Sahel, Europe’s Strategic Confusion

Alberto Bueno

9 mins - 5 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

Faced with an “Eastern Flank” with a defined threat, the “Southern Flank” raises too many questions about the nature of the threats that emerge from there for European and Spanish security. This entails serious difficulties in recognising the strategic environment and converting the diagnosis of the situation into actionable policy proposals. Reference is made to the “polymorphous”, “polyhedral” nature of the threats... Geometry is resorted to when geopolitics contains too many gaps. If we focus on the Sahel, the perception of failure is widespread among European chancelleries, both national – particularly France – and the European Union itself, with civilian and military missions in retreat. It is now a matter of identifying lessons and assessing the meagre results, with the feeling that the succession of strategic setbacks that have been precipitated was not noticed.

If there is a calculated ambiguity on Europe’s eastern front, the south only reveals a dramatic strategic confusion. The “Eastern Flank” is marked by the threat of Russia and its revisionist national ambition as a regional potential, where border demarcations are trench and grievance – an oversimplified description, but one that serves a clear framework: responding to conventional force and hybrid modes in the grey zone. Armed forces must focus on this. This shift is powerful because it means ending two decades of “out-of-area” operations in stabilisation or state-building missions; a debate, by the way, that predates the Afghan debacle – or, surely, was precipitated, in part, by this conviction.

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The stress is now on Russia’s pursuit of influence in the Sahel. A display of power that would be behind the regime changes in the “coup belt” – among others: Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Sudan – and which the US has not hesitated to describe as successful. Abrupt replacements of governments and alliances have led to the withdrawal, if not expulsion, of international contingents from the European Union, the UN, or national contingents – from France, the US – that had a presence there. The replacement of former Western allies by new Russian companies, supported first by contractors and then by institutional ties, does not seem to bring greater stability, but it does seem to be of great use to local governments.

It therefore remains to rethink the West’s approach in this scenario, which lacks a strategy with clear objectives and was unable to foresee such an evolution of the situation. The “Southern Flank” raises problems of strategic depth – should efforts be concentrated on the southern shores of the Mediterranean or should they be projected as far as Russian actions will take them; alternatively, is the Sahel the centre of this “flank”; of attribution of responsibility – what role, if any, should the EU or other hitherto secondary organisations such as NATO assume; of state fragility and legitimacy – who is the valid interlocutor? These take the form of somewhat diffuse phenomena, such as irregular immigration, illicit trafficking, terrorism, or climate change – how to provide an effective response to problems that are perceived as pressing, but which are at times complex and elusive – and whose impact –temporal, qualitative and quantitative– remains a matter of mere speculation.

The number of variables involved in the strategic analysis of the Sahel make it a terribly complex puzzle: a veritable tangle of causalities that hinder the initiative. Systemic dangers stem from food, water, and environmental insecurity. Intra-state and inter-community violence, terrorism, military repression, and corruption are key factors in the weakness of states, which are unable to control vast swathes of territory, let alone provide public services to the population. The formula sought by the EU states was to support these countries with generous economic aid programmes, institutional reforms, and training for their armed forces, with the aim, among others, of enabling them to confront jihadist groups; other ad hoc coalitions, led by France, would contribute directly to this end.

This approach was well suited to the different strategic cultures of the contributing states, defending itself as a bid to attack structural deficits. Beyond the congratulations, the outcome has demonstrated vital shortcomings: the necessary US support for critical capabilities, the dependence on French leadership in the region, or the incoherence of programmes under which military personnel were trained in armed forces that were not equipped, to name but a few. The bilateral relationship was privileged, based on the premise of being able to count on the consent of the host state and the EU’s toolbox, a combination of civilian and military instruments better adapted than those that could be provided by other organisations– a textbook approach.

The reality is that the pillars of EU missions have fallen like a house of cards: the missions in Mali and in the military training region remain only testimonial. Local initiatives are either deactivated in practice, such as the G5 Sahel – since Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have stopped cooperating; a G5 – or are incapable of taking any action, such as ECOWAS. UN missions, such as MINUSMA, have been dismantled. Moreover, France is leaving the region and other allies, such as Spain, are following suit.

For Spain, this approach was also good: involvement in its area of concern, on its southern flank. Spain was also very comfortable with these “security sector reform” type missions, even though it did not have its own doctrine in this regard, had significant limitations in terms of the use of force and deployment, and it was never officially explained why it did not contribute to the aforementioned MINUSMA. All in all, it seemed that the involvement in the Sahelian scenario was perfectly in line with Spain’s demand – like that of other European Mediterranean states – for greater attention to be paid to the “Southern Flank”. 

In general, issues such as Afghan contagion and strategic fatigue have also been cited to explain Europe’s failure in the region. The bias to compare with the case of Afghanistan is obvious, but it certainly does not stand up to scrutiny, if only because of the efforts in time, money and human resources committed in both contexts. As for the second, what fatigue? Deployment in the Sahel has not been controversial in European public opinion – with the exception of France at certain times as a result of the death of French soldiers – nor, to a greater extent, among experts, where the reasons for being involved in the area have been expanding, from counterterrorism response to governance management. Fatigue, if anything, should be sought in the elites themselves and in the coherence between what is expressed and the horizon of engagement.

As noted, the stress is now on Russia’s co-optation of these governments via military advice and support through Kremlin-linked security companies, and how it has sought influence through disinformation campaigns, exploiting the climate of political violence and past conditioning factors such as the French colonial legacy. There are appeals from the West for narratives and ways to counter such discourses, but this sounds like an empty proclamation that also fails to “break through”. What is interesting, however, is that the Russian presence may help the Mediterranean allies to enlist the support of northern allies, making the “Southern Flank” more than a footnote in the Madrid Declaration, a working paper or an ill-defined European neighbourhood.

Moreover, Russian involvement has not brought more stability, as has been mischievously argued, but rather increased intra-state violence across the region. The European dilemma is now as obvious as it is devilish, and is well reflected by Colonel José Luis Calvo: on the one hand, early military action to restore democracy in the region would require the involvement of regional actors with limited resources and in societies that would not support it; on the other, a later intervention, probably triggered by the collapse of some local government, might come too late to avoid serious consequences.

The temptation to headline this analysis with the trite “quo vadis?” or “at the crossroads” is therefore obvious. So too is the judgment on the need to “look at the long term and tackle the root of the problems, rather than the destination”; a good, commonplace recourse in academic analysis that, while uncertain, hardly constitutes a prescription for policymaking. But the fact is that the situation is so complex for the reasons given, which are by no means unknown, that the EU is unable to articulate any strategy, NATO can only offer a discussion paper after the Madrid Summit, and national perspectives fail without much alternative. Strategic analysis is mired in a terrible strategic confusion of ends, means and ways to address the convoluted problems that cut across the Sahel and the so-called ‘Southern Flank’.
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