementation of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali.
INTERPOL has been involved in the police component of the G5. There is a planned three-year program (2019-2022), to be funded by the German government. According to the INTERPOL Project Sheet, “Integration for Impact: Interpol and the G5 Sahel Joint Task Force – Police Component”, of May 2020, INTERPOL officers are intended to achieve several strategic projects. The first is to interconnect military and law enforcement data bases and to incorporate them into the international INTERPOL system. The second (Project First) is to provide biometric data on terrorist suspects. Project Watchmaker involves “increasing knowledge on known or suspected entities involved in the unlawful use of chemicals, explosive materials and improvised explosive devices”. In what evidently is viewed as an advisory mission, there is the goal of “developing an intelligence model and setting up a cross-country network of analysts.” Finally, INTERPOL intends to link all the regional countries into the INTERPOL data sharing system.
One point that might be made is that although the G5 Sahel mandate is intended to be broader than purely counterterrorism, even the INTERPOL mission concept – which might be assumed to focus on law enforcement – appears to be counterterrorism focused. The other missions such as improved governance and humanitarian relief likewise seem to have been operationalized as supporting missions for counterterrorism. In fairness, given the severity of the terrorist threat in the region, this is a valid choice of priorities.
External Support for the G5 Sahel
European countries have instituted a series of developmental projects under the rubric of the Sahel Alliance intended to coordinate directly with the G5 Sahel. As with the G5 itself, the European program is focused on what are perceived as particularly vulnerable border regions. According to the operational plans, the areas for emphasis are: “The West zone (on the border between Mauritania and Mali); The Central Spindle (at the junction between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger); and The Eastern Spindle (on the border between Niger and Chad).” These priority development areas roughly overlap the area of operations of the G5 military units. This makes strategic and operational sense in two ways. First, the development projects can reinforce the military operations and can be incorporated in civil-military cooperation projects. Second (and perhaps more basic), there are military units in the areas to provide security for the civilian aid officials.
According to an official estimate, these developmental efforts will cost 14.8 billion US dollars. Although the G5 Sahel has received significant external support, particularly from European Union countries, the realism of receiving this much financial aid (particularly in the pandemic era) might be rather questionable in the longer term. One indicator of the financial prospects is that in July 2019, the Commander of the G5 forces,Brigadier General Oumarou Namata of Niger, noted that his forces were “doing what it can with limited funding and equipment, but could use additional support” while waiting for a pledged 154 million dollars from the EU. At least up to July 2019, the EU had provided 115.6 million Euros to the force, but local government leaders and security officials seemed to have a broad consensus that this was nowhere sufficient for the operational requirements.
France has been the external country most supportive of the G5, both in terms of practical support and financially. This of course reflects both France’s colonial history in the region and its current operations in the area. Even EU financial support of some 50 million euros is being funneled through Expertise France, a French contract company. What is interesting with this funding is that the EU essentially is acting as an auditor of the funds being expended, rather than relying on the host governments to assume these functions. The US has been less directly involved, but of course has operated both special operations in the region and has based intelligence assets on the ground. It also has pledged 60 million dollars in direct aid to the G5. The US also has provided bilateral assistance to the individual countries’ forces actually assigned to the G5 Task Force. For example, in July 2019, the US provided the Mauritanian battalion assigned to the G5 “155 vehicles, a Level II field hospital, night vision devices, GPS devices, computers, radio and phone communication system, and individual soldier equipment that includes body armor.” Likewise, on 5 August 2020, the Nigerien military received “15 Osprea MK7 MAMBA armored personnel carriers, four Osprea MK7 MAMBA armored command vehicles, three Osprea MK7 MAMBA armored ambulances, two Toyota land cruiser ambulances, and four armored vehicle mechanic tool sets. The U.S. will also provide maintenance support for the equipment.”
The G5 Sahel Joint Force
The military component of the G5 is known as the G5 Joint Force or by its acronym in French FC-G5S. The governments agreed to establish a force of about 5,000 troops from the respective countries; this military alliance subsequently was formally approved and “welcomed” by the African Union and the United Nations. The stated plan is to put two battalions from both Mali and Niger, and one each from Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania under G5 direct coordination. The intent has been to deploy the troops in the hardest-hit areas. In practice, the emphasis has been on deployments in the border regions between the respective countries. Initial reports indicate that G5 units will focus on areas about 50 kilometers on either side of existing borders, with an additional battalion in northern Mali. The overall headquarters is in Bamako, Mali. According to a statement from the Executive Secretary of the group, command and control would be exercised through four command posts: Niamey in Niger, Sévaré in Mali, between Nema and Léré in Mauritania and Tibesti in Chad. This already has had to be modified: on 29 June 2018, the command post in Sévaré was destroyed in an insurgent attack, and it was moved to Bamako where at least in theory it would be more secure. In May 2019, the Burkina Faso Foreign Minister, Alpha Barry, claimed that the G5 forces were “90% operational in the west, 74% in the center and 75% in the east”; at the same time, however, he noted that they lacked heavy equipment.
Despite the existing gaps, G5 forces have conducted at least five combined operations since its creation. The most noteworthy was Operation Bourgou IV in November 2019. This was a joint French-G5 operation with about 600 French troops and 800 soldiers from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The area of operations was the Boulikessi region in Mali and in the Deou and Boula region in Burkina Faso. Despite lasting from 1 to 17 November, the operation resulted in only about 24 or 25 purported jihadists killed or captured. Two Burkinabe soldiers were killed. As with other military operations against terrorist or insurgent groups, it is not possible actually to know if the captives were jihadists or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Beyond the purely operational aspects of FC G5 Sahel, efforts have begun to provide joint training and education under its rubric. A G5 Sahel Collège de Défense has been established in Nouakchott, graduating its first class of 36 senior officers in 2019. Likewise, joint training has been provided for police from the five countries on improving border security. It should be noted, however, that much of the external training of regional countries by external actors such as the EU and the US remain at the bilateral level.
The UN has involved MINUSMA in support of the G5 forces. By Security Council directive, MINUSMA has been providing non-lethal support to G5 units, particularly fuel and rations. A complicating factor in both liaison with and support by MINUSMA has been the (justified) insistence by the UN that the G5 forces follow international humanitarian law in their operations. This clearly has not always been the case or perhaps even the norm. A least one report by MINUSMA has highlighted abuses by some G5 forces. While commendable, such reporting is rather unlikely to facilitate close cooperation between the two forces.
The UN Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also has been assigned as a supporting organization for the G5 Force. According to OHCHR, it is to provide “direct support” in such areas as screening of units and personnel for human rights violations; human rights training; and monitoring and reporting on military operations. Of course, whether the members of the G5 view this as ‘support’ or interference is very subject to question.
The Coup in Mali
The most immediate challenge to the effectiveness of the G5 military strategy was the 18 August 2020 coup in Mali. This coup followed several months of protests and riots against the civilian president at the time, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, whose government was considered corrupt by many Malians and which was viewed as failing in maintaining security. The protests led to significant government violence, with at least 11 killed by security forces. The government was widely condemned for its response. After a group of soldiers rose up on 18 August, a group of officers ejected Keita from the country and formed a military “transitional” government. It might be noted that this of course followed the 2012 coup in Mali.
Following the coup, many governments and multilateral groups imposed sanctions on the military regime in Mali. The UN Security Council under Resolution 2541 imposed travel and financial restrictions until August 2021 on the individuals and “entities” involved in the coup. Most Western governments essentially followed the UN’s lead in announcing their own sanctions. ECOWAS announced the closure of Mali’s borders and a ban on trade and financial flows.
The sanctions already have begun to wither. On 6 October 2020, ECOWAS announced that it was lifting the sanctions that it had imposed. It noted that the military rulers in Mali have promised to restore civilian government in 18 months. It might be noted that the interim president is a retired army officer and that what are the most significant security ministries -- defense, security, territorial administration and national reconciliation – remain in the hands of military officers, although in fairness, some civilians have been named to the transitional government. It likely is safe to presume that Western governments quietly will use the ECOWAS decision to lift their own restrictions and sanctions.
The formal sanctions against Mali may have been more show than substance in any event. There were no indications that they impacted the foreign support to the on-the-ground operations by either the Malian forces in general or the Malian units allocated to the G5 Force. This would in fact be a very rational strategic choice. Mali remains the epicenter of the campaign against the jihadist groups. Actually isolating it likely would cripple the larger campaign. Realpolitik would argue for continuing to cooperate with whatever government might rule Mali.
The Issue of Coordination
Once the impact of the events in Mali fade, there remains a much larger potential issue for the G5. This is incorporating the G5 into the larger strategic plans in the Sahel. Even if G5 Sahel improves coordination among the regional countries, it remains only one player among many. There are multiple operations in the region, both unilateral and multilateral. Beyond the battalion assigned to G5 by each Sahelian country, their militaries also are conducting unilateral operations. The French of course continue to conduct Operation Barkhane with about 4,000 troops. The United Nations has fielded the UN Multinational Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), with 10,000 troops and 2,000 police. Both the EU (and individual EU countries) and the US also have established near-permanent bilateral training missions with the Sahel countries’ militaries. All these various missions have resulted in what one analyst has described as a ““security traffic jam”.
According to a UN Security Council report, the G5 forces are under “joint command” of Operation Barkhane, and the FC-G5S. This command reportedly consists of a joint command post and an intelligence cell in Niamey, Niger, and the deployment of G5 liaison officers to the Barkhane headquarters in N’Djamena, Chad. Given the history of joint commands even among countries accustomed to working together, issues can be expected.
The possible snarls in coordinating efforts may be exacerbated by even additional elements in the Sahel. European countries have announced the launching of Task Force Takuba under the command of Operation Barkhane. Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden (if the latter receives parliamentary approval) will deploy special operations forces to the Sahel. Other EU countries have supported the concept, but have not yet committed troops. These units are intended to advise and assist Malian units, with the announced area of operations being the Liptako-Gourma region (eastern Burkina Faso, southwestern Niger and a small portion of southeast central Mali). Moreover, at its February 2020 conference, the African Union announced its intention to deploy 3,000 troops to support Sahelian counterterrorism efforts.
It seems fair to assume – and the G5 operations to date would support this assumption – that the French have functional operational control of the G5 military units. This type of control, however, necessitates an extensive liaison system. Once the other elements are added in, the need for effective liaison increases exponentially. There also of course are the national chains of command; given the history of both multinational operations and UN peace operations, there almost inevitably will be conflicts between national and multinational chains of control. This is exacerbated even further when one considers that the majority of the troops in the Sahel countries are not in fact directly under G5 control.
Without drawing the historical analogy too far, the G5 Sahel might be viewed as akin to the “Vietnamization” efforts by the United States at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Although the French government continues to support a military campaign in the Sahel, it would seem likely that it would like to at least reduce its efforts in the region. This of course is even more likely given the economic stresses on all countries in this pandemic environment. This factor may be even more salient for the UN, as evidenced by its unusually strong support for the G5 Sahel military components. MINUSMA has lost over 200 soldiers in the course of its mission, and its annual budget has been about one billion dollars a year (recently increased to 1.2 billion dollars).
The G5’s military component does represent a significant advance in regional security cooperation. It offers at least the prospect for improved effectiveness in countering the threat of the jihadist groups in the area particularly through denying them sanctuary in border areas. The key stumbling block likely will remain how well it can be incorporated into an overall strategy.
Lawrence E. Cline, PhD, is a lecturer in intelligence studies at Buffalo State College. He is a retired US Army military intelligence officer, with operational service in Lebanon, El Salvador, Desert Storm, Somalia, and Iraq.
 Karolina Gasinska and Elias Bohman, Joint Force of the Group of Five: A Review of Multiple Challenges (Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research Agency, December 2017), 16.