France battles US over backing Sahel force

France is facing a tough diplomatic battle to convince the United States to lend UN support to a counter-terrorism force for Africa’s Sahel region, where insurgents have killed UN peacekeepers and US soldiers.


French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will lead a UN Security Council meeting on Monday that will look at ways of shoring up the G5 Sahel force set up by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

France wants donors to step up, but is also looking to the United Nations to offer logistic and financial support to the joint force — which is set to begin operations in the coming days.

The United States however is adamant that while it is ready to provide bilateral funding, there should be no UN support for the force.

“The US is committed to supporting the African-led and owned G5 Joint Force through bilateral security assistance, but we do not support UN funding, logistics, or authorization for the force,” said a spokesperson for the US mission.

“Our position on further UN involvement with respect to the G5 Sahel joint force is unchanged.”

The vast Sahel region has turned into a hotbed of violent extremism and lawlessness since chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

Earlier this month, militants linked to the Islamic State ambushed and killed four US soldiers on a reconnaissance patrol with Nigerien soldiers near the Niger-Mali border.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has lost 17 peacekeepers in attacks this year, one of the highest tolls from current peace operations.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has come out in favor of multilateral backing, writing in a recent report that the establishment of the G5 force “represents an opportunity that cannot be missed.”

Guterres has laid out four options for UN support, from setting up a UN office for the Sahel to sharing resources from the large UN mission in Mali.

In response, US Ambassador Nikki Haley wrote to Guterres this month to reaffirm the US “no” to UN involvement, officials said. The United States is the UN’s biggest financial contributor.

The battle over UN backing for the Sahel force is shaping up as Haley is pushing for cost-saving measures after successfully negotiating a $600-million cut to the peacekeeping budget this year.

After leading a Security Council visit to the Sahel last week, French Ambassador Francois Delattre said most countries on the council want the United Nations to help.

“The key question now is not about the relevance of the G5 Sahel force, nor the need to support it, but it is about the best way to convey this support,” said Delattre.

A “mix of both multilateral and bilateral support” is needed, he said.

The price tag for the G5 force’s first year of operations is estimated at 423 million euros ($491 million), even though French officials say the budget can be brought down closer to 250 million euros.

So far, only 108 million euros have been raised, including $50 million from the five countries themselves. A donor conference will be held in Brussels on December 16.

“UN logistical support could make a big difference,” said Paul Williams, an expert on peacekeeping at George Washington University.

“To become fully operational, the force needs to fill a long list of logistical and equipment gaps,” he said — from funding for its headquarters to intelligence-sharing and medical evacuation capacities.

Williams said US reservations were not just about cost, but also about the mission’s operations, which Washington sees as ill-defined.

The G5 is “a relatively blunt military instrument for tackling the security challenges in this region, which stem from a combination of bad governance, underdevelopment and environmental change,” he explained.

“At best it might limit the damage done by some of the criminal networks and insurgents, but even then, its gains will not be sustainable without adequate funding.”

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